The Blossoming of GAYstoria

MK Bateman
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Today, Astoria is humorously referred to as “Two gay men from Portland”.

Astoria, Oregon, with its beautiful rolling hill, sandy beaches and picturesque Victorian architecture—it is not just a weekend destination like any other—it’s a town filled with American history and home to a flourishing LGBTQ lifestyle.  The atmosphere is inviting, friendly, artsy, and it’s a favorite getaway with LGBTQ residents of both Portland and Seattle.  The bars and restaurants in town cultivate a nicely mixed following, and the overall attitude in Astoria is very gay-friendly.  

A Bit of History

Situated on the south shore of the Columbia River, on Oregon’s North Coast, it began as the winter campsite for the Lewis and Clark Expedition in November 1805, but it didn’t become a permanent settlement until 1811 when New York industrialist John Jacob Astor founded Fort Astoria as a fur trading post.  Astor’s company sold its interest to the Canadians during the War of 1812, and so for the next thirty years, the fur trade would remain in the control of the British.  

Astoria soon developed a huge fishing and canning industry, thanks to its deepwater port.  This triggered a huge influx of Chinese immigrants who were the largest population holding jobs mostly in the canning industry. Scandinavian immigrants, mainly Finnish and Norwegian, found work in the fishing industry.  

Astoria is the county seat of Clatsop County—a blue county surrounded by red-leaning neighbors.  For a large part, this is due to the descendants of those Finnish and Norwegian immigrants. “It is common knowledge that Finland is a super progressive country—for no other reason than sheer practicality,” says fourth-generation Finnish Astorian Dinah Urell.  “It works out a lot better if both men and women are treated equally, because there’s a better balance in society.”  She sees a direct link to the progressive attitude in Astoria and the large Finnish-and Scandinavian-American populace.

When Dinah moved back to Astoria from Los Angeles fifteen years ago, she was pleasantly surprised to find that LGBTQ organizing was emerging.  At the time, the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance—a right-wing legislative group—was using Oregon as a test ground to launch anti-gay legislation.  “That was when gay and lesbian visibility began to materialize—the LGBT community and their supporters fought against the measures,” she recalls.  The organizing proved successful; none of the proposed legislation passed.  

The fringe benefit was a blossoming of the LGBTQ community in Astoria. “We started to grow a community with potlucks and movie nights. We even had a newsletter that included advertising from local businesses.” Dinah remembers. They developed various social activities, including a yearly party to celebrate the Stonewall Riots, and they marched in the local parades and had community mixers.

Astoria recently celebrated its second annual Pride Festival in June, with many younger people working on it. “Astoria wouldn’t have become so welcoming if we hadn’t done the harder work twenty years ago.  Acceptance is growing,” Dinah acknowledges.

Since the 1990s, Astoria has seen an influx of artists, chefs and artisans who have flocked to Astoria not only to live in a more accepting place, but also for its scenic beauty. Today, Astoria is humorously referred to as “Two gay men from Portland,” because of the numerous gay couples who have purchased homes and businesses in town. They arrived attracted to the Victorian architecture, the reasonable housing market and the splendor of this little city.

“I just had a friend move here—a single lesbian in her sixties,” Dinah says.  “She decided to move, because she could have space and fresh air, be motivated to work on her art, and could live her life outright.”  That is Astoria today.

Things to Do

Astoria Riverwalk

The best place to start your exploration of Astoria is its Riverwalk.  Begin at the Port of Astoria with ships from around the world.  Walk under the 4.1-mile-long Astoria-Megler Bridge, with its spectacular views.  Attractions on the Riverwalk include:

Columbia River Maritime MuseumThis museum explores the history of maritime travel in the area. Sights include the bridge of a World War II warship and the Lightship Columbia—a National Historic Landmark that guided ships to safety at the mouth of the Columbia River.

The historic Hanthorn CanneryLocated on Pier 39, it is the oldest cannery building still standing and the former headquarters of Bumble Bee Seafood. The museum displays items used during the building’s heyday.

Astoria Riverfront TrolleyTake the historic Trolley “Old 300” along the scenic Astoria Riverfront. Built in 1913 by the American Car Company of St. Louis, Mo, the Trolley was restored and began seasonal service in 1999.  Volunteer crews interpret the sites and history along Astoria’s waterfront for passengers. Pay $1 per boarding. Ride as long as you like or pay $2 and ride all-day long.

Clatsop County Historical Society Heritage Museum Built in 1904 as Astoria’s City Hall, this building is now home to the Clatsop County Historical Society’s regional museum. Explore the history of Clatsop County through temporary and permanent exhibits featuring Native Americans, early pioneers, immigrants, and local industries. The Society’s Research Center and Archives are also at this location.

Flavel House MuseumBuilt in 1885 in the Queen Anne–Victorian architectural style by one of Astoria’s first millionaires.  It is now a house museum with period décor.

Oregon Film MuseumHoused in the old Clatsop County Jail used in the first scene of the 1985 gem “The Goonies,” this museum focuses on movies filmed in Oregon.  The museum opened in 2010, coinciding with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the film.  According to its website, “The museum features hands-on exhibits related to films that were made in Oregon, which include, in addition to ‘The Goonies,’ ‘Kindergarten Cop,’ ‘Free Willy,’ ‘Twilight,’ ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’ and ‘National Lampoon’s Animal House.’”  Who doesn’t love “The Goonies”?

The Astoria ColumnThe highest point in Astoria (600 feet above sea level) is designated with this column, which for over ninety years has “served as a beacon of the Pacific Northwest Coast.”

Fort Stevens State ParkOriginally one of the Three Fort Harbor Defenses, this fort was in service from the Civil War through World War II.  Today, Fort Stevens is a 4,200-acre park with camping, swimming, hiking, and even a shipwreck.  From the park, there are great views of Clatsop Spit, a giant sandbar on the Pacific coast at the mouth of the Columbia River, which has been a sailor’s menace since Astoria’s founding.

The Astoria Sunday MarketOpen from 10 ᴀ.ᴍ. to 3 ᴘ.ᴍ. every Sunday from Mother’s Day to mid-October on Twelfth Street in downtown Astoria. This market features a variety of arts, crafts, produce and culinary delights.

Lewis and Clark National and State Historical ParksFort Clatsop is the site where the Lewis and Clark Expedition wintered from December 7, 1805, until March 23, 1806. The park includes a reproduction of the 50-feet square fort; a visitors center; historic canoe landing and miles of hiking trails, including the Fort to Sea Trail.

The Liberty TheatreThis authentic 1920s vaudeville palace in downtown Astoria operates as a performing arts venue these days.  

Museum of Whimsy: Housed in a neo-classical bank building, this museum features a collection of curious, whimsical and wacky items.  Not to be missed!

Seaside AquariumLocated in Seaside Oregon (about 15 miles south of Astoria) the aquarium is celebrating its eightieth anniversary. This is one of the oldest aquariums on the west coast and features the famous Harbor Seals of Seaside Aquarium.

 Dining

Carruthers: A new addition to downtown Astoria, this sophisticated bar and bistro features a 1920s-era feel, craft cocktails and tequila-oyster shooters.  

Drina Daisy: Bosnian comfort food, which they describe as “a substantial use of meats, cheese, potatoes, various doughs and breads cooked in a style with notable similarities to Mediterranean as well as Eastern European cuisines.”  Yum!

Albatross: A farm-to-table restaurant, featuring fresh seafood, a variety localvore dishes, and Prohibition-style cocktails.

To explore more dining options, click here.

Craft Brewing

Fort George Brewery and Public House: This spacious brewpub, in a repurposed service station and warehouse, serves housemade sausages, burgers, fish and chips and (of course!) award-winning beer.

Reach Break Brewing: New in 2017.  With a seven-barrel system, Reach Break produces staples like pale ales, stouts and porters while the sour beers age in barrels beneath the main brewery. For now, the taproom and lounge area are open on a limited basis while production ramps up.

For a list of other breweries, click here.

Accommodations

Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa: Built on the pilings of the former Union Fish Cannery, this boutique hotel provides rooms with stunning views of the Columbia River and Astoria-Megler Bridge.  Known for its romance, guests can cozy up by the private fireplace on chilly nights or ship gaze with binoculars and Pendleton blankets provided in each room. There’s a great little spa on-site and includes wine-and-salmon or lox-hour each evening.  Also included is their snazzy, old-school transport into town in vintage automobiles.  

The Commodore Hotel: A nautical-themed boutique hotel that originally opened in 1925 and was recently renovated to preserve the charming original doors and windows.  Keep in mind, some rooms share hall baths, so plush robes are included so you will look your best if you happen to run into another guest.

Norblad Hotel and Hostel: This hotel, located in an historic building, features both traditional rooms and bunk-style hostel accommodations.  The Norblad is unique with its collection of small apartments dedicated to nurturing a community of artists, writers and students.

Getting There

Portland International Airport is about a two-hour drive from Astoria and is the closest commercial airport.  Route 30 and U.S. Route 101 serve Astoria.  

The 4.1-mile (6.6 km) Astoria–Megler Bridge connects Astoria to nearby Washington State.

MK Bateman is a writer and recovering urbanite, based in Central Vermont. He writes about an assortment of subjects, including travel, food, cinema and health. He is currently working on his first novel.

Connect with MK Bateman:

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