By John Gottberg Anderson for The Bulletin
FLORENCE — There are a handful of small towns on the Oregon Coast that, travelers might agree, have a certain quality setting them apart from others.
Newport, for instance, has its working riverfront and several major tourist attractions. Cannon Beach is a more refined arts community. Depoe Bay has a keyhole harbor and waves that crash constantly against its rocky bluffs. Astoria boasts more than 200 years of history at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Ask the same travelers about Florence, and their faces may well draw a blank.
But this town of 9,400, little more than four hours’ drive west of Bend, has some of the best features of all of those other communities, and then some. Florence has the working riverfront. It has the art galleries. It has a rich history, and fierce waves are constantly washing the jetties at the mouth of the Siuslaw River. It also has a string of freshwater lakes separated from the Pacific Ocean by hundreds of square miles of shifting sand hills, as the northern gateway to Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.
And it has Old Town Florence, possibly the finest example of citizen-ignited urban revitalization on the entire coast.
That was then
Oregon novelist Ken Kesey, who made his home in the Eugene area, may well have been writing about Florence in “Sometimes a Great Notion.” Many literary experts regard this book about a stubborn logging family, published in 1969, as his finest work. The Stamper family lived upriver from Wakonda, a town which — like Florence — was built around the fishing and timber industries.
“All up and down the coast,” Kesey wrote, “there are little towns like Wakonda … where weary men talk about hard times and trouble … ” Much of the social interaction of the book took place in a bar called the Snag, whose model may have been any of a half-dozen bars that once lined Bay Street. “There’s at least a two-cord truckload of guys at every table,” wrote Kesey, “hollering and laughing and sucking down the beer.”
The movie version of “Great Notion,” starring Paul Newman and Henry Fonda, was shot on the Yaquina River, in the area of Newport and Toledo. (Old-timers in the latter town still talk about a semi-legendary confrontation between a pool table and a drunken, chainsaw-wielding Newman.) But as recently as the 1960s, Florence fit the same mold.
Bay Street, hard by the Siuslaw, was not a part of town where any god-fearing man or woman would dawdle. The fishing fleet anchored within a stone’s throw of the nearby mill, 4½ miles from the river’s mouth. Saloons and poker rooms shared street frontage with greasy-spoon cafes and fishing-gear purveyors. Rumors of less-savory activities were rife.
When the first white settlers had arrived at the mouth of the Siuslaw River in 1876, they found local Indians still living in plank houses. By the time Florence (named, according to tradition, for a sign found among shipwreck debris) was incorporated in 1893, pioneer residents had already established an economy based upon salmon canneries and sawmills. Tugboats assisted oceangoing ships through the treacherous bar at the river mouth until jetties were built in 1909.
The last cannery closed in 1919, but the logging business remained strong. Florence thrived, even though the sand dunes upon which the town was built demanded that riverside streets be built of wooden planks. A ferry crossed the quarter-mile-wide Siuslaw to the sister community of Glenada, and handsome manor homes rose above the water on both sides of the river.
After 1936, when the new Siuslaw River Bridge opened, bypassing Bay Street, the dominos of change began to fall. New businesses no longer sprang up beside the ferry dock; instead, they built along U.S. Highway 101, which stretched north toward Newport. Bay Street was largely ignored. Many shops and cafes closed and boarded up their windows; others continued to operate in a dilapidated state. When the post office relocated uptown in 1970, the social death of Bay Street was a fête accompli.
This is now
Within a couple of years, however, some forward-thinking citizens reconsidered the value of the Bay Street area. Striving to create a new image that would discourage outbursts of vandalism in that neighborhood, they mobilized merchants and city government, raised funds and rebuilt the district with a new image.
Today, it’s known as Old Town. There’s no longer any Bay Street bar resembling the Snag. Places like Beachcombers, the Firehouse and the Traveler’s Cove are tame by comparison. Wood and stucco buildings are painted in pastel hues. There are fully 20 places to eat in Old Town, from fine-dining restaurants to casual cafes, wine bars to coffee shops. There are several motels and at least one fine bed-and-breakfast inn.
There are also seven clothing stores, including the delightful Splash (1300 Bay St.), offering women’s designer clothing; seven galleries, among them the Backstreet Gallery (1421 Bay St.), an artists’ co-op; a dozen gift shops; two kitchenware stores, two pet boutiques, a book store, a toy store, an antiques shop, an old-time photo studio, and — of course — a couple of real estate agencies.
Old Town Park now occupies the space where the ferry once crossed the Siuslaw. Built in 1976 during the first wave of Bay Street revitalization, it has a small gazebo with a panoramic view toward the bridge that replaced the ferry, and a deck over a floating platform of old-growth logs that once served the ferry. The platform has been there so long, and taken in so much Oregon Coast rain, that sprightly young firs have seeded themselves in the wood.
A couple of blocks off Bay Street, but still at the heart of Old Town, the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum is at home in the town’s 1905 schoolhouse. Although a 1953 fire destroyed its original second story and bell tower, the building was completely restored in 1991 (after several decades serving as a local grocery). Today, it has an outstanding collection of more than 300 historical black-and-white photos of the Greater Florence area, a testimony to the efforts of longtime archivist Fred Jensen, who was raised miles upriver in a house on the banks of the Siuslaw, much like the children of Kesey’s Stamper family.
Several Old Town buildings come with pedigrees. Most notable is the 1901 William Kyle & Sons Building at the corner of Bay and Laurel streets. A two-story, false-fronted Italianate structure, it served as a mercantile until 1961.
Restored in 1971 as a benchmark of Old Town revitalization, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. Today, it is a popular restaurant — the Bridgewater Ocean Fresh Fish House and Zebra Bar — with a small antiques shop in one gallery.
Around the area
Visitors to Florence won’t want to spend every minute in Old Town. The dunes, of course, are a huge attraction. Encompassing the largest expanse of coastal sand in North America, the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area extends from the south jetty of the Siuslaw all the way to the Coos River, a distance of about 40 miles from north to south. Among the most popular access points are the Sutton and Siltcoos recreation areas, both a few miles outside of Florence. Sutton is most popular for all-terrain vehicle driving, Siltcoos for hiking and camping.
Cleawox, Woahink and Siltcoos lakes are popular freshwater lakes on the south side of Florence. Cleawox, on the west side of U.S. Highway 101, is within Jessie M. Honeyman State Park; the other two, larger lakes are on the east side of the highway. Both offer ample opportunities for swimming, fishing and other water sports, including kayaking and canoeing. Cleawox also has a large dune falling directly into the south side of the lake, marking it as a popular spot for the growing sport of sand boarding.
The Florence city limits don’t technically stretch to the Pacific shore, but the Siuslaw’s North Jetty Recreation Area is readily accessible off Rhododendron Drive. A short hike takes adventurous visitors across tussock-covered dunes to the crash of waves on the rocky breakwater. Heceta Beach stretches north from the jetty for several miles.
The expanse of dunes ends just north of Florence, and U.S. Highway 101 rises along a rocky headland to Sea Lion Caves. Though now heavily commercialized, the massive sea cave, 11 miles north of town, is still memorable and worth a visit. Discovered in 1880, first opened to tourism in 1929 (an elevator has since replaced a rope ladder), it is noisy, smelly and unforgettable. An estimated 200 Steller sea lions make their home in the cave, along with other marine life.
A popular new attraction in Florence is the Three Rivers Casino & Hotel, just a mile east of U.S. Highway 101 off state Highway 126. The 90-room American Indian-owned hotel-casino, which opened in 2007, has three restaurants, a large room of slot machines and table games, and a ballroom that already has hosted such names as Tony Orlando, Crystal Gale and the Smothers Brothers.
Lodging and dining
While it’s fun to explore the entire Florence area, to stay and eat, I suggest returning to Old Town. I find the River House Inn, on the Siuslaw beneath the bridge, to be spacious and comfortable, even when an autumn gale is whipping a chilly rain past my porch at night.
Just across Bay Street, the Edwin K Bed & Breakfast is a charming inn that occupies a 1914 craftsman home. Immediately uphill, on either side of the north end of the bridge, the Old Town Inn and the Lighthouse Inn are comfortable motel alternatives. Opposite, on the south side of the bridge, the Best Western Pier Point Inn offers a wonderful view of Old Town.
For some time now, my favorite Florence restaurant has been the Waterfront Depot, which extends into the river on a Bay Street pier. The ambience is wonderful, blending rusticity with elegance, and the prices are amazing: Not a single entree is priced over $15, including a crab-encrusted halibut ($11) and a lamb osso buco ($12).
Now, however, the depot has competition. Indeed, the dining scene is rapidly growing in Florence. The newest entry is Feast, which has just reopened after a turnover of ownership: It was purchased by a group of a half-dozen employees, including young husband-and-wife chefs Evan and Jen Doughty. My delicious meal there began with a rich beet-and-arugula salad, followed by grilled snapper with asparagus on a bed of couscous.
Also excellent is the Bridgewater, the restaurant in the 1901 Kyle Building. The Cobb salad is among the best I’ve had, and I was pleased with both the service and the wine list. And just down the block is Mo’s Restaurant, an Oregon Coast institution, which offers cups of its famous clam chowder for as little as $2.95.
Before I left Florence, I had a cup of house-roasted brew from the Siuslaw Coffee Roasters. Again, it was wonderful: a sophisticated drop. And it was certainly a far cry from the brew that Kesey’s Stamper clan would have been putting away at the Snag.
• Gas, round-trip, 381 miles @ $2.70/gallon $41.15
• Lodging (two nights with breakfast), River House Inn $216
• Dinner, Feast $37
• Lunch, Bridgewater $17.50
• Museum admission $3
• Dinner, Waterfront Depot $20
• Lunch, Mo’s Restaurant $10
Prices include taxes and tips
If you go
• Florence Area Chamber of Commerce. 290 Highway 101, Florence; 541-997-3128, www.florencechamber.com.
• Travel Lane County. 754 Olive St., Eugene; 541-484-5307, 800-547-5445, www.travellanecounty.org.
• Best Western Pier Point Inn. 85625 Highway 101 S., Florence; 541-997-7191, 800-435-6736, www.bestwestern.com. Rates from $101.96.
• Edwin K Bed and Breakfast. 1156 Bay St., Florence; 541-997-8360, 800-833-9465, www.edwink.com. Rates from $99.
• Lighthouse Inn. 155 Highway 101, Florence; 541-997-3221, 866-997-3221, www.lighthouseinn-florence.com. Rates from $54.
• Old Town Inn. 170 Highway 101, Florence; 541-997-7131, 800-570-8738, www.old-town-inn.com. Rates from $65.
• The River House. 1202 Bay St., Florence; 541-997-3933, 888-824-2751, www.riverhouseflorence .com. Rates from $75.
• Bridgewater Ocean Fresh Fish House. 1297 Bay St., Florence; 541-997-1133. Lunch and dinner. Moderate.
• Feast. 294 Laurel St., Florence; 541-997-3284, www.eatafeast.com . Lunch and dinner. Moderate.
• Mo’s Restaurant. 1436 Bay St., Florence; 541-997-2185, www.moschowder.com. Lunch and dinner. Budget to moderate.
• Siuslaw River Coffee Roasters. 1240 Bay St., Florence; 541-997-3443, www.coffeeoregon.com. Breakfast and lunch. Budget.
• Traveler’s Cove on the River. 1362 Bay St., Florence; 541-997-6845. Lunch and dinner. Budget.
• Waterfront Depot. 1252 Bay St., Florence; 541-902-9100, 997-1508. Dinner. Budget to moderate.
• Merchants of Old Town. Bay Street, Florence; 541-997-1646, www.oldtownflorence.com.
• Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. 855 Highway 101, Florence; 541-271-6000, www.fs.fed.us/r6/siuslaw.
• Sea Lion Caves. 91560 Highway 101 N., Florence; 541-547-3111, www.sealioncaves.com.
• Siuslaw Pioneer Museum. 278 Maple St., Florence; 541-997-7884.
• Three Rivers Casino Hotel. 5647 Highway 126, Florence; 541-997-7529, 877-374-8377, www.threeriverscasino.com
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John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at email@example.com