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Monday, March 30, 2009

An Astoria Overview

"Astoria's a different place."
--Jimmy Griffin, Rogue Astoria
Astoria is in some key ways like a little microcosm of Oregon. Like Oregon, Astoria's located in the upper left corner of the state. It is a working community, not a show place. The people share a common sense of themselves and are fiercely proud of their town. They feel like the place doesn't get enough attention for how good it is, but at the same time, you get the sense they aren't thrilled about the idea of a lot of new people coming and messing things up. It is a place where people feel and live their history, where everyone knows everyone else in the community, and that if an event happens in town in the morning, by two o'clock that afternoon it will be old news.

For all the history and prominence of the town, it only has 10,000 people, as stable a population as you find in Oregon. The history, of course, goes all the way back to Lewis and Clark, who spent a delightful winter at Fort Clatsop in 1805-'06. John Jacob Astor founded a fur-trading post there in 1810, and from there its prominence has always been linked to the Columbia River's vast mouth, opening into the frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean.

I have been to Astoria a number of times over the past decade, and among all the major towns of Oregon, it has changed the least. This has something to do with the history--old towns change less than young ones--but also because people seem to hold the entire place as communual property. In no other Oregon town have I felt the residents were so involved in the life of the community. As we made our tour of breweries on Saturday, people would refer to other townsfolk by their first name, off-handedly, like you would a relative. Of course, things do change. Astoria, despite its penchant for stability, has, as a port city, suffered the whiplash of global change more than others. Canneries disappeared, mills closed, artists arrived. Perhaps these outer forces make a town rely on inner stability more.

A good example of this came at our first stop on Saturday, at Fort George Brewing. I expected to see just the other beer writers invited along--John Foyston, Lisa Morrison, and Abram Goldman-Armstrong--but we were joined by a few locals who'd gotten wind of our arrival (that familial feeling again). One of them, Dan Bartlett, a former city manager, very graciously went and grabbed us copies of the Clatsop County Historical Society Quarterly, which had an article about Astoria's early breweries. It wasn't until I got it home that I saw the date of the issue--Fall 1989. (I'll do a separate post on Astoria's brewing history, tip of the hat to Dan.)

For visitors, all of this is very good. For history, no city--I think you can include Portland in this claim, but just to be safe I'll except it--can match Astoria. It contains several stellar museums: Flavel House, Fort Clatsop, Maritime Museum, and Heritage Museum. All of these were put together with the kind of care you'd expect from a town whose citizens can exhume 20-year-old historical quarterlies. But even more than that, the city itself has the feel of a place lost in time. To sit in the Wet Dog (Astoria Brewing) and look out on the massive Columbia is to feel like you're looking into time. The hillsides are studded with streets of 19th-century homes. In the homogenization that results from modernity and globalization, Astoria is a place apart.

Just one bit of advice: take the Gore-Tex. The 1.13 inches of rain we enjoyed on Saturday was not unusual, nor the wind that lashed us as we scampered between breweries. (It was robust enough to pin Lewis and Clark down for a winter, recall.) Perhaps more than anything else, this is why Astoria's permanent residents number no more than 10,000. The weather is relentless. I have spent summer days where it was in the fifties and rainy. (Though that's rare--only 1.2 inches of rain falls on average in August.) December is ... worse. On the other hand, there is no place as nice to enjoy a beer and watch the weather--and ships--roll through. If you have never visited, you should. And if you're a beer fan, you must. (But more on that later.)


  1. Oh.... A history lesson! ;-}

  2. Astoria is one of my favorite places in Oregon. if i could move there and work remotely, i'd do it.