Geeking Out Over Astoria

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Columbia LightshipColumbia Lightship

My daughter shows her excitement about the Columbia Lightship.

This past weekend my wife had a meeting in Astoria, Oregon, so we decided to tag along and make a short vacation. We’d never been to Astoria before and I didn’t know much about it (other than that The Goonies was set and filmed there). We only spent most of one day there, but my kids and I learned a whole lot about a wide range of topics, and I’m hoping we’ll get a chance to go back and explore things in more detail in the future.

Astoria PanoramaAstoria Panorama

Astoria: Youngs Bay on the left, the mighty Columbia River on the right.

Astoria was the first permanent U.S. settlement on the Pacific coast, and the site of the first Post Office west of the Rockies. It was named after John Jacob Astor, whose American Fur Company funded an expedition there and established Fort Astoria in 1811. (Lewis and Clark had spent a rough winter nearby a few years earlier at Fort Clatsop.) Astoria became an important port town in the fur trade, and later developed a booming cannery trade for all the seafood. Today it’s less of a port town because of Portland and Seattle, but there’s a lot of history in this seaside city.

Astoria ColumnAstoria Column

Astoria Column from the outside, and a view of the spiral staircase inside.

Our first stop of the morning was the Astoria Column. It’s a 125-foot tower, built by the Astor family in 1926, and it’s up on a high hill that overlooks the city. The outside of the tower has a spiral frieze that depicts scenes of early Oregon history, and the inside has a 164-step spiral staircase that you can climb to the top. From a distance, it doesn’t really look like a structure that you could go inside, but it’s a lot bigger once you get close up.

CATV siteCATV site

A historic site for cable TV aficionados.

It’s a good workout getting to top, but the view is absolutely worth it. You can see the Columbia and the impressive 4.2-mile-long Astoria–Megler Bridge that crosses into Washington, and the entire city spread out between the Columbia and Youngs Bay. Also, you can buy little balsa wood airplanes at the gift shop at the bottom, and throw them from the top of the column. (We tried some paper airplanes, but the wind was a little too strong for those.)

And if you’re a fan of cable television, this is also a significant spot for a different reason: it’s the location of the first Community Antenna Television (CATV) installation in the U.S. Before “cable” as we know it today, some places had trouble receiving signals over the air because of geography. Ed Parsons’ solution was to erect a large “community antenna” to receive the signals, and then run cables to individual homes. The system carried its first transmission, from Seattle’s KRSC-TV, on Thanksgiving Day, 1948. A plaque near the tower commemorates the “beginning of cable TV”: you could make a pilgrimage there and leave offerings of old rabbit ear antennas.

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