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The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2013

From the blues to the big top, we’ve picked the most intriguing small towns to enjoy arts and smarts

(Illustrated maps by John S. Dykes)

5. Astoria, OR

Astoria, OR
(Brian Smale)

They’re picking Dungeness crab down at Bornstein Seafoods. Chowder’s on the hob at Josephson’s Smokehouse and the chef at Baked Alaska is preparing thundermuck tuna. In a dental office at the foot of 12th Street, patients sit in a chair that overlooks the Columbia River on its last massive surge to the Pacific Ocean. When the dentist disappears, it could be he’s gone out to the porch to see if there’s a sturgeon on his line.

One way or another, it’s about fish in this town. Wild salmon put Astoria on the map two centuries ago when 16 million of them swam upriver to spawn every year. Salmon fishing earned fortunes, gave work to immigrants, turned canneries into mints and lined the steep streets with flush banks, proud wood-steepled churches and Victorian mansions. And so they still call it “Little San Francisco.”

But time passes. Too many fish were taken. Dams rose, deterring the salmon spawn. The Bumble Bee cannery pulled up stakes and the plywood mill closed down, leaving Astoria a sorry fish carcass of a town. “Under a grey and leaden sky / A little city slowly dies,” the fisherman-poet Dave Densmore recited to me. (These days you can catch Densmore, who has a permanent tattoo of grime around his fingernails, reciting verse at Astoria’s annual FisherPoets Gathering.)

Then, it was as if Astoria put its foot down. In 1995 citizens raised more than a million dollars to restore the Astoria Column, a 125-foot-tall icon on Coxcomb Hill, wreathed in plaster murals that celebrate red-letter events in Astoria’s past, such as the arrival of the weary Lewis and Clark expedition at the Columbia River estuary in 1805 and John Jacob Astor’s establishment of a fur-trading colony seven years later—the first Anglo settlement west of the Rockies.

The pitifully triplexed 1925 Liberty Theater reopened in 2005—with original chandeliers and opulent Italianate décor. It hosts 200 events a year and anchors redevelopment around Commercial Street, a neighborhood alive with galleries, bookstores, cafés, microbreweries, a farmers market and seafood restaurants.

The Queen Anne-style Flavel House, built in 1885 with 14-foot ceilings and 11-foot, Eastlake-inspired pocket doors, was the domain of George Flavel, a Columbia River Bar pilot, and is now one of several Clatsop County Historical Society museums. Another, in the old county jail, shows movies made in town, such as The Goonies, a 1985 Steven Spielberg pirate-treasure adventure that has achieved cult status, at least locally. The soaring Columbia River Maritime Museum tells stories about treacherous storms, ships wrecked at the mouth of the river and heroic U.S. Coast Guard lifesavers.

Diversification helped bring the fish business back, and lumber companies now send enormous heaps of hemlock to Asia. Visiting cruise ships have played a role in Astoria redux, though movers, shakers and poets vow to make sure its blue-collar ring never fades.

They can’t do anything about the weather—close to 200 rainy days a year. On overcast mornings the bridge to Washington is just a pencil sketch, and some nights look like a Thames River nocturne by Whistler. How to cope? Good beer and coffee does it for ruddy-cheeked Chris Nemlowill, who co-founded the Fort George Brewery and favors baggy shorts in all weather. Of course, when it’s beautiful, long-timers say, Astoria is the only place to be.


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