Astoria at 200
By MJ Cody
From the March/April 2011 issue
I’m sitting in Fort George Brewery and Public House eating one of the most unusual yet delicious tuna melts I’ve ever had—a large slab of tuna, red onions, and Tillamook cheddar pressed between grilled-to-a-crisp flatbread. The sun is shining, and from this aerie several blocks up the hill from the Columbia River, I gaze out on the anchored container ships, set against dramatic mountains, and contemplate the scene. To think, near this spot 200 years ago Astoria became the first American settlement west of the Rockies.
This year Astoria will celebrate its bicentennial thanks to John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company, whose traders raced to claim the valuable port for the US against Russian, Spanish, and British fur companies. The triumphant traders could have looked out in 1811 on the same scene as today, although they would have seen a very different assortment of ships.
That’s all part of fairly recent history compared to the native Clatsop and Chinook Nations who were thriving here for thousands of years before the arrival of European explorers. In 1792 Captain Robert Gray sailed his ship Columbia Rediviva into the great bay at the mouth of the river thence known as—can you guess?—the Columbia.
In 1805 Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery spent their famous dismal winter at nearby Fort Clatsop, barely surviving. They surely would have perished without the help of Chief Coboway and the Clatsop natives, who shared hunting grounds and brought gifts and trade such as salmon, wapato roots procured from eastern tribes, anchovies, and clams.
Anticipating an unfriendly takeover of the trading post during the British-American War of 1812, Astor’s fur traders sold their claim to the British Northwest Company. From 1813 to 1818 Astoria was known as Fort George. By 1818 the US established joint occupation of the “Oregon Country,” and Astoria regained its former name.
Salmon and seafaring trade soon replaced fur trading, yet one might say “civilization” was still a ways off. In 1878, the Weekly Astorian newspaper noted that there were 30 saloons in town. The notorious shanghaier “Bunco” Kelly called Astoria the wickedest city in the world.
That same year, Astoria Mayor W. W. Parker, responding to a letter to the editor calling for him to eliminate public drunkenness and “places of low resort,” responded by asking the writer for ideas on how to manage “500 or 1,000 strong, vigorous, active, young, and middle-aged men, fishermen and the like…” Of course, Parker, like most of the city officials, relished the business alliance, unwilling to forgo the profit from liquor licensing fees. Rampant liquor consumption and bawdy houses were finally harnessed by the 1940s.
Besides the Native Americans and Oregon Trail emigrants, Astoria attracted a wealth of Scandinavian settlers, primarily Finns in the fishing industry. The burgeoning city also attracted a significant Chinese population to work in the canneries. Astoria was no longer a grubby frontier town, but had a prosperous downtown with Victorian homes dotting the hillsides thanks to a booming fishing and timber economy.
As Astoria celebrates its bicentennial this year, you’ll find that the city retains its unique character. It has survived the decline of the fishing and timber industries, and you’ll have no worries these days of experiencing the culinary fate of Lewis and Clark or having to sleep in primitive log cabins.
CELEBRATING ASTORIA’S BICENTENNIAL
Download a single sheet AstoriaTravel Planner
Astoria’s summer festival events
April 26, 27 28 2013 Astoria-Warrenton Crab, Seafood & Wine Festival
Astoria Open Studio Tour Astoria artists will open their studios to the public, with displays, demonstrations, and works for sale.
Astoria Timber Festival Watch axe throwing, choker setting, spar pole climbing, and logrolling competitions at this festival honoring the region’s rich logging history, held at the Clatsop County Fairgrounds.