Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 9, 2015

On the North Coast … of Oregon

Exploring Oregon, we’ve made our way north along the coast and settled for a few days in Seaside, from which we can take a day trip north, make a sharp right turn and continue east along the state’s north coast, the shore of the Columbia River.

Like coasts everywhere, Oregon’s has fortifications built to ward off invading ships, planes and ICBMs. We’ve written about a installations near our home in placid southern California, dating from the Civil War, WW II and in the preapocryphal nuclear world we were born to.

At the mouth of the Columbia River is Fort Stevens, built near the end of the Civil War. Like many of our coastal defenses it was built to counter the threat of incursion from our sworn enemies (wait for it), the British, in this case during the Pig War of 1859. I looked into this matter, and learned that the previously unknown-to-me Pig War was, indeed, sparked by the killing of a pig. Say what you wish about us Yanks, but let our porkers alone. Fort Stevens is extensive, with earthworks and antique structures from that bygone era of warfare. (click on any photo for larger image).

IMG_0324 Ft. Stevens Brad Nixon

Ft. Stevens, Oregon

The mouth of the Columbia was strategically critical. A massive waterway, fourth-largest in the U.S. and navigable far upstream, the Columbia has been the heart of the Pacific northwest for thousands of years. As explorers, immigrants and Europeans in general discovered, the Columbia watershed proved to be a source of enormous wealth, including vast stands of timber and rich fisheries, but it was fur trade that brought the first European settlement. The native population had been hunting beaver, elk, mink, fox and every other fur-bearing creature for thousands of years, but John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company saw a commercial opportunity and established Fort Astoria 18 miles upstream from the mouth of the Columbia in 1811. The city of Astoria now occupies the spot.

IMG_0354 - Astoria-Megler Bridge Brad Nixon

Astoria and Astoria-Megler Bridge

As the photo shows, you can continue your journey north on U.S. Route 101 into Washington via the 4.1 mile Astoria-Megler Bridge (the longest continuous truss bridge in the U.S., for aficionados of big-time engineering).

Astoria was an important river- and seaport from the beginning, and it’s still the case. Its long riverfront is replete with an almost endless variety of fascinating aspects of maritime trade. There’s workaday business being conducted there, and a good number of places to walk, take in the sights, and restaurants, too. Our schedule prevented us from visiting it, but the Columbia River Maritime Museum should probably be on your itinerary if you’re a waterborne activity fan.

One aspect of moving ships between the Columbia and the Pacific Ocean was problematic from the outset: the Columbia River Bar. No, not the challenge of becoming a certified attorney for matters riverine, but a huge swath of bars and shoals where the Columbia enters the ocean, about 3 miles wide and 6 miles long. The Columbia is a huge river with a massive amount of water moving fast, and it hits the ocean and prevailing westerly winds dead-on, without the delta common to most big rivers. Those conditions create big standing waves, sandbars, etc., that are simply hell to navigate. According to Wikipedia, approximately 2,000 large ships have sunk there since 1792.

One man saw an opportunity. Most ports employ pilots to take command of ships entering or leaving harbors. Pilots on the Columbia Bar require a specialized set of skills to guide ships through the treacherous conditions. Captain George Flavel (1823-1893) was a prominent bar pilot, established a successful business of pilot ships and other enterprises, and became one of Astoria’s most prominent citizens and a millionaire. Here’s a quick look at a pilot boat docked at Astoria in 2009:

IMG_0364 Astoria pilot ship Brad Nixon

Captain Flavel did what wealthy, influential citizens do: He built a big house. Today the Queen Anne-style building is a museum. We recommend the tour.

IMG_0344 Flavel House Astoria Brad Nixon

The place is chock-full of excellent craftsmanship and fascinating details, and is worth a photo essay of its own. We’ll let this remarkable stairway stand for all, viewed looking up from the bottom floor:

IMG_0346 flavel house stairs Astoria Brad Nixon

We’re always on the lookout for interesting slices of life, and here’s a sign advertising the merits of the 1924 Hotel Elliott:

IMG_0130 Astoria Brad Nixon

The Elliott boasts some lovely architectural details we have neither time nor space to include. We regret to say that we had no chance to try one of their “Wonderful Beds.” What an excellent and memorable tagline.

For devotees of views from high places, especially climbing stairs (168 in this instance), you’ll want to go up Coxcomb Hill to visit the Astoria Column, from which The Counselor made the photo of Astoria and its bridge, above.

IMG_0360 Astoria Column Brad Nixon

One spot we did not visit is a must-see for fans of the 1985 film, “The Goonies.” The house featured in the film is in Astoria, but since neither of us have seen the movie, and had limited time, we gave it a miss. Sorry, Goonies fans.

Astoria deserves more than the single day we allotted it, or a few hundred words. We must travel: We’re going to continue up the Columbia, and see what else lies along Oregon’s northern coast. Been there? We’d love to hear from you.

This post is part of a series about traveling in Oregon.CLICK HERE to see the first. Use the navigation below to see earlier or later posts.

© Brad Nixon 2015, 2017. Some photos © M. Vincent, all rights reserved


  1. I was really struck by the remarkable resemblance of the Astoria Column to the Vendome Column in Place Vendome, Paris, especially the little cage at the top serving as an observation platform, and the swirling sculptures around the column.

    However, from what I can tell from your photo, the primary difference between the two columns is that I doubt there is a statue of Napoleon on top of the Astoria Column, as there is in Place Vendome. A secondary difference is that the Vendome Column (sometimes called the “Austerlitz Column”) contains 425 bronze plaques of military scenes made from melted down guns taken from the Austrian and Russian armies by the victorious Emperor Napoleon to commemorate the battle of Austerlitz. Those plaques do swirl around the column from bottom to top just like the plaques on your Astoria Column. Are there any famous and hideously expensive jewelry stores near the Astoria Column? 🙂

    P.S. Amazing: a war over a pig! The things supposedly intelligent beings do to each other. Napoleon, in his wars of invasion and conquest, was mainly interested in traditional things like land acquisition, power, and fame. I think France already had plenty of pork in the early 1800s; so no need to start a war over that.


  2. .


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