Astoria, Ore., Transforms Itself
By SUSAN G. HAUSER
LAST year I took the inaugural excursion on the Lewis and Clark Explorer, a summer-only passenger train that follows the final westward leg of Meriwether Lewis's and William Clark's 1804-6 expedition. As the train chugged slowly along the Oregon shore of the Columbia River from Portland to the Pacific Ocean, I sat across from a two-foot-tall stuffed bear decked out in a coonskin cap, a miniature buckskin suit and tiny circular moccasins tied to his lower paws. On his back he carried a knapsack holding a small bedroll, a journal and a letter of introduction.
He was L.C. Bear, according to the letter, and he had been traveling along the Lewis and Clark Trail, staying with appointed bear keepers, since 1999. His current keeper, a National Park Service ranger named Sally Freeman, noted with a smile, ''He's a good guest because he's already stuffed.
The idea was that once the train pulled into the station at Astoria, where the river meets the ocean, we passengers would be whisked away with L.C. Bear several miles out of town to Fort Clatsop National Memorial, the reproduction of Lewis and Clark's 1805-6 winter dwelling.
Now, I am as big a Lewis and Clark fan as the next Oregonian; I even named my daughter Meriwether Louise. But I couldn't help wonder: What if I already were Lewis-and-Clarked out, even before the bicentennial celebration here is in full swing? What if I didn't want to walk in the explorers' footsteps for the umpteenth time? Until the afternoon train departed for Portland, I was stuck in Astoria.
Now, less than a year later, getting stuck in Astoria is what I'd consider a stroke of good fortune. And after a rather sudden transformation, the people of Astoria are surely still pinching themselves. Not long ago they were busily planning how to move masses of Lewis and Clark enthusiasts to expedition landmarks outside Astoria. Meanwhile right under their noses, their Cinderella of a town blossomed with enticing new shops, galleries and restaurants, and in the process put itself on the map.
Astoria, founded just five years after Lewis and Clark's departure from these parts as one of the first American settlements west of the Mississippi, is not just for history buffs anymore. Now the former ''cannery capital of the world'' is reclaiming its former status as a seafood center, where people come from all over the Northwest to try great new restaurants, to buy fresh fish and crab at dockside markets and to take cooking classes at a highly regarded seafood school.
More of the splendid Victorian homes (nearly 300 of them still standing), built in the steep hills above town when leading citizens of the early 20th century were ''fish rich'' from a seemingly endless supply of salmon, have been spruced up and converted into fine bed-and-breakfasts. The once-drab Commercial Street, Astoria's main drag, is lively with boutiques, art galleries and restaurants.
And the riverfront, where the last of the canneries shut down about 30 years ago, is the site of restaurants, markets, the terrific Columbia River Maritime Museum, the historic Riverfront Trolley and the Astoria Riverwalk, for strolling and watching the progress of any of the 5,000 or so ships that travel the Columbia River each year.
Though Astoria is spread over hills and flats on a peninsula alongside the Columbia River and Youngs Bay, the downtown is compact, bordered by the vast river and the San Francisco-style hills. A riverwalk and a 1914 restored trolley run along it.
The route goes past the museum, old canneries converted into restaurants and shops, and docks where fishermen unload the day's catch. At Sixth Street there is a sheltered, elevated viewing deck for watching the fishing boats, ships and barges plying the river. The 14th Street Riverpark (really just the end of a pier) has a loudspeaker broadcasting communications from passing ships.
All this activity whets the appetite for river lore, and there's plenty of that at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, which traces the history of the river from the early explorers to the present. The modern focus is on river pilots, who steer ships across the treacherous river mouth, also known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, and the ocean rescue work of the local Coast Guard station.
One exhibit shows an actual 44-foot motor lifeboat atop a simulated 30-foot wave during an ocean storm. Sound effects, flashing lights and even a spray of seawater contribute to the experience.
The museum opened 42 years ago, on the 170th anniversary of Captain Robert Gray's 1792 discovery of the Columbia River (it moved into its current building in 1982). But it was an even older structure that brought on Astoria's recent renaissance.
The Liberty Theater, a 1925 vaudeville house where performers like Bing Crosby, Ozzie Nelson and Duke Ellington appeared, had suffered years of neglect. By the time a group of historic-theater buffs began a restoration campaign in 1991, the Liberty had become a shabby triplex cinema. The $8.5 million restoration, paid for by grants and donations, is under way. Once again live musical and dramatic performances take place in the theater, which is decorated with murals of Venetian street scenes and lighted with a tasseled chandelier resembling an elegant gold hat box. Now a regional performing arts center, the Liberty will be for the site of a children's theater festival and a music festival with two operas this summer.
But once the Liberty's Italian Renaissance exterior was polished, surrounding downtown buildings, especially the dilapidated hotel across the street, looked forlorn by comparison.
We were worried that the Liberty wouldn't look so good if the Hotel Elliott looked so bad,'' said Chester Trabucco, a local property developer and member of the committee restoring the theater. He asked the hotel owner to paint the building. The owner told Mr. Trabucco to buy it and paint it himself.
So he did. Then he embarked on a $4 million restoration of the 1924 Craftsman building that employed local craftsmen and artists. The five-story hotel, with its original ''Wonderful Beds'' sign applied with fresh paint atop an exterior wall, has 32 rooms and suites, one of them a Presidential Suite on the top floor, and opening this summer, a wine bar and cigar room in the basement.
In my room, resting on my stately bed, I had an unobstructed view of the Astoria Column, a 125-foot tower that was built in 1926 at Astoria's highest point. That wonderful-beds sign, I thought, was honest advertising, what with the Egyptian cotton sheets and custom-made duvet covers. The burgundy cover matched the hand-blown glass bedside lamp. Other nice touches were the deliciously aromatic cedar-lined closet, the jetted tub and the heated limestone bathroom floor.
The hotel reopened in April 2003. By then the ball was rolling. Cater-corner from the hotel, the Columbia River Day Spa opened in the same month. The spa had previously been the derelict Bank of Astoria building. Now massage tables have replaced tellers' cages and a cedar sauna has supplanted the bank vault. Directly across from the hotel, 10 months later, the Schooner, an upscale bistro operated by the same people who own the riverfront Baked Alaska restaurant, opened in what had been a deserted tavern from the mid-1920's. It now serves as the Hotel Elliott's restaurant.
A half block away on Commercial Street, a procession of storefronts took on sparkling new identities. New restaurants, the Urban Cafe and Fullio's Pastaria, joined the Silver Salmon Grille. New businesses lined up next to the ever-popular Finn Ware -- which sells Scandinavian crystal, dinnerware, clothing and gifts to the large local population of Finns, Danes, Norwegians and Swedes -- and Let It Rain, whose colorful inventory of umbrellas, raincoats and boots has caught the attention of national fashion magazines.
Valley Bronze of Oregon holds the corner spot at 12th and Commercial, with huge glass windows on each side. Inside brass castings of all sizes fill the space like pieces on a chess board. They are the product of the Valley Bronze Foundry, in Joseph, Ore., which is known for its fine art castings.
Though over the years the number of canneries in Astoria dwindled from a high of 28 to today's zero, Astoria is still one of the top seafood ports in the country, supplying distributors that ship it fresh or frozen around the country. The main catches are salmon, sardines and delectable Dungeness crab. Sturgeon, albacore tuna and shrimp are also brought fresh to the docks.
We don't take a back seat to anybody, as for seafood,'' says Brad Pettinger, administrator of the Oregon Trawl Commission in Astoria. ''Whatever you like, we've got.'' He noted that in recent years there have been record numbers of Dungeness crab off the Oregon shore and a similar bonanza in salmon.
The Seafood School, since 1998 part of the Duncan Law Seafood Consumer Center in Astoria is one beneficiary of the fish trade. Cooking classes held two to four times a month routinely sell out, with students coming from as far away as Portland and Vancouver, Wash. Eric Jenkins, who got his start at Jake's Famous Crawfish restaurant in Portland, presides over the state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen and the hands-on classes, at which no more than 16 students prepare two seafood main dishes.
Before Astoria's recent seafood renaissance, Mr. Jenkins said, ''They did chowder one way, fish and chips and pickled herring. They had done it that way for years and years. Then more people started moving here, people who were willing to try new and different things.''
None of this is to say that the Lewis and Clark aficionados are getting short shrift. On the contrary. Astoria will be eagerly greeting them, especially in 2005 and 2006, exactly 200 years since the explorers were on Oregon soil. Astoria stalwarts are as happy to greet visitors as the new businesses are.
One is Paul van der Veldt, who has been making and selling some unusual wines at his cozy Shallon Winery for 24 years, since his retirement as a heavy-construction contractor in Astoria. Although I was intent on checking out what's new in Astoria, it had been a while since I'd last sipped lemon meringue pie wine, so I stopped by for a tasting.
It was just as I remembered it, like pie in a bottle. Wine crackers, tasting like meringue, completed the experience. With very little arm-twisting, Mr. van der Veldt persuaded me to enjoy a small glass of chocolate orange wine.
My sweet tooth satisfied, I stepped outside the winery, which is just across the highway from the riverfront.
Making its way east was a huge ship that had just entered the three-and-a-half-mile-wide river from the ocean. Though the ship was passing Astoria by, these days not much else is.
Corner of Columbia and Pacific
Astoria is about 100 miles west of Portland via U.S. 30, or 26 and 101. Information: Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, (800) 875-6807
Prices are for dinner for two with a glass of wine.
Baked Alaska, 1 12th Street, (503) 325-7414, is a casual spot with a great view, on a pier overlooking the river. The signature dish is wild campfire salmon marinated in barbecue sauce; $50.
Fulio's Pastaria, 1149 Commercial Street, (503) 325-9001, is a warm and inviting place with Mediterranean colors and blown glass chandeliers. It serves mostly pasta, some with seafood and meat; $25.
Gunderson's Cannery Café, 1 Sixth Street, (503) 325-8642, in a former cannery on the dock of the Sixth Street viewing tower, is a good place to go for clam chowder, salmon, halibut and prawns; $50.
Silver Salmon Grille, 1105 Commercial Street, (503) 338-6640, with a more formal white-tablecloths-and-candles ambience, has salmon stuffed with crab and shrimp and poached in Chablis on its menu; $60.
The Schooner, 360 12th Street, (503) 325-7882, has cafe tables bathed in light from the ceiling-high windows and serves bistro fare like fish tacos, buffalo burgers and Dungeness crab fritters; $40.
The Columbia River Maritime Museum, 1792 Marine Drive, (503) 325-2323, www.crmm.org, sits on the river's edge and includes a ship, moored next to the museum and once used as a floating lighthouse marking the entrance to the Columbia River. Open daily; admission $8.
Liberty Theater, 1203 Commercial Street; (503) 325-5922, www.liberty-theater.org.
Shallon Winery, 1598 Duane Street; (503) 325-5978, www.shallon.com. The tasting and sales room is open daily 1 to 6 p.m.
The Duncan Law Seafood Consumer Center, 2021 Marine Drive, (503) 338-6523, lists its seafood school schedule and recipes on www.seafoodschool.org.
In anticipation of large numbers of Lewis and Clark buffs, Fort Clatsop National Memorial, (503) 861-2471, a museum and reproduction of the Corps of Discovery's winter residence of 1805-6, will be requiring timed-entry tickets this summer. The $5 ticket, which includes shuttle transportation to the fort from neighboring towns, may be purchased up to two weeks in advance by calling (800) 967-2283 or ordering online at reservations.nps.gov.
The Lewis and Clark Explorer, an Amtrak excursion train that follows the explorers' river route from Portland to Astoria, will resume its four-hour trips this summer for $29 one way. Food and drinks are sold on board. Tickets to Fort Clatsop must be bought separately; (800) 872-7245.