There are a lot of really interesting and fun things to do in Astoria, Oregon. But to be honest, one of my favorite parts of visiting this north coast city is to see the huge freighters sail by in the background.
Seeing something so big, so close to land and setting a moving backdrop makes Astoria a place where I can sit and watch these huge ships sail down the Columbia River to either Portland, or out to the Pacific Ocean.
You can see the ships from all different angles around Astoria, however there is a spot that will give you a closer look, while at the same time learning about some of the history of the area.
The 14th Street Ferry Dock is hiding in plain sight and is a little tricky to find and get to. But finding it, especially if you want to look out on the water, is worth the effort. Yes, the dock is on 14th Street, but there is no huge sign or even parking lot to take advantage of the view. Once you either find a place to park your car, or take the Astoria Trolley to the pier, you can then start to explore and learn about the historic area.
At the opening of the pier and looking into the former ferry slip, there is an interpretive sign that gives you the history of the Astoria ferry and outlining some of the conflict between competing ferry companies as they provided a crossing for people with early automobiles in the 1920s. As traffic increased the state purchased the ferries and once the 3.7-mile long bridge spanning the river was constructed, they were decommissioned. The last trip of one of the ferries was in 1966.
The dock also includes interpretive displays, describing the work of the Columbia Bar and river pilots. The really interesting part, however, is that once you have read the interpretive panels, you can turn around and see a pilot ship (if it is in port) and even watch it go out and help these huge vessels navigate the Columbia River bar.
For some background, the Columbia River bar is known to mariners as one of the most dangerous crossings in the world. So to help to alleviate some of the danger, local river pilots take pilot vessels out to the huge freighters, literally jump aboard, and then pilot the vessel to port.
This is a 100-mile trip from the bar to Portland and there are special pilots, bar pilots for helping to cross the bar, and river pilots for navigating the boats inland. The Columbia River bar pilots were established in 1846 to ensure the safety of ships, crews and cargoes crossing the bar. Each year more than 40 million tons of cargo valued at $23 billion pass through Astoria along the river.
The day I visited there were six vessels sitting along the river, waiting to cross the bar, and it was a stunning view. Once you are out on the short pier, you can see a lot of the detail in the passing ships, or even those that are anchored awaiting to cross.
It’s one thing to read about how this all works, and it’s another entirely to watch it unfold. Right next to the 14th street ferry dock is the historic Pier 14 Pilot Station, with a pilot boat docked. I was lucky enough to see the Connor Foss depart while I was there and watch it run out to one of the freighters coming in, and see a river pilot climb aboard. It was an incredible site, and with my telephoto lens I was able to see much of the action. The Pilot House does have a small bed and breakfast on the top floor, so you can stay close to the action if you are so inclined.
Along the pier there are other interpretive plaques that offer everything from the history of the area, to how people used to play on the river. Walking up and down the pier will give you a view into how it is used today and give you a glimpse into the past.
About 14th Street Ferry Dock: A pier that overlooks the Columbia River and one of the Pilot Boat stations. It is an interesting visit for anyone interested in maritime activity and seeing commerce move first-hand. There are interpretive signs and plaques along the pier and it is also served by a historic trolley.
What to bring: The pier is open air and while there is a small covered area, during one of the windy Oregon Fall or Spring days, you will still get wet and cold. Make sure to dress for the conditions, and also a telephoto lens for your camera, or a good pair of binoculars is also useful if you want to see the ships and the pilots transfer in the best way possible.
Tip: Parking for the pier is limited, so parking a few blocks away near some restaurants and then walking in can be a great way to see the pier before you get to the observation deck. When you do this, look out for the historic trolley which is running most times during the year.
Season: The pier is open year-round.
Getting there: The slip is located along the Astoria River Walk west of the Maritime Museum on the corner of 14th Street and Marine Drive/Highway 30.
By Patrick Johnson