Picture San Francisco, if it were a baby and living some 700 miles north under the drizzle of the Pacific Northwest and banks of the Columbia River.
Astoria resembles the Bay City in many ways. Romantic Victorian Houses seemingly stacked one atop the last as they climb steep and winding hills, long bridges connect the small peninsula that hosts the city’s structures to neighboring locations, and a fishing industry hangs on to the end of it’s once mighty reign while a paintbrush and palette are more likely to be the tools of a particular man’s trade than a tacklebox. The city is an aging beauty, the oldest settlement on the United States’ stretch of the Pacific. A JC Penney from long before the department store became a massive staple of American Malls lives under a non-branded sign for the company at the eastern end of Commercial Street, the name of this particular patch of US Route 30. Thrift stores and cafes abound, one can find fresh local fish in restaurants ranging from Bosnian to Italian, Middle Eastern to Mexican.
A relatively few fisherman still crafting their trade can be found pulling into docks along the piers, right beside cruise ships exploring the Pacific Northwest. The Cannery Pier Hotel boasts exquisite waterfront rooms where an actual cannery once prepared foods to be shipped around the country, while offering it’s guests a ride in a vintage Cadillac to anywhere in the city they might like to go, complete with a lift home later in the evening. An old boat, now landlocked two blocks south of the Columbia, serves fish and chips right from it’s bow.
Lewis and Clark found their way to the lands that are now Astoria on their epic journey of exploration across the United States. Their journals recant the winter they spent here, frigid, but rarely freezing, rains persist from November to May here still, never cold enough to snow but always slightly damp. They had hoped a ship would come along and deliver them from what would be the end of their journey, though they waited a long winter with no such deliverance. Today the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, which has two locations and can be reached by crossing the Astoria-Megler Bridge into Washington or heading southwest on US 101 to the Oregon half of the park, to dive into the actual lands and written history of their time spent here. In the spring of 1806 they left the land to the native Clatsop Indians, but within only a few years the Pacific Fur Company arrived and founded Fort Astoria, named for the company’s owner, Jacob Astor. And yes, it is pronounced “Ass-toria”.
While we all know some version of their journey, whether it be largely from playing The Oregon Trail computer games, a Disney movie, or some deeper delve into your own research, it’s widely told that Lewis and Clark were commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to, among other things, establish America’s claim to one day be a nation from “sea to shining sea”. A somewhat contested and very lesser known side effect of the mission, though, was that Thomas Jefferson—who was apparently mesmerized by the myths of the native population of the Americas and who had been presented with the fossilized tooth of a wooly mammoth, found in Kentucky—was secretly hoping to find these creatures still walking the earth, somewhere far out west. Apart from the general evidence of having an actual tooth were scores of tales from various Indian cultures touting mythical massive beasts, fathers of the buffalo, which very well may have been tales of mammoths who lived in North America at the same time humans were first crossing over from Asia.
Wandering the streets, hillsides and outskirts of Astoria is a trip through time, a museum without any admission fee. You can see the stain of modern chains looking to sell their burgers and wholesale groceries reaching in to the city’s western limits while falling back in time through the sometimes worn down, other times well maintained or majestically restored mansions along the hillsides. A kid with a guitar stands in the doorway of the Liberty Theatre, belting out classic rock tunes as young girls on Razor scooters get further ahead of their mom than she seems to appreciate. We stop in a corner coffee shop for a little pick me up and I overhear an old man, presumably a long time local, talking to a young Japanese woman who shows every sign of being a tourist.
“The whole town burned down back in the 1920s,” he looks old enough, his hand wrinkled and shaking a little as he lifts his mug to his lips, “it was the second time it ever happened, you see, all the houses around here were, mostly still are, just made of wood, and so once it caught, well, it caught!” He smiles and she looks genuinely interested. “You know how they eventually stopped it?”
She looks at her friend, who comes through the front door just then, and back at the old man who shakes his head. “You don’t? Well they used dynamite! That’s right, they blew up all the houses around where the flames were spreading so there’d be nothing to left to spread to.”
The girl laughs, “Fighting fire with fire!”
Later on we make the climb up a broken rubber band of a twisting road to the top of the hill where Astoria Column overlooks the city, the mouth of the Columbia, and on into the ocean and the state of Washington. It’s a 125 foot column tattooed with a mural of various historical events in Oregon’s past. There are little popsicle stick wooden airplanes at the base of the 125 foot column, free to take up the spiral staircase that dizzyingly provides access to the top of the tower, where one is then some seven hundred feet above sea level. We each take a plane, our oldest son takes two, and a few deep breaths after we open the door to the balcony atop the column, we lean against the railing and take in the view as we set the little airplanes to flight.
Mine lurches upward before doing a twirling nose dive back down into the park below. The boy launches his both at the same time, they swerve back into one another, sending one crashing down while the other slowly circles back to it’s resting place on mother earth. Some young kids are startled as one of the planes lands quite close to them, but quickly retrieve our projectiles and, along with their father, begin their own pursuit of height up the column’s staircase.
From here we’re pretty certain that we can see Fort Stevens in the distance, though it may be wishful thinking. The fort, now a state park and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, gives visitors a glimpse into what military life at the mouth of the Columbia River was like from Civil War to World War II times. The fort is named for Isaac Stevens, a friend and supporter of Franklin Pierce—America’s 14th President—who was appointed to Governor of the Washington Territory and overseer of trade and relations with the Indian population in the area. On his journey to his new homeland, Governor Stevens took on the task of surveying nearly his entire route at the behest of his country’s desire to build a railroad to the Pacific. As Governor, he successfully inspired many white settlers to call for his removal as governor, rallying around claims that he was given to use his military forces as a stronger-than-simply-a-suggestion means of getting the native people to sign treaties which gave away most of their land, and then charging those very natives for murdering soldiers he sent in to combat them. While history may not look at Stevens in the cleanest light, he might at least be commended, even after having secured himself a seat in Congress, for having joined back with the Union Army to fight his part in the Civil War, where he ultimately lost his life to a gunshot wound to the head. Such is the story of much of America’s history, characters neither able to be called heros nor villains, but rather clouded in gray areas where the trends and views of the time are reflected.
Straying from tales of war to one of commerce, Ft. Stevens State Park is also home to the Peter Iredale, one of the more fascinating aspects of the peninsula, a ghost of a shipwreck that lives entirely on land, making it as accessible as a sunburn in July. While photos of a tattered and wounded vessel, its crew struggling to abandon ship and find safety on dry land, can be found in the park itself, as well as throughout Astoria, this is a piece of history that you can do more than just read about. Head west from the park and onto the beach where you’ll find the remnants of the ship’s hull run aground and rusting, rotting, like the rib cage of some ancient mammoth Jefferson never managed to find.
While you’re more likely to spend an afternoon in the Columbia Maritime Museum these days than mingling with descendants of the original Finnish fisherman or Chinese cannery workers, Astoria is a spot in time not quite ready to be shuffled into modern day. Artists and hip young families looking to get away from the business of Portland are beginning to gentrify the city a little, but the numerous “locals only” style dive bars delivering grizzled beards and stone washed jean jackets in and out of their front doors is evidence enough that this oldest West Coast city still has it’s grit.