Astoria Contains a Darkness at the Edge of America

Explore more dangers where the Columbia meets the Pacific.

Columbia River Maritime Museum (Courtesy of Columbia River Maritime Museum)

With its postcard views, and bustling waterfront, Astoria is definitely part of the Oregon coast, but it’s not a beach town. Instead, it features a cast of characters and scenes of skullduggery that rival Game of Thrones.

By the mid-19th century, nearly everyone in America east of the Rockies knew of Astoria as the center of Western exploration. Eccentric millionaire John Jacob Astor commissioned Washington Irving to write Astoria: Or, Enterprise Beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836), which made famous the Astor Expedition’s harrowing efforts to establish a trading empire at the Columbia’s mouth.

Another Astoria legend, sea captain George Flavel, turned his profits from the California Gold Rush into a virtual monopoly on river crossings. He amassed a huge fortune and built the 11,600-square-foot Queen Anne Flavel House mansion, which can be toured today—and is supposedly haunted. It’s one of many spots to explore the wicked, the colorful, and the perilous.

At the Columbia River Maritime Museum, interactive exhibits explain why the Columbia River Bar is one of the world’s most dangerous waterways. Learn the stories of the brave souls who successfully (and not) navigated the river in everything from dugout canoes to sailing ships, tugboats, and container ships. Special exhibits focus on severe weather, shipwrecks, and fishing. Visit on a summer Saturday from noon to 2 pm and you’ll find the model boat pond—a popular seasonal attraction.

Fort Clatsop. (National Historical Park)

The 32 men, one woman, one baby, and one dog of the Corps of Discovery wished for summer sun when they hunkered down at Fort Clatsop in 1805. The location offered plenty of game, but the constant rain left them all itching to trek back east. Today, in summer months, costumed rangers in replicas of the original buildings demonstrate flintlock gun shooting, hide tanning, and candle making to give a vivid sense of life in the 1800s and coping with Mother Nature’s worst.

Given its prime location for guarding the Western interior, Fort Stevens State Park saw military service from the Civil War to World War II (when it was attacked by a Japanese submarine). Now one of the nation’s largest public campgrounds, there’s a huge amount to see and do. During the summer, Friends of Old Fort Stevens offers underground tours of a World War II command center.

Fort Stevens.

High on the cliffs of the Long Beach Peninsula, visitors to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center take in one of the broadest views of the mouth of the Columbia as it bursts into the Pacific Ocean. Exhibits cover the famed expedition, the Chinook people, and local maritime and military history. Down below, walk out on the jetty next to Waikiki Beach to get close to the water’s force.

Acclaimed photographer, clown aficionado and auto wizard Jeff Daly leads the Astoria Underground Tour. You travel through the tunnels where hundreds of men were reportedly Shanghai’d onto ships headed out to sea. For an even more immersive stay, consider Daly’s historic Airbnb. (Search the Airbnb website for “Astoria Wunderground Experience.”)

Where to Uncover Secrets of the Columbia’s Mouth

Flavel House Museum

714 Exchange St., Astoria, 503-325-2203, 10 am–5 pm daily May–September. Adults $7, seniors $6, children 6-17 $2, 5 and under free.

Columbia River Maritime Museum

1792 Marine Drive, Astoria, 503-325-2323, 9:30 am–5 pm daily. Adults $18, seniors $15, children 6-17 $8, 5 and under free.

Fort Clatsop at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park

92343 Fort Clatsop Road, Astoria, 503-861-2471, 9 am–6 pm Memorial Day to Labor Day. Adults $10, children 15 and under free.

Fort Stevens State Park

1675 Peter Iredale Road, Hammond, Ore., 800-551-6949, Open daily.

Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center

244 Robert Gray Drive, Ilwaco, Wash., 360-642-3029, Adults $5, children 7-17 $2.50, 6 and under free.

Underground Tour

415-713-4141, Tours generally available Saturdays at 4 and 5 pm; private groups can be arranged.

This story is part of Oregon Summer Magazine, Willamette Week’s annual guide to the summer months, this year focused along the Columbia River. It is free and can be found all over Portland beginning Monday, July 1st, 2024. Find a copy at one of the locations noted on this map before they all get picked up! Read more from Oregon Summer magazine online here.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.