The mouth of the Columbia River was breached for the first time by European mariners in 1792 and the Lewis and Clark Expedition spent a miserable winter in 1805-06 camped seven miles south and west of present day Astoria. Five years later America’s first millionaire, John Jacob Astor, sent a settling party to open a fur trading post on the southern edge of the Columbia. That first permanent American settlement on the West Coast evolved into Astoria.
By 1850 the port town boasted 250 settlers and had developed as the gateway into the emerging Oregon Territory. Fishing boats and ocean-going ships filled the long wharves at the river’s edge and along the banks sprang up flour mills, sawmills, and grain elevators. The first salmon cannery opened in 1866 and Astoria-packed salmon filled area coffers with up to seven million dollars every year.
Astoria grew to second rank among Oregon cities, boasting 14,027 residents in 1920. But at two o’clock in the morning of December 8, 1922 fire broke out in a restaurant on the waterfront. Fueled by the wooden pilings upon which the business section of Astoria was built, the flames quickly raged out of control. Before the fire burned itself out ten hours later the conflagration had consumed thirty-two city blocks with a property loss estimated around $15,000,000.
Save for an influx of wartime workers during World War II, Astoria has never reached such population heights again, hovering around 10,000 for decades. As the city struggled to rebuild after the fire the Great Depression struck, crippling the fishing and timber industries. So the streets of Astoria’s business district look a lot like they did in the 1920s after the fire, lined with two- and three-story structures.
Our walking tour of Oregon’s oldest town will begin at the block where the game-changing fire ended and at the foot of a souvenir from the days when Astoria was also the state’s richest town...
441 8th Street at southwest corner of and Duane Street
This is one of the finest Victorian houses in Oregon, erected in the Queen Anne style in 1885 for master mariner George Flavel. A native Virginian, Flavel sailed to California as a young man to chase gold but by 1850 he was in Oregon where he received the first branch license ever issued to a Columbia River pilot by the territorial government. Through shrewd management Flavel soon monopolized pilotage of the tricky shoals in the Columbia. He invested his money in real estate and championed the creation of the First National Bank of Astoria, which he helmed as president. Flavel was one of Oregon’s first millionaires when he moved into this eclectic house that is dominated by an octagonal observatory tower at the corner. He lived here until his death at the age of 69 in 1893 and the family deeded the property to Clatsop County in 1933.
WALK NORTH ON 8TH STREET, TOWARDS THE COLUMBIA RIVER. IN THE BACK OF THE PARKING LOT TO YOUR LEFT IS...
Clatsop County Jail
732 Duane Street at northeast corner of 7th Street
This two-story temple-like jail was on the job from 1914 until 1976 and was considered the longest operating free-standing jailhouse in Oregon when its detention duty ended. The building boasts wide pilasters and a full Roman entablature with a smallish pediment. The cellblock took a star turn in Richard Donner’s 1985 kid adventure, The Goonies, when Robert Davi fakes his hanging in Jail Cell No. 2 to dupe the guard and make a fast getaway. Hollywood has often trekked to Astoria for such films asFree Willy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III and Wendy and Lucy. Since 2010 the historic jail has housed the Oregon Film Museum that pays homage to the over 300 movies that have been filmed in the Beaver State.
CONTINUE ON 8TH STREET.
Clatsop County Courthouse
749 Commerical Street between 7th and 8th streets
Clatsop County has enjoyed only two houses of justice since 1854; the first coming on board with little expense. The land was donated by Colonel John McClure on the condition that a courthouse be raised on it; Conrad Boelling constructed the courthouse in exchange for ten building sites in town and the furniture was obtained in trade for other building lots. The current courthouse, dressed in Tenino sandstone and pressed brick with terra cotta trim, came online in 1908 from a Renaissance Revival design provided by Portland architect Edgar Lazarus. The Fire of 1922 was contained a block away, sparing the courthouse.
United States Post Office and Custom House
750 Commercial Street between 7th and 8th streets
The first post office west of the Rocky Mountains was set up in Astoria by postmaster John Shiveley on March 9, 1847. The town got its first federal building, its second post office, on this location in 1873. That building was razed in 1930 to make room for this U-shaped, classically-flavored government building with a red-tiled roof. After many delays that saw the facing material go from terra cotta to more costly sandstone to even more expensive limestone the mail finally began flowing on August 21,1933.
CONTINUE DOWN 8TH STREET TO THE RIVERFRONT AT THE COLUMBIA RIVER. DOWNSTREAM, TO YOUR LEFT, IS...
Oregon and Washington teamed up in 1962 to put an end to the Columbia River ferry service that caused delays on US Route 101 of up to half an hour and did not operate at all when the weather was bad. The solution was North America’s longest continuous truss bridge, sited 14 miles from the mouth of the river. The two-lane bridge stretches 4.1 miles and near the Oregon side provides 196 feet of clearance at high tide. The price tag when the bridge opened in 1966 was $24 million - about what the upcoming painting of the bridge will cost today. Tolls paid for the bridge and were removed in December 1993, two years sooner than promised.
Columbia River riverfront
In its heyday more than a dozen seafood canneries hummed with activity on this waterfront. Bumble Bee, once the town’s largest employer, first tested and canned albacore in Astoria and popularized the tuna fish sandwich here. The waterfront isn’t as busy as it was during its time as the “Salmon Canning Capital of the World” but the look and feel of the wooden riverwalk remain the same. Plying the riverfront is a restored 1913 trolley.
WHEN YOU ARE THROUGH EXPLORING THE ASTORIA RIVERFRONT WALK BACK INTO THE BUSINESS DISTRICT UP 10TH STREET. GO TWO BLOCKS TO COMMERCIAL STREET.
Odd Fellows Temple
1001 Commercial Street at southeast corner of 10th Street
The Middle Ages in Great Britain saw the banding together of tradesmen into guilds to promote business and fellowship. The carpenters had their own guild, the bricklayers had their own guild and so on. Trades that did not have a large number of practitioners welded into hodgepodge guilds known as Odd Fellows. In 19th century America an International Order of Odd Fellows lodge building, usually exuberantly ornate, could be found in virtually every town. In the aftermath of the 1922 Fire Charles T. Diamond, a Canadian architect who relocated to Astoria, drew up the plans for the new Odd Fellows lodge. Diamond worked in Astoria for nine years before leaving for Portland in 1926; his final large project was the Astoria Victory Monument (bit of scatological trivia - Astoria’s first public restrooms were built into the Victory Monument).
TURN LEFT ON COMMERCIAL STREET.
1160-1164 Commercial Street at northwest corner of 12th Street
Three separate buildings - Hobson, Copeland and Carruthers - were cobbled together for this 1923 composition from Charles T. Diamond. The commercial building with rounded corner features Moorish influences at the windows and parapets above the entrances.
Astor Building/Liberty Theater
1203 Commercial Street at southeast corner of 12th Street
There were five theaters operating in Astoria in 1922 - each of which was destroyed in the fire that swept the town on December 8 that year. Stepping into the entertainment void were Claude Jensen and John von Herberg who owned 30-some theaters on the West Coast. They hired prolific Portland architects John Bennes and Herman Herzog who delivered an elegant Italian Renaissance design for their only building in Astoria. Bennes and Herzog strung Tuscan columns along the elevations of the Astor Building that included shops, a bar, a radio station and offices in addition to the 700-seat Liberty Theater. The ornate Liberty indeed became the focal point for the Astoria arts community and today remains one of the best examples in the Pacific Northwest of a movie palace from the golden age of motion pictures.
Hotel Astoria/John Jacob Astor Hotel
1401 Commercial Street at southeast corner of 14th Street
In the early 1900s cities were beginningto sort themselves into winners and losers in modern America. The populations of Seattle and Portland, for instance grew exponentially after staging world’s fairs in the first years of the new century. Many small and mid-size cities developed an urgency for a luxury hotel that would stamp their town as big-time. Often a consortium of civic-minded bankers and businessmen would bankroll the project and such was the case in Astoria in 1922 when more than 100 local businessmen chipped in 250,000 for the construction of the eight-story Hotel Astoria, the tallest building in Oregon outside Portland at the time. The Portland architectural firm of John Everett Tourtelotte and Charles F. Hummel, specialists of sorts in Oregon hotels, provided the Gothic Revival design for the L-shaped building. There was a gala opening in 1924 and the Hotel Astoria quickly assumed its place at the go-to destination for an Astoria affair but financial clouds began forming almost immediately. After years of struggle it was renamed the John Jacob Astor Hotel in 1951 but fortunes did not change and the building was condemned in 1968. The once grand hotel now trundles on as an apartment building.
TURN RIGHT ON 16TH STREET AND WALK TWO BLOCKS TO EXCHANGE STREET.
Old City Hall
1618 Exchange Street at northeast corner of 16th Street
Architect Emil Schacht was born and trained in Denmark before sailing to New York City at the age of 19 in 1874. He found work as a draftsman for six years before returning to Europe to marry. He came back to the United States, making his way across the country with work stops in places like Omaha, Nebraskabefore opening his own practice in Portland in 1884. Schacht found several commissions in Astoria as well, including this City Hall in 1904. Schacht’s Neoclassical design was executed by Ernest Ferguson and Charles Houston; Ferguson’s father Albert had designed and built the town’s first seat of government back in 1878. When finished this building was spacious enough for all the city’s offices and it served until 1939. After that it did duty as an armory and a U.S.O. headquarters and in 1963 it became the home of the first Columbia Maritime Museum which stayed for twenty years. Its most recent tenant has been the Clatsop County Historical Society Heritage Museum since 1985.
TURN RIGHT ON EXCHANGE STREET.
Saint Mary’s Hospital/Owens Adair Senior Housing
1508 Exchange Street at northeast corner of 15th Street
This sprawling six-story tan brick building with traces of Art Deco styling and Mediterranean overtones was constructed in 1931 as St Mary’s Hospital. St. Mary’s was founded in 1880 as the first care center in the region and remained the only hospital until 1919 when Astoria’s vibrant Finnish community started Columbia Hospital. Columbia would buy out St. Mary’s in 1971. In 1980 the Clatsop County Housing Authority was created to convert the property into an apartment building for seniors and the disabled that took the name of Bethenia Owens-Adair, one of the first women to practice medicine in Oregon. Born in 1840, Owens came to Astoria with her family via the Oregon Trail. She was a married mother by the age of 16 and divorced by 19. She worked as a teacher and milliner before sending her son off into the world and pursuing a medical degree when she was 30. She actually earned two and spent time touring hospitals in Europe while sending her son to medical school at Willamette University. She started her private practice in Portland, gaining only a few open-minded male patients and eventually settled into a life as a country doctor in Astoria with her second husband.
TURN RIGHT ON 15TH STREET. TURN LEFT ON DUANE STREET.
Fort George Building
1483 Duane street at southwest corner of 15th Street
The Fort George Building was raised in 1924 as an automobile showroom and repair facility. It functioned as such into the 1990s when it was converted into a craft brewery.
Lovell Arcade Building
426 14th Street at southeast corner of Duane Street
Sherman Lovell constructed this building in 1921, considered the first in town to be built specifically for an automobile dealership. When fire struck the town the next year the building survived but exactly how is not known. Some say that as the fire spread towards 14th Street firefighters wanted to blow up the car showroom as a fire break but Lovell stood on the roof and fired warning shots to scuttle the plan. Others attribute the salvation to a bungled order for fire extinguishers - Lovell bought a supply of extinguishers for his business but when the shipment arrived the quantity was in cases, not individual extinguishers. He hadn’t got the chance to return the surplus when the town exploded in flames and his employees put the extra extinguishers to good use dousing anything in the Lovell Building. Either way, after the fire Lovell moved his cars back to their former location and opened his expansive building up to burned-out businesses in town and the Lovell Arcade was born. It was purchased by the Fort George Brewery in 2010 as part of their brewpub complex on the block.
Astoria National Bank
southeast corner of 12th and Duane streets
A parade of financial institutions have taken deposits behind these fluted Ionic columns since architect John E. Wicks designed the Neoclassical vault for the Astoria National Bank in 1924. The bank didn’t even make it to the Great Depression, going into receivership four years to the day after the opening of this building - February 25, 1928. The Bank of Astoria, a rare bird that started in the Great Depression, moved in during 1930 and lasted until 1937 when it was purchased by the United States Bank of Portland. Its days as a bank ended in 1973 and in between periods of vacancy the space has done duty as a storage room for costumes owned by the Astor Street Opry Company, a day spa and ballroom among other uses.
357 12th Street at northwest corner of Duane Street
The Hotel Ellitott opened its doors in 1924, advertising the joys of its “wonderful beds.” After staggering to the end of the century the hotel received a $4 million facelift in 2002 that started with those beds and converted the guest house into a boutique hotel.
Astoria City Hall
1095 Duane Street at southwest corner of 11th Street
This is the third location for Astoria’s government, although the building began life in 1923 as the Astoria Savings Bank. John Virginius Bennes designed the Neoclassical vault to replace the bank building that had been destroyed in the 1922 fire. Bennes worked mostly out of Portland but also designed nearly 40 structures on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis. The bank shuttered quickly after the stock market crash of 1929 and Clatsop County acquired the building. Using Great Depression stimulus funds it was converted into workspace for the Astoria government and the school district. Thanks in part to a million-dollar makeover in 2011 it is still functioning as Astoria City Hall and the original bank vaults are still inside, one being used as a copy room and office.
TURN LEFT ON 11TH STREET.
Astoria Elks Building
453 11th Street at northwest corner of Exchange Street
The Benevolent Protective Order of Elks were founded in New York City in 1868 in the theater district. At first they referred to themselves as the Jolly Corks. The Astoria Lodge, BPOE #180, organized in 1890 with 28 members, the second lodge in Oregon to be chartered (Portland, #142, beat it by a year). This Beaux Arts building, awash in fancy brick work and ornamentation, rose in 1923 on the foundation of its 1910 predecessor destroyed in the 1922 fire. This is another creation of architect Charles T. Diamond.
TURN RIGHT ON EXCHANGE STREET. TURN RIGHT ON 10TH STREET. TURN LEFT ON DUANE STREET.
934 Duane Street
Completed in 1924 and dedicated in 1925, the Labor Temple is the oldest building in the Pacific Northwest constructed specifically as a union hall. Union representing seamen, farmers, construction workers, cigar makers, office workers and more have held meetings here.
CONTINUE ONE MORE BLOCK TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE FLAVEL HOUSE.