Hail Astoria

The Northwest's oldest city celebrates its 200th birthday

John Gottberg Anderson • For / The Bulletin /

ASTORIA — In the greater scheme of things, 200 years isn’t that long of a time. But in terms of European-American settlement of the Pacific Northwest, there is nothing older.

Two weekends ago, the city of Astoria launched its summerlong bicentennial celebration with tall-ship cruises, Chinook Indian canoe races and a slew of speeches by Oregon politicians. Music, dance and theatrical performances by the descendants of Scandinavian, Scottish, Chinese and Hawaiian immigrants emphasized the early ethnic diversity of Astoria residents.

But that was just the beginning. The city of 10,000, at the mouth of the Columbia River, will be partying through mid-September. Historic re-enactments, festivals and big-name concerts are among the events planned in the months ahead.

On May 21, 1811, a party of settlers assigned by New York fur merchant John Jacob Astor arrived at this river port. They stopped where Capt. Robert Gray had sailed his ship, the Columbia Rediviva, into the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792, and within an echo of the point where explorers Lewis and Clark had wintered at Fort Clatsop in 1805-1806.

The first Astorians established a trading post for beaver and sea-otter pelts that grew into an important exchange center. Even before Oregon Trail immigrants began to arrive in the 1840s, novelist Washington Irving had published a best-selling mythology of the young settlement — “Astoria: Anecdotes of an Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains.”

The first U.S. post office west of the Rockies opened in Astoria in 1847. As logging and fishing became the economic foundation, scores of northern Europeans, especially Swedes and Finns, settled in the river town. So did Chinese, who went to work in the canneries. Although fires in 1883 and 1922 destroyed downtown Astoria, built mainly on wood pilings above riparian marshland, the town bounced back.

In the years following World War II, 30 salmon canneries operated in Astoria — locals referred to the omnipresent stench as “the smell of money” — and the wood-products industry was strong. The Burlington Northern&Santa Fe Railway ran regular service between Astoria and Portland. But the last cannery closed in 1980, the Astoria Plywood Mill shut down in 1989, and the railroad discontinued service in 1996.

Tough times followed. Downtown shop windows were boarded up and a seemingly incessant drizzle (average annual rainfall is 67 inches) dampened public spirits. But by the middle of the last decade, Astoria had begun a revival attached to tourism. And it has paid off.

A city reinvented

The Cannery Pier Hotel, a luxury boutique inn, was built in 2005 on the site of a former cannery, directly beneath the towering Astoria-Megler Bridge. (The bridge replaced an interstate ferry when it was constructed in 1966.) Two dilapidated 1920s hotels, the Elliott and the Commodore, were revitalized and reopened in 2003 and 2009, respectively.

A waterfront trolley system that began operating in 1913 on a 2 1/2-mile route, but which hadn’t been in business in more than 50 years, was restored to service in 1999. The Columbia River Maritime Museum, founded in 1962, was expanded and rededicated in 2002. The grand Liberty Theater, originally built in 1925 as a vaudeville movie palace, was similarly restored; it reopened in 2005 and now hosts concerts and theatrical performances.

And townspeople began to put special effort into restoring their beautiful Victorian homes. That attracted Hollywood production companies. Such movies as “The Goonies” (1984), “Short Circuit” (1985), “Kindergarten Cop” (1990) and “Free Willy II” (1994) helped to draw interest in Astoria from outside of Oregon, providing funds to carry out many of the restoration projects. The Oregon Film Museum, which opened last year, recalls those and other movies.

The pride that Astoria’s citizens feel for their hometown was palpable at last month’s kickoff ceremony. A proclamation honoring Astoria as an official “Coast Guard city” (three units are based in Astoria and adjacent Warrenton), together with a naval aircraft flyover, brought cheers from the several hundred people in attendance.

“This town is the cradle of the American West,” said Gov. John Kitzhaber, who also referred to Astoria as “the place that popularized the all-American tuna-fish sandwich.”

“Were it not for the settlement of Astoria, the United States may have ended at the Rocky Mountains,” added Sen. Jeff Merkley.

Ray Gardner, chairman of the Chinook Nation Tribal Council, viewed the event differently. “We were the first people here,” he reminded celebrants. “Our canoes led (Captain) Gray across the bar at the mouth of the Columbia. And we were the ones who kept Lewis and Clark alive during the winter.”

A Chinook dance program had filled every seat of the Liberty Theater a night earlier. Visitors to the city who couldn’t find a ticket enjoyed dining at the town’s numerous fine restaurants, or staying late at some of its outstanding museums.

Tourist activities

For the history buff intrigued by the story of how Astoria came to be founded, a great place to start is the city’s Heritage Museum. Operated by the Clatsop County Historical Society, this museum in Astoria’s 1904 city hall has installed a special bicentennial exhibit about the 19th-century American fur trade and the establishment of the Astor colony.

Through interpretive signs and period artifacts, the exhibit describes how the party arrived aboard the Tonquin merchant ship on the south shore of the Columbia in March 1811. The original Fort Astoria — a replica of which stands today just west of the museum, at 15th and Exchange streets — was completed by May. Two years later, during the War of 1812, the fort was surrendered to the British and renamed “Fort George.” Within five years, however, Astoria was under joint American-British possession, reverting entirely to the U.S. with the creation of the Oregon Territory in 1846.

Just downhill, fewer than two blocks away, is the Columbia River Maritime Museum. It is, in my opinion, the best of its kind in the Northwest. Here a visitor can learn about sailing and fishing vessels of all sizes, shipwrecks, the salmon industry, lighthouses and navigational tools. Exhibits define the importance of the Coast Guard, which stages between 300 and 400 maritime rescues each year in this area, either by air or boat.

Next to the museum, on the 17th Street Dock, is the Lightship Columbia, which from 1950 through 1979 worked six miles off the Columbia River entrance in the Pacific Ocean as the last active lightship on the West Coast. It was home to 17 enlisted men and one officer who suffered “long stretches of monotony and boredom intermixed with riding out gale-force storms,” according to an explanatory sign.

Since Capt. Gray’s initial visit, more than 700 sailors have died in nearly 2,000 shipwrecks here, where the outflow from the Columbia collides head-on with high seas to create shallow, shifting sand bars. Two-dozen Astorians are trained as Columbia River Bar pilots to guide domestic and foreign ships through the treacherous channels.

Among Astoria’s pioneer bar pilots was Capt. George Flavel. In 1883, he built a retirement home on a low hillside facing the river at Eighth and Exchange Streets. Fully restored in 1951, the Flavel House is now a wonderful Queen Anne-style Victorian memory of Astoria’s early prosperity.

For a different perspective on historic Astoria, many visitors enjoy riding the Old 300, otherwise known as the Astoria Riverfront Trolley, along the waterfront from Maritime Memorial Park to Pier 39. The round-trip run takes about 40 minutes. At the west end, directly beneath the Astoria-Megler Bridge, the Uniontown-Alameda Historic District is centered around Suomi Hall, home to the Finnish Brotherhood. Other small shops in this area include Finnish workers’ bars and a Finnish steam-bath house, now closed.

East of town at Pier 39, the 1875 J.O. Hanthorn Cannery has been restored. Besides a brewpub, dive shop and coffee house, it has displays that recall its past life as a Bumble Bee processing plant. Nearby at Pier 36, a herd of sea lions can be found lounging and barking, day and night.

The Astoria Column, which has provided a bird’s-eye perspective across this corner of Oregon since 1926, sits atop 600-foot Coxcomb Hill. Looking much like a 125-foot lighthouse, it is painted in Italian renaissance style with a spiraling frieze depicting significant events in area history. Those who climb 164 steps to its observation deck are rewarded with a marvelous view that extends many miles in all directions.

A few miles south of downtown Astoria is Fort Clatsop, a replica of the tiny fort where Lewis and Clark wintered and saw only six days of sun in four months. Designed according to William Clark’s sketches, the replica fort — built in 2005 to replace a 50-year-old version that was burned down by an arsonist — displays bunkhouses, storage areas and cooking facilities. Nearby is a visitor center offering films, exhibits and ranger-led hikes.

Sleeping and eating

When I visit Astoria, I prefer to stay at the 46-room Cannery Pier Hotel. While it is the priciest property in the city, I know of no other like it in the Pacific Northwest.

Architect and developer Robert “Jake” Jacob, born in Astoria, had seen the old Union Fishermen’s Co-operative Packing Company (“Union Fish”) close in 1970. Ten years later it was demolished, leaving behind a deteriorating wooden pier and hundreds of pilings. Here, beneath the world’s longest continuous-truss bridge, was the perfect place for a hotel, he decided.

Public opinion was not on his side, but Jacob pressed ahead. He opened the hotel in August 2005, basing the design upon old photos of the Union Fish cannery, with the same window and roof line, faux smokestacks, exposed steel beams and hanging lights. Every room faces the river and its maritime traffic; even the lobby lounge (which offers wine and salmon hors d’oeuvres nightly), the exercise area and the Finnish-style sauna have river views.

For fine dining, it’s hard to top Baked Alaska, which — like the Cannery Pier — takes full advantage of its location on pilings above the river. Chef Christopher Holen and his partner and wife, Jennifer, spent the summer of 2000 towing a mobile soup kitchen from one Alaskan music festival to another, then settled in Astoria, where they opened a popular seven-table cafe.

By April 2001, they had relocated to their spacious riverfront location at the end of 12th Street. After 10 years, they have added a full-service lounge, two special-events rooms and even a kitchenware store.

A specialty is fresh seafood straight from local fishermen. Holen dusts yellowfin tuna with locally ground coffee before searing it rare; he flambes halibut in Applejack brandy and serves it on a bed of Fuji apples; he roasts Columbia River salmon skin-on and presents it on a bed of quinoa with sauteed fennel, cauliflower and heirloom tomatoes.

Another favorite of mine is Drina Daisy, to my knowledge the only Bosnian restaurant in Oregon. Think of the cuisine as bridging the gap between Greek and Italian. Chef Fordinka Kanlic fled war-torn Sarajevo in 1999; today, she does all the cooking as her husband, Ken Bendickson, offers from-the-heart service in this small downtown cafe. I recommend rotisserie-turned lamb and, for dessert, baklava dripping with honey.

And don’t miss the Bowpicker for a simple fish-and-chips meal. Occupying a retired gillnet fishing boat, it sits on a quiet street corner between Astoria’s history and maritime museums. The menu is simple, but you’ll rarely find better fish for less than $10: Beer-battered albacore comes with steak fries in half or full-size orders.

Values like this only come around once every 200 years or so.