By Ron Bernthal
I first noticed the town in the 1990 film “Kindergarten Cop.” Impressed with scenes that showed a Victorian-era town with steep streets overlooking a river, I studied the credits afterwards and made a mental note of the location….Astoria, Oregon.
The town showed up again in the 1992 films “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III” and “Free Willy,” and was the backdrop for 1990′s TV commercials for Jeep, Ford, and Mazda cars.
When I finally got to Astoria ten years later it was exactly as I had imagined it would be-a rough and grizzly Northwestern river town with a subtle charm. Astoria is also a town with a history of fur trading, it was named after John Jacob Astor, who established his Pacific Fur Company’s headquarters here in 1811, and fishing (it was once known as the Salmon Canning Capital of the World).
Its waterfront along the Columbia brought in freighters and commercial fishing fleets, and the forests on the Oregon and Washington sides of the river meant that lots of residents were into logging and hunting, like the Chinook tribes before them. Nearby is Fort Clatsop, where Lewis & Clark spent the winter of 1805-06, hunkered down in the rain near the Pacific Ocean.
The town, which is the oldest U.S. settlement west of the Rocky Mountains has history, much of it owed to its presence on the shore of the Columbia.
“The Columbia River is really the identity of Astoria. It brought a colorful history to the area, and the city is trying hard not to lose sight of this, and to utilize the river in its progressive movement towards a tourism economy,” said Jerry Ostermiller, Director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, from his glass enclosed office overlooking the swift-flowing river. “The Columbia was the main economy of the entire region, and the waterfront was the engine that drove it all.”
But the Northwestern economy has changed in the past 25 years. Following World War II the areas shipping, logging, and fishing companies began to shut down operations and leave town. Bumblebee closed its last Astoria cannery in 1980, and the Astoria Plywood Company mill shut down in 1989. How would this town of 10,000 residents be able to maintain its historic identity as a blue-collar river town without industry?
Like other locations in the New West, where mining towns became ski resorts, and cattle farms morphed into dude ranches, Astoria has found a way to reinvent itself, to turn its sandpaper exterior into a softer, more appealing place. The film shoots of the early 1990′s, with their postcard-pretty scenes, brought in retirees and, even better, lots of summer tourists who seem to enjoy the area’s persistent fog and rain. Local preservationists and private organizations have begun to develop Astoria’s historic downtown and waterfront districts.
A restored trolley now runs along the riverfront’s old railroad spur, and the 1925 Liberty Theater, with its lighted art deco marquee, is being elegantly brought back to life. A group of private investors has renovated and re-opened the 1920′s Hotel Elliott into a stylish boutique property, complete with flat screen room TV’s, a basement wine and cigar bar, and a rooftop lounge with spectacular views of the river and the snowcapped Cascade Range.
On the city’s hilly residential districts, which resemble a much smaller version of San Francisco, the former Victorian houses of sea captains and logging company executives are being renovated and sold to newcomers from Portland, Seattle and New York, who see investment potential in this re-discovered river town.
Cruise ships are becoming more numerous at the Port of Astoria, and the 2005 Lewis & Clark Bicentennial events will cap a decade of slow but steady economic growth.
“Recently there have been all sorts of new parks, housing, events, and different things to do for the local population,” said Ostermiller. “The town is really beginning to blossom.”
“Astoria is going through a transitionary stage that will probably change the character of the town forever, ” said Rex Ziak, a noted author and logger whose family has lived in the area for generations. “Five years ago there were boarded up storefronts all along downtown, and if you saw someone wearing a suit and tie in the middle of the day it probably meant they were going to a funeral. Today, there are stores selling wine, artwork, and espresso. People are moving in and fixing up the old buildings, and they are doing a pretty good job of maintaining Astoria’s historic, working-class identity while creating a new and exciting look about the place.”
Seventy years ago, when Woody Guthrie sang “Roll On, Columbia” he never would have imagined that the this wide and wild river, where salmon and cut logs once filled its waters from bank to bank, would play second fiddle to Interstate highway commerce and cargo planes. But Astoria is using the Columbia as a beautiful backdrop for its growth, as a new generation of folk singers, preservationists, and artists, a modern-day Corps of Discovery, begins to settle in and helps reinvent this historic Northwest town.
IF YOU GO: For additional information on Astoria, log on to www.oldoregon.com. Hotel Elliott, www.hotelelliott.com; Schooner 12th Street Bistro, 503-325-2323; Columbia River Maritime Museum, www.crmm.org; Fort Clatsop National Memorial, www.nps.gov/fod.
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