8.06.2012

field trip: Oregon City

Blue Heron Paper Company

Because Saturday was a rare triple-digit day for Portland, Jeff and I took refuge in retail air conditioning down in the southeast suburbs. We hit two Goodwills and the Red, White, and Blue Thrift Store (the latter not a store I'm fond of because of the lack of dressing rooms and clothing unsorted by size, only type and color). Then, inspired or maybe just bored after finding only one decent XL T-shirt over three stores, Jeff offered an impromptu, open-air Jeep tour of Oregon City.

First, we stopped at the locally famous elevator on the bluff but didn't ride it, mostly because we felt sheepish about joyriding down and back up the cliff for no reason in front of a live elevator operator, circa 1955. So instead we walked up the promenade for a view of Willamette Falls and the now-defunct Blue Heron Paper Company, whose innards are being auctioned off in between mysterious fires.


Willamette Falls, Blue Heron Paper Company, August 2012

Large falls in the West, of course, tend to be harnessed for generating hydroelectricity, such as that flowing along the power lines above us, silent and invisible.


power lines

Our next stop was to locate the old pioneer cemetery, Mountain View, farther up the Oregon City plateau (because we all know I like old cemeteries), where we wandered around till closing time at dusk, scanning grave markers in the old, upstanding, hard-to-mow section.


rusted gate, Mountain View Cemetery, Oregon City

The marker below of John Meldrum and Susan Cox provides some of the most detailed biographical information I've ever seen on a headstone. They, or at least John, "crossed the plains to Oregon in 1845," some of the earliest settlers.


John Meldrum & Susan Cox, Oregon Pioneers

Another more recent headstone also caught my eye because of its contrasting brevity—only first names, last initial, a professional title, and death dates—and yet it seems a whole story is contained within, the likeliest scenario being a young woman marrying a much older man for financial security, a doctor, who preceded her in death by 46 years. Since she apparently never remarried, that would have meant most of a lifetime spent single. Statistics say widows and especially widowers of happy marriages are more likely to remarry. So perhaps theirs was not happy. Maybe Elnora cherished her solitude over daily companionship. Maybe she had unofficial or familial companionship. Or maybe a good man is hard to find. All, of course, is mere speculation off a piece of inscribed granite.
 

Dr. Willard & Elnora G.

At dusk, Jeff and I went searching for Oregon City founder Dr. John McLoughlin's house (and grave) in the historic district, which turned out to be a smaller-than-expected, white, Georgian-style box with a murky fountain out back in which I bathed my dusty feet. A cat trotted over across the street to greet us, but otherwise we strolled undisturbed.

And then we ended my tour of Oregon City in the empty parking lot of the Visitor Center at the End of the Oregon Trail, the fabric covers on the giant wagon replicas long shredded and removed, per Jeff. I kept arguing with him, teasing him that I didn't see why American settlers would have picked Oregon City, of all places, as the end of the line. Surely they would have wanted to see the ocean—all that way across the country to end up in Oregon City?

But I wasn't thinking like a pioneer settler: they weren't on a road trip and this was no vacation. These were farmers relocating their households on foot and wagon over a five-month trek, seeking untapped river valleys for pristine farmland and easy water rights in free square-mile land grants for married folk. All I can say in my defense is that my study of Oregon history took place in grade school and centered on memorizing state counties and learning a sanitized version of the Whitman Massacre. A quick Google search or two, once home, set me straight.

The settlers didn't give a hoot about the Pacific Ocean because they were headed up the Willamette River, moving east all the way across the country but then turning south at the 'T' junction of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers to head deeper into the Willamette Valley, in this case 'south' geographically meaning 'up.' Oregon City, though early founded for water-powered milling, became the last stop on the Oregon Trail because boats couldn't easily get past the Willamette Falls, which contains the second largest water-flow volume in the U.S. after Niagara Falls.


fire at Metro South Station

The tour had ended, though discussion was continuing, when right near the Visitor Center we saw clouds of smoke and several fire trucks and pulled over to see that something inside was on fire at the Metro South transfer station for garbage and recycling. But whatever was going on involved more smoke and flashing red lights than action, so we turned into the Home Depot across the street so Jeff could buy a box of screws. He reminisced on the way into the building, informing me we were walking across the top of an old landfill.


Oregon City Home Depot

Because Jeff grew up in this area, he remembers residents backing their trucks up to the dump site and opening their tailgates to shove trash off the edge, remembers the days when escaping methane plumes used to be burned off rather than the energy trapped and harvested. Leave it to Americans to build a dump at the very end of the historic Oregon Trail and then, once real estate gets tighter, cover over the landfill and stick a shiny orange Home Depot on top. Honey, we're home.

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