The wide stretch of the Columbia River as it meets the Pacific, seen from the Astoria Column. (Alex Pulaski/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Photo: Alex Pulaski/TNS
Photo: Alex Pulaski/TNS

From boom to bust and back, Astoria appeals as gateway to Oregon coast

ASTORIA, Ore. — Founded a little over 200 years ago as America’s first settlement in the West, this port city finds itself buoyed these days by a tourist-fueled revival.

Yet history lingers here, palpable and powerful, just a two-hour drive from the state’s metropolitan center of Portland.

At the apex of Coxcomb Hill, the mural-wrapped Astoria Column traces the area’s evolution, from Capt. Robert Gray’s 1792 discovery of the Columbia River (named for his ship, the Columbia Rediviva) to the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the railroad’s arrival in the late 1800s.

At the Columbia River Maritime Museum, vivid exhibits paint a cycle of risk and reward. The river’s violent collision with the ocean at the Columbia River Bar spins a constant tale of destruction and death — some 2,000 vessels and 700 lives later, it’s known as “the graveyard of the Pacific.”

A reminder of the long-gone Astoria trading post survives in a green-paint street outline. A monument stands there, but the city’s economy has moved along: a thriving bakery/cafe and a popular brewery on the site signal commerce’s turn toward tourism.

Brightly painted Victorian homes beckon from the hillsides. Downtown, a bit of Americana lives on in the form of spice shops, a butcher shop, bookstores and Gimre’s Shoes, which opened in 1892 and is believed to be the oldest family-run shoe store in the West. Parks, beach and the waterfront are eminently explorable on foot or bike.

Back in the early 1800s, after Lewis and Clark wintered near here, a German immigrant named John Jacob Astor envisioned this confluence of the Columbia and the Pacific as the hub of an international trading empire. From his home in New York, Astor accrued a fortune in real estate and trading animal furs — soft gold. But his dream for the city that ultimately bore his name was never realized, in large part because of bad timing: War broke out in 1812 between England and the fledgling United States, a year after Astoria’s founding.

Later, the region’s economy grew reliant upon timber and fisheries. Astoria, which once proudly called itself the “Salmon Canning Capital of the World,” fell on hard times in the late 20th century as fishing runs dried up, consumer habits changed and canneries closed.

Dick Garner, sitting behind the wheel of a 1954 Mercury Monterey, squired my wife and me around town one night in June, pointing out where Astor’s first ship that came here, the Tonquin, probably moored. Where, much later, the Scandinavian fishing workers settled. And the plant that Bumble Bee Seafoods shuttered in 1980.

“When I first moved here in 1965, Astoria was a community that people drove through on the way to somewhere else,” Garner said. “Until the mid-’80s or early ‘90s, the economy was pretty much fishing, canning or logging. We needed something else.”

The bare bones of the Peter Iredale, a British four-masted bark that ran aground in 1906, are a magnet for beach visitors to Fort Stevens State Park. (Alex Pulaski/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Photo: Alex Pulaski/TNS

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INVESTMENT IN THE FUTURE

Twice in its history — in 1883 and 1922 — much of Astoria burned to the ground. Each time the city rallied and rebuilt, just as it later did to create a new tourism-based economy.

Astoria native Robert Jacob gambled that he could turn a condemned dock and onetime cannery site into a boutique hotel. Since its 2005 debut, the Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa has become one of the elite properties on the northern Oregon coast. Among the hotel’s charms, in addition to the historical fish cannery photos throughout and its proximity to passing shipping traffic on the Columbia, are the vintage cars that ferry guests to and from town under the command of drivers such as Garner.

Another fish cannery was reimagined as a brewery, Buoy Beer Co., and is now booming. Bridgewater Bistro, packed on a Saturday night, hints at its roots as a onetime cannery boathouse through its giant, soaring wood beams and scarred, shiny Douglas fir floors.

Other investments added up incrementally. Over the past 35 years, the Port of Astoria has spent more than $10 million in pier improvements to attract and retain cruise ships. In 2018, 25 vessels are expected to bring more than 44,000 visitors.

Since 1998, the community has raised roughly $9 million to restore the 1920s-era Liberty Theatre, now home to concerts, plays, public forums and more.

One of the area’s biggest tourist draws, Fort Clatsop, is itself a product of rebuilding and community cooperation. This was the site where Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their party endured a wet, hostile winter in 1805-06.

A replica of the original log structure burned in 2005. Fourteen months later, thanks to the work of hundreds of volunteers, a newly constructed fort reopened.

Here, park ranger Sally Freeman and her peers pass summers in period clothing — moccasins, hand-sewn elk-skin trousers and a cotton or linen shirt — and usher visitors to the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park on a two-century journey back in time.

“Lewis and Clark had survived the snow and ice of a North Dakota winter, but they complained more here,” she told us. “It was hard to ever get dried off.”

About a 15-minute drive northwest, the 4,300-acre Fort Stevens State Park is laced with 9 miles of paved bike trail, which we happily traversed. It also offers a testament to the Columbia River Bar crossing’s dangers: the Peter Iredale’s rusty skeleton mired in the sand, a magnet for beachgoers.

The British bark’s captain, H. Lawrence, is said to have directed these words toward his ship after it ran aground in 1906: “May God bless you and may your bones bleach in these sands.”

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The Astoria Column's observation deck yields panoramic views of the Columbia River and beyond. (Alex Pulaski/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Photo: Alex Pulaski/TNS

BARGES AND GLIDERS

We interspersed our history lessons with a leisurely walk through downtown and its shops, sampling craft beer and grub at both Buoy and its well-established predecessor, the Fort George Brewery + Public House. We savored a memorable dinner at a newer entrant downtown, Carruthers Restaurant.

We biked along the waterfront, under the studious gaze of a bald eagle perched on a power pole.

We watched from our balcony at the Cannery Pier hotel as giant barges drifted by on the Columbia, packed with wheat bound for Asia. We meandered through three-plus blocks of street vendors hawking produce, crafts and more at the Astoria Sunday Market.

And we did what we always do when we visit Astoria — indeed, what practically everyone does. We drove to the top of Coxcomb Hill and plopped down a dollar each for a balsa-wood glider at the Astoria Column gift shop.

We climbed the circular staircase to the column’s observation deck and launched our gliders into the wind. They carved circles in the air, casting swift shadows on the history enshrined on the column itself.

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(Alex Pulaski is a freelance writer.)

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