Rails Across America, Part 4
The fourth installment in a series of Dispatches chronicling Ryan Kim’s journey by rail to small towns across America.
Astoria, Oregon is an inspiring example of a small town that has bounced back magnificently from struggles only two decades ago. This is not only according to Brett Estes, Astoria’s Community Development Director, but also corroborated by many downtown business owners who describe Astoria’s last peak as taking place in the early 80’s when fishing and logging were still serious economic drivers. Several noted the moment when Bumblebee, a large cannery, closed its last local operation in the 1980’s as the turning point when the city fell from prosperity. They unanimously agree that while the rebirth of local industry has helped the economy, the near miraculous turnaround owes a great deal to tourism.
Astoria (nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Pacific” because of treacherous sandbars that form where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean) was “discovered” by Lewis & Clark in 1804. It is the first permanent American settlement, established by Jacob John Astor’s expedition of fur traders (1811), had the first U.S. Post Office (1853), and still has the oldest surviving shoe store, Gimre’s Shoes, west of the Rocky Mountains. Like all early American cities, Astoria was built with the hands of a diverse immigrant population. By the 1880’s, when the city’s thirty-nine canneries reached peak production packing over a half million cases of salmon yearly, almost a quarter of the approximate 8,000 Astorians were Chinese. In addition, there were so many Finns that they formed their own cannery (1896), the Union Fisherman’s Cooperative Packing Company, and their own newspaper (1907). Though it is now a predominantly white town, one of the city’s few Hispanic business owners tells me that there are still a few hundred seasonal Mexican workers who live and work in the area.
It is here in Astoria that a man named Ed Parsons snuck up onto the roof of the Astor Hotel and strung a cable from the TV satellite over to his own set across the street, inventing cable television in 1949. Today, Astoria is the type of city where one can find an Alice-in-Wonderland themed boutique bakery, where swanky vanilla cupcakes retail for $3.50 and come packaged in bright pink boxes. Beyond cupcakes, several residents independently confirm that the “must-see” list of Astoria’s numerous tourist attractions includes the Flavel House, a gorgeous Queen Anne Victorian mansion built in 1884; the world-class Maritime Museum; the Film Museum, which is housed in the old county jail, and was the set of the opening scene in Spielberg’s The Goonies; the Historical Society Museum; the Astoria Column, which offers an impressive panoramic of the city and the Columbia River; and the Liberty Theater, a beautifully restored downtown centerpiece. (An added attraction is a slow-moving trolley—fare: $2 for all-day access—that quietly rolls parallel to a very pleasant walking path alongside the waterfront.)
For its residents, Astoria has a robust community college with a stunning view of the water, a year-old weekly summertime farmer’s market that accepts both food stamps and WIC, and a city government and public school system that no one I spoke to had any complaints about. On top if it all, there are many innovative and local businesses, like the Columbia Grocery and the Cannery Pier Hotel, which are actively defining the character of Astoria through their continued successes. Undoubtedly, if there is a small American town that is doing it right, that town is Astoria, Oregon.