Astoria is the oldest U.S. settlement west of the Rockies and has one of the longest and most interesting histories in the Pacific Northwest. It is a city that has survived booms and busts and has endured several notable fires—one of them catastrophic. Despite it all, Astorians have demonstrated their resilience—rebuilding and refocusing over the years.
Astoria’s first sawmill was built in 1851, and many others would follow. Large freighters and sailing ships could dock at Astoria’s piers. The port city shipped logs and lumber from the lower Columbia region to markets around the world.
In addition to its reputation as a timber producer, Astoria also came to be known as the salmon-canning capital of the world, as the Columbia River system was one of the world’s most productive generators of chinook, coho and sockeye salmon and steelhead trout.
The first cannery on the river opened in 1866 on the Washington side. Astoria then opened its first in 1874. Just two years later, 17 salmon canneries operated in and around the area. Over time, several Astoria canneries consolidated into what became the world headquarters of Bumble Bee Seafoods. In the 1960s, Bumble Bee was the largest salmon-canning company in the world.
Local citizens, however, noticed declines in the fish runs as early as the 1870s.
Years of upstream pollution, loss of spawning habitat, heavy fishing and migration-blocking dams continued to take their toll on Columbia River salmon. Bumble Bee closed shop and moved to California in 1980.
Commercial fishing, logging and shipping still contribute to the Astoria economy, but at levels far reduced from the peak years in the past. Today, Astoria presents itself as a city with a unique variety of historic homes, a tourist destination with many museums and shops, and a great place to retire.
In this new documentary, Oregon Experience explores the rich history and transformation of this coastal community beginning with its establishment in 1811 by John Jacob Astor. Along with historical film and photos, “Astoria” features interviews with:
- Peter Stark, author of “Astoria”
- Samuel Johnson, executive director, Columbia River Maritime Museum
- McAndrew Burns, executive director, and Liisa Penner, archivist for the Clatsop County Historical Society
- John Goodenberger, historic building consultant
- Richard Basch, vice chair of the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes
- Irene Martin, author and salmon industry historian
- David Lum, retired Astoria auto dealer and son of Chinese immigrants
“Astoria” was written and produced by Eric Cain and edited by Lisa Suinn Kallem. It airs Monday, February 9 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV. For more information, please visit http://opb.is/orexastoria.
In advance of the premiere, OPB and the Columbia River Maritime Museum are hosting a free, public screening event at the museum in Astoria on Friday, February 6 at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30). The screening event will feature the full-length documentary and a Q&A with OPB producer Eric Cain.