Clinging to the steep shoreline where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, Astoria, Oregon, was once the roughest, toughest town between San Francisco and Seattle. With a history dating back to 1792, when Captain Robert Gray first discovered the great river, this city and its surrounding region is steeped in maritime legends as well as those of explorers, fur traders and lumberjacks. Native American history goes back even further, perhaps 10,000 years or so.
After hearing the stories and reading the history, we were eager to spend some time exploring this, the oldest permanent U.S. settlement west of the Rocky Mountains.
We entered Astoria from the north, driving over the amazing Astoria-Megler Bridge. Spanning the mouth of the Columbia River, it stretches 4.1 miles and connects Washington state with Oregon. A graceful, remarkable feat of engineering, the bridge withstands the fierce currents of the river’s outflow as they merge with the surging ocean tides – plus wild winter storms that pack wind gusts of up to 100 mph. There’s good reason why this region is known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, with hundreds of ships lying at the bottom of the ocean and many lives lost.
For our home base we chose the campground at Fort Stevens State Park, located about 10 miles west of Astoria at the end of a long ocean spit. We enjoy camping for longer periods of time in a lovely park and then using our dinghy for full-day explorations of the surrounding area, and Fort Stevens, a former military facility set in a lush, emerald-green conifer forest, is particularly beautiful. It was Labor Day weekend and we were glad we had reservations – even though this is Oregon’s largest state campground with more than 500 campsites, it was full. Fortunately each site is spacious and we didn’t feel cramped.
Built at the beginning of the Civil War, Fort Stevens guarded the entrance to the Columbia River right up through World War II. A military museum and war-games building displays items from the various wars; in the summer months, a number of living-history demonstrations are offered. On this particular weekend, people from around the nation had come to re-create Civil War battles. Talking to reenactors in period dress, we found them to be avid historians who greatly enjoyed their brief sojourn into an earlier era. A short walk led us to the fort’s massive gun batteries near the river where we prowled the dark bunkers.
With 3,700 acres, the park has plenty of hiking trails and miles of clean ocean beaches. Low tide exposes the rusting hulk of the Peter Iredale, a four-masted British sailing vessel that ran aground in 1906 while attempting to navigate into the Columbia River. Still partially buried in the sand, it is probably the most photographed shipwreck in the country. Fishing and clam digging (when permitted) are popular activities along the surfline and fresh-water fishing and swimming is available at nearby Coffenbury Lake.
With all that is offered at Fort Stevens we could easily have made it our sole destination, but it was the city of Astoria, with its historical riverfront, that drew our interest. Still a major seaport with a population of approximately 10,000, we found it small enough for leisurely exploration without fighting throngs of tourists.
As we walked the 4-mile-long “riverwalk” along the Columbia, paralleling the city’s main thoroughfare, we were swept up in the “romance of the sea.” Huge container ships slipped soundlessly in and out of the harbor and enormous cruise liners gave long blasts of their horns, announcing arrivals and departures. Ancient buildings teetered on stilts beside sleek new architecture and happy voices drifted on the breeze from the many fishing boats and pleasure crafts. Seagulls swirled and darted along the shore while dozens of sea lions jostled and barked from their sunny lounging places on the docks. The pungent smells of the sea mingled with the delicious aroma of seafood from nearby restaurants and sidewalk cafes. As we sat on a bench sipping espresso and watching the marine traffic, images of far-away places and exotic seaports filled us with wanderlust.
Interpretive displays along the walkway describe the dangerous work of the river pilots who guide the big ships through the treacherous harbor. The Chinese immigrants who played a major role in Astoria’s history as they labored in the huge fish canneries or on the railroad are finally being recognized with plans for a small park about midway along the riverwalk.
The Columbia River Maritime Museum is a major attraction and well worth the price of admission. This is not your ordinary museum, with dark rooms and dusty exhibits, but a beautiful, modern glass-fronted building with wonderful interactive exhibits allowing visitors the thrill of piloting a tug boat through rough river currents and the excitement of participating in a Coast Guard rescue. A walk-through bridge from a World War II U.S. Navy destroyer inside and a floating lighthouse, the Lightship Columbia, moored beside the museum, gave us a peek into the lives of the sailors who manned them in decades past. Last, at Pier 39 near the east end of the riverwalk, we toured an old salmon cannery.
If your legs get tired at any point along the riverwalk, just hop on the restored 1914 streetcar that runs continually along the riverfront. The day sped by all too fast and, as we drove back to our campsite at Fort Stevens, the sky above the shoreline turned to crimson and the sun vanished into the sea.
The next morning we awoke to the haunting sound of foghorns and looked out into a world of swirling mists. By the time we’d finished breakfast, however, the sun was burning through the fog and we returned to town, this time to take the self-guided walking tour of the residential area rising up the steep, wooded hillside across from the waterfront. Most of the homes have sharply pitched roofs, not because of weather but because they were built to resemble the styles of the old Scandinavian homes left behind by 19th-century immigrants who came to this country to work in the fishing industries. There are buildings of all sizes and shapes, everything from the modest little dwellings of fishermen to sumptuous Victorian mansions built by wealthy sea captains. The most well known is the Flavel House Museum, once home to Captain George Flavel. An 1885 Queen Anne, it features exotic hardwoods and lovely period furnishings.
At 15th and Exchange streets we found a partial replica of the fort where John Jacob Astor established his fur trading business in 1811, thus opening the Pacific Northwest to exploration and settlement. To learn of Astoria’s earlier history, the former City Hall, a neoclassical building constructed in 1904, houses the Clatsop County Heritage Museum – which displays Native American artifacts as well as those pertaining to European immigration.
Throughout the year, the city hosts numerous events that celebrate the various ethnicities that are so much a part of the region’s culture. In the summer months, the downtown area features an open-air market on Sundays, offering a wide variety of fresh produce, seafood and handcrafted items.
The next day we drove up Coxcomb Hill, the highest hill in town, to see the famous Astoria Column. Built in 1926, funded by the descendants of fur trader John Jacob Astor and the Great Northern Railway, this unique piece of Italian art stands 125 feet tall and is decorated with carvings and paintings depicting historical events in the Pacific Northwest. A circular stairway with 164 steps climbs to a platform with expansive views of the lower Columbia River Valley.
After one more trip to the waterfront for a bowl of clam chowder we drove 7 miles southwest of town to Fort Clatsop. Located on the Lewis and Clark River, Fort Clatsop is a replica of the old fort built by the Lewis and Clark Expedition for shelter during the wet winter of 1805-1806. Living-history demonstrations show the skills needed by expedition members to survive and to prepare for their long journey back to the east.
It was a thrilling adventure to see these places that played such a significant role in American history. The weather was sunny and mild this early September but you can never count on that in this rainy corner of the country, so be prepared with rain gear, then get out and explore no matter what the weather. You, too, may find yourself captivated by its beauty and long, colorful history.