Digest>Archives> July 1997

The Astoria Column


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The first person to the top, Oskar Hovden.
Photo by: Courtesy of Clatsop Historical Society

Towering above Astoria, Oregon, on a promontory, that commands a panoramic vista of the ocean, rivers and mountains, sits the Astoria Column which commemorates the westward sweep of discovery and migration which brought settlement and civilization to what became known as the Sunset Empire.

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On July 22, 1926 dignitaries from across the U.S. ...
Photo by: Courtesy of Clatsop Historical Society

It certainly resembles a lighthouse, but is not, although its beam does guide many a traveller. Since we received so many letters from reader asking us about the tower, we decided to find out for ourselves. Thanks to Clatsop County Historical Society and Joean K. Fransen, following is the amazing history of the tower and how it came to be.

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Astoria Column in Oregon.

It was back in 1898 that an Astoria group was planning to build an observatory at the top of Coxcomb Hill. It was the Astoria Progressive Commercial Commission (APCC) that was charged with developing a public park system. They dreamed of a view point of the great Astoria Harbor, the city, the surrounding mountains, and farm land. A watchtower at the top with the proposed electric lights would "rival the Eiffel Tower of Paris," the APCC claimed. The plan remained only a plan.

In later years, the City Council and Centennial Commission had grand plans. They wanted to erect a steel tower and observatory and the construction of a highway for teams and automobiles to get up to the site.

In 1917, at the outbreak of World War I, then 78 year old John Chitwood, the father of Coxcomb Hill placed the following ad in the newspaper: ". . . two able bodied men, with inspiration in their soul and the ability to perform . . . to trim a ninety foot tree to be used as a flag pole at the top of Coxcomb Hill." He proclaimed that it would be the "tallest natural flag pole in the Northwest," and would be used at the rousing July 4th celebration. The flag was raised by Chitwood himself with cheering crowd for that holiday celebration.

On December 7, 1923 during a devastating storm, lightning struck the "tallest flag pole" in the world and it met its demise after only six years in existence.

In the following years, there were numerous discussions and plans for monuments at the top of the hill. Even the Ku Klux Klan got their two cents in with the burning of a cross on the top of the hill for all to see on the night of October 14, 1925.

The headlines of the local paper on December 11, 1925 read "TO GIVE MONUMENT" and a second headline referred to the fact that the Astor family and the Great Northern Railroad were going to build a big shaft. The papers said that the new monument would generally resemble the Vendome Column in Paris France which was built to honor Louis XIV. The Great Northern Railroad wanted to build other suitable monuments at all historic spots along its line.

There were no strings attached to the monument, it was to be built as an outright gift. Astorians were to provide such things as paving and widening the roads to the top and the city was to construct the platform for the shaft. Soon, prominent Astorians were lining up to participate in the dedication ceremonies.

On July 1, 1926 work began on the carving of the seal of the State of Oregon at the top of the Column. On the sides appeared a locomotive, rail cars, and covered wagon immigrants. The design had first been sketched on paper 8 feet by 44 feet which was then fastened to the face of the monument. Publicity pictures and stories soon began to appear in newspapers across the United States.

The three day celebration of the opening of the monument was in a grand scale to say the least. The famous Astor piano was on display, Miss Columbia was there with over 74 maids of honor. The parade included seven divisions of floats, marching bands, military units, old pioneers travelling in motorcades, Indians, and much, much more. Trainloads of people arrived, with special trains loaded with people from as far away as Chicago. The Navy sent in five destroyers, which were open for public tours.

By 1929, the harsh weather had already taken its toll on the tower and with the banks failing money was hard to come by to maintain the tower. But again, the Great Northern Railroad and the Astor family came through.

In November 1939, John Jacob Astor III, the first descendent of the pioneering fur trader bearing the Astor name, became the first Astor to actually visit the site which the family had donated so much money to over the years. In 1961, when Lord John Jacob Astor came to Astoria, he dedicated a memorial to the Chinook Indians at the site.

In 1973, X-rays discovered extensive cracks in the tower and extensive repairs were made to the tower.

This story appeared in the July 1997 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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