ONE OVER LAND, ONE BY SEA
Portland Center Stage continues to tell the tale of one of the most significant adventures in Oregon history, and the author whose book inspired the story remains impressed with the entire production.
Peter Stark never envisioned his book about John Jacob Astor and the fur trader/real estate multimillionaire's quest to go west serving as the basis for a staged play. An outdoors, exploration and history writer who lives in Missoula, Montana, Stark just wanted to tell of the 1810-13 journeys that led to the settling of the community of Astoria. But when Portand Center Stage Artistic Director Chris Coleman contacted him about making it a staged play, he responded with enthusiasm.
"Astoria: Part Two" hits the stage Jan. 26 at The Armory, but not before PCS puts on more performances of "Astoria: Part One," which received high acclaim and sold more tickets than any play produced by a local company in 2017.
"(Chris) read the book and was so engrossed by it, which I was delighted to hear, and he wanted to make it into a play," says Stark, of his novel "Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival."
"I told him, 'Good luck with that, go for it.'"
The book tells of the overland party group led by Wilson Price Hunt, an inexperienced young man who wanted to lead by consensus as they traversed the Rockies, and the seagoing venture led by Capt. Jonathan Thorn, a tyrannical former U.S. Navy officer who took the ship around Cape Horn.
Astor had funded both journeys, which started in New York City, to seek better fur trading grounds, expanding his immense empire and going west under the direction of President Jefferson.
Eventually Coleman put the play into development, and it happened. The play mirrors the book in that it focuses on Thorn, Hunt and Scottish fur trader Duncan McDougal.
"Very flawed human characters," Stark says, "with three different leadership styles, three dramatically in contrast to each other.
"Chris picked it up and ran with it, the concept of using those three characters, with many subcharacters working around them. He worked that contrast through part one and two."
Stark adds: "I was so impressed with how he managed to put this thing on stage. I told him he was too constrained by the book and too faithful to the book. He was reluctant to take liberties with the book. I told him, 'Don't care about me, just run with the thing.' He did, developing characters with his style in mind and how they play out on stage. ... I thought (the first part) came out beautifully."
"Astoria: Part One" told of the journeys to Astoria; "Astoria: Part Two" will be about the settlement at the mouth of the Columbia River.
The set remains very elaborate and creatively done, with the stage meant to be a ship, a fort, a mountain range, Astor's office and other things.
Astor's story has always intrigued Stark.
"I've compared Astor to some of our really cutting-edge tech entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — looking over the horizon, figuratively and literally, a vision of what this thing could be, this trade route. How profound and empire-changing it could possibly. Jefferson undestood that vision; he had a background in land surveying, and he had a western orientation to begin with. He understood a lot lay beyond the mountains, and he met early seagoing explorers who had been to the West Coast. He envisioned what the West Coast could be."
After Lewis & Clark returned from their famous western expedition, they told Jefferson about the importance of establishing a port at the mouth of the Columbia River, that it could lead to control of the region. Astor had known of Canadian fur traders who had ventured to the region even earlier than Lewis & Clark.
Stark imagined Astor and Jefferson brainstorming over the potential empire, in Jefferson's White House in 1808.
"Those two guys were visionaries," Stark adds, "seeing that the Pacific Ocean could be what the Atlantic Ocean was in their day."
Stark, a former writer with Outside magazine, penned the Astor book after coming across the details of the story. He was working on his book "Last Empty Places," about the last unpopulated areas in the United States, one of them being Eastern Oregon. He stayed in a hotel in John Day, whose namesake had been part of the Astor expedition.
Day's story was that he was really sick and almost starved to death, after having been stripped by Indians and sent to the wilderness. Stark realized that it was only one small segment of a much larger story. That was in 2006.
Further investigation found that the Astor expedition was a complicated story, mostly because of the leadership of Thorn and Hunt. Stark pursued his book.
The overland journey included canoes and trying to paddle down the Snake River, which didn't go well, and the use of 118 horses as the group paved the way for the future Oregon Trail. "Hunt didn't know what he was doing," Stark says. "Winter hit in the mountains, and they ran out of food. Not everybody made it, they were in really bad shape when they got to Astoria" in January 1812.
The 25,000-mile sea trek took six months, and the ship had to stop in Hawaii for supplies before catching the trade winds to the West Coast. They arrived six months earlier than the overland crew, and Thorn built Fort Astoria for Astor; it was the first U.S. community on the Pacific Ocean coast.
"It was so impressive what they did," Stark says. "We're dwarfed by those feats of survival."
And, now it's a story told on stage, after "Astoria" became a New York Times best-selling book.
"I'm happy to have it unfold from my head to on stage," Stark says.