John Jacob Astor

Astor’s great and messy quest

In Part 2 of Chris Coleman's sweeping historical drama "Astoria," a rich man's dream runs aground – but not before it reshapes Oregon's fate

In the early years of the 19th century, John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant who’d already become wealthy through the fur trade and Manhattan real estate, gambled big on a grand vision. His plan was to establish an “emporium” near the mouth of the Columbia River — a geographic feature only recently known to Europeans and Eastern settlers — supported by fur-trapping posts along its tributaries. This would allow him to dominate the Pacific Northwest’s vast supply of one of that era’s most valuable resources. His company would then be able to initiate a lucrative global shipping network, trading in not just furs but Chinese tea and European manufactured goods. Flush with early-American idealism, he further hoped to set the stage for a democratic government in the region, a political and cultural sister to the fledgling United States, then still clustered on the continent’s eastern edge.

Jimmy Garcia as Pierre Dorion and Leif Norby as Robert McClellan with members of the cast of “Astoria: Part Two.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

To these ends, Astor, in 1810, sent two expeditionary parties toward the Columbia, one by sea around Cape Horn, the other overland, heading out from St. Louis along the trail blazed a few years earlier by Lewis and Clark. The harrowing, often deadly, adventures of these groups is vividly told in Peter Stark’s 2014 best-seller Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, a Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival, and now in Chris Coleman’s sweeping theatrical adaptation for Portland Center Stage. Astoria: Part One premiered last season; Astoria: Part Two is on the boards at The Armory through Feb. 18, with a few bonus performances of the first installment sprinkled through the schedule.

SPOILER ALERT: Astor fails.

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