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Entries in Bridge of the Gods (1)


Blue Highways: Astoria, Oregon

Unfolding the Map

We pass through Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River's titanic meeting with the sea, and think about that enormous river and the use of smallpox as early American biological warfare.  How does Oregon fit with that?  Read on, dear Littourati, read on.  Go to the map to locate Astoria, Oregon.

Book Quote

"The great sea reach of the Columbia ranges in width from about three miles to ten miles and was bridged just recently at Astoria.  When it comes to fall and force, no other American river can match this one; near its mouth, sudden whirlings of water will suck logs under only to spit them forty feet into the air....

"Astoria, the oldest city on the river and now an industrial center, began as a trading post established by John Jacob Astor's fur traders.  Soon after the founding, Indians gathered to annihilate the white men; one of Astor's partners, a devious man named Duncan McDougal, thought to save the company by threatening to uncork a black vial that he said held smallpox; the tribes quickly agreed to peace and Astoria survived...."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 5


Sunset between Astoria, Oregon and Washington State. Photo by Gene Daniels and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

Astoria, Oregon

A long time ago, traveling up Interstate 5 to Vancouver, Canada I passed over the Columbia River.  I was fifteen, and more concerned about getting my chance to drive on the freeway with my learner's permit (I never got that chance).  So what I'm saying is that I passed over this landmark without really noting it in my memory.  That was unfortunate.

Having lived along the Mississippi when I dwelt for a time in New Orleans, I have some experience of strong and powerful rivers.  The Mississippi, where it reaches New Orleans and slams up against the levees in a 90 degree turn at Algiers Point, is packing so much power behind it that it is actually higher on one side than the other by a few feet.  I can't find any confirmation of this but I believe it was told to me on some kind of tour.  The Mississippi is so powerful that you just can't jump in and swim it it - it will suck you under and carry you down.  Bodies might not surface for weeks until the river decides to let them go.  Tree trunks may surface suddenly after having been held down at the river's bottom for years.  In his classic Life on the Mississippi (a future Littourati subject), Mark Twain wrote of the Mississippi River and its character, how it might change course overnight, and how sandbars and logs that served as riverboat landmarks might suddenly disappear and reappear.

The Columbia River, on the other hand, seems like it might have a more wild flavor to it than the Mississippi.  It rises out of British Columbia, and flows northwest before making an almost complete 180 degree turn and heading south through Washington, where it again makes a 90 degree turn and heads west between Oregon and Washington to the Pacific.  It is the largest and longest river in the Pacific Northwest.

There's an interesting Native American legend involving the Columbia River, told by the Klikitat tribe.  A land bridge used to exist across the Columbia, caused by a giant landslide in the Cascade Locks area, which created a giant lake behind it.  Indians may have been able to cross the river on that bridge, which they called Bridge of the Gods.  Eventually, the water broke through and created the Cascade Rapids in the Columbia Gorge.  The Klikitat Indians explain these natural occurrences by relating that the chief of the gods and his two sons were traveling in the area and decided they wanted to settle there.  The chief shot his arrow in one direction, and one son went that way, and then he shot an arrow in the other direction, and his other son followed that.  He then raised the land bridge over the river so that he could get together with his sons.  Eventually, as is usual, the sons got into a fight over a woman.  Forests were leveled and villages were destroyed.  Angry, the chief of the gods turned one son into Mount Hood, the other into Mount Adams, and the woman became Mount St. Helens.

I love legends like this, as I explained before, when people explain through stories the natural phenomena they don't understand.  I also found very interesting LHM's story about Astoria's salvation from the hands of angry natives wanting to wipe it out.  The threat of smallpox was very real in historic America.  The disease was unknown in North America until Europeans brought it with them, and over the course of the next 200 years it decimated the Native American population.  The British supposedly used smallpox as a biological weapon during the French and Indian Wars by giving smallpox infected blankets to Indians under Chief Pontiac who were besieging them at Fort Detroit.

So, by the time of Astoria's founding, smallpox was very much a fear.  In fact, one of the characters in Astoria's history is a Kootenay womnan named Kaúxuma Núpika, or the Manlike Woman, who was a prophetess who said that the white men had changed her sex, and who got in trouble with her tribe by predicting smallpox.  She appeared in Astoria with a young woman she called her wife, and was there for a short period of time because her life was in danger.  That Duncan McDougall, then in charge of Fort George as Astoria was called for a time under the British, could take a small vial out in front of hostile Chinook chiefs and cow them into leaving the fort alone testifies to the fear that the native population had of the disease.  He was called "the great smallpox chief" and even later, some tribes feared that if they made any missteps that angered the whites the commander of the fort would level a plague at them.

Of course, nowadays biological warfare, even the threat of such, is outlawed by international law.  However, I understand that research was done to develop smallpox as a weapon only a few decades ago, and that stores of smallpox still exist in the US and Russia, as well as in North Korea.  The degrees of separation between a small city in Oregon and such topics such as biological weaponry is hard to imagine.  However, given that one man saw a threat and in turn threatened to loose upon his enemies a deadly disease and given that until 30 years ago biological weapons were considered to be valid weapons of war by governments (and some governments and groups might still consider them to be on the table in a crisis) shows that human nature hasn't changed much.

Musical Interlude

Did you know that the cult film (at least I call it a cult film) The Goonies was set in Astoria?  I must admit that I've never seen The Goonies, though I know it was the big break in the career of future Notre Dame icon and hobbit sidekick Sean Astin.  The following song, So Long, Astoria is from the soundtrack to that film.  It is by The Ataris and is also the title song to their album of the same name.

If you want to know more about Astoria
Astoria-Warrenton Chamber of Commerce and State of Oregon Welcome Center
The Daily Astorian (newspaper) Astoria
Port of Astoria
Wikipedia: Astoria

Next up: St. Helens, Oregon