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Astoria proud to be oldest U.S. settlement west of Rockies

ASTORIA, Ore. – This coastal town, writer Calvin Trillin once said, “remains a place strongly marked by its history.”

You can see that strolling along the waterfront, where every turnoff and park seems to lead to its storied past.

There are museums, memorials, old canneries, mounds of gill nets and other remnants of its fishing and lumber legacy. Even the railroad tracks along the town’s Riverwalk remain, though Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway left in 1996.

“We asked them to leave the tracks. The notion of the railroad going away and not coming back was too much for the psyche of this town,” Astoria City Manager Paul Benoit says. Today, a popular tourist trolley uses the rails.

The city of 10,000 people, 90 miles northwest of Portland, kicked off a season of bicentennial festivities this weekend – including historical re-enactments, ship tours and fairs – to celebrate its past, but also its revival.

Astoria stakes a claim as the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies. (Get used to seeing signs and hearing locals repeat that theme a dozen times. You’ll be mumbling it in your sleep by day two – though they should say it’s the oldest non-Native American settlement.)

The fur-trading company led by New York financier John Jacob Astor, for whom the town is named, established an outpost by the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811.

In later years this was also a timber port and a fishing town, with about two dozen seafood canneries. Most have shut down in the last half century.

Astoria never became “The New York of the Pacific,” as it was once envisioned. And during the grim 1980s, it looked like Dead-Town Walking after its last major economic engine, the Bumble Bee tuna cannery, closed.

So who knew that townspeople would be rolling out a giant birthday cake and decking out in period costumes, smiling all pretty, now?

The town that once reaped the bounties of the Columbia River now benefits from its majestic view, along with the charm of Victorian homes perched on its hillsides and the salty flavor of its once-gritty waterfront.

Hollywood has filmed about a dozen movies here. Better restaurants are popping up. Two historic downtown hotels have been refurbished and two more were built along the waterfront in the last eight years.

Tourists are coming, not just passing through on their way to Cannon Beach. The brewery scene is picking up. Artists and hipsters dig the affordable rent.

This town’s pride is its revitalized waterfront, once unpaved and lined with abandoned warehouses and canneries.

In 1992, Astoria began paving a path, block by block, ultimately creating today’s five-mile Riverwalk, wide enough for cyclists and dog walkers to share. It has benches and pocket parks and passes the popular Columbia River Maritime Museum and other attractions.

Alongside are those tracks, on which a restored 1913 trolley plies a 2.6-mile route.

By end of this year, the path will extend another mile east. The redevelopment, along with cheap waterfront real estate, has helped lure new boutiques, restaurants and bars.

“The Riverwalk is a catalyst for a lot of things,” says Benoit, who oversees the waterfront expansion for the town. “It changed the nature of the riverfront and the way people think about it.”

At the Riverwalk’s west end is Maritime Memorial Park, honoring fishermen and others who lost their lives to the mighty river, whose nearby mouth is part of an area known as the Graveyard of the Pacific.

A former machinery shop now houses the Bridgewater Bistro. Nearby, the waterfront has a new Holiday Inn and the posh Cannery Pier Hotel, built on pilings that once held a fish cannery.

Drive east or take the trolley and you’ll reach downtown, where dozens of shops, art galleries, bars and restaurants await. This 60-square-block downtown got a face-lift in the late 1990s, including the restored Mediterranean facade of the historic Liberty Theater.

Downtown is a mixture of old and new. The rundown Columbian Cafe, a local institution, and the more polished Blue Scorcher Bakery Cafe are both popular weekend brunch spots.

The geeks hit the comic-book store during the day. The young catch indie acts or grab cocktails at the Voodoo Lounge at night.

Astoria has wine tasting and two coffee roasters, but beer is the thing. There are a handful of dive bars and two breweries: Astoria Brewing Co. and Fort George Brewery and Public House.

Fort George took over a historic block of downtown two years ago – about 45,000 square feet – and opened a pub, a brewery, a tasting room and a beer garden, with rental space for other shops.

It is canning a specialty brew for the bicentennial and also its signature Vortex IPA, the most popular beer in the area.

Farther east on the Riverwalk, at the end of the trolley line, sits the former site of the Bumble Bee Cannery, now recast as a business complex named Pier 39. It includes Rogue Ales Public House, part of the popular Oregon brewery chain, plus a coffeehouse, office space, lodging and a modest museum with black-and-white photos and artifacts dedicated to the cannery.

Astoria is blessed with interesting geography. Drive up to Coxcomb Hill, the town’s highest point, 600 feet above sea level, and you can’t miss the historic Astoria Column, a 125-foot-high concrete column decorated with scrolling, 1920s-era artwork documenting the exploration and settlement of the region.

Inside, a winding 164 steps leads to a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean, Columbia River and snowcapped mountains.

You can also catch glimpses of the many Victorian homes and mansions around town, already here in the golden years when a young, then-unknown Clark Gable performed in the community theater in 1922.

Hollywood filmed about a dozen movies around this scenic town, including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Kindergarten Cop,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Free Willy,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III” and the cult coming-of-age hit, “The Goonies.”

Like “Twilight” mania in Forks, Wash., locals are used to directing fans to “Goonies” sites. Last year, the town turned a former jail, where a jailbreak scene was filmed, into a modest movie museum.

“In Astoria, in a course of a decade, people who come now see a place that is entirely different from what you would see in the 1980s,” Benoit says.

“We were a place where you would stop for a McDonald’s hamburger or to gas up your car on the way to the beach. Now, in terms of arts and activities, it has become a focal point.”

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