We arrived in Astoria after dark. It was just before 9 p.m., and the streets were deserted. The only sign of life was the electric blue neon sign marking our hotel, the only sound a dull buzz from the light. As soon as we checked into the Norblad Hotel & Hostel, we were directed to Fort George Brewery, the only place we were guaranteed to get a meal at this hour. Just around the corner, the brewery looked a lot like the hotel -- a two-story, brick building spanning almost the entire length of the block, the street outside as desolate the Norblad's. Inside, however, we found a whole different story.
The bar was warm and lively. Glasses clinked and groups of friends scrunched together around tables, playing board games or sharing food. Sliding into a large booth by the window, we joined the party. Men young and old sported bushy beards -- the kind Brooklyn hipsters aspire to grow themselves, only these ones looked authentic and not for show. The same plaid shirts that have become a quintessential item in the hipster wardrobe looked much better here. If Portland, the so-called birthplace of the hipster, has become disingenuous, Astoria feels just the opposite. It's not trying to be gritty, rustic and cool -- it just is. As we drank house-brewed beer and ate fresh albacore tuna fish and chips, we felt far from Brooklyn, but also right at home.
A town of not quite 10,000 on the northern coast of Oregon, Astoria has been through boom and bust, and is now going through something of a cultural rebirth, again. The oldest American settlement west of the Rockies, Astoria was founded as a fur trading post and quickly became a fishing hub in the late 1800s, situated perfectly on the Columbia River, just a few miles from the Pacific, Ocean. With the advent of salmon canning, Astoria became the center of the commercial salmon industry. In the early 1900s, Bumble Bee opened canneries in Astoria, first producing salmon but then capitalizing on the albacore tuna that has since become synonymous with the company's name. Seeing a surge of jobs with Bumblebee's popularity, Astoria "you might say, is to canned tuna what Detroit is to the automobile," says Freda Moon in the New York Times.
When the Bumble Bee factory closed in the 1980s, the town had to reinvent itself. Artists moved in and the town on a hill, speckled with Victorian mansions, became known as "Little San Francisco." Today, the town is equal parts industrial and artistic. A bartender at the funky, dimly lit VooDoo Room -- adorned with everything from license plates and masks to bottle caps and a ouija board -- told us about all of the young musicians moving to town, and all of the organic gardens popping up.
The influx of artists in Astoria after the cannery closed isn't the only revival the town's seen. Far from it. Two, separate fires have burned down the downtown area, one in 1883 and the other in 1922, but the town rebuilt itself and today still maintains the low buildings and architecture of its heyday in the 1920s. An original JC Penny sign still marks the department store on Commercial Street, and ornate flourishes still decorate many of the buildings' facades. The Norblad, where we stayed for two nights, is in the midst of a renovation, sprucing up the interior of the oldest hotel in town with a practical, minimalist vibe that fits right in with its surroundings.
The Fort George Brewery, originally the Lovell Brewery and Taproom, was devastated by the fire of 1922, and became an automotive repair shop and dealership until the 1990s. Today, the brewery is a social hub. The 30-barrel brew house and taproom takes up a city block and hosts markets, concerts and speeches, in addition to serving as one of the town's most popular bars.
After years of neglect, the iconic, 1920s Liberty Theater was restored thanks to the initiative of the non-profit Liberty Restoration, Inc., which undertook the restoration project in 1991. In 2005, the theater reopened, original chandeliers and all, and today serves as the heart of downtown. Next came the restoration of Hotel Elliott, across the street from the theater, and the list goes on.
The Astoria Column, a 125-foot column that celebrates the expansion of the country to the Pacific Coast, also deteriorated over the course of its lifetime -- it was built in 1926 -- but has been salvaged by the Friends of Astoria Column in the 1990s. Today, visitors can climb the 164 steps up the column for breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River.
Finally, the almost 140-year-old Bumble Bee cannery -- which brought so much industry to the town in the 1920s, only to dissolve a few decades later -- is now a different kind of lifeline for Astoria: Pier 39. The oldest and biggest waterfront building in town, it's now home to offices, artist lofts, the Rogue Ale Public House, a cafe and even a scuba shop. Repurposing and reinventing itself over the years, Astoria really is "the little town that could."
Just miles from the Pacific Coast, and an easy drive to the iconic Cannon Beach and awesome Ecola State Park, Astoria isn't only an interesting town to visit from a historical perspective -- it's a great launch pad to explore the rest of Oregon's coast. Despite its continual restoration and renewal, the town has never lost its soul, because endurance in the face of hardship, and reinvention out of necessity, defines Astoria. Perched on the northwest corner of the state, Astoria, Oregon, where gritty and rustic meet funky and artistic, is a beacon of resilience.
Correction: This post originally listed the second fire in Astoria as taking place in 1992, when in fact it took place in 1922.