This historic, hilly town near the confluence of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean has a famous fort and a Lewis and Clark outpost as its neighbors.
By Denise Seith
America’s oldest permanent settlement west of the Rocky Mountains was founded by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark two centuries ago. The explorers and their Corps of Discovery wintered at Fort Clatsop from December 1805 to March 1806. Six years later, a town was erected near the fort by its namesake, wealthy New Yorker John Jacob Astor. Astoria is scenically situated along Oregon’s spectacular North Coast, where the Columbia River terminates at the Pacific Ocean.
Astoria is still very much a small fishing town. It’s no longer the Salmon Canning Capital of the World as it used to be, but proof of the money made from this enterprise can be seen in some of the most lovely Victorian-style homes on the West Coast. Astoria also boasts more buildings on the National Historic Register per square foot than anywhere else in Oregon. What a reputation!
Accolades aside, come to Astoria to enjoy the history and the scenery. Get your bearings along Astoria’s riverfront by boarding a beautifully refurbished 1913 streetcar. For just $1, you get a four-mile waterfront ride (40 to 45 minutes average round trip) narrated by a volunteer conductor and guide. Or, for $2, you can ride all day. It’s a great way to learn about the city’s history, so don’t be shy about asking questions. Scenery along the route includes the Astoria-Megler Bridge; former canneries now turned into trendy shops and restaurants; tugboat and cargo ship traffic; and the Columbia River Maritime Museum.
Disembark from the trolley at the museum to take a tour. Inside this first-rate facility, you’ll discover why the treacherous mouth of the Columbia River is called the graveyard of the Pacific. (More than 200 major shipwrecks have occurred there.) You’ll also learn about the dangerous work done by the Columbia River Bar Pilots, a specially licensed group of skilled pilots who can safely navigate ships in such rough water. You can even try your hand at steering a tugboat. Next, take a walk on the bridge of a World War II U.S. Navy destroyer and notice the olden-day communications equipment.
One of the most-photographed exhibits in the entire museum is a diorama of a 44-foot Coast Guard lifeboat plowing through crashing waves. It depicts a true story: this lifeboat was tossed almost completely vertical during a rescue mission (and was not destroyed), so it’s now permanently displayed in that position.
Museum admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, and $4 for children ages 6 to 17. Admission includes a tour of lightship Columbia, a national historic landmark, docked just outside. The floating lighthouse once was located five miles out to sea, and in 1979 it was replaced by a more practical navigation buoy. Visit www.crmm.org or call (503) 325-2323 for more information about the museum.
The weather in this area is tempered by the ocean. July and August are the sunniest months of the year, with averages of only a little more than 1 inch of rain per month. Average high temperatures in those months are 67 to 68 degrees. The rain you hear about falls mostly in winter.
But even if it is gray outside, Astoria’s museums will make you happy to be indoors. Your second museum stop, the Uppertown Firefighters Museum, houses an extensive collection of firefighting equipment, memorabilia dating from 1877 to 1963, as well as photographs of the various Astoria fires over the years. On the second floor of the same building is the Astoria Children’s Museum, which provides youngsters with a play area and a chance to hold a puppet show. These museums are open Wednesday through Saturday, and a small admission fee is charged.
The museums are run by the Clatsop County Historical Society, which has its headquarters and Heritage Museum in a 1904 building that once was the site of city hall. It’s a beautiful neoclassical space filled with natural history displays, American Indian artifacts, and exhibits about the area’s immigrants and important maritime events. The history of logging, lumbering, and fishing along the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean is also presented. This museum is open daily from May through September (fewer hours the rest of the year). A small admission fee is charged. For more information, call (503) 325-2203.
Hollywood has been good to Astoria. Movie fans may pick up a map and guide at the Chamber of Commerce and find the many sites around town that have been featured on film. The elementary school on Franklin Avenue appeared with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop; robots jumped off the Astoria Bridge in Short Circuit; and Free Willy made his whale-sized leap to freedom at the Hammond Marina. The Goonies house is on 38th Street.
Get a bird’s-eye view of the confluence of the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean from atop the Astoria Column on wooded Coxcomb Hill. Even though it requires a climb of 164 winding steps, you won’t be disappointed in the sweeping panoramas of the town and the water. The column itself is quite unusual, having been bedecked in 1926 using “sgraffito,” a combination of paint and plaster carving, by Italian artist Attilo Pusterla. The designs, which spiral from the bottom to the top of the column, show scenes from Pacific Northwest history.
The column is open to the public year-round; parking is $1, based on the honor system. You pay your fee at the gift shop. By the way, a local tradition of sailing small balsawood planes from the top of the column makes a visit even more fun.
Once back down at sea level, get even more exercise by roaming Astoria’s San Francisco-like streets and admiring the charming Victorian homes. Take a tour of the Queen Anne-style Flavel House, which now serves as a museum. The sumptuous 1885 mansion was built by Captain George Flavel, one of the first licensed Columbia River Bar Pilots and Astoria’s first millionaire. Its decorative exterior and elegant interior woodwork and furnishings have been restored to their original form. The mansion is two and a half stories tall, covers 11,600 square feet, and altogether, with hip roof, balconies, verandas, and three-story octagon tower, takes up an entire city block!
Admission to the house is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, and $2 for children ages 6 to 17. It’s open daily 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. May through September, and shorter hours the remainder of the year. For more information about the Flavel House, the Uppertown Firefighters Museum/Astoria Children’s Museum, or the Heritage Museum, contact the Clatsop County Historical Society at (503) 325-2203 or visit www.cumtux.org.
Fort Stevens. Ten miles west of Astoria is Oregon’s largest campground and a most pleasant one at that: Fort Stevens State Park, in Warrenton. The park’s attributes go way beyond the 476 campsites (174 with full hookups and 302 with electricity only), miles of clean ocean beaches, nature trails, freshwater lakes, and the ruins of the 1906 Peter Iredale shipwreck. The literal high point of the park is Fort Stevens Historic Area and Military Museum – a real treat for military history buffs.
Originally commissioned as a Civil War fortification in 1863, Fort Stevens was deactivated shortly after World War II. It is the only military installation in the continental United States to be fired upon by a foreign enemy since the War of 1812. As the story goes, on the night of June 21, 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled Fort Stevens, but the fort’s commander did not return fire because he did not want to give away the exact location of the batteries. And, supposedly, the Japanese sub was too far out of range for the fort’s guns. The full story in detail can be found inside the museum, along with a wide variety of military artifacts, historic photos, dioramas, and interpretive displays.
By far the best way to see the fort is to grab a site map and set off on a self-guided walking tour. In addition to the batteries, bunkers, and remains of the barracks, check out the earthworks that date to the Civil War. A Clatsop Indian longhouse also is on the grounds.
Although the guns are long gone from Fort Stevens, it’s still fun to explore the abandoned batteries and climb to the commander’s station for scenic views of the Columbia River and South Jetty. During the summer, the Park Service offers motorized tours of the entire military site aboard a 2 1/2-ton Army truck (a small fee is charged). Guided tours of an underground gun battery that served as a World War II command center also are available in summer. The park is open year-round, and a $3 daily use fee is charged.
Fort Clatsop. “Ocian in view! O! the joy!” Meriwether Lewis exclaimed in his journal on November 7, 1805, when he first saw the Pacific Ocean near Astoria. Within a month, he, William Clark, and the other 31 members of the Corps of Discovery began constructing Fort Clatsop (named in honor of the local Clatsop Indians), where they lived from December 1805 to March 1806.
Today you can visit Fort Clatsop, part of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, and experience where the explorers spent a wet winter 200 years ago. If you wish, you can take a bus that travels from Fort Stevens to Fort Clatsop; ask at the ranger station for details. Or, simply head five miles south of Astoria to the site.
The reconstructed fort itself is rather small “” only 50 feet square “” but as an outdoor museum it’s big on preserving and interpreting the Corps of Discovery’s arrival at the Pacific Coast. Stop at the visitors center first to get an overview of the 125-acre park. The displays and exhibits will familiarize you with the mission and the difficult 2,000 miles the men had traversed to reach the Pacific Ocean. A movie shown in the theater helps to convey the excitement this team of weary explorers must have felt when they finally reached their goal.
Thanks to soggy coastal conditions, the original fort slowly rotted away after the explorers returned east. It has been authentically rebuilt twice since then; first in 1955 and then again in 2006 following a devastating fire. The fort still stands on the original site, as confirmed by notes and floor plans drawn by William Clark. Even the furnishings inside the tight living quarters (just seven small rooms for 33 people) are exact reproductions. The hand-hewn wooden bunks, tables, benches, and chairs were functional, not fancy. Visitors can sit in a replica of the dugout canoes used by the travelers. They’re definitely none too large or comfortable!
During the summer season, park rangers dressed in period clothing teach outdoor survival skills and conduct candle-making and fire-starting demonstrations. Visitors are encouraged to give it a try using only the materials Lewis and Clark would have carried with them: flint and tinder. It’s tricky until you get the hang of it.
Lewis and Clark National Historical Park is open year-round. The parking lot at the visitors center is closed from June through September, because it’s too small to accommodate many vehicles or RVs. So, visitors use the Netul Landing parking area, where a shuttle bus pickup is available. It is approximately two miles away from the visitors center on Fort Clatsop Road. The shuttle bus ride is included in the $5 park admission price (admission is $3 between Labor Day and mid-June). To be on the safe side, call (503) 861-2471 before you go to be sure RV parking is available at the Netul Landing area. The park’s Web address is www.nps.gov/lewi.
Be sure to experience little Astoria while you’re in Oregon. Its picturesque hills, homes, and watery setting combine with a sense of place and history that you will long remember.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce
111 W. Marine Drive
P.O. Box 176
Astoria, OR 97103-0176
This is not a complete list. More area campgrounds may be found in your campground directory or in FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC magazine and online at FMCA.com.
Fort Stevens State Park
100 Peter Iredale Road
Hammond, OR 97121
(800) 551-6949 Information
(503) 861-1671 Information
(800) 452-5687 Reservations
Campers pay the $3 daily day-use fee in addition to campground fees. For longer stays, it may be less expensive to purchase the state’s $25 annual access permit.
Astoria/Warrenton/Seaside KOA (across from Fort Stevens State Park)
1100 N.W. Ridge Road
Hammond, OR 97121
Hammond Marina RV Park
320 Lake Drive
Hammond, OR 97121