The Clatsop Indians, a Chinook-speaking group, lived in this area for thousands of years before Astoria ’s written history began. When Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805, the Clatsops numbered about 400 people, living in three villages on the south side of the Columbia River, but began a steady decline soon after contact with whites.
The region was first chronicled by Don Bruno de Heceta, a Spanish explorer who sailed near the Columbia’s mouth in August 1775. He named it the Bay of the Assumption of Our Lady, but the strong current prevented his ship from entering. American presence on the Columbia began with Captain Robert Gray’s discovery of the river in May 1792, which he christened after his fur-trading ship, Columbia Rediviva.
Thereafter, Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition of 1803–1806, with its winter encampment at Fort Clatsop , south of present-day Astoria, helped incorporate the Pacific Northwest as part of a new nation. In 1811, John Jacob Astor’s agents built Fort Astoria on a hillside in what would eventually grow into Astoria —the first American settlement west of the Rockies.
Despite temporary occupation by the British between 1813 and 1818, the fort and a shaky American presence were able to hold on until settlers came to farm the region during the Oregon Trail era of the 1840s. During the Civil War, Fort Stevens  was built at the mouth of the Columbia to guard against a Confederate naval incursion.
From that time until the 1900s, the dominant immigrants to the Astoria area were Scandinavian. Commerce grew with the export of lumber and foodstuffs to gold rush–era San Francisco and the Far East. Salmon canneries became the mainstay of Astoria’s economy during the 1870s, helping it grow into Oregon ’s second-largest city—and a notorious shanghaiing port. Over the ensuing decades, logging, fishing, and shipbuilding coaxed the population up to 20,000 by World War II.
Some believe that the port city might have grown to rival San Francisco  or Seattle  had it not been for the setback of a devastating fire in 1922. In the early morning hours of December 8, a pool hall on Commercial Street caught fire, and the flames spread rapidly among the wooden buildings, many supported on wooden pilings, in Astoria’s business district. By daybreak more than 200 businesses in a 32-block area had been reduced to smoldering heaps. The downtown was rebuilt in the ensuing years, largely in brick and stone, but the devastation changed the fate of Astoria.
Near the end of World War II, a Japanese submarine’s shelling of Fort Stevens  made it the only fortification on American soil to have sustained an attack in a world war. After the war, the region’s fortunes ebbed and flowed with its resource-based economy. In an attempt to supplement that economy with tourism, the State Highway Division began constructing the Astoria-Megler Bridge in 1962 to connect Oregon  and Washington . When it opened in 1966, the bridge provided the final link in the 1,625-mile-long U.S. 101.
Unfortunately, preserving Astoria ’s glory days could not make up for the closing of the canneries and the decline of logging and fishing. The modern era has been characterized by a steady cultivation of tourism dollars, resulting in the thoughtful development of the waterfront , including the four-mile River Walk and plans for a conference center at the port. Astoria is becoming an increasingly popular port-of-call for cruise ships, with more than a dozen visiting per year. Whether or not Astoria’s ship ever comes in, let’s hope the unpretentious charm of this hillside city by the sea will not be lost in the process.