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New train route takes 'Clarkies' to Astoria

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2003

LINNTON, Ore. The state bought three used train cars from Canada for the Lewis & Clark Explorer. The federal government reworked the line, parts of which hadn't seen a train in years.

Amtrak is selling tickets and making reservations. The crew comes from the short-line Portland and Western. The effort is subsidized by Astoria businesses.

But hybrid heritage aside, it all works.

With two sharp toots and a lurch, the Explorer pulls out of the rail yards for a leisurely four-hour run down the Columbia River shore, along its namesakes' path of discovery toward Astoria.

''Was that a train whistle?'' a young voice asked, a reminder, if one is needed, that most people don't travel this way much anymore.

The Explorer is scheduled to run summers four days a week through 2006 for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.

The 33-member expedition (and a dog) ended the westward leg of its 8,000-mile journey just south of Astoria and spent the winter of 1805-1806 there at Fort Clatsop.

The Astoria area is expecting hundreds of thousands of extra visitors through 2006. The train is part of a broader attempt to get people out of their cars in hopes that they will get more from the Lewis and Clark experience.

The three self-propelled, 50-year-old cars have a used feel about them but they are clean and comfortable with lots of legroom. The state bought them from BCRail when the British Columbia line ended its passenger service last year.

The one-day round trip gives passengers about five hours to check out a reconstructed Fort Clatsop, the first-rate Columbia River Maritime Museum, the hilltop Astor Column, and the historic waterfront. Or they can just soak up the flavor of Astoria, a working-class town and fishing port awash in heritage and turn-of-the century homes.

Public transportation is available to most sites.

The only downside: There isn't really enough time to do it all before the Explorer heads back to Portland in the evening. Some of the 60 or so people on this run said they planned to overnight.

The Explorer's first public run was May 23, and it will make the journey through Sept. 2.

At 30 mph, sometimes less, the Explorer rolls along the river edge on a relaxing, almost tranquilizing, run past pastures with weathered barns and thoughtful cows, clusters of fishing boats and freighters and rural countryside many Oregonians don't know is there. Much of it is well off the highway, and regular Portland-Astoria train service ended in 1952.

The Explorer rolls through towns and settlements, some still vibrant, some, missed by the highway and abandoned by the railroad, hardly wide spots anymore.

Passengers get a booklet explaining what they will see and what Meriwether Lewis and William Clark saw and recorded in their journals.

Sauvie Island (''a fertill and a handsom valley, at this time crouded with Indians.'' Clark, Nov. 5, 1805.) He commented on the huge flocks of ducks, geese and other migrating birds. They're still there.

Waterview. Deer Island, where Lewis and Clark camped twice. Goble. Prescott Beach (a ''cold and disagreeable'' camp. Nov. 5, 1805.)

Mayger. Aldridge Point (''a considerable deposit of the dead ... in canoes raised from the ground on scaffolds.'' Clark, March 24, 1806.)

Knappa (''...a Indian village of 9 large houses those Indians live on an emenenece behind a Island on a Channel of the river ... they call them selves Cat-tar-bets.'' Clark, Nov. 24, 1805.)

Tongue Point (... we have nothing to eate but a little Pounded fish.'') There is a Coast Guard station there today.

And, always, the weather. (''Those squals were suckceeded by the rain. O! how Tremendious is the day.'' Clark, Nov. 28, 1805.)

From the comfort of the Explorer even if it rains (it often does) imagining what Lewis and Clark and party put up with two centuries back stretches the imagination.

The Explorer offers food and beverage service, breakfast on the way out and dinner coming back, provided by some of Astoria's better restaurants.

The menu includes Portabella and mushroom lasagna, smoked salmon Newberg en croute and, in the spirit of things, Shrimp Lewis and Clark. Prices are reasonable ($8-$15).

You pick up a shuttle bus at Portland's elegant Union Station (1896) for a short hop to the rail yard at Linnton (1843), which is older than Portland and once challenged it for the role as the state's major city.

It's just a Willamette River village today, not far from where the Willamette meets the Columbia.

The bus goes past the St. John's Bridge, which is as far up the Willamette as Clark got on a quick exploratory trip on the way home.

The fare is $48 round-trip with slight discounts for AARP, AAA, seniors and children. Reservations are encouraged.

The bus leaves Union Station (worth a few minutes in itself) at around 7 a.m. and is usually back by about 9:30 p.m.

On the Net:

Lewis and Clark Bicentennial of Oregon: http://www.lcbo.net



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