The Once & Future Astoria

The Once Astoria‘Astoria is the Paris of the Columbia River’ – Egil Unander

BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE you must remember that when the American ship Columbus Reborn entered the river that bears its name in the robust spring of 1792, a culture that had vibrantly dwelled on both shores for maybe 20,000 years at that moment began to become extinct.

The history we celebrate is our own cultural history – that which we supplanted has been generally been ignored as insufficient and not worth popular study. Until recently. Now, a few generations removed from their obliteration as hemispheric monarchs, we are interested in them. So new are we that we might be regarded as an alien pustule growing from the skin of a leathery twenty millennia culture that was decimated by its parasitic guests. We know little of their history, assorted myths and a few bones to fill in the vast gaps of time in broadly general rather than individual narrative.

An example of this is reflected in the tattooed cartoons that swirl around the Astoria Column like stripes on a barber pole. Of all this fresco history (an art from the Renaissance which seems to have perished with the death of Column artist Attilio Perstula), only one panel predates Western discovery – Before the White Man Came. The Clatsop tribe whom the county is named after were gone long before Scandinavians got here in the late 19th century. By the 1840s they were virtually extinct as a people from exposure to smallpox and whiskey, traditionally weapons of colonization more ruinous than rifles. A few years ago an Astoria mayor criticized a chainsaw sculpture of a Clatsop chief. Her criticism was not just artistic. She said it diminished Astoria’s Scandinavian heritage and had to be reminded that the Chinook peoples (Tshinuk is an early attempt to phoneticize the name into European spelling) had residence along the lower Columbia for tens of millennia.

The mountainous surroundings of Astoria are a complicated geology of 200 million years of collision between the Pacific Ocean tectonic plate and the North American Continent. It is a volcanic and earthquake structured erosion of a once extensive formation of sharp peaks and rift valleys inundated by ocean and ice. Through all of this geology flows the second mightiest river of the continent, beginning in a glacier far up in Canada and ending its 1200-mile surge at the Pacific Ocean. That is the second thing to remember: that the river has always been Astoria’s lifeblood. It was late for exploration by whites though used by natives for thousands of years. The Boston captain Robert Gray sailed his ship into the river in May 1792 when everyone else of his contemporaries was certain or afraid the wild surf they saw breaking on shifting sandbars at its entrance was on a beach instead. Gray gave the river current name (from his ship Columbia Rediviva), itself named after the Great Navigator who discovered the Western hemisphere in his way of reaching India 300 years earlier; the Great River of the West (a variation of Oregon was a name for it) was almost immediately a gateway to Asia.

The European exploration and exploitation of the Pacific Northwest – Russians, English, Spanish and Americans newly free from invidious Albion – is a microcosm of the immediate forces of emigration and conquest set loose 300 years earlier when Columbus bumped into the western hemisphere on his way to India. Some celebrate, others bitterly denounce the intrusion of Europe into the Americas, which had existed comfortably apart from the rest of humanity for 20 millennia or so. Overcrowded and money hungry Europe poured into the newly “discovered” half of the world as if it were an empty plain and overran the native cultures as if they were not there or not worth consideration (as well as obliterating a large number of native animal, fish and vegetative species, which continues).

The Pacific Northwest has been a last small corner for Western exploration, with the exception of the Poles and Antarctica. The present tenants of the Columbia River inherit a legacy of raw exploration and waste. The riches once so abundant have been despoiled, virtually all used up in a dozen generations. The great wild river has itself been tamed with dams, drained by irrigation and polluted as well as irradiated, the massive forests on both sides of its banks logged and supplanted with cities and farms, and the millions of salmon so numerous our ancestors claimed they could cross the river on their backs have dwindled to only an endangered few.

Astoria is the oldest city of the American West. It started as a frontier fort in 1811 on a bump of hill above the wide river, the strategic port ten miles inland from the ocean that John Jacob Astor and his friend Thomas Jefferson thought might dominate the Pacific fur trade the empires of Russia, Spain and England fought over. Astor, who desired to be the Fur King of the west, lost his pelt on the Astoria venture. He had not anticipated either the War of 1812 (to avoid capture and pillage his employees sold Fort Astor to the British who renamed it Fort George after their king) or the merger of the bitter rivals of the Northwest Company (which had purchased Fort Astor) and Hudson’s Bay, the premier capitalist empire in the “New World” for a couple of centuries, its fur hunters the greatest explorers of the Northwest. The combination forced Astor, the USA’s first millionaire and slum lord, to sell his American Fur Company (once again to the British) and concentrate on charging high rents for substandard dwellings to immigrants settling on the East Coast, principally Manhattan Island.

There was about a twenty year transition between the failure of the pelt market in Europe and China and the beginning of a century-long prosperity of Astoria in the twin resource extraction industries of timber and fishing. The major transformation, which has since defined Astoria, was the beginning of fishing, initially in the river, for the plentiful and sumptuous salmon. The city was the first downriver interception of the spawning salmon, and with the surge of immigrant fisherfolk from Scandinavia, much of boomtown Astoria was built on pilings over the river because of the steep hills that rose from the river like cake layers. The immense Pacific Coast forest was beyond measure then, the ages of trees commensurate with their dimensions; thousand-year old giants were decimated for an immediate human need for wood to build cities like Astoria. After nearly two centuries of unrelenting despoliation, the forest and the fish are just about gone.

The animal-skin clad frontiersmen we engage in venerated myth of the frontier West did not last long in the Northwest. Not only were they the victims of a market change of styles in Europe and Asia, they were engulfed by wagon train emigrants who left their dead on the prairies, deserts, and mountains they voyaged across, and who brought the plow, the book and the bank.

Astoria was the end of the Oregon Trail. Lewis & Clark ended their prodigious transcontinental trek here, although namesake Astor never visited. The city’s most prosperous period was during the late years of the 19th century when tallmasted ships and sternwheel riverboats crowded its wharves and the river swarmed with the winged sails of fish boats. Its dozens of canneries sent fish all over the world. Scores of trains hauled canned salmon into the interior and thousands of tourists to the coast. For nearly a century most Astoria men were fishermen or worked with hundreds of women in the canneries. Yet this prosperity was costly. The river and ocean claimed an astonishing toll of vessels and crews: at least 2000 ships and boats are believed to have sunk near the river’s entrance and about 700 persons have perished. Astoria’s families have mourned a long succession of parents, spouses, lovers, children, neighbors and shipmates. (There are no known figures for the number of native vessels and crews that met a similar fate over the thousands of years they fished in the river and ocean.)

During Astoria’s self-acclaimed “Golden Age” ships loaded cargoes of fish, timber and grain for everywhere in the world and disgorged gaudy wares porting in. Astoria was infamous in those rowdy fin de seicle years for its sleazy waterfront saloons, which were alleged to be every 13 steps with a whorehouse in between to service the rowdy crowds of mariners, fishermen, loggers and farmers, many of whom were drugged and/or beat up and shanghaied aboard out-bound hellships by an army of crimps, brothel madams and saloon-keepers. Crime and potent drugs were rampant; brawling and murder were common. And, of course, there were epic struggles between fishermen and cannery packers over the price of fish. Far awhile Astoria had the second largest Chinese population on the Pacific coast, but they were ruthlessly displaced by arriving Europeans, who took their jobs at the more than thirty canneries.

A majority of Astoria men were salmon fishermen on the river, in the bays and later on the turbulent ocean beyond the Columbia River Bar, known all over the world as the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’ for the hundreds of boats and ships it destroyed. Simultaneously, most of the women worked in the canneries, for a few decades straddling the 19th and 20th centuries Astoria had a population of nearly 30,000 and anticipated a peak of 100,000. The city unabashedly promoted itself as the New York City of the Pacific Northwest – but the fish and the great spruce, cedar and fir forests that were supposed to last forever were decimated in only a few generations as if there were no tomorrow.

More than a century of rapacious logging and heedless overfishing, as well as electrifying the river with dynamo dams built upriver and on dozens of tributaries – and the Hanford Nuclear reservation (and later the Trojan nuclear power plant near Portland) – killed the big salmon runs that had made Astoria the world’s fish cannery capitol; the railroads went to Portland or from Longview to Seattle, which killed Astoria as a major seaport; and two huge fires, comparable in their effects to the historic fires that swept through Rome, London, Chicago and San Francisco – the worst in 1922 – burned out its heart.

Now, in the new millennium, 200 years since the city’s founding as a frontier fort on a bluff above the Columbia River in 1811 (April 12 is Astoria’s birthday), it is the day after tomorrow. The millions of fish that once filled the river and ocean are a scanty few. The great forests are clearcut, replaced by human habitat or skimpy monoculture stands of commercial second and third growth forest. The remaining forests that are owned by the city came very close to being logged in the last couple of decades, saved from extinction only by vigorous popular uproar. Most of the timber industry is gone and fishing along the lower river has dwindled almost to vanishing until only a few men and women are able to make a living aboard fishboats. (The ocean out front has been raked clean.) The canneries that bought the fish were boarded up and abandoned to rot in a forest of broken pilings that eat into the river like decayed teeth. The yards that built the boats are gone. The waterfront that used to be so busy is virtually abandoned. Old fishboats were left to disintegrate on blocks along the decaying riverfront – for many years it seemed the riverbanks were fenced by fish boats left to fall apart by bankrupt fishermen, something like Rotten Row on Young’s Bay where captains beached their worn out schooners, and later the hulks of steamboats such as the once famous T. J. Potter. The legacies of lifetimes spent in the woods or on fishboat decks ended and experienced loggers and fisherfolk who expected to spend their lives the same way were forced to find other work; often menial, unpleasant and low-wage jobs.

Great plans to develop industry and revive the city’s economy with aluminum plants, coal docks and shipwrecking yards to reverse the long decline and revive the economy generally die in labor – which would be the deserved fate of the egregious attempt to construct natural gas terminals on the river without public input. Richard Nixon claimed in the 1970s that the lower Columbia River was destined to be the “light metals capitol of the world” and compared its potential to the heavy metals industries of Germany’s Ruhr Valley. An oil module builder that named itself Astoria Oil Services marched in as an economic savior in the mid-1980s but crept quietly away when it failed to meet its contracts. LNG promoters promise so-called “family wage” jobs, but clearly, as in past schemes that would devastate the local environment for self-serving financial gain of the sponsors, the promises are fictitious.

Grand strategies have been drawn up to transfigure the riverfront that are almost Athenian but are plagued with cost overruns, lack of outside interest and community protest. The city has designated its downtown core as an historical district, centerpiece of its “Museum Without Walls. “ although most buildings are relatively young, reconstructed from the ruins of the 1922 Astoria Fire, similar to a forest reseeding on a burn. The hills remain quilted with old wood Victorian houses which were belatedly discovered to be a treasure more valuable than the condos and malls they were almost displaced by. After having profited and degenerated from reckless ruination of its resources (not to mention negligent disregard for future generations) the city turned desperately toward tourism as an economic strategy to market its failed history.

Astoria puts its money on tourism, thrusting forward as its lure for tourists its colorful but failed history, its boisterous and turbulent reality commercially saccharined into banal nostalgia to entice easy-spending tourists. Tourism has replaced fishing and logging as the city’s prime economy, squeezing money out of its salty past by prettifying it – the old brothels, saloons and opium dens seldom mentioned in the tourist literature. The past is romanticized while its shabbily surviving remnants seemed to disappear from commercial view. Preservation groups from many parts of the world have visited and advised Astoria officials on how to protect and profit from its remaining heritage.

The sultans of fun replace loggers and fisherpeople. They build shopping centers and malls, condominiums, bigger and glitzier motels, restaurants and bars that displace the remaining trees and block ocean and river views. Cannon Beach to the south, which in an earlier era resisted opportunities to be a second Carmel (Calif.), has acquiesced and booms like a goldstrike town. Seaside mixed its sand with water and remade its graceful downtown into a cement mall. Astoria hustles its history and carpenter gothic houses to draw tourists from the beach towns, which are obviously tough competition.

The transformation of Astoria from a resource extraction economy has caused harm to many of its residents who have not recovered or successfully profited from the present reliance on tourism as a replacement. Tourism generally profits only a few; the rest are paid minimum wages, usually work seasonally, receive little or no benefits and are seldom protected from employer disregard or abuse.

Until recently, the old city on the upper left edge of the lower 48 seemed isolated and abandoned by the larger culture of North America (though of course to residents it seemed to be the center of the universe). Astoria possesses the skills that built industrial America but the nation has been unwisely converting from production to services, exporting most industrial jobs overseas. What it has been is not only lost, it is unnecessary. Now Astoria suffers the dubious distinction of a boosterly acclaimed “renaissance. ” It has been rediscovered, essentially as a result of the Lewis & Clark bicentennial commemoration of a few years ago – although Astoria’s own bicentennial is much less celebrated or promoted than was that for Lewis & Clark, which was marketed by in intense national publicity campaign.

The so-called renaissance has a paradoxical character in the sense that rising property values and rents displace many who live in Astoria, in particular low-wage service workers who are not able to afford to live in the city they work in, not to mention the difficulty of finding affordable housing in nearby communities. A subculture of artists, musicians and writers (which of course includes poets) that moves into shabby low-rent areas and revitalizes them by opening shops of art, music and candles (erroneously labeled as “New Age” stuff) attracts the nouveau trendy, causing a cultural shift with upscale gentrification of the low-rent parts of town, specialty boutiques and high-end art galleries supplanting so-called street art, raising property values that in turn cause a folktrek by the street artists who, by pricing themselves out of where they have been, reseed some other decaying town or part of town, perpetuating a cycle of renewal and displacement.

This much-touted renaissance might be good for property values but not for people who want an affordable place to live. Families (and particularly young people) leave and don’t come back. An underclass is developing that perpetuates the cycle of poverty and puts disturbing pressures on city services, on housing which is inadequate to meet escalating need, and on families, leading to rising domestic abuse, heavy drug and alcohol abuse.

The attrition of the past decades has created serious problems for a civic renaissance. Astoria has little industry and limited appeal to men and women of skill or business – not only in attracting them but keeping those who are here. Tourism is only a temporary solution to Astoria’s long economic decline. A more solid intellectual base must be set in place through local schools to develop small-scale industries Astoria could be good at. In the meantime development of tourist recreation facilities should not result in loss of environment or habitat for residents.

Although Astorians realize tourism has superseded fishing and logging as the city’s major industry, most do not wish for their hometown to be refabricated into a vacationer’s Elysium. Visitors are welcome but Astoria belongs to Astorians.

Like anywhere, Astoria is besotted with petty corruptions among its political class and rural squiredom. Most decisions are made to benefit both local and émigré fiscal mercenaries, for now a grasping attempt to attract tourists and tourist-related businesses, as well as homebuyers with the potential lure of the city’s historic riches. Undeveloped lands and uncut trees are bitterly fought over between what a city manager of another coastal town called “the kamikaze environmentalists pitted against rape & pillage developers.”

City leaders claim to be soberly facing the future. They say that Astoria will not prosper by fantastic schemes as it has banked on in the past. The city’s decline will only be reversed by hard work, wise and creative decisions (which have been rare), and above all, equitable community participation at all levels.

Astoria is a microcosm of what is happening to the nation and the world during this current recession/depression. The city needs help, but it must also strive to help its citizens as they lose jobs or businesses, and perhaps their homes. In a sense, Astoria should attempt to provide a local mini “New Deal, ” desirably in conjunction with county, state and federal cooperation and assistance. Town hall meetings ought to be held that include the ordinary citizenry for new ideas of how to meet the deepening financial crisis. Kids coming out of schools who want to stay in Astoria need work and/or ways to continue their education at Clatsop Community College (“Harvard on the Hill”) that doesn’t cost expensive tuitions.

Prosperity has several definitions but its usual meaning is material wealth. A city is prosperous if its industries and businesses are perking, most of its citizens are employed and living in solid houses in good health with good schools, libraries and entertainment, and are putting money in the city treasury rather than sucking it dry which happens in hard times such as now.

The Astoria/Megler Bridge is a symbol of the retreat of Astoria’s citizens from the maritime environment that established the city. Designed and built with considerable skill in the 1960s, the bridge displaced a fleet of ferryboats that daily crossed the four-mile river between Astoria and now defunct Megler, Washington. The steel bridge stands ankle deep in the river like a gigantic museum skeleton. Its body arches high over the river on the Oregon side so that large ships can pass underneath and drags just above the water for about three miles beyond the ship’s channel to the Washington shore. The river no longer plays a principal role in the lives of the people who live alongside it. Once and for a long time the river was the main highway and major means of livelihood for most of the people who settled its banks and uprooted the tribes of Indians with small busy towns along its length.

History moves on. The USA alleges world supremacy. And if the aftershocks of the end of the half-century Cold War at least diminish the likelihood of a nuclear missile kissing the mouth of the Columbia, a current world war on terrorism makes city and river vulnerable to the other delivery systems of horror. A massive earthquake is predicted soon, the grinding and shifting of geological plates off our shore. (A problem for anyone running up the hills for shelter from a tsunami and the downtown landfill dissolving into the river like Alka Seltzer during an earthquake might be that the hills would tumble down upon them,)

The crowding earth is pushing into sparsely populated areas like irresistible tides and it should be expected that eventually the moribund towns along the lower Columbia River will be repopulated and doubled or tripled in size and that an entirely new and incredibly larger than ever commerce will take place based on population needs instead of resources. Only a devastating catastrophe such as the anticipated earthquake will prevent the Pacific Northwest from filling up.

Astoria’s third century commences April 12, which inspires provocative questions:
Will Astoria in this new Millennial century be the great port it has always wanted to be?
Will Astoria be overwhelmed by a mushrooming population?
Will the Astoria-Megler Bridge be replicated a dozen times?
Will the old Victorian houses and churches be preserved, burnt in another series of fires, or torn down and replaced with a denser architecture that will terrace the hills in massive housing developments and business malls?
Will fleets of ships to meet greater needs thoroughly modernize and expand port facilities and possibly reverse the current project of refurbishing the city’s antiquity?
Will Astoria prosper or conversely turn into a huge and starving squalor?

The momentum of history has opposite cusps, such as being propelled to greater achievements as a result of the past, or its downside, history as a coffin with each passing moment another nail hammering it shut. Prosperity and decline are temporary, a slipping from here to there. The only real certainly is that future Astoria is unlikely to be any place familiar to us.

By Michael McCusker

Michael McCusker was editor/publisher of the North Coast Times Eagle for nearly 30 years. He also worked for the Columbia River Maritime Museum and was a commercial albacore/crab fisherman, once surviving a boat capsizing in the Columbia River Bar. He narrated for CRMM and the Clatsop County Historical Society slide/film presentations, Steam Whistle Logging, Work is Our Joy and Coming Home Was Easy. He lives in Astoria and broadcasts a weekly political rant on listener-sponsored public radio station KMUN-FM, ‘Radio Free Columbia/Pacific.’

One reply on “The Once & Future Astoria”

It’s both repugnant and tragic that within one generation the body and soul of Astoria has been assraped and left for dead by the heinous sociopathic thugs, ie. the “new Astorians”. What the hell happened here? Where did all these cretins, fast talkers, shysters and hustlers come from? California? Portland? East Coast? GaaaacccckkkK!! Where once sat a very cool community has now been usurped by the tackiest two bit tourist trap this side of Lincoln City.

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