By Katrina Emery
Water defines Astoria. Nestle on a peninsula in the swift Columbia River, the city’s history has always flowed through the water. Lewis and Clark spent a winter nearby on their way to the Pacific. Later, Scandinavian fishermen would bring their heritage and skills to fish “Oregon’s silver,” the gray-scaled salmon.
The place where the river meets the sea was compelling and dangerous to early inhabitants: cultures clashed, salmon became over-fished and economies rose and tumbled while the sandbar storms drew many ships to their end. Astoria stands today as a storied Victorian town, where water still laps under piers and imbeds the air with fog.
Many visitors heading up or down the coast choose to stay at The Cannery Pier Hotel, rebuilt on the site of an old fishermen’s packing union. It sits in an estuary of the Columbia River, on pilings driven into the water 100 years ago.
“We are part of the river, and we try to honor the river,” says hotel representative Donna Quinn. “We hope that our presence here will shine a light on salmon recovery efforts and help folks learn about this rare place.”
The wooden pilings are original, kept from rotting by not being exposed to air. They first held up the Union Fishermen's Cooperative Packing Co, started in 1897 by a group of Finnish fisherman. Over a century later, hotel architect and owner Robert Jacobs is celebrating the site’s history every way he can. The hotel was built to recreate the cannery, long since demolished except for the boatshed (now the bistro). Jacobs, called Jake, took pains to hire local workers who knew the river and remembered the old canneries. During construction the community came out of the woodwork to comment.
“He was kept on his toes by these grumpy old fisherman who came down to watch [construction],” says Quinn. They watched, took videos, and were vocal about how the building should look, telling him what colors specific buildings were. Jacobs built the hotel to be not only a replica of the old cannery, but an homage to the community of fisherman then and now. Using old photographs from the cannery days, the hallways inside are a small exhibition in themselves.
“It’s a huge thing to honor the heritage of the area,” explains Quinn. “We have families with grandparents come in and say look, I remember that.”
Jacobs’ own mother worked at the cannery, which was one of the first cooperatives in the country. Each month the hotel invites a community member to present to guests during their nightly wine and cheese hour. Guests include Astoria’s mayor, a local fisherman poet, Lewis and Clark re-enactments, and Jacobs himself telling the hotel’s story. Locally smoked fish from Josephson’s Smokehouse is served, along with Oregon wines and cheeses.
“People are hungry for a sense of place. Even if they’re just passing through, we want them to know where they are.” And that means pointing them back to the community, to the river, and to the salmon.
From the middle of the 19th century salmon was the major export of the Columbia River: fisherman would at times pull in 40- and 50-pound fish! Due to a downturn in fish population from over harvesting and damning, the canneries closed down by mid-century. Commercial and private fishing remained strong, however. The Astoria-based nonprofit Salmon for All points to fishing industry organizations as early as the turn of the century that lobbied for fish ladders and better sustainable practices. Today that has continued by maintaining a complex balance between industry, ecology, recreation and tourism.
At Cannery Pier, the windows in each room open wide to a breath in the fresh air. Binoculars are available for spying on sea lions or birds, and for viewing Cape Disappointment in Washington (named by a captain having a rough day, the windswept cape is anything but!). The ship report is delivered to each room every morning, so guests can identify which fishing vessels are passing by. When a good catch comes into town, spontaneous barbecues may break out, celebrating the river’s bounty.
Whether the trip is a romantic weekend getaway (complete with Finnish sauna and wine/massage packages) or part of a larger coastal exploration, visitors will find the hotel solidly docked in Astoria’s atmosphere, and a great launching point for discovering the area. Bikes are available to rent, or guests can take advantage of the fleet of chauffeured vintage cars. Heading into the future the hotel is looking into solar-powered features, and installing a few electric car chargers. In every aspect, Cannery Pier hopes to bring folks back to sustaining the city’s river heritage.
"Water is healing,” Quinn says, “and we hope that when people are here, they’re going to listen to the river.”
Katrina loves to eat, drink, and explore, and is currently figuring out how to do those things with a 1 year old in tow. She's lived in Amsterdam, San Francisco, and the cornfields of Nebraska, but Portland, Oregon, has been home for the past 8 years and counting. Find her Pacific Northwest adventures and beyond at www.katrinaemery.com