- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

ASTORIA, Ore. — Lewis and Clark slept here. Well, almost.

Fort Clatsop just to the south is where Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the 31 other members of their expedition actually passed the cold, rainy winter of 1805-1806.

However, the little Oregon town of Astoria is expected to catch much of an expected tourism surge as vacationers follow the Lewis and Clark trail to its western end during the bicentennial celebration.

Astoria was established in 1811 as a fur-trading post and now is the oldest continually inhabited white settlement west of the Rockies. It was named for John Jacob Astor, America’s first certified millionaire, who was born in Germany but ran his fur-trading business from New York and never set foot in Astoria.

The town has seen better times, but parts of it exude a shabby self-assurance. Its population of about 10,000 has stayed pretty much the same for more than half a century. So has Astoria itself, and therein lies much of its charm.

Scattered around the town and its surroundings are vestiges of the past, along with some additions designed to handle the surge of visitors.

A special train has been commissioned to carry Lewis and Clark fans and others between Portland and Astoria four days a week. The trip, by rail, bus or automobile, takes about two hours. There is no commercial air service.

Public transportation takes visitors to Fort Clatsop and other attractions in Astoria and surrounding towns.

Astorians take good care of their considerable heritage. One highlight for “Clarkies,” as park service workers call die-hard Lewis and Clark fans, is the replica of Fort Clatsop, built in the 1950s using drawings and descriptions from the explorers’ journals.

Extensive probes by archaeologists, soil specialists and others to pinpoint the exact location of the fort have been unsuccessful, but they think the replica is close. The fort was abandoned in the spring of 1806, and eventually the forces of nature obliterated all traces of it.

The replica, run by the National Park Service, draws about 225,000 visitors a year, and park officials are bracing for an estimated 700,000 or so more during the bicentennial celebration.

The visitors center serves as a small museum, and the bookstore has a huge selection of Lewis and Clark books, tapes and other materials for all ages and curiosity levels.

Jill Harding, chief of visitor services for the fort, says the staff is looking at a timed-entry system to space out crowds, which are expected to peak during the summer. Visitors would arrive within a certain window and stay as long as they like.

Jan Mitchell of the local Lewis and Clark Bicentennial organizing committee says planners will look to nearby towns for extra lodging.

“We’re a town of 10,000,” she says. “When you get another 30,000 people in town, you notice it.” Still, she says, the Astoria area handled 17,000 visitors for a recent seafood and wine festival.

The area offers more than just Fort Clatsop.

The Columbia River Maritime Museum, recently refurbished for $6 million, features displays of shipping and shipwreck lore, much of it built around the Columbia River bar, the “Pacific Graveyard” that has claimed more than 2,000 vessels and 700 lives since Robert Gray first sailed over it in 1792.

The museum recently acquired the old Columbia River lightship that helped guide boats over the bar for years. It also features meticulous ship models and a look at Astoria’s heyday of salmon canning, sailing ships and Shanghaiing — the practice of kidnapping unsuspecting drunks and placing them on ships as unwilling crewmen — that peaked in the 1880s. Recorded narratives of old-timers recall the way things were. There is a research library.

“We’ve tried to put the river in context,” says Jerry Ostermiller, who has directed the museum for 15 years.

A map of the Columbia River bar pinpoints some of the worst shipwrecks.

Astoria remains the working seaport and fishing town it has been for nearly two centuries. It has good restaurants, many specializing in local seafood.

Many of the area’s signature events will be held over the winter of 2005-2006 to mark the bicentennial of the explorers’ actual presence in the area.

Much of Astoria’s charm is found in buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The steep hillside leading down to where the Columbia River meets the Pacific features many Victorian homes. Some are bed-and-breakfast accommodations. The main street is lined with locally owned businesses.

“There is no shopping center in Astoria now, and there are none on the way,” says John Compere, who helps run the area Chamber of Commerce.

The wealth of older homes, Mr. Compere says, is due in part to the town’s location on a small peninsula that filled up early during the booming days of salmon canning and shipping of a century ago.

Tourists already are starting to discover the town. Last year, one cruise ship called. This year, 13 are booked to dock.

The hilltop Astor Column is free. The young-of-leg can climb the 160-odd steps to the top.

The Flavel House is a Victorian with Italianate touches built for banker, real estate magnate and pioneer river bar pilot Capt. George Flavel in the 1880s, and it has been turned into a museum.

The waterfront offers a more rugged, blue-collar atmosphere as well as a view across the mouth of the river to the evergreen hills of Washington a mile away. The wharf and many of the waterfront buildings rest on pilings over the river. A 1913 trolley runs along it on weekends and during the summer.

Nearby Fort Stevens, which dates to the Civil War, was shelled by the Japanese in 1942. It is decommissioned now but is open to tours and has a visitors center.

In Seaside, just to the south, is the salt cairn where the explorers boiled seawater for salt for their return trip.

Astoria was settled and built by immigrants. Census data from 1880 show just 13 percent of Clatsop County’s 7,000 residents as being American-born.

Many were Scandinavians who came to work in the fishing industry. The Finnish heritage remains visible at still-functioning saunas and social clubs.

About 2,000 early residents were Chinese. They cleaned salmon in the dozens of canneries that stretched up the river. A skilled worker could clean 1,700 large salmon in an 11-hour day. Eventually, cleaning machines replaced the workers, and the Chinese population dwindled.

Pollution, logging, irrigation and dams all contributed to the demise of the salmon runs and the canneries. Only a couple of smaller ones remain, catering to the gourmet market.

In its heyday, Astoria had the first customs house and the first post office west of the Rockies. They, like most of the canneries, are gone.

However, history buffs who simply cannot get enough can visit the public restroom at the World War I monument. It is the first facility of its kind to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Go by road, rail or private plane to old seaport and fishing town

Astoria can be reached by car from Portland in about two hours by taking Interstate 5 to Longview, Wash., then

crossing the Columbia River to Oregon and continuing on U.S. 30, or taking U.S. 30 all the way from Portland.

Another easy route takes U.S. 26 west from Portland over the Coast Range, then north a few miles into Astoria. A train, the Lewis and Clark Explorer, goes between Portland and Astoria Friday through Monday through Sept. 2. Amtrak handles reservations and ticket sales. Bus lines serve Astoria, and though there is no commercial air service, private planes can land at the local airport.

There are about 20 Lewis and Clark sites in and around Astoria, led by Fort Clatsop, where the explorers spent the winter of 1805-1806.

The city is rich in other history, too, and is something of an architectural gem.

Several towns around Astoria, including many across the Columbia in Washington, are ripe for exploring, and many are tourist destinations in their own right. For information about Fort Clatsop, call 503/861-2471.

The Columbia River Maritime Museum is a town pride. There are walking and estuary tours, some self-guided, and, for film buffs, a driving tour of sites where movies were filmed, including “Free Willy,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III” and, most famously, Steven Spielberg’s “The Goonies.” The Goonie house is still there. One-Eyed Willy’s cave was a Hollywood prop.

Bring an umbrella, especially if it isn’t summer. The area averages 75 inches of rain a year.

A wide variety of lodging is available in and around Astoria, ranging from smaller independent motels to the usual chains to bed-and-breakfasts set up in old Victorian mansions. The Hotel Elliott, a 1920s establishment just refurbished for $4.3 million, is for visitors who want to enjoy the luxury of another time.

An extensive list of places to stay and restaurants is available at www.oldoregon.com, or by calling the local Chamber of Commerce, 503/325-6311.

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