History of Clatsop County

It is no coincidence that the place with the most spectacular scenery in the Pacific Northwest is also the place where the most important events in the history of the region have occurred: Clatsop County, Oregon. It is here that the largest river on the West Coast of the United States, the Columbia, meets the Pacific Ocean. It was this river, in 1792, that Captain Robert Gray searched for and finally found on his voyages of exploration up and down the coast. It was this river to the west that Lewis and Clark also searched for and found on their journey across the continent in 1805.

Astoria, OR, looking East up the Columbia River. The Clatsop County Court House on Right. Ca. 1905

Astoria Regatta Race. Ca. 1930

Long before these men ever dreamed of a passage across the continent, the Columbia River had been home to Native American people, providing them with a wealth of natural resources. In a myriad of ways, the river and adjacent marine beaches and woodland entered into the lives of Chinook, Clatsop, Kathlamet and other people of this region. Salmon, shellfish, deer and elk were so abundant and well utilized that if there ever was an Eden, it was here.

The river was their "road" when Concomly, Chief of the Chinooks, built his empire based on trading relationships far inland and up and down the coast and when Coboway, Chief of the Clatsop's, welcomed Lewis and Clark.

The Columbia River became the road for the fur-traders who came in 1811 to build a trading station at Astoria. They remained as a presence here until the mid 1840s when the numbers of fur-bearing animals began to diminish and American settlers flooded the region looking for farmland. Donation Land Claims of 320 and 640 acres were taken up on Clatsop Plains near the shore of the Pacific Ocean, along the Columbia River and Youngs Bay. These pioneers considered the river as little more than a "road" until the arrival of the Hume brothers who built salmon canneries in the 1860s. The process of canning they perfected allowed for the easy transportation of salmon across long distances without spoilage. The public, at first little interested in buying canned salmon, suddenly developed a taste for it that entrepreneurs rushed in to the area to satisfy.

John Shivley, first postmaster in the West. Ca. 1880

Astoria Railroad Dept. Ca. 1907

Canneries sprouted up and down both shores of the river opening up thousands of jobs in this new industry. Hundreds of small two-man fishing boats challenged the dangers of the river to net salmon for the canneries.

Seasonal work in the canneries allowed the new residents time (and money for supplies) to file on land claimed by the U.S. government. The work of clearing land and building fences for pasture land took place first from easily accessible areas in the county, then all the way up mountain tops in the far reaches of the county. Timber, once thought of as a nuisance in the inland areas, however, proved to be more valuable than any other crop when railroads and logging roads provided access.

Today, the river is still a road for the immense cargo ships that cross the treacherous Columbia River bar, known as the "Graveyard of the Pacific." They glide silently upriver carrying cargoes from other points in the U.S. and foreign countries to upriver ports and return carrying wheat and other products from the Columbia River basin, as ships have done now for about two hundred years.

Lew Wilson Dairy in Clatsop County. Ca. 1910

The sublime views and the fascinating history of Clatsop County attract visitors from all over the world. There is a bounty of historical resources here: the Heritage Museum, the Flavel House Museum and the other Victorian houses of Astoria, Fort Clatsop, Fort George (Astoria), and Fort Stevens, the Uppertown Firefighters Museum, the Columbia River Maritime Museum, the historic Clatsop beaches, Seaside, Cannon Beach and Arch Cape, the Lindgren cabin, the hidden inland valleys, the Astoria Column from which these places can be spotted, and, towering above all, Saddle Mountain.