Astoria, OR (July 5, 2022)

We woke to fog, chances of rain, cool temps, and soft breezes. It looked like the Northwest had decided to end our streak of perfect weather, but less some very light rain, we were not bothered at all. We put on a couple layers of clothes and headed off to breakfast before exploring this small city located on the south shore of the Columbia River—right where it flows into the Pacific Ocean. Get this: it was founded in 1811 and is the oldest city in the state of Oregon and the first American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains. News to me! It is now a charming city of about 11,000 people.

After a light breakfast we four headed to the 125 foot tall Astoria Column situated atop Coxcomb Hill on a 30-acre site. It is a combo monument and work of art in my opinion. Here’s the backstory: The president of the Great Northern Railroad erected a monument or historical marker at each of the 12 stops along the rail route from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Astoria. Either because he was out of clever ideas, money, or focus, he proposed having a flag installed on the hill and calling it a day. Enter the Astors again. Great grandson Vincent thought something imposing should be at the end of line, so he paid for the column which was completed in 1926. Easily the tallest thing in town, it is covered in painted and plaster-carved murals (a technique called sgraffito, a Renaissance art form) that spiral from the base to the top and tell the story of the natural riches of the Pacific Northwest; the people who lived, worked, and explored the area; and 22 significant historical events that took place between 1792 when the mouth of the river was discovered and the coming of the railroad in the 1880s.

We four took up the challenge and climbed the 164 steps and flew small balsa wood airplanes from the top. Dan won the aviation challenge with a long, graceful flight. The views were amazing.

It was no effort at all to get to the Columbia River Maritime Museum since it is located on the dock adjacent to the ship. It is fantastic, well laid out, and does a great job of describing the rich history of this area. Displays, text, and videos walked us through the importance of the fur trade; the value of maps (the oldest one in the museum is 460 [ ! ] years old) and how they improved over time; the science of storms; naval history; fishing and canning; and towing.

Ann and John had told us a bit about the bar and as it ends up it fascinated me the most. It is where the river meets the ocean. Sounds pretty standard, right? Add westerly winds to the lack of a river delta and then add the focused, fire-hose current of the river. Pile on unpredictable fog, shallow, shifting sandbars, and finally the waves, swells, and tide of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a recipe for anything from perfectly calm to instantly treacherous and deadly surface conditions. Here’s the bottom line: its nickname is the Graveyard of the Pacific! Three miles wide and six miles long, it is widely accepted as one of the most dangerous bar crossings in the world. It is estimated that 2,000 ships, large and small, have sunk and 700 people have lost their lives in and around the Columbia Bar since 1792! Solution: bar pilots. Earning in the high six figures, approximately 16 pilots guide ships across the bar, boarding ships by helicopter or specifically designed 73 foot high speed boats.

Besides the bar, I was amazed by the global scope of the fur trade. Once it became known that Chinese traders would pay enormous sums for sea otter pelts and good-to-great money for other pelts, a trading network was set up. It involved ships full of supplies and trade goods going from New York around the tip of South America up to Hawaii and then on to Astoria. Furs were exchanged for these items and then loaded onto ships bound for Canton, China. Furs were dropped off and beautiful things picked up for the trip around the tip of Africa to London. The loop was complete when European and Asian goods arrived back in New York. This went on for 70 years starting in the early 1800s.

We gave our brains a rest and enjoyed an el fresco lunch on board before venturing downtown (spitting distance from the dock) to wander the streets and stroll in and out of stores. The shopkeepers were all friendly and helpful and the whole area was clean with an interesting mixture of architecture popular in days gone by. The locals must have a good sense of humor because their rubbish bins are painted to look like giant cans of sea food. We walked past the first JC Penny and the first shoe store west of the Mississippi. Who knew? Astoria boasts the first post office west of the Mississippi also, but we did not see it. The city is built on a hill and is proud of its 70+ impressive Victorian homes, some of which were visible from downtown. We stopped to see the Nordic Heritage Park which honors the contributions of Scandinavians who came to work and decided to stay and make their homes here. It was surprising to see that whimsical gnomes were included in the park. There is a similar park honoring the very poorly treated, mistreated, and abused Chinese who made such a positive difference in the labor force here.

Our focus on the fireworks last night caused us to miss the fact that we are docked right next to a small Coast Guard Station. One of the two boats off our stern is 50-year-old Steadfast. This trusty cutter, still in use today, has completed 220 search and rescue cases, seized 1.6 million pounds of marijuana and 164,000 pounds of cocaine.

Our resident lecturer, a self proclaimed bird nerd, spoke on her favorite subject this afternoon. Walter attended while the rest of us took a walk (Dan), wrote (who, me?), napped (Cleone), and enjoyed the 3:00 PM cookie break. Before we knew it, it was time to clean up for cocktails, have dinner, and enjoy this evening’s entertainer, Stan Corlis, who performed pop, country, and what he calls roots rock & roll.

…Astoria Trivia…

The city is named for John Jacob Astor.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition spent the winter of 1805–1806 at Fort Clatsop, a small
log enclave southwest of town. Tempting had we had more time.

Thanks to the abundance of salmon, some weighing up to 80 pounds, Astoria
used to be the canning capitol of the world!

Winter storms at the bar can create waves as high as 40 feet tall!

Parts or all of fifty movies have been short in and around here. Think Goonies, Kindergarten Cop, Into the Wild, Free Willy, The Black Stallion, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III.


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