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Sunday, May 3, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Real Waterfront -- Skamokawa & Astoria Are Trying Ton Make It Work

THE NARROW VALLEYS ARE SWEET and green, but the living has never been easy in Wahkiakum County. In the rainy meadows, wild blackberry tangles reach for the sun from the tops of rotting stumps. They stand like giant question marks, doubting the transient promises of timber companies that have marked, in one way or another, all the places of the Lower Columbia River. Small barns and houses scatter on the hillsides above Wilson Creek where, one by one, families found they could not make a living milking cows.

Coming here long-haired from Berkeley, Jim and Jessica Fletcher found one of those abandoned homesites in 1973, with 40 acres they could afford, around a hill where they could build their own house. Jim, known professionally as Sunshine, holds a degree in oceanography from the University of California, but plays the guitar for a living. Jessica plays keyboard and autoharp, both are fine singers, and they're much in demand for dances at the Elks and Eagles, and for all manner of celebration on both sides of the river. They raise chickens and grow a huge garden, and they've reared two smart, strong sons on the hill they call Lucky Mud. Jessica - with degrees in English, French and psychology - is a substitute teacher in the local schools. In her spare time she writes grant applications and helped save the village of Skamokawa (Skuh-MAWK-away). It means "smoke on the water."

The town clings tenaciously to the river, 30 miles downstream from Longview and 25 miles upstream from salt water, trying - like dozens of small seacoast and river towns of the Northwest - to pump new life into a dying waterfront. Sea Grant specialists at the University of Washington and Oregon State University have picked tiny Skamokawa, along with Astoria and Reedsport, Ore., as models for other small, struggling, water-borne towns. A federal-state agency based at coastal universities, Sea Grant advises waterside communities on how to make the most of their ports and fisheries, their beauty, history and human energy. Skamokawa's port is gone, its fishery is dwindling, but it is loaded with those other assets.

For a long time it looked as though Skamokawa was fatally injured in 1933. That's when the state punched Highway 4 through the middle of town, on its way down the Columbia River from Cathlamet to the coast. Skamokawa had faced the river since it began in the 1860s, and every front door opened to a boat. They called it "Little Venice." Kids rowed their boats to school. Their parents paddled to the store and tavern. Nearly every building in town - home, bank, sawmill, store, creamery - opened onto the Columbia River, or Skamokawa Creek, Brooks Slough or Steamboat Slough. To prosper after the road came through, Skamokawa would have had to twist itself around and face the land. It languished instead.

A dozen or so gill netters still tie up at Skamokawa, fishing their allotted miles of Columbia River and worrying eloquently over the ruinous effect of the hydroelectric dams upstream. The last salmon cannery closed more than 50 years ago. Some time later, with trucks taking over the timber industry's hauling, the last lumber ship pulled away from the landing. The famous creamery that stood on pilings at the mouth of Skamokawa Creek, and won gold medals all over the West for its butter, shut down in the 1940s.

For half a century Skamokawa has lingered at the edge of being gone. But somehow, from a source no one can quite explain, the community found reasons to come alive again. It seems to have happened sometime in 1987 and '88, when Port Commissioner Carol Carver and Port Manager Steve McClain began matching ideas with Jessica Fletcher. They wanted to save the village's historic schoolhouse, known as Redmen Hall, built in 1896 and about to give in to rot and gravity.

Fletcher wrote for a grant from the America the Beautiful Fund - $200. Used that to produce a direct-mail appeal that brought in $4,000. They organized a citizens' group called Friends of Skamokawa, ready to scrape, clean, hammer and raise money. Two hundred volunteers gave 5,000 hours of work in a single year of roofing, painting, holding bake sales and producing theatrical fund-raisers.

Overseers of a state coastal-development loan fund lent the Friends of Skamokawa enough to buy the hall for $29,500. Fletcher wrote for more grants, and finally 14 foundations, banks, state agencies, telephone and timber companies had coughed up $60,462 to save and restore the old building. That doesn't include the lumber, shingles, paint and professional services Wahkiakum County businesses donated.

Redmen Hall (The Redmen, a fraternal order, met in the former schoolhouse for many years) today stands straight and spiffy in its new coat of tan trimmed in red, on a hillside above the town's main street. It boasts electricity and running water for the first time. Its bell tower, safe to visit for the first time in years, offers eyeball-washing views of the Columbia River all the way to the Astoria Bridge.

The first floor houses a tiny Friends of Skamokawa office and gift shop. The second floor will become, by July, the River Life Interpretive Center, funded by three more private foundation grants totaling $30,000. It will detail the rich culture of the thousands of Native Americans buried nearby, explain rain-dependent plant and animal life that flourishes in two adjacent wildlife refuges, and recall the colorful life and death of Columbia riverfront communities.

Skamokawa's resurrection hasn't ended with Redmen Hall, either. When the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Columbia River channel a dozen years ago, it unloaded 80 acres of silt and sand at Skamokawa. That's become a splendid park with camping spaces on a grassy meadow and a curving, sandy swimming beach. Steve McClain and his port commissioners want to add moorage and more tent sites, to encourage boaters to spend time and money ashore.

McClain grew up exploring the Skamokawa waterfront, sloughs and valleys. He went away to Western Washington University, and came home to be the first-ever manager of Wahkiakum County Port District No. 2. Skamokawa Vista Park (BEGIN ITAL)is(END ITAL) Wahkiakum County Port District No. 2, and vice versa. The park is the port's reason for being. It is the exuberant passion of its manager, who reckons himself among the most lucky of men to be able to use his college degree in park and recreation management, while helping to bring his hometown back to life.

To give park visitors more room to roam, the port will build a nature trail extending two miles downstream. Then Wahkiakum County, the port and Skamokawa's 300 dues-paying Friends plan a foot bridge to link the waterfront park with a little-used county park on the other side of Skamokawa Creek.

A private owner, Arnold Andersen of Seattle, bought and renovated Silverman's Emporium, a fine old two-story waterfront building that he renamed Skamokawa Landing. The Friends of Skamokawa lease an upstairs auditorium from Andersen for their annual home-grown, locally produced fund-raising musical review, which ends its fourth consecutive sold-out run tonight.

The rollicking sense of optimism the Skamokawa players express on stage was hard to come by just a few years ago. In the mid-1980s the area's two biggest employers - timber giants Weyerhaeuser and Crown-Zellerbach - began moving away. Hundreds found themselves with little or no income. Carol Carver, Wahkiakum County's lone county extension agent, helped organize the Lower Columbia Economic Development Council, to search for a way the region could survive. The group carefully surveyed the community's desires. It found the village and its neighbors to be choosy in the way they wanted to recover - not much interested in going after major industry or in becoming a theme town with cute resorts. Instead they wanted to build on their history, hoping to draw visitors by restoring and explaining the river life that almost vanished.

"It's exciting," Carver says, "to work with people interested in salvaging what's left of the culture, who understand that here's one of the last waterfront towns that still has some of its original buildings intact."

Skamokawa's one restaurant, one general store and one tavern have seen their business grow, as visitors discover the tiny village and old-timers come home for another look. Half a dozen families have restored their turn-of-the-century, water-facing homes in what remains of Little Venice. And - the most dramatic sign of change - new people are coming to town, buying and sprucing up some old houses.

That doesn't sit well with everyone.

"There are families here who loved having this little spot to themselves for all their lives," Fletcher observes. "Understandably, they're not wild about opening up to the rest of the world."

The organizers of this tiny renaissance would like to see Skamokawa provide a small working waterfront where pleasure boats and additional fishing boats could tie up, and where fishermen could dry and mend their nets. Whatever they do they don't want to "cutefy" the old village, whose primary charm is its genuineness. Skamokawa lacks any kind of land-use controls, because it never got around to incorporating. It could go cute and touristy, and that worries McClain and his associates.

"Let's hope it never becomes a miniature Leavenworth," McClain urges, referring to the make-believe Bavarian village on the Wenatchee River in the Cascades. "If we do something like that none of us could afford to live here, and most of us wouldn't want to."

FROM THE BELL TOWER OF Redmen Hall on a very clear day, you can barely make out Astoria, Ore. - 25 miles to the southwest as the gull flies. The town lies across a river four miles wide, the river that made possible the European invasion of the Northwest and most of what has happened since.

Astoria is older than Skamokawa and 30 times bigger. But they share a river-borne history and the dilemma of being uncertain about what they want to be, yet certain of what they don't want to be. Neither community, it seems, wants to become a waterfront tourist trap.

Old millionaire mansions posture grandly on fern-covered corners of residential streets, but downtown Astoria gives you the blues. Empty storefronts display "For Rent" signs. It's hard to find a working person's main-street cafe that's still in business. After a fire destroyed most of downtown in 1922, they rebuilt the stores and streets for the kind of city it was when 20,000 people lived here working the woods and the water. But thousands who went away after the fire never came back.

Then the Feds dammed the Columbia in the 1930s, and the salmon up and left, too. Timbering faltered in the '70s. Logs still provide jobs and so do fish, but only 10,000 live here now, and Astoria's retail section has the bagginess of a large pair of pants on a small guy.

But walk a few blocks north, to the riverfront. Clearly, something is going on in Astoria. Here at 14th Street a small, brand-new city park extends out over the water on rugged planks. It's a fine place to stand in the sunshine and the clean, animating wind from the river and watch the death-defying pilot exchanges going on mid-channel.

Astoria is the first town upriver from the Columbia Bar, where the river meets the Pacific. Lloyd's of London rates it at least the third-most-hazardous shipping water in the world. River pilots and bar pilots keep their offices and sleeping quarters here and work a water-borne sort of Pony Express that makes river commerce possible. A river pilot guides the freighter downstream from Portland or Cathlamet, to a point mid-channel near the 14th Street platform park. There a small boat pitches and yaws against the freighter, the river and bar pilots cheating death as they scramble up and down rope ladders on the side of the big ship. The river pilot comes ashore and the bar pilot takes the freighter through the river mouth into safe Pacific waters. A Pilots' Association ship mills in the ocean to take bar pilots off the outgoing freighters and put others onto incoming ships.

Walk a quarter mile downriver, along Burlington Northern's railroad tracks to No. 10 Sixth Street, where a handsome public deck and tower present views of the awesome Columbia for miles in each direction. It's a joint project of riverfront developer Doug Thompson and the city. Thompson's mid-1980s renovation of the old Bumblebee Seafood building and the historic Kinney Salmon Cannery set Astoria to thinking about what it could be.

Walking along the tracks, Thompson sniffs the air at the back doors of five operating fish-processing plants and hopes the smell never goes away. The city needs to do whatever it can to keep them here and attract more, he says. He recalls how Monterey, Calif.'s vision of itself changed from fish processing to art galleries and pottery shops.

"Astoria can have both," Thompson predicts. "We can have arts and crafts and Cannery Row."

An athletic young businessman in tennis shorts and T-shirt, Thompson has an emotional investment in the city that seems to outweigh even his heavy financial one, which he describes as "beyond several hundred thousand dollars." His rehabilitation gamble offers 30,000 square feet of retail and office space, and much of it stands empty. He hopes someone will want most of the first floor for a restaurant and the second floor for a bed and breakfast, and hopes not to rent it for the hawking of T-shirts, Taiwanese Eskimo carvings and the other tiresome trivia that you can pick up at most busy, touristy waterfronts, including Seattle's.

Thompson grew up near Disney's fantasy neighborhood in Orange County, Calif., but spent summers in Astoria with his grandparents, adventured on the beaches, watched as many as two dozen freighters at a time maneuver in the river waiting for dock openings at Portland. And he dreamed of moving to Astoria. Now, as a developer and City Council member, he dreams of seeing its waterfront hum with business.

"We want a working, historic waterfront," he insists. "No Disneylanding in Astoria."

For years this river-based city has had no retail fish market where its citizens can buy fresh from the boat. That's about to change. Ward's Cove, a Seattle-based company, says it will open a retail market on the waterfront near the other fish processors this year, with a seafood snack bar and a glass wall where customers can watch the fishing boats unload.

Walk the shoreline a few more blocks and ponder the romantic past marked by scores of pilings that rise through the water in a long cluster. Imagine the dance pavilion that stood there 70 years ago. Think of handsome, well-dressed couples driving fancy cars from Portland to fox-trot and tango through the '20s, the moonlight shimmering on the water, the rest of the world going to hell. The pilings are all that's left.

Astoria celebrates 200 years of river history, beginning next week. On May 11, 1792, Capt. Robert Gray coerced his crew into the life-threatening jaws of the river and named it for his ship, the Columbia. John Jacob Astor bankrolled a fur-trading post here in 1811, and someone has been doing business here ever since. Longer, Astoria claims, than any other place west of the Mississippi.

The bicentennial observance begins Friday, May 8, with a three-day celebration. A special historical exhibit, produced with the help of the National Park Service, opens to visitors at the Columbia River Maritime Museum Saturday and continues through November. The museum, a huge riverfront building with its roofline in the shape of a giant wave, is rated as one of the finest of its kind. It's also the upriver anchor of Astoria's waterfront renewal.

The city's first downtown pleasure-boat dock - day moorage only - will open this month, at a huge new public deck attached to the museum. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter will be stationed there as well, and the Coast Guard has paid $125,000 toward the half-million-dollar cost of building it. Soon a riverbank promenade will connect that dock with the one at 14th Street. A permanent-moorage marina for small boats is visualized, a few years away, upriver from the museum.

The Sea Grant advisers found Astoria's new riverfront design a standout for the amount of time the city's planners have spent crafting its parts - six years - and the number of people who've had something to say about it: just about everyone in town. Organizers walked property owners up and down the waterfront asking, "What would you think of this? How would this affect you?" At a series of public meetings they taped all their proposals to the walls and urged the townspeople to argue about them.

"This isn't big-city sophistication," planning director Paul Benoit says. "This isn't wham, bam, cut a deal and away you go. This is people working toward a common agenda."

That common agenda's a bit hard for the newcomer to figure out at first. There's no big, central piece to it, but a long list of small and large pieces designed to put Astoria's people in touch with their river in ways they've not been for a long time.

While their very existence depended on the Columbia River, generations of Astorians never saw the waterfront unless they worked there. Museum director Jerry Ostermiller explains that canneries, mills and warehouses blocked public access to the river for all those years. But many of those buildings have gone up in flames or down in decay, opening the riverside to possibilities that set Ostermiller's imagination burning. He likens it to moving the museum outside, where it can help explain the community to itself.

"We can link up the city with its river," Ostermiller says. "The people will once again have access to their roots, not just physically, but in an emotional, personal relationship. So that they feel ownership of the river again."

The city aims to fix up all of the places where downtown streets end at the river bank, since walkways and viewing points already are city-owned. Sidewalks near the waterfront will be resurfaced, street trees planted, resting benches and soft lighting put in place. Interpretive signs will explain what's happening on the river and what happened there in the past.

A major piece of Astoria's vision depends on Burlington Northern Railroad and how its managers feel about having visitors on its property. The scheme calls for a planked pedestrian walkway alongside the tracks past the fish processing plants, and, eventually, a passenger trolley, rolling on Burlington Northern's tracks for the length of the downtown waterfront. A long-defunct passenger station is seen as the site of a future restaurant and information center. The BN has not said no to the city's plan, but it has said "money." The railroad wants more rent than the city thinks it can afford, but they'll keep talking.

Conflict develops at this point, between the city of Astoria and its shipping port. The Port of Astoria sits at the far, down-river end of the BN spur line. As its log-export trade peters out, the port needs to find other cargo, and it wants Burlington Northern freight trains to help bring that cargo - whatever it might be - to dockside. Port officials worry that downtown Astoria's gentrifying could lead BN to close its freight spur altogether. Benoit maintains that nothing the city wants to do should get in the way of the railroad's freight operations.

AS IN SKAMOKAWA, THE Astoria leadership has shown a genius for finding state, federal and private money for planning and building - more than half a million dollars' worth of outside help so far. Still, the cost to the city's general fund for the waterfront remodeling is likely to reach $3.5 million by the time it's completed, a few years from now.

Maritime Museum curator Anne Witty has learned to be skeptical of waterfront visions. She grew up on the Atlantic, surrounded by the nation's most historic seacoast towns. She saw those communities trade their heritage for a mess of souvenir shops, yogurt shops and T-shirt shops, in and among re-created "old" seaports designed only to draw crowds.

"I didn't want to come out here just to see it happen to another place," Witty says. "I hope it never happens to Astoria."

Astoria's waterfront design is partly a play for tourism. But first it's a play for the attention and affection of Astorians. Whatever the city does on the waterfront will cater to its locals. If the tourists like it, fine.

Chances are the tourists will like it fine.

Bob Simmons is a former KING-TV reporter. He's now freelancing for several regional publications. Gary Settle is Pacific's photo editor.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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