ABOARD THE S.S. LEGACY – Like a gigantic history book with pages reaching to the sky, the Astoria Column celebrates the Oregon city’s storied past.
“The column was built in 1926 and is 125 feet tall,” said Sheri Mitchell, Astoria Column director. “You can go inside and climb the steps to the top for a fantastic view. There are 164 steps going up.”
And 164 steps coming back down. Take note of that before starting a climb and stop by the small gift shop to pick up a toy airplane glider for $1.
“It’s fun to throw those off the top of the column and see how far they’ll go,” Mitchell said. “They are biodegradable so they don’t harm the environment.”
Sitting in a wooded spot atop Astoria’s highest hill, the Column overlooks the city and the surrounding rivers, forest, mountains and ocean. Views alone are worth the trip. You can see the great Pacific Ocean to the west, the mighty Columbia River to the north, snow-capped volcanoes of the Cascade Range on the east and Saddle Mountain on the south.
The landmark was patterned after the Trajan Column in Rome and is the world’s only piece of memorial architecture made of reinforced concrete with a pictorial frieze in sgraffito technique. The original price tag was $27,133.96.
The Astoria Column is the final, crowning monument in a series of 12 historical markers erected in the early 1900s between St. Paul, Minnesota; and Astoria. The markers were the brainchild of Ralph Budd, president of the Great Northern Railroad, who wanted to salute early settlers for their important role in the United States stretch to the Pacific Coast.
For 300 years, the world’s mighty powers – Spain, England, France and Russia – had competed for this prime land that today constitutes the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming. The settlement of Astoria in 1811 was said to be crucial to America’s claim to the Northwest Territory.
“If things had turned out different, we might be speaking Canadian here today,” said Ryan Downs, heritage director on the S.S. Legacy.
To create the Astoria Column, Budd and architect Electus Litchfield retained Italian immigrant artist, Attilo Pusterla, known for his expertise in a bas-relief technique called sgraffito. An Italian Renaissance art form, sgraffito combines paint and plaster for the scenes.
“The artist was 65 years old when he did this and he hung from a donut scaffold for seven months to do it,” Mitchell said. “Then he came back when he was 75 years old to retouch it.”
After years of weathering and an ill-guided attempt at coating the column with tung oil to preserve it, the monument began to darken so badly that the scenes were illegible.
“By 1988, it was so dark it looked like a smokestack,” Mitchell said. “You could hardly see the art.”
A $1 million restoration in 1995 remedied that and another $700,000 touchup is set to begin. “We are very proud of it and want to keep it looking as nice as we can,” Mitchell said.
Winding around the column, the art recounts the history of Astoria starting with the scene closest to the column’s base depicting the area before white people arrived. The scene features the forest primeval with wildlife, including a beaver, a key element in the fur trade. Seems strange not to see any Native Americans in the depiction since they had occupied the region for at least 10,000 years.
One of the art works depicts when the Lewis & Clark expedition crossed the mountains. In both their westbound and eastbound travels, the Corps of Discovery confronted inclement weather, near-starvation, and great tribulation in the Bitterroot Mountains, part of the broad chain known as the Rockies.
Another scene shows the Lewis & Clark expedition reaching the Pacific Ocean in November 1805. The Corps of Discovery examined the north shore of the Columbia from its base, Station Camp. After a reconnaissance of Cape Disappointment and a polling of the party, Captains Lewis and Clark decided to spend the winter on the south side of the river.
A pivotal point in history commemorates the transfer of Astoria to the Northwest Company. Having learned of the outbreak of a second war with Great Britain, later known as the War of 1812, John Jacob Astor’s partners feared that the British navy might sail into the Columbia River and seize their fort.
In October 1813, the “partners in the field” in Oregon dissolved the Pacific Fur Company and sold out to the Canadian-based North West Company of Montreal.
With the establishment of American Protestant missions to the Indians in 1834 and 1836, the stage was set to publicize the good soil, timber, fish, and climate of the Oregon country, as depicted in the coming of the pioneers art scene. By 1850, more than 10,000 American citizens had immigrated overland to Oregon. At the very top of the column is the State Seal of Oregon.
Climbing back on our tour bus, we chattered about what we had seen, who had climbed to the top and where we were off to next. On an S.S. Legacy cruise, there is never a dull moment. Some quiet relaxing times, of course, but never dull.
May 29, 2014
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch