Astoria, Oregon… Where the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean Meet

A rainbow hangs over the mouth of the Colombia River and ships that are waiting their turn to head out into the Pacific. Special pilots are brought on board to navigate the treacherous waters, now looking quite calm.


I visited Astoria a while ago and didn’t get around to writing about it. Since Peggy and I are now off playing on the Oregon coast, I decided today would be a good day for featuring this city that sits on the edge of the Colombia River.


The area off of Astoria, Oregon, where the Columbia River flows into the Pacific Ocean, is called the Graveyard of the Pacific. A combination of high seas with 40-foot waves, shallow, shifting sand bars, and the mighty Columbia River have sent some 2000 boats to their watery demise since 1792. It is considered one of the most dangerous navigation passages in the world.

This map, which is located in the Columbia Maritime Museum, shows where some of the shipwrecks can be found.

It’s no wonder that  you are greeted by a sign that proclaims Astoria is an Official Coast Guard City when you enter the community. The town is grateful that the organization is there when someone needs to be pulled out of the turbulent water. A dramatic, full-sized diorama of a Coast Guard rescue effort is featured at the Maritime Museum.

Astoria wears its Coast Guard connection proudly.

A full size diorama of a Coast Guard rescue effort is on display at the Columbia Maritime Museum.

A photo featuring the front of the Columbia Maritime Museum. I liked the way the glass reflected the clouds.

I thought that this anchor that sits out in front of the museum, is an apt symbol for both the museum and the city. The lightship Colombia is seen in the background.

In the days before modern navigation equipment, the lightship Columbia served as an offshore lighthouse, aiding ships entering and leaving the Colombia River. The lightship maintained its position for weeks at a time and stocked in 12 tons of food, 13,000 gallons of fresh water and 47,000 gallons of fuel.

This crows nest mast on the Columbia was used for powerful lights and foghorns as well as observation.

Astoria’s connection with the fledging United States dates all the way back to the Lewis and Clark expedition. The explorers sent out by Thomas Jefferson spent the 1805-6 winter in the area and built Fort Clatsop for shelter and protection. John Jacob Astor, who gave the city its name, followed up by building a fur trading post there in 1811 that became the first permanent settlement the US had on the west coast. Both the Lewis and Clark expedition and Astor’s post helped in the debate with England over who owned the land.

This map from the museum shows Astor’s trading routes.

Traveling by sailboat through the world’s oceans was hazardous. An early fear of sailors was having encounters with sea monsters. I found this illustration of a Kraken in the museum and laughed. If you are familiar with Pirates of the Caribbean, you will recognize it.

Now here is something more real to worry about! I also found this shark jaw and teeth in the museum.

Logging and fishing followed fur trading as the mainstay of the area’s economy. By the mid-1800s, fisherman from around the world called Astoria home. Only 13 percent were born in the US. The majority came from the North Atlantic countries where over-fishing had caused the fishing industry to collapse, a fate that would eventually befall Astoria. A major canning industry that grew up to process the fish also faded when the fish ran out. The canning industry employees were mainly Chinese immigrants. An educational display in the Maritime Museum notes that the most efficient of the Chinese workers could clean a 45-pound salmon in 45 seconds and up to 1700 fish in a standard 11-hour work day.

An ad photo for the Bumble Bee salmon cannery. The bee has a fishing pole.

I suspect that these pilings once supported several thriving canneries..

Now they support a thriving seagull population.

With the boomtown days of fur hunting, logging, and fishing behind it, Astoria has turned to tourists to help support its economy. Nearby Portland  (100 miles away) helps assure a continuing supply, as does the almost constant flow of tourist traffic up the Oregon coast in the summer. The museum, historic sites, fun shops, and several restaurants help meet the needs of visitors.

Downtown Astoria has preserved several historic buildings that add to its ambience.

This shop was packed to the gills with tourist merchandise. Nice kitty. I think you are probably a Mexican immigrant, however, and I doubt you have papers. Watch out.

T. Pauls has an eclectic menu and a foot on the ceiling. I ate under the foot.

It seems only appropriate that I wrap up this post with an old piling and the rainbow across the Columbia River.

Wednesday’s Blog: You are going to meet the world-famous Traveling Bone.

On Friday we will return to Burning Man.


31 thoughts on “Astoria, Oregon… Where the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean Meet

  1. Interesting how communities reinvent themselves. I would have dearly liked to be at the meeting when a bunch of fishermen decided to call their fishing business ‘Bumble Bee’, I wonder what names they rejected before they agreed on that one?

    • It’s healthy, the reinventing business, Andrew. I try to practice it myself. As for Bumble Bee, I hadn’t stopped to think about it, other than being amused. But you are right. How in the heck did they come up with that? Maybe they wanted their employees to be ‘busy as bees.’ 🙂 –Curt

  2. Another place to add to my ever-growing list of must-see’s. Thanks, Curt. 😜 I almost joined the Coast Guard when I was 27 and would love to experience the simulated rescue. AND, I thought I’d work in a cannery one summer during college. Once I got to Alaska and talked to people who did, I quickly changed my mind. But there is something appealing about that facet of business. Astoria… who knew?

    • Our son Tony flies helicopters for the Coast Guard. He had hoped to go to Astoria after his last assignment of flying out of Kodiak but ended up teaching leadership at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut instead. I lived in Alaska for three years, Juliann, but was never tempted to work in the fishing industry. 🙂 –Curt

  3. Did I really just come over that thing? I think I have a few pictures stashed away as well – maybe one of these days…

  4. The thing that got to me was all that algae or whatever on the pilings that the seagulls are sitting on. That wonderful Pacific Northwest climate seems to affect everything!

    I love the crow’s nest. It reminded me that you had asked if I ever blogged about my Pacific sail to Alaska. I haven’t, for a variety of reasons. Laziness, mostly, since all of the photos are old-style, and would have to be digitized. But I might.

    • That green speaks to how much rain Astoria receives each year. I think that the rainforests are 50% moss.
      I sometimes take a photo of my old photos when I need one to illustrate a point. It isn’t ideal but it works in a pinch. Other than that, I use my scanner to upload them to my computer. –Curt

  5. A lightship! Fascinating! I imagine I’ve passed it on the road several times and had no idea what I was looking at. I *must* step into that museum one day.

    I’ll recommend that you read Astoria, by Peter Stark, in case I haven’t already. Great, great book about Astor’s overland & sea journeys to found the city of Astoria.

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