June 28, 2017

I don’t recall when our family made its first trip to Astoria, Oregon, but I can still bring to mind the glum, puzzled expressions on the faces of my sweatshirt-clad daughters as they emerged from our new, white Previa van. Each face seemed to ask, “Dad, why did you bring us here? What is there to do in this cold, gray, dismal place?” Thinking back to the rundown Astoria of the early 90’s that greeted us, I can’t say what exactly had motivated the trip, but I’m guessing that, as the fearless instigator of many family car journeys, I had probably gleaned from the nightly 11 o’clock weather forecasts that Astoria was 1) located on the mouth of the Columbia, and 2) a city of some importance and worthy of a visit. Had I paid closer attention, either to a proper map, or a weather almanac, or preferably both, I might have saved our family from making a potentially disastrous trip. Little did I know then that many others had come to this spot before me, driven by a similar mixture of adventure and curiosity, and they had suffered for it.

In fact, nearly 25 years would pass before I sat down with a hardback copy of Peter Stark‘s Astoria, subtitled: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival. The book had been a gift from my brother, and like the other hefty tomes he had sent me over the years, it had sat unopened and neglected on my bookshelf, an unhappy reminder of my limited capacities as a reader. In fact, it would be there still except that, on the urging of a teaching colleague, my wife and I had recently sat through the new play, Making Astoria – Part One, at Portland Center Stage. The play, although reasonably entertaining and suspenseful, was a long one, and the thought of waiting several months, or maybe years, for the conclusion in Part Two was disturbing, particularly once I realized that the entire story was sitting on my bookshelf.

The story of Astoria’s founding is really quite interesting and Stark tells it well. Sadly, there are more characters and plot twists than I can comfortably relate so I’ll just make two observations and try to avoid spoiling the outcome of what was once a well-known story.

First, economic globalization, to my great surprise, is nothing new. Astoria, which I had seen described during my first visit as John Jacob Astor’s “fur trading post”, was actually the lynchpin in a global scheme for making money hand over fist. Astor had learned that furs could be sold at a premium in Chinese markets, and he conceived of a global supply chain that began with trappers in the Pacific Northwest shipping their goods down the Columbia to Astoria, and then continued with a fleet of ships that would move the furs across the Pacific, before continuing to circumnavigate the globe with other trade goods and ultimately returning to Astoria. It was a bold scheme with many interlocking parts.

Second, hubris underlies so much of our lives. In the case of Astor and his partners hubris took many forms: arrogance towards, and mistreatment of, the First Peoples they encountered, underestimation of the physical challenges and dangers posed by long journeys across unknown terrain, unwarranted confidence in the ability and willingness of his business partners to work for the common good, and failing to reckon with the psychological hardships posed by Astoria’s unrelenting weather. It’s a wonder that anyone survived.

Fortunately for the family, my hubris operated on a much smaller scale, and we were able to enjoy ourselves after all. First, we resorted to our tried-and-true procedure for dealing with any strange situation: we found a warm, comfortable place to eat. Physically restored, we then made two accidental discoveries that provided the day’s entertainment: the Columbia River Maritime Museum and the Astoria Column. The day had been saved, but it would be another several years before “let’s go to Astoria” was met with any enthusiasm in our family.


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