95 miles NW of Portland; 20 miles S of Long Beach, WA; 17 miles N of Seaside
History runs deep in Astoria. In fact, you could say that Oregon’s Euro-centric history started right here, where the mighty Columbia River spills into the Pacific Ocean. First, in the winter of 1805/1806, the explorers Lewis and Clark built Fort Clatsop 5 miles south, establishing an American claim to what would become the Oregon Country. Five years later, in 1811, fur traders working for John Jacob Astor arrived at the mouth of the Columbia to set up a fur-trading fort that was named Fort Astoria, in Astor’s honor, and became the first permanent American settlement west of the Mississippi. Astoria served as an important shipping port for the huge loads of timber cut in Oregon’s virgin old-growth forests and shipped around the world. And because no real roads existed along the Oregon coast, Astoria became a port for the passenger and cargo ships sailing from New York around the Cape of Good Horn, and for the steamers that worked their way up the Oregon coast from San Francisco. Back then, the river teemed with unimaginable numbers of salmon, and when the salmon-canning boom hit in the 1880s, Astoria became a hustling and bustling little city—the second largest in Oregon—and wealthy merchants, sea captains, timbermen, and fish barons began building the ornate, Victorian-style homes that still dot the steep hillsides. Finnish, German, Swedish, and Norwegian immigrants poured into the burgeoning city to work in the canneries and lumber mills and on fishing boats. World War II saw another maritime boom for Astoria, but the city’s fortunes waned, and by the 1960s Astoria was a pretty sorry-looking place.
It had incredible potential as a tourist destination, but, as the resources that fueled its growth dwindled or dropped away, it lost its economic oomph and couldn’t do much more than struggle along. Now that is changing, and people are talking about an Astoria renaissance. There’s a strong community focus here, and as more people have discovered or rediscovered Astoria and the scenic splendor of the Columbia River, old homes and derelict buildings have been restored and taken on a new life. The changeover began with the restoration of the Liberty Theater downtown, a venue that now attracts a wide variety of performers, and the revitalization of the old waterfront area, which is now more accessible because of the 5-mile-long Astoria Riverwalk trail. New hotels have been built, old hotels and historic properties have been restored, and restaurants, coffee houses, and brewpubs have sprung up. Hopefully, as this transformation takes shape, Astoria will not lose its old working-class heritage. There are still buildings here like Suomi Hall, the Finnish community’s social center, but other historic places like the old Finnish bathhouse have disappeared.
Because this old city is located just inland from the river’s giant, 14-mile-wide mouth, it is more a river port than a beach town. The Coast Guard is a major employer and presence in town, and there’s still a big commercial and recreational fishing industry. One new development is that about a dozen cruise ships heading up to Alaska or down to California now dock at Astoria and send their 2,000 or 3,000 passengers into the town for the day or just an afternoon (another reason why new businesses are opening). More controversial is a proposal to turn the city into a port for exporting natural gas. Environmentalists rightly fear that this project will do irreparable harm to the river, and the community is fiercely divided on the issue.
For visitors, Astoria’s greatest attraction lies in its hillsides of restored Victorian homes and the scenic views across the Columbia to the hills of southwestern Washington. The combination of historical character, scenic vistas, a lively arts community, and some interesting museums make this one of the most intriguing towns on the Oregon coast.