In preparation for a trip to Astoria, Oregon, my friend mailed me two books covering the history of the city. I opened one of them and soon found myself engrossed with John Jacob Astor’s efforts, many of them with Thomas Jefferson’s blessing, to head west and make a claim for this western territory.
Imagine my dismay when I realized I had put the book into the seat pocket and deplaned without it. Left with few other choices, I sought to keep my ears and eyes open to learn about the history as I explored.
1. The Columbia River Maritime Museum
I was delighted to be visiting a friend in Astoria who happens to be a trustee of The Columbia River Maritime Museum, an internationally-known museum. Its entire board is composed of people from throughout the world with varying expertise and interests revolving around our rivers and oceans.
Then you add the excellent talents of the curators and artisans to bring exhibits alive and you end up with a stunning space, perched right on the edge of the mighty Columbia River within walking distance of downtown Astoria.
The Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean in the Port of Astoria. This confluence results in nature producing a sand bar, which to this day is considered the most dangerous ocean location in the world. A large map at the entrance to the museum pinpoints 200 plus shipwrecks that have taken place at this mouth of the Columbia River. Docked in front of the museum is the Lightship Columbia. It is a National Historic Landmark because this pilot ship once guided ships across the bar.
With the help of my friend, we were guided through the various segments of the museum. There is so much to learn, and one can see why it would be good to come again and again to fully immerse in educating oneself about rivers and oceans and the importance of both, for they have a considerable impact on our environment.
- There is an admission charge.
- Everything at the museum is handicapped accessible except for the exploration of the Lightship Columbia.
- This experience is suitable for all family members.
2. Astoria Riverwalk
National, state, and county officials came together to create the Astoria Riverwalk. It stretches 12.4 miles along the Columbia River waterfront and follows the Astoria & Columbia River Railroad tracks.
Inline skaters, bikers, joggers, and hikers appreciate that restaurants, hotels, museums, and retail stores dot the area, making for pleasant diversions on their journeys. Besides the spectacular views, benches let one relax and enjoy the view. In addition, along the route, there are various historical markers. For example, the Lewis and Clark expedition camped at the head of the trail in 1806 after spending winter in Fort Clatsop.
Pro Tip: The trail is composed of both gravel and asphalt. It is wheelchair accessible.
3. Flavel House
As mentioned earlier, the sand bar proved to be one of the major issues transporting cargo up to and from the Pacific Ocean on the Columbia River. Captain George Flavel became one of the most skilled pilot boat navigators, then started teaching townspeople to be riverboat pilots. With his newly gained wealth, he started buying property.
About three blocks above downtown Astoria, the Flavel House stands on a hill overlooking the city. This house, built by Captain Flavel in 1845 for his family, is considered one of the most significant original examples of Queen Anne architecture in the Northwest.
Through the efforts of the Clatsop County Historical Society, this 11,000-square-foot, two and half-level home is showcased with furnishings appropriate for the Victoria area. Artisans have painstakingly refinished Douglas fir to mimic rosewood and mahogany. Wood graces every room and is used on ceiling moldings, shutters, wainscoting, floors, and doors.
- There is an admission fee.
- Check their calendar for special activities like afternoon tea.
- The house would be problematic for handicapped visitors.
4. Liberty Theatre
The Liberty Theatre is hard to miss on a stroll through downtown Astoria. Its huge, restored marquee sign can’t be ignored, even during daylight. Built in 1905, it was famous for vaudeville performances until it was destroyed in the Astoria fire of 1922. Rebuilt, it served the community well as a cinema. With no funds for repairs over the years, the theatre languished until 2000.
A group of citizens came together and campaigned to save the theatre. An architectural firm was hired and was thrilled to see the original moldings, special lighting, and unique décor touches were still intact and were just in need of restoration.
You can walk into the theatre, and volunteers will be happy to tour you through the property and regale you with stories. For example, you will learn about the antics of Handsome Paul, rumored to be the resident ghost. Also, be sure to look at the stunning stain-glass chandelier gracing the ceiling of the main theatre.
There is a film you will want to watch about the restoration process still taking place as I write. However, the theatre is open for performances and events.
Pro Tips: There is no admission fee, and the building is handicapped accessible. You will want to check their calendar for special events.
5. Coffee Girl
A former cannery sits on Pier 39 with a rickety-looking bridge leading out to it. Fortunately, there were cars already there, so it held for them, and surely it would hold for us. After parking the car, we headed to the entrance of the building. You know, the kind of building where the detectives slowly advance, expecting something to jump out any time.
Abandoned machinery collecting piles of dust and cobwebs sat idle in the shadows. Tacked on the wall — askew and dusty — were cannery brand signs. Honestly, I was glad my friend knew exactly where we were going.
At the end of the building, on the water’s edge, was the door and sign that said Coffee Girl. It turns out that when the cannery on this pier was in full operation, this is where the workers, mostly women, came to have their coffee breaks and lunch. We stepped in and smiled. It was a café that appeared to be frozen in time.
We found a table and ordered our lunch. My choice was a turkleberry sandwich. Yes, every bit as good as that day-after-Thanksgiving sandwich. While eating, we learned the massive building also houses the Bumble Bee Cannery Museum and Rogue Ales Public House.
6. Cannery Pier Hotel And Spa
Frankly, I was thrilled when I was asked if I would like to be hosted at the Cannery Pier Hotel and Spa. I had seen it in the distance each time I headed to Astoria, but I didn’t know it now had new owners and had recently been remodeled.
The hotel is literally on the edge of the Columbia River on stilts, while the large parking lot is in front of the building. When you walk into the glass-lined lobby, you immediately see the Columbia River and the cargo ships transporting their wares.
Check-in was fun because the staff was cheerful and very accommodating. We were escorted to our room, opened the door, and our room was revealed as a large, simple, yet elegantly appointed space. A soaking tub, a shower, and a granite-like sink fascinated me, for I had never seen one like it. Artfully designed and, indeed, not just your ordinary sink.
With our own deck and chairs in front of the ocean-view windows, it would have been really easy to stay there and luxuriate in our provided oh-so-comfy robes and exquisite bed linens. After looking at our watches, we knew it was time for happy hour provided by the hotel. Other guests were already mingling and sipping local wines and ales accompanied by tasty canapes. The provided breakfast was superb, with anything you could want. However, I certainly was not expecting freshly baked croissants.
There is a lovely spa within the building. You will want to make a reservation ahead of time. By the way, you can enjoy a beautiful view while relaxing in this soothing atmosphere.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the hotel provided a driver and an antique Rambler to take us to our dinner reservation at Silver Salmon Grille, downtown Astoria, where we had halibut with a creole touch. It was a delightful evening and a great conversation with the chef.
While this hotel is known as the luxurious, romantic place in Astoria, Best Western, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn, and other independently owned hotels dot this coastal town. With the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean meeting here, you can be sure that you will be near water no matter where you stay.
History has proven that this coastal town knows how to pick itself up and meet the challenges it has faced over 200 years. It is embracing its past while keeping an eye on the tourism industry and providing compelling ways to share its story. I predict you will be hearing a great deal more about this community in the future.