ASTORIA — To be somewhere is one thing. To really know where you are is another.
Capt. John Meares, an early English fur trader, learned that lesson the hard way when he thought he had found the entrance to the Columbia River, but ended up drifting into what he dubbed “Cape Disappointment” instead.
While few of us these days are likely to make the same mistake as Meares, we should still be cautious not to overlook opportunities to know our region and its history just a little bit better. The local museums that provide these opportunities play an ever-increasing role in attracting visitors and giving them valuable context for their time here.
Dave Pearson, deputy director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum (CRMM), has been letting tourists and locals alike ‘know where they are’ for a couple decades now. It’s a job he takes pretty seriously.
“For most of our visitors it’s a brand new experience, the Columbia River and the Oregon Coast. A lot of them are experiencing it for the first time, so it’s important to orientate them with what it is, and then tell the stories,” said Pearson.
While our local museums are chock-full of great relics of times past, stories are what make the artifacts come to life.
“We’re always collecting all these amazing artifacts,” explained Pearson. “The next step is to build a story around it. How do we present this? How do we make this interesting?”
Success in doing this plays an important part in enhancing how much residents and visitors alike value Clatsop County and the Columbia River estuary.
It goes without saying that before a story can be told it has to be discovered. And not all artifacts reveal their secrets as easily as our more modern stories often do. The process can involve a little detective work. A few years back when a very unusual rigging block was discovered partially buried on an Oregon beach, museum officials were immediately consulted.
The pulley looked as though it had been used as a standing rig for a large sail, but it wasn’t its function that made it odd, it was its shape. Asymmetrical and undulating, the block was not machined into a perfect circle, but rather handmade, meaning it could old, really old.
CRMM researchers wondered if it might have been lost in one of Spain’s earliest explorations of the Northwest coast. Officials contacted a Manila, Philippines museum which checked images of the block against their records and ultimately confirmed the artifact was indeed lost in the wreck of a vessel from the earliest Spanish galleon, which made it over 500 years old.
“It was an unusual enough shape and the Spanish had their own design that we could trace it back to drawings that they had in their archives,” said Pearson. “That’s kind of the behind-the-scenes that curatorial does. Finding out what the object is. Matching it. Radiocarbon dating. Everything that’s connected to that (process).”
The rigging block was eventually part of an exhibit titled “Early Oregon Coast Exploration.”
In 2015, the Maritime Museum saw over 115,000 visitors, said Pearson, who said he has seen “steady growth” from year to year.
He thinks more visitors are coming from Portland, and has also witnessed a lot more traveling through the Northwest from out of state. “But you see people from all over the country,” said Pearson.
Cruise ship passengers come too. “The cruise ships bring in a variety of people from all over the world.”
McAndrew “Mac” Burns, executive director for the Clatsop County Historical Society (CCHS), said that the Flavel House Museum keeps the most accurate stats of where its visitors arrive from. Each visitor fills out a “calling card.”
For 2015, Burns reported approximately 5 percent as locals, 10 percent from Oregon and Washington, and the remaining 85 percent from outside the Pacific Northwest, including many from around the world.
“Astoria’s been discovered,” said Burns. “All of our facilities have had tremendous attendance increases.”
The Clatsop County Heritage Museum hosted some 68,000 visitors last year.
Percentage-wise, however, the biggest increase, said Burns, has been at the Oregon Film Museum, which served as the county jail from 1914 to 1976. Attendance numbers have jumped almost 20 percent each year since the museum opened in 2010.
Visitors can see behind-the-scene footage from “Kindergarten Cop,” wander in and out of the surprisingly small cells, and read about notorious prisoners who escaped, or, “took French leave,” from the jail, as one historical document noted.
In addition to the famous “Goonies” escape scene, the jail appeared in “Short Circuit,” “Come See the Paradise,” and “a few seconds of stock footage in one of the first seasons of ‘21 Jump Street,’” said Burns.
Seeing as “The Goonies” was filmed right here in Astoria, Burns said, “We realized there was a huge potential audience.”
The museum covers many of the famous films created in Oregon, and some not-so-famous, like the first purportedly filmed in Astoria. “The Fisherman’s Bride,” released in 1908, was a silent film; its theme, appropriately Astorian.
“It’s a shanghaied story,” explained Burns.
Still officially a county building, CCHS rents the downstairs for a dollar a year to run the OFM. The upstairs is still used for county storage.
Burns likes that there is an educational component, even to the film museum. “You see it’s a whole lot of people, not just an actor in front of a camera.”
Exhibits have expanded at the OFM. You can even film yourself and friends performing scenes from some of Oregon’s iconic films. “It’s not a tumor,” a teenager could be heard shouting as his parents filmed the whole thing. Additions have cut into a space was not that big to begin with.
“It’s a small building, I mean, it’s a jail, so you can’t really expand out so much,” explained Burns. With more artifacts of interest worth sharing but a lack of exhibition space, CCHS ultimately acquired the long-vacant Morris Glass building, diagonally across from OFM with a long-term goal of expansion.
For right now though, Burns is working with what he’s got, always finding new ways and old treasures that can help tell a story. But he’s also relying on others to see value in the faded relics of our past.
“One of my favorite lines is — ‘We were on our way to the dump, and we thought of you,’” said Burns.
Anyone starting or ending their tour of area museums in Astoria would be foolish to skip the Clatsop County Heritage Museum. Housed in the beautiful former city hall, its archives and exhibits are infused with Clatsop County history and oddities. It’s definitely Astoria-centric, with one eye on a colorful past that will make the best of us blush, and the other on the hardworking tradition and great people that built the place out of the mud. The Heritage Museum does a fine job of giving one the lay of the land.
“Strangely enough, Astoria is just this crossroads,” said Director Mac Burns.
Truly, within the Heritage Museum one will find tales of German spies, out-of-control Finnish journalism and continent-shaking Indian revolutionaries. The area has been international since day one. Spanish, French, Canadian, British, Russian, Chinook, Clatsop, Chinese, Hawaiian, American, have all plied these waters and wandered these shores, imagining the place as the key to an empire or even the gates to the Northwest Passage.
A rich archive of photographs, documents and artifacts gives life to the Heritage Museum. All of it like a window into the region’s fabled past — whether it be a photograph of a Chinese Dragon stretching through the wooden streets of downtown Astoria in 1900, or an antique ‘Norwegian beer bowl’ emblazoned with the words, “Come neighbor sit down. You shall get a taste first of my wife’s Christmas glog.”
The Heritage Museum’s popular show “Virtue and Vice” is gone for now, but there’s still some wall space dedicated to Astoria’s gleefully seedy past. You can read actual letters between city officials concerned about the proliferation of “sporting women” and “soiled doves.” One 1942 account describes such women reporting names “Daphne Delight, Rose LeFleur and Candy Kidd.”
Seek out the upstairs of the museum and you’ll find an entire corner containing the hardwood bar of the Lourve, which was once one of Astoria’s most infamous bar and brothel combos. If the ambiance doesn’t lure your imagination into the past, the stunning craftsmanship will leave you shaking your head saying — ‘They just don’t make ‘um like they used to.’