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

Launching a balsa-wood airplane from the observation deck at the top of the Astoria Column is a rite of visiting.


By ALEX PULASKI | Chicago Tribune | Published: August 4, 2018

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."

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."

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.


Where to stay: Opened in 2005 on the onetime site of a fish cannery, the romantic Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa embraces its past with historic photos throughout. All of the well-appointed rooms have balconies and gas fireplaces, and they come equipped with binoculars, so you can scrutinize ship traffic passing right outside on the Columbia River. Rooms from $189. No. 10 Basin St., 503-325-4996.

Where to eat:

Blue Scorcher Bakery & Cafe is cozy, friendly and full of baked goodness, such as Huevos Scorcheros (two eggs over rice, beans and cheddar cheese, plus salsa and more), or French toast topped with fresh berry compote and whipped cream. Breakfast entrees start at about $8. 1493 Duane St., 503-338-7473.

Carruthers Restaurant serves modern American fare and inventive cocktails in a hip downtown setting. The jumbo prawn cocktail is astoundingly good, as are the braised short ribs with polenta. Desserts (example: a berry, peach and apple crisp) are close-your-eyes amazing. Entrees from $18. 1198 Commercial St., 503-975-5305.

Casual yet aiming high, Bridgewater Bistro is just a brief walk from Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa. The Mayan salad (roasted beets and yams, quinoa and more) is a riot of color and flavor, and cod fish 'n' chips are moist and tender. Entrees from $14. 20 Basin St., Suite A, 503-325-6777.

Fort George Brewery + Public House sits on the site of the original Astoria trading post, later renamed Fort George under British occupation. The menu at this enormously popular place is heavy on burgers (try the tantalizing, giant Filthy Burger, piled high with smoked pork, onion rings, bacon and cheese) and salads. The seafood chowder, vegetarian chili and desserts are solid picks as well. Entrees from $12. 1483 Duane St., 503-325-7468.

The menu at Buoy Beer Co. runs from well-executed brewpub fare of burgers, sandwiches and salads to excellent fresh seafood and a daily pasta. Don't miss the floor cutout where you can often view lounging sea lions. Entrees from $12. No. 1 Eighth St., 503-325-4540.

What to do:

Columbia River Maritime Museum is unparalleled in Oregon for its interactive, comprehensive exhibits on the dangers of the Columbia River Bar, the fishing industry and civilian and military shipping. Admission includes a visit to the historic lightship Columbia, moored riverside, which served as a floating lighthouse until 1979. Entry is $14 for adults. 1792 Marine Drive, 503-325-2323.

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park's crown jewel is the replica of Fort Clatsop, where the Lewis and Clark expedition wintered in 1805-06. In summer months, park rangers in period dress conduct camps and programs and guide canoe and kayak tours. Entry is $7 for adults. 92343 Fort Clatsop Road, 503-861-2471.

Fort Stevens State Park has been converted to a 4,300-acre park with nine miles of paved cycling trails and a broad beach that includes the wreckage of the Peter Iredale, a British bark that ran aground here in 1906. Day-use parking is $5; campsites can be reserved up to nine months ahead. 100 Peter Iredale Road, Hammond, 800-551-6949.

A climb up the circular staircase of Astoria Column's 125-foot-tall tower yields sweeping views of the Columbia River and beyond. But first, buy a balsa-wood plane in the gift shop so you can launch it into the breeze from the observation deck. Entry is free; parking is $5 per vehicle. 1 Coxcomb Dr., 503-325-2963.

Flavel House Museum was home to George Flavel, a Columbia River Bar pilot, and his family from 1886 to 1893. This Queen Anne-style house (more a mansion at 11,600 square feet) boasts a magnificent library and other rooms decorated with period pieces from the 1800s -- some of them holdovers from the Flavel estate. Entry is $6 for adults. 441 Eighth St., 503-325-2203.

Heritage Museum, formerly city hall, now houses small but informative exhibits on John Jacob Astor and his expansion plans in the West, the timber and fishing industries, Native Americans, and even the vices of prostitution and gambling during boom times. Entry is $4 for adults. 1618 Exchange St., 503-325-2203.

The Astoria Column's observation deck yields panoramic views of the Columbia River and beyond.