Story by CHELSEA GORROW • Photos by ALEX PAJUNAS
Whether you’re looking for the an up-close view of the Astoria Bridge, a tour of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, or just a leisurely stroll through town, perhaps with children or dogs, the Astoria Riverwalk will take you anywhere you want to go.
From Youngs Bay to the Alderbrook neighborhood, the Riverwalk is the Yellow Brick Road of Astoria. It’s what makes the city magical, says City Manager Paul Benoit.
“The Riverwalk hugs the bank of the river for about five miles,” Benoit said. “The magic of Astoria is on the Riverwalk. And the river is spectacular. There’s just nothing like it.”
From the beginning
The Astoria Riverwalk was born from the former Burlington Northern Railroad. When the company left the area, abandoning the tracks was its only option, which left open the possibility of those tracks being divided into tiny chunks and distributed among a variety of property owners. But the city of Astoria found a solution – the federal Rails to Trails program, which allows tracks to be converted into recreational trails. And that’s just what the city did in the 1980s.
“Fortunately, the Burlington Northern Railroad was built back in the 1890s when Astoria was a real industrial town, and railroads are only built on flat land, and the only flat land in Astoria hugs the river,” Benoit explained. The placement of the railroad helped preserve the Riverwalk for today’s use.
But for Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen, the story of the Riverwalk goes back much further.
“The history of our Riverwalk started several thousand years ago,” Van Dusen said. “And I am serious when I say that because the true reason our Riverwalk is so beautiful is because of the Columbia River. We have the most beautiful river in the world right in front of us. So by putting a Riverwalk next to it, it makes the Riverwalk special. It’s the river that’s special.”
The Astoria Riverwalk began to take shape in the form you see it today when students from the University of Oregon’s school of architecture came to Astoria for one term. The students’ purpose was to create architectural drawings for a public pier, two blocks long, from 10th Street to 12th Street.
The problem with the pier, however, was that the city could not afford the $7 million project.
“That’s where the idea of the yellow brick road came from, doing small projects along the way,” Van Dusen said.
Slowly but surely, the Astoria Riverwalk has grown and been enhanced in pieces throughout the years. It now is a solid continuous path that stretches the length of town.
Benoit has led that project as city manager and earlier when he served in his former role of community development director.
“Had the Burlington Northern, who weren’t bringing trains to Astoria anymore, abandoned the line, it would have been broken up into probably 500 different pieces,” Benoit said. “Every property owner along the river would have gotten a little segment of the riverfront and it would have privatized it.”
But through the National Trails Act, the federal government created an opportunity to do something in lieu of abandonment, which at the time was a railroad’s only mechanism to no longer own and operate a railroad, Benoit continued. The trail of the Riverwalk was created. Technically, Benoit said, it’s interim trail use. There have been instances when trails have converted back to rails, but that is unlikely for Astoria.
“If 100 years from now, or 10 years from now, if there were economic reasons to bring a train back to this corridor, we in essence have protected it,” Benoit said. “We’ve held it; it’s still intact.”
There is an option to be both rails and trails, a dual-use corridor if that were to occur. But in Astoria, the city has its own dual use – Old 300.
Old 300 – the name of Astoria’s Riverfront Trolley – came to Astoria in the 1990s, where it underwent restoration work. A barn on the west end of town houses the vehicle. It costs $1 to ride the trolley through town.
Built in 1913, then retired, neglected and restored, the trolley is a popular attraction for visitors and residents alike.
“When we acquired Old 300 it was in Gales Creek, Oregon, on a large farm. And the trolley went through the trees, and just around the cow pasture. And it was fun,” Van Dusen said. “But you take that same trolley and go right next to the Columbia River, that’s what makes the trolley route, that’s what makes the Riverwalk. It is this spectacular river.”
What to see
When you begin your journey on the Astoria Riverwalk from Smith Point, on Youngs Bay near the Best Western Lincoln Inn, you will be led through the Port of Astoria industrial area, under the Astoria Bridge, to the Maritime Memorial Park. From there, a walker, runner, jogger, bicycle rider, skateboarder, rollerblader, or anyone else will be led through a business area.
You can stop at the viewing platform on Sixth Street. Then you reach the downtown, walking through the center of working areas, bordered with fish processing plants, restaurants and shops.
“There are lots of interesting things on both sides, whether it’s fish processing, breweries, activities,” Benoit said.
From there, the trail turns more natural, leading its passengers past the Columbia River Maritime Museum and out towards the Mill Pond development, Safeway and Pier 39. Then comes the Alderbrook Lagoon.
“It’s more natural, and there’s more habitat when you go out that way, and we’ve done that intentionally,” Benoit said. “You go through a lot of different environments, so whether you’re a bird watcher, want quiet, want to visit shops, it’s all there for you.
“The magic of Astoria really is on the Riverwalk.”