Saturday, May 12, 2012

Day Trip: Astoria, Oregon & the Wreck of the Peter Iredale

Astoria, Oregon
The Wreck of the Peter Iredale

Astoria Oregon
the Hwy 101 bridge at the mouth of the Columbia River connecting Oregon and Washington - Astoria, Oregon

My wife and I decided to take full advantage of an 80 degree day in April by heading out to the coast. We were both itching to spend a few hours on a beach, and neither of us had ever seen the Wreck of the Peter Iredale before, so we decided upon Fort Stevens State Park and the wind-blown, salty coastal town of Astoria, both located in the northwestern corner of the state of Oregon, where the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean smash together.

We arrived in the area at around lunch time and both agreed that we were craving clam chowder. We found just the place: Charley's Chowder and Coffeehouse (see bottom of blog for details). The clam chowder was awesome! Not too thick, not too thin, very fresh tasting clams and seasoned just right. We were also thrilled to see a basket of oyster cracker packets on each table. Charlie's serves it all: ice cream, espresso, chowder, fish & chips, burgers, fish tacos, salmon burgers, shrimp cocktails, unique vegetarian options, everything. It has outdoor seating too. The interior feels a lot like an old soda fountain / ice cream parlor, even though in reality I think it may have been an old garage (in Oregon, some of the best food is served in buildings that were once garages).

It was a perfect way to start the day. Here are a couple photos from Charlie's.

The menu-board at Charlie's Chowder and Coffeehouse - Astoria, Oregon
a bowl of "Astoria Clam Chowder" at Charlie's Chowder and Coffeehouse - Astoria, Oregon
After lunch we decided to stretch our legs after the long car ride and walk around town for a bit. Astoria is a very unique place. I've seen a significant chunk of this country and I can safely say I've seen nothing quite like it. Nicknamed "Little San Francisco," it does have a sort of San Franciscan feel to it. steep hills dotted with Victorian homes, gritty-salted-weathered buildings, many of which look outdated, fishing equipment strewn willy-nilly on wharfs and piers and docks, a colossal suspension bridge towering over the town, small green mountains in the foggy distance, the squawk of gulls and bark of sea lions, the odor of fishing industry and marine exhaust fumes in the air, massive cargo ships docked out in the water, and even a vintage trolley that chimes along the piers.

Astoria has some very unique history of its own. Lewis and Clark landed here in 1805, ending their journey. They spent the winter here before heading back home in 1806. Shortly thereafter John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), a mulch-millionaire investor, arrived in what is now Astoria to establish a fur trading post here in 1810, making Astoria the oldest American settlement west of the Mississippi. Astor even commissioned novelist Washington Irving (best known for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) to write a book about the area; a book Irving aptly named Astoria. Astoria didn't become incorporated until 1876, but once it did, it attracted a surge of immigrants, the bulk of which were Scandinavian. Decades later, Astoria's once booming economy would suffer a few significant blows (see below). But today, Astoria is slowly starting to bounce back, ranking tourism and a growing arts scene among its successes. (Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the blog for my views on Astoria today and what I think it can one day become).

The bottom line is this: Astoria is rich with history and situated in one of the most beautiful corners of the United States. It has small, coastal town charm with amazing potential to become something like Oregon's Carmel-by-the-Sea. (more on this later)

Here are some shots from our walk around downtown Astoria.

One of Astoria's icons - the Liberty Theatre
Downtown Astoria, Oregon
Downtown Astoria, Oregon
a garbage can decoration paying homage to Astoria's history as a cannery town
Astoria Coffeehouse & Bistro, one of Astoria's best places to kill a couple hours
Downtown Astoria, Oregon
the Flavel House - Astoria, Oregon
The County Jail made popular by the movie The Goonies - Astoria, Oregon

After exploring downtown, we went up to the iconic Astoria Column on a hill high above the town. It was built in 1926 by the Astor family, the namesake of the town, to represent Astoria's history. It is wrapped in murals like a barber pole. A spiral staircase will bring you about 125 feet to the top. The view from up here is fantastic and diverse. You can hardly make a trip to Astoria without at least stopping up here for a few minutes. That being said, you probably won't find any actual Astorians up here, mainly visitors and tourists. But I've never, in the several times I've been to the Column, experienced a crowd or trouble finding a parking place. It can be very peaceful up here.

Astoria Column - Astoria, Oregon
the Astoria Column - Astoria, Oregon

The view looking south to Saddle Mountain from the Astoria Column

The Astoria Bridge from the Column - Astoria, Oregon
the Astoria Bridge and the mouth of the Columbia River as viewed from the Astoria Column

After soaking in the views from the column it was finally time to descend back down to sea-level to soak in the sun on the beach. Oregon's coast is covered in long, wide sandy beaches. I don't think I'll ever sit upon them all in my lifetime, and that's just the northern section of the coast, let alone the rest of it. Today, however, we set our sights on the Fort Stevens State Park to see the Wreck of the Peter Iredale, the skeletal remains of a ship that wrecked itself ashore in 1906. (more below)

There is something strikingly interesting about Oregon's beaches which you will either love or hate: they are "highways." Yes, back in the early twentieth century, when the automobile craze was putting nearly every family into vehicles making them much more mobile, the Oregon Coast become the place to take a trip in the new automobile. At the same time, Oregon's coastline was in danger of being bought up by developers and turned into private land. So, Governor Oswald West quickly found a loophole and deemed Oregon's coastline a "highway" therefore keeping it open to the public. What does this mean? You guessed it: you can actually drive your vehicles onto the beaches.

The ability to drive your car onto the beaches is both really cool and really horrible at the same time. As a previous owner of a Jeep Wrangler landlocked in the Midwest, I only dreamed about one day doing something as cool as driving it out onto the Oregon Coast, with the crashing waves, the mountains in the distance... I mean how bad ass would that be right? But reality isn't a Jeep advertisement. The reality is that something is greatly taken away from your beach experience when a vehicle goes rolling in front or behind you. It just doesn't feel right. Plus, recent debates are springing up about the harm that vehicles on the beach can do to birds and other wildlife. Plus, come on!, lot of vehicles leak oil or other fluids. To be honest, with all the environmental buzz going on in the world today, especially within the very eco-friendly state of Oregon, I'm surprised that the state government hasn't banned vehicles from the beaches.

But then again, I have never driven a vehicle on a beach before. I sure there is something really neat about driving your truck out onto the beach, parking it against the bluff, and tailgating right there on the sand, just a stone's throw from the waves. Plus, especially for the people who grew up near the Oregon coastline, driving your vehicle out on the sand is probably a bit of a pastime, a nostalgia. People have been doing it for about 100 years.

That's enough about the beaches.

Not far from the shipwreck is the very northwestern tip of Oregon state: a massive rock jetty (called South Jetty) right where the Columbia and the Pacific officially meet. This area, known as the Columbia Bar, is notoriously dangerous and hazardous to seafarers. The mouth of the Columbia is located within an area known at the Graveyard of the Pacific. Stretching from Tillamook Bay all the way up to Vancouver B.C., the Graveyard of the Pacific is laden with shipwrecks, mainly due to the combination of rugged coastline and unpredictable, potentially violent seas. There are a select few "bar pilots" (basically experts captains who have mastered ship navigation and thoroughly understand the waters out here) who make about a $200,000 annual salary to guide ships across the bar. In fact, the Flavel House (see photo of the Queen Anne style mansion above) was owned by a man who did just that over a century ago. George Flavel was one of the first bar pilots and, not coincidentally, one of Astoria's first millionaires.

Here are some photos of the Jetty and the Fort Stevens State Park beach.

The South Jetty at Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria, Oregon
the South Jetty at the mouth of the Columbia River - near Astoria, Oregon

View of a Fort Stevens beach from South Jetty near Astoria, Oregon
View of one of Fort Stevens S.P.'s beaches from the South Jetty

Vehicles allowed on the beach at the Wreck of the Peter Iredale - Fort Stevens State Park - Astoria, Oregon
a lifted Jeep parked out on the beach at Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria, Oregon and the mouth of the Columbia

This brings me to The Wreck of the Peter Iredale. On a pitch black and foggy early morning in October of 1906, a steel schooner shipwrecked on the Oregon coast just south of the mouth of the Columbia, where it was headed. Nasty winds and choppy seas pushed the ship to shore when visibility was at a minimum. (Astoria, by the way, is notorious for receiving almost paralyzing fog some days, especially in winter) Nobody was killed, but the ship was obviously not going anywhere. Over 100 years later, it still hasn't gone anywhere. Much of the ship was sold for scrap, and until recently the masts were still attached, poking up into the sky, but were later removed for the sake of safety to the growing number of visitors the shipwreck was receiving.

Below are some BEFORE and AFTER shots of the Peter Iredale.

Here is what the Peter Iredale looked like long ago when it beached ashore:

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

And here is what remains of the Peter Iredale today, otherwise known in tourist brochures as The Wreck of the Peter Iredale:

The Wreck of the Peter Iredale at Fort Stevens State Park - Astoria, Oregon
The Wreck of the Peter Iredale - Fort Stevens State Park - Astoria, Oregon

Tired and hungry from soaking up a lot of sunshine, my wife and I decided to grab some dinner before leaving. I was mulling over the possibilities in my head when BAM!! it hit me: Rogue Ales and Public House at Pier 39 in Astoria. If you come to Astoria and you like good beer you absolutely must make a point to stop at Rogue Brewery. Not only does Rogue make some of the most quality and delicious beers you'll ever imbibe, as well as serve some of the best pub grub, but the brewery is located on a fricken DOCK. That's right, you have to drive your car out onto a wooden dock, which makes all those wonderfully clunky "plankety-plank" sounds you'd expect driving a 2,000+ pound vehicle onto a dock (one of my favorite sounds). The views out the window of the cargo ships and the mountains in the distance are outstanding. You cannot help but feel like a salty old sailor when you belly up to the bar here. Rogue's brewery here in Astoria may be my favorite pub of all time. It is very hard not to completely fall in love with this place, especially if you love pubs, hand-crafted ales, and maritime nostalgia. In addition, at Rogue my wife and I had one of the best service experiences of all time. The server was immensely hospitable and really knew beer without being remotely pretentious about his knowledge of the stuff. As I write this blog entry right now at home I have a burning wish that I was at Rogue in Astoria this very moment.

After a couple beers and some excellent food, we agreed we weren't in a huge hurry to leave Astoria. First, we took a quick walk through the Bumble Bee Cannery museum on Pier 39 a few planks over from Rogue. It is open to the public and a quick 5 minute walk through the museum will give you an idea of what it was like working in the cannery when Bumble Bee was headquarters here during Astoria's boom years.

A few docks to the west of Pier 39 and Rogue Brewery lies a collection of docks that attracts massive, barking sea lions. This has become a little tourist attraction in itself. I have never visited Astoria without these docks being covered in lounging sea lions. A sailor smoking a cigar was walking up from his boat and said to my wife and I "go ahead down on the docks if you want to get a little closer... just don't get too close they might charge at you.... me, I hate these damn things." They bark, growl, smell horrible, and have very dog-like faces. They are beautiful creatures in a belchy, couch-potatoey sort of way. They are the Homer Simpson of the animal kingdom.

After barking at the sea lions my wife and I called it a night and made the journey back to Portland. Here are some photos from the end of our day at Rogue, Pier 39, and the sea lion docks.

Rogue Brewery - Astoria, Oregon
Rogue Brewery out on Pier 39 - Astoria, Oregon

Rogue Brewery - Astoria, Oregon
Inside Rogue Brewery at Pier 39 - Astoria, Oregon

Rogue Brewery - Astoria, Oregon
a pint of one of Rogue's IPAs @ Rogue Brewery - Astoria, Oregon

Taplist at Rogue Brewery - Astoria, Oregon
The tap list at Rogue Brewery in Astoria, Oregon

Pier 39 - Astoria, Oregon
Out back behind Pier 39, where you can sip your espresso drinks from Coffee Girl, one of my favorite coffeehouses of all time, and how could it not be when you have this as a patio?

Touring the old, damp Bumble Bee cannery - Pier 39 - Astoria, Oregon
Walking around in the Bumble Bee Cannery Museum at Pier 39 in Astoria, Oregon

Boats parked at the docks - Astoria, Oregon
Astoria, Oregon

Sea Lions on the docks - Astoria, Oregon
Sea lions lounging on the docks - Astoria, Oregon

Sea Lions on the Docks - Astoria Oregon
Astoria, Oregon

Sea Lions lounging on the docks - Astoria, Oregon
Sea Lions lounging on the docks - Astoria, Oregon

Sea Lions lounging on the docks - Astoria, Oregon
Sea Lions lounging on the docks - Astoria, Oregon

My thoughts on Astoria:

One thing I can't help but wonder while walking around Astoria is what this town must have been like in its heyday. As a lover of quaint small towns, I cannot fathom a small town that would've been better to call home than this one during its heyday.

Astoria's economy has, unfortunately, suffered a blow since its heyday. Not only has Astoria become almost completely overshadowed by Portland and Seattle as a shipping port or prime location for industry and commerce, but the very industries its economy had previously depended on, namely fishing, canning, and lumber, saw devastating decline over the years. Bumblebee Seafood, which used to can salmon and provide thousands of jobs in Astoria, began withdrawing from the area in 1974 and was completely gone about 5 years later. About a decade later, Astoria's largest employer, a plywood manufacturer, closed its doors and shut down. This, in turn, forced the railroad companies to discontinue service out to Astoria. The town received three major blows to its economy in under 20 years time.

Walking around Astoria today you can plainly see that the economy has yet to fully rejuvenate. Far from it. There are many empty storefronts and buildings downtown and the area does have an undeniable "outdatedness" to it. Astoria seems behind on the times in many regards.

But... Astoria has promise and potential.

Astoria Bridge - Astoria, Oregon

Every time I come here I feel as though the arts scene has grown since I last visited, that the area is becoming more and more appealing to young people, that it is finally getting that edge it needs to draw people out of Portland and Seattle. Astoria has the potential to become an Eden for hipsters, the DIY crowd, microbrewers, coffee roasters, avant garde chefs, artists, writers, sculptors, poets, musicians, vegans, meat-smokers, beatniks, hippies, bicycle mechanics, distillers, small business owners, seafood-centered gastropubs, used bookstores, headshops, record shops, food cart pods, and second-hand clothing boutiques. I feel like the only thing keeping half of Portland from picking up and relocating to Astoria tomorrow is Astoria's general lack of many of the things listed above as well as a shortage of apartments and lofts.

But many of these things are moving into Astoria slowly but surely. You can get a great hand-crafted ale in Astoria. You can get a great cup of coffee in Astoria. You can spend an hour kicking around a used book shop or do a small but quality art gallery crawl. Some great food is starting to sprout here and there if you know how to look for it. Astoria has some of the most beautiful historic architecture on the entire west coast. The potential to turn this town into something like Carmel-by-the-Sea or Nantucket is great. All it is going to take is a risk: if restauranteurs, small-business owners, brewers, artists, coffee roasters, etc take a risk by setting up shop here, then Astoria's dream of reestablishing itself as a boom town might be a reality.

The docks - Astoria Oregon

Maybe Astoria will one day evolve into this artsy, hip, beautiful little love-child of Portland and San Francisco? I certainly think the potential is there. Astoria's economy needs some work, many of its facades need a make-over, and it is in need of a youthful and vibrant crowd to lease its salty old structures and turn them into hip pubs, avant garde restaurants, modern galleries, cheapo brew-n-views, funky clothing boutiques, artisan food/seafood shops, etc. I truly love this town, partly for what it is now, and partly for what I know it could become in the future.

Additional Info:

Charlie's Chowder and Coffeehouse
1335 Marine Drive
Astoria, Oregon 97103
(503) 325-2368

Astoria Coffeehouse and Bistro
243 11th Street
Astoria, Oregon 97103
(503) 325-1787

Rogue Ales Public House
100 39th Street (Pier 39)
Astoria, Oregon 97103
(503) 325-5964


  1. Beautiful! I can't wait to go here. Love the sea lions.. wanted to go for the midsummer festival june 23-24, a Scandinavian festival.. but may be too crowded. The Flavel house is so cool looking!

  2. I'm so glad I stumbled on to this page!! My husband and I are planning a trip to teh Pacific NW in August of next year, and one place I have always really wanted to go is Astoria b/c this Florida girl wants to see ocean AND mountains together. We have gorgeous beaches and water but we don't have views like they seem to up there. I found you by googling "Is Astoria a good walking town?" and it seems to me from your blog that it could be, but do you recommend renting a car instead? I am so excited to go there, and I'm bookmarking your page to make sure I get some of these stops on our itinerary. My husband is definitely interested in the brewery b/c he loves good, locally brewed beers. Anyway, will definitely be revisiting this post in the future!!

    1. Astoria itself is very walkable and there are several hotels located in or near the core, however we're a good 90 minutes from Portland and 2 hours from Seattle, so renting a car to get here would be a necessity. The "beach" is a 5-10 minute drive from Astoria in Warrenton or Seaside.
      Be prepared for wet weather year round.

  3. I lived in Astoria in it's hayday... early 1950s... rode the ferry.. no bridge then... Loved it then... Long ago and far away now...