Monday, May 12, 2014

Astoria, OR - Astoria Column and the Bridge to Nowhere

We’re off from Kelso and towards the coast where we will stay in a small town north of the Columbia River, though we will spend most of our time south of the river in Astoria, Oregon. The trip was uneventful though the drive was a very nice drive along the river in Oregon. We crossed the Columbia River south of Kelso and did not cross back north until we reached Astoria. There we saw the Astoria-Megler Bridge for the first time. I’ve seen pictures but the real thing is amazing. It is 4.1 miles long and 196’ high at high tide, obviously tall enough for large ocean-going boats to go under. Beautiful bridge.
But, before you could take the bridge, you had to cross the Columbia on a ferry. Now, crossing the Columbia in this area is extremely difficult even in good weather but almost impossible in bad - and there can be a lot of bad weather in this neck of the woods. The first ferry crossing was in the 1840’s when Solomon Smith, Astoria’s first school teacher, lashed 2 canoes together and began carrying passengers and cargo across the river.
And ferries continued to be used until the mid 1900’s even though they were slow, could carry only a certain number of vehicles and passengers and were not always punctual. To complicate matters ferries did not run when the weather was inclement - and this was often in winter. Problems arose when the Columbia River Highway linking Astoria and Portland was built in 1915 and rte 101 from Astoria to California was completed with bridges in the 1930’s. As more and more people began to travel by car and wanted to see the world, ferries became even a bigger headache.
There had been agitation for a bridge beginning in 1930’s but each attempt ended in failure: it would cost to much, it would block the river for too long during construction, it would be too difficult to build. Lots of reasons. Finally in the late 50’s, both the Oregon and the Washington legislatures appropriated money for a study, it was approved and the two states agreed to fund the project. However, though it was approved and funded, there were still critics who called it the ‘Bridge to Nowhere.’

Engineering a bridge to withstand the 150 mph winds that can roar down the Columbia River and the river flood speed of 9 mph while also making it tall enough for the largest ships to pass under and long enough to get all the way across the river took some time. Finally, it was finished and was dedicated on August 27, 1966. Both Miss Washington and Miss Oregon along with the two Governors were there and the Spokane, Portland and Seattle RR ran special trains from Portland to the foot of the bridge for the event. There were lines of cars ready for their first crossing.

There was a toll to cross the bridge and many thought that the bridge would never pay for itself. However, 206,2316 cars crossed the first year, and by 1993, more than 1.6 million cars crossed. The bridge was paid off 2 years earlier than scheduled and the toll booths came down. As we crossed we could see where the toll booths once were.

You can see the bridge from your sofa when you watch the movies ‘Goonies’, ‘Kindergarten Cop’ and ‘Short Circuit’.

We crossed the bridge to Washington, reached the campground, leveled, put out our slides, hooked up the electricity, and headed back to Astoria where we wanted to climb the Astoria Column. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Astoria, you’ve probably seen pictures of the Column. It stands on the highest hill in Astoria, Coxcomb Hill. Built in 1926, as part of a series of 12 historical markers between St. Paul, MN and Astoria, OR, it salutes Astoria’s early explorers and settlers for their role in stretching America’s borders to the Pacific Ocean.
We all know that America prevailed in the contest for the Pacific lands. But, back in the early 1800’s, this was not so obvious. Spain had established many missions in the southern coast, Russia in the north while the British had established several fur posts in the area. But as the culmination of many events in the early 1880’s America established its ownership of this area. This column commemorates these. From the outside you can see engravings circling the column all the way to the top. Each of these commemorates an event, for example: ‘Captain Rbt Grey arriving in his ship Columbia’, ‘Lewis & Clark reach the Pacific’, ‘The Coming of the Pioneers’ among others.

So that’s the story of the column, it’s time to climb it. There are 164 steps in the 125’ of the column to get to the observation ‘deck’ at the top - and these just keep circling up.
At each landing, there is a list of those who gave to build and restore this column. Note the last name, Lord Astor of Hever, a relative of John Jacob Astor after whom the town is named. His fur traders were the first to establish a village here.
Finally, you can see the light at the top, then the last flight, the door and, WOW, you’re outside. What a view.

Now there are several approaches to this: we found one guy sitting down with his back to the column, there are others who circle the column with their backs to it and their hands still on it but, at least they are standing.
Then there are those who rush to the out side, lean over the rail and love it. Me, I combine 2 of these. I can go to the edge and admire the view, I can circle around it on the edge but - after a while I think I’ve used up my nerve and it’s time to head back down. I also distract myself by taking pictures. I can’t think about the height while I’m trying to zoom in on a ship in the harbor, or trying to take a picture of the bridge crossing to Washington. I keep busy. On the way down, I have a tingle in my spine, my feet are in a quickstep and I don’t relax until I’m down and out, looking up again. Whew, made it.

Here’s the view west and you can see Mt St. Helens ghostly appearance over the closer mountains.
And, here’s that marvelous bridge again - with almost its full length.
But, I forgot to tell about the planes. For $1.00 you can buy a balsa plane in the gift shop and fly it off the top of the tower. Gary’s flew in graceful circles, made a few loops and came to a quiet landing in the bushes below. Beautiful slight.
Back at the bottom, we drove back to the waterfront, parked the car and walked the trail along the waterfront. We saw this photo on a placard along our walk. It’s women packing salmon in 1945. In the late 1800’s, Astoria was known as the ‘salmon canning capital of the world.’ and was the liveliest boom town between Seattle and San Francisco. Legend has it that the salmon were once so plentiful that one could walk across the river on the backs of the fish.
Here is an interesting factoid but I wasn’t sure where to put it in the blog: At the time of his death in 1848, John Jacob Astor was the wealthiest person in the US, leaving an estate estimated to be worth at least $20 million. According to the Forbes ranking in 2007, in US dollars, he would be worth $115 billion, the 4th wealthiest person in American history.

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