We visited the former fish cannery town of Astoria, in search of clues as to how the town came into being, and what happens to maritime commerce when the mighty Columbia River meets up with the even mightier Pacific.
The boys, their two friends, and we three adults have been here many times. We’ve watched as huge container ships made their way ever so slowly in the direction of Kalama and Portland/Vancouver. The passing ships seem to dwarf the buildings on the waterfront.
We’ve always pointed out to the kids that when they buy an item in Portland such as a toy, there’s a strong likelihood that that very toy made its way to the pacific Northwest on such a vessel, and quite possibly navigated the Columbia if it didn’t head for Puget Sound or the San Francisco Bay.
So if the kids wonder about the salmon feeling intimidated by this shipping going on, or the pollutants from such vessels entering the estuary, they need only to consider that their own material demands, and the consequent supply in the Portland area (and everywhere else), contribute to the situation.
But what we talked about this weekend was the fact that Astoria has been a huge commercial focal point ever since Europeans and white Americans took a shine to the place. Animal pelts, then commercial fishing, made big money for some and provided work for a great many others.
We reflected on the area’s history and how, up until outsourcing came along, people could come here and find work. One very dangerous job involved navigating boats of all sizes from the Pacific to the Columbia or vice versa. At the Columbia River Maritime Museum we viewed an excellent film and physical exhibits that highlighted the skills required to guide vessels past the Columbia Bar.
We learned about the heyday of fish canning in Astoria, and about the many immigrants and Northwesterners whose histories were shaped by the world’s commercial interest in Pacific canned fish products.
The town today is quiet. It needs more tourism and something for visitors to do other than shake their heads about how capitalism once picked the place up then let it come crashing down when other, cheaper areas were found that could yield a better bottom line for some rich man.
We were impressed by the inherent dangers of the sea, especially of that point where the ocean fights against the currents coming out of the mouth of the Columbia River.
We drove up to the beautifully rendered Astoria Column, with sweeping views of the Columbia estuary and Cape Disappointment near Ilwaco, Washington.
We also drove past the original house used in the 80s comedy The Goonies.
Then we headed over to the beach south of Hammond, Oregon to view the steel skeleton of a large shipwreck. An archaeological approach raised the question: How can we determine which vessel this wreck is?
The answer? Measure the wreck’s length and width from the tip of the bow to the very last ribs in what would have been the stern, and estimate the size. Then enter the location and size of the vessel in a search, to cross check for any historical information of a lost ship that size. The area is home to many, many sunken vessels; the ship’s name is of course no longer proudly on display due to damage and the elements. But it’s the wreck of the Peter Iredale, which occurred in 1906.