Monday, May 9, 2011

Failure and Redemption in Astoria

Astoria is the oldest city west of the Rockies and celebrates its bicentennial, beginning with its opening ceremonies on May 21, with re-enactments, tall ships, lectures, a celebratory ball.

Later, in August, the British Lord Astor of Hever, John Jacob Astor the VIII, will visit and be joined by the Burgermeister of Astoria's German sister city -- I'm not kidding here -- Walldorf.

The real brand of Astoria is Lewis and Clark, whose bicentennial celebration was six years ago.  But the colossal business failure suffered by the German immigrant clerk who became America's richest man had a role in keeping the Pacific Northwest of this country out of British hands.  Along with real estate, John Jacob Astor built a business trapping and trading in furs across the northern tier of America and soon came up with an idea that would have him utterly dominate the global fur business. 

Before the Europeans came to North America, estimates suggest that the continent was home to 400 million beaver.  In many places, beaver pelts were used as money.  Hudson's Bay Company records at the end of he 17th century show that a beaver pelt would buy a pound of tobacco, a one pound kettle, four pounds of shot or two hatchets. 

It was truly a global business as beaver was equally prized in Europe as it was in China.  It was one of the few things the clever animal could not adapt to.  As early as 1830, the beaver had disappeared in Ohio and was quickly disappearing in the Great Lakes region.  When Astor thought about it, the western part of North America was the Saudi Arabia of beaver.  Astor would be the first global business to locate in Oregon. 

Astor would dominate the market by superior logistics stemming from a chain of trading posts across the country supplied from a port on the Columbia River.  Six years after Lewis and Clark vacated Fort Clatsop, Astor sent the Tonquin, under the command of Jonathan Thorn, to establish his Columbia footprint.   

Thorn was a one of a number of poor personnel choices for the mission.  Astor hedged his bet with a overland team headed by Wilson Price Hunt with the idea that they would arrive at the same time and immediately have the logistics in place to compete against the great Canadian trappers. 

Thorn orders three reluctant crew members into the
Columbia River bar saying:  "How can your cross the
ocean and still be afraid of the water?"  The men are lost.

Astor also saw this as another step in the ocean to ocean destiny of America and hired one of the most famous writers of his day, Washington Irving,  to make sure that his market share of history would be assured as well.

All of this unravelled over three years.  The arrogance of Thorn led to the death of all on board when the Tonquin's crew was murdered and the ship blown up.  Hunt's overland component lost all its supplies and arrived, starving, after 18 months.  The British won the war of 1812 and promptly occupied the defenseless fort.  Under the British flag, the other partners, Canadians all save Hunt, turned against Astor and sold his company to the Northwest Fur Company, its Canadian competitor. 

The entire story, minus most of the cheating, conniving and mean spiritedness of Astor's team, is displayed on the Astoria Column, a symbol of this city's ups and downs and of its perseverance and resilience.  It flourishes today, like the town, because it just wouldn't fall in on itself, or have its lovely images blasted away by Pacific storms without working for their renewal. 

We can thank two people in particular for this lovely monument.  First, Ralph Budd, the youngest man ever to run a railroad.  He was CEO of the Great Northern Railway where he would build the Cascade Tunnel, nearly eight miles long and still the longest railroad tunnel in the country.  He was among the most able men of his time and his considerable energies powered a weakness for Lewis and Clark.  In tribute, he set out to build 12 monuments to their journey, concluding with the Astoria Column in 1926 at trail's end. 

The Column, built in 1926, would be decorated by a diorama picturing the history here at the mouth of the Columbia -- the natives, the discovery of the river by Captain Gray, the Voyage of Discovery, the failure of John Jacob Astor’s company, the coming of the railroads, all set on Astoria’s highest point. 

The art spun around the concrete tower was applied with an Italian plaster technique that was not compatible with the massive weather of Astoria.  The images began flaking off as soon as they were installed.  In three years the Pacific storms had essentially blown the images off the column's concrete.    I remember vividly seeing it at two different times.  Once in 1952, after one of its gaudy, colorful and ineffective repairs, it glowed at this child with a powerful and lasting iridescence.  Seeing it again about 1980.  It was a metaphor for that time in Astoria.  Fished out.  Logged off.  Out of breath.  The images barely visible.
The Column in 1983

Budd's partner in keeping the remarkable images on the structure is Jordan Schnitzer, whose family started in the scrap metal business underneath Portland’s Ross Island Bridge and moved to real estate and art, good preparation for the risky business of Astoria Column saving. 
After a conversation with Astoria's mayor in the mid-eighties, Schnitzer founded the organization that gave the 125 foot column a toothbrush level cleaning only to find that perhaps 20 percent of the art existed below the dirt and grime.  They then hired a big time restorer, Frank Preusser of the Getty Museum, with restorations of the Great Sphinx and Ankgor Wat in his resume.  Where images did not exist, Preusser followed the original scratch lines of the first artist, Attilo Pusteria.  

Here was a miracle.  It was if the scaffolding went up not only around the column, but around the city as well.  The coming bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition began a toothbrush level clean up and shape up of Astoria.  When the scaffolding came down, the city was celebrating itself and its triumph as much as the the courage and resilience of the great expedition.  

The changes in the column reflect the changes in the city.  Full of charm, food and its own energy, it has faced down the recession better than the state in which it resides.  Seeing the city today is to see the crisp outlines on the column.  Its desperation of 30 years ago replaced with the realities of its purpose and the firming up of its confident place along the great river.

There is nothing that Astor, Lewis or Clark or anyone else could have done that this lovely city has not done to, and for, itself today.

Close ups of artwork

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