Astoria, Oregon, honors its colorful history this year, 200 years after John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Co. built its first crude fort near the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811. Organizers of the yearlong celebration carefully describe the city as “the oldest permanent American settlement west of the Rockies.”
However, news stories about the bicentennial have not all been so careful, and several of those caveats were dropped, so that numerous published stories have asserted that Astoria is the oldest city west of the Rockies.
It is not. A number of Franciscan missions established in California during Spanish colonial days grew into towns and cities that predate Astoria by decades, although they were not American cities until after the Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848.
And although Astor’s outpost gave the United States a claim to the Northwest, the British also had designs on the fur trade, and to avoid a conflict, Astor, in 1813, sold them the fort, which was renamed Fort George and remained in British control until the United States and Britain signed a treaty in 1814. The fort was renamed Astoria, but Astor never reclaimed it. He never visited the town, either. His great-grandson, John Jacob Astor IV, planned to attend the town’s centennial, but the visit was put off when the divorced Astor remarried and took an extended European honeymoon before boarding the RMS Titanic for home.
Astoria was established just five years after Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery began its return trip east, after spending the winter of 1805-06 in Fort Clatsop, about 25 miles south of present-day Astoria. The explorers built the fort in less than a month, and spent 106 days there in the rain and chill, suffering from colds, influenza, rheumatism and flea-infested bedding. On what is believed to be the location of the original fort, the National Park Service has built a replica and visitor center, both open year-round except Christmas Day.
Before Lewis and Clark, before the Pacific Fur Co., a privately owned merchant ship operating in the north Pacific under the command of American sea captain Robert Gray sailed into the mouth of a broad river, which Gray named the Columbia after his ship Columbia Rediviva. Gray’s story is part of the Northwest’s rich maritime history, on display at the wonderful Columbia River Maritime Museum (open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Thanksgiving and Christmas). The museum’s collection includes more than 30,000 objects, 20,000 photographs, and a 10,000-volume research library. Museum visitors can tour the Columbia, actually a floating lightship that, until it was retired in 1979, marked the treacherous bar at the mouth of the river. Storms and shipwrecks are major themes, and along with displays that honor the commercial shipping and fishing heritage, an interactive display identifies seafaring tragedies that have earned the area its reputation as the “graveyard of the Pacific.” (At nearby Fort Stevens, you can still see the rusted hulk of the four-masted sailing ship Peter Iredale, which ran aground while trying to slip across the Columbia River bar in 1906.)
The history of Astoria from its origins as a fur-trading post is illustrated on the slightly kitschy but nevertheless entertaining Astoria Column, a 125-foot concrete tower built on the city’s highest point, 600 feet above the Columbia. Completed in 1926 (with help from the Astor family), the tower was the last of 12 historical markers built in the early 1900s along the route of the Great Northern Railroad. A detailed mural, consisting of images painted in a coating of plaster, decorates the outside of the column, depicting Astoria’s history and spiraling up the tower. An observation deck at the top (126 steps) presents a grand view of the hillside city with its sprinkling of Victorian homes and its revitalized downtown; rolling farmland and Tillamook Head rising in the distance; the Coast Range to the south and on clear days, north to Mount Ranier; the riverfront and busy shipping channel; and the four-mile-long Astoria-Megler Bridge that connects Oregon and Washington.