Small But Oh So Mighty
A whole lot of history has played out here along the southern banks of the chilly Columbia River, smack where it readies itself to pour into the vast Pacific. But the fattest chapters of Astoria’s history books are those about pioneering men. Men of vision. Men of courage. Men bent on altering the course of history through their own ingenuity and bravery. John Jacob Astor was one of these men. The other two were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark who paired up for their tale. Their stories are carved into the redwoods, etched into the stones, whispered in the libraries, and boasted about by those who’ll want to bend your ear during your stay.
President Thomas Jefferson was bent on expanding American interests far to the west, in fact all the way to the Pacific. Other nations had been busily developing their fur trades in the region. Britain, Spain and Russia had their eye on the lucrative opportunities. Ultimately, Jefferson received governmental funding for an expedition to be led by U.S. Army Captain Lewis with Clark as his right hand man. These were two very capable guys who didn’t need a GPS to find the Pacific or Sterno to get the night’s fire going. These were manly men who paddled and hacked their way across unexplored wilderness, negotiated with Native Americans by passing out “Indian Peace Medals” as symbols of friendship, and made history all along the way. With them, 27 men and a dog named “Seaman” who all had departed Camp Dubois in 1804 and reached their destination near the mouth of the Columbia River. Their fort, named for the local Native American tribe, was called Fort Clatsop and was their home as of December 23, 1805. They were forced to winter over in this small log barrack till March the following year, a winter during which they rarely saw the sun. Their hoped-for rescue ship never did arrive so, following this horrific winter, the men turned east and virtually retraced their tracks back home.
Far From Walldorf, Germany
Johann Jakob Astor was born in the German village of Walldorf, near Heidelberg, in 1763. At the age of 16, he traveled to London to find work and learn English, which served him well in his business life. At 21, he boarded a ship for America. It’s been said that during this crossing, which was extended due to the ship being stuck in ice, Astor became acquainted with another German gentleman who encouraged him to go into the fur trade for there was a fortune to be made. And so he did, in New York, ultimately buying and selling fur for himself with a sizeable business back in England. Astor contracted for pelts from across a vast tract of the US and Canada making him one of the largest traders in America by his mid-forties, around 1809. In 1811, his American Fur Company founded Fort Astoria, the first permanent US settlement on the Pacific coast.
And so …
Astor’s fur business boomed. He sold furs to China, filled emptied cargo holds there with goods he transported to Europe, which were then replaced with European products bound back to America. Astor even bought his own fleet of ships further cutting out middlemen and increasing his vast fortune.
Meanwhile, Astoria grew. However, Astor’s Pacific Fur Company ultimately failed. The British purchased the fort and the fur trade in 1813. In 1834, Astor retired from the American Fur Company. He focused his interests instead on real estate, New York real estate in particular. He also went into banking, hotels, the railroad business, money lending, and insurance. It’s said John Jacob Astor was worth (in equivalent US dollars today) $110 billion at his death in 1848. In those days dollars, $20-30 million. He’d become a huge patron of the arts and America’s first millionaire.
But back in the Pacific Northwest, the British finally pulled up their tent poles in 1846 when the Oregon Treaty relieved them of their rights to the trade. All the details are captured in Washington Irving’s Astoria, written at the request of Astor. Settlers arrived by the score. Fishing and logging created work for many. Immigrants put down their stakes, as well.
Today, some 10,000 people call Astoria home. Among the residents are people still associated with fishing, though tourism provides the major source of revenue including visits to nearby Mt. St. Helens, which blew its top 5/18/1980. Visitors poke around the downtown area with its 1920s feel. Victorian homes, brightly painted and landscaped, add color. And moviemakers turn to Astoria for locations. The list of films shot here include Into The Wild, The Black Stallion, Short Circuit, Free Willy, The Goonies, The Ring, Kindergarten Cop, and the ever-popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. Wouldn’t this make Clark Gable proud? He began his acting career here in 1922 at the Astoria Theatre, don’t you know.
Oh, for the record, Mr. Astor never enjoyed the pleasure of visiting Astoria as you are about to do.