Western Trips

Western Trips

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Oregon City

columbia river
View of Columbia River east of Portland Oregon

If your plans for a western trip call for a visit to the American Northwest, Oregon is a must destination. The state of Oregon and historic Oregon City, just a few miles south of Portland, tell much of the story of westward immigration during the middle part of the 1800's. The history found there and the unsurpassed beautiful scenery make Oregon an excellent vacation destination. Between the beautiful Columbia River Gorge just east of Portland, to the fertile Willamette Valley, Willamette River, Mount Hood and the mountainous coastline, Oregon can either be a part of you vacation or the entire thing.

The first United States citizens to arrive overland in present day Oregon were among the Lewis and Clark  Expedition of 1804-1805. This was followed in 1810 by the Astor Expedition which sought to establish a fur trading operation in the area. Fort Astoria was established at the mouth of the Columbia River at the site of today's Astoria Oregon.

A 2,000 Mile Route

The city of Oregon City itself is both historic and scenic. Located along the Willamette River, Oregon City was the final destination for most of the Oregon Trail immigrants. If you're looking for the end of the Oregon Trail, it can be found at Oregon City, Oregon.

willamette falls
Willamette Falls
The Oregon Trail was composed of a series of very old Indian trails and in some cases animal trails. These trails or paths were first used by white fur trappers and traders. The trail ran west from Independence Missouri through Nebraska and Wyoming. In western Wyoming near Fort Bridger, the trail parted. Those seeking to reach Oregon traveled northwestward along the Snake River and then down the Columbia River and finally up the Willamette River. Those heading to California would take a southwestward route over Utah and Nevada and eventually Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada. Some travel was by river and at times around the many mountains and hills in the region. It was a treacherous 2,000 mile journey. The dangers present were not only from hostile Indians and possible starvation but also from sickness, in most cases cholera and smallpox. After a steady rise, immigration to Oregon peaked in 1852.

The Founding of Oregon City

The entire area of present day Oregon and Washington state was at one time inhabited by workers for the Hudson's Bay Company. This was long before the Oregon Trail days. Their main base of operation was at Fort Vancouver, just across the Columbia River from present day Portland Oregon. In 1829, the Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver, Dr. John McLoughlin, planned a two square mile settlement at Willamette Falls on the Willamette River. He had three houses built which were burned down in short order by local Indians. McLoughlin was not deterred and had the houses rebuilt. From there the settlement grew with a mill being constructed using the Willamette Falls as a power source. These were the first buildings of a white settlement in Oregon. Most of the inhabitants were workers for the Hudson's Bay Company. At the time, the settlement was called Willamette Falls.

mclaughlin house in oregon city
McLaughlin House
Willamette Mission

In 1834, the Reverend Jason Lee and his nephew, Reverend Daniel Lee, were approved by the Mission Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church to establish a mission in the west. When the Lees arrived at Fort Vancouver, Dr. McLoughlin encouraged them to start their work south of the Columbia River in the Willamette Valley. The Willamette Mission was established in 1834 in present-day Marion County.

A key event occurred in 1839 when Reverend Jason Lee traveled to Illinois for a series of lectures. Reverend Lee was looking for recruits for the Willamette Mission as well as settlers to Oregon in general. His travels were met with success. The country was going through a financial depression at the time therefore there were many looking for a fresh start. This was the beginning of the Oregon Trail days.

The First Settlers

Heeding the call of Reverend Lee, the first settlers arrived in the Willamette Valley in late 1839 and early 1840. Each year thereafter, immigration to Oregon increased. Oregon City was the destination of most. From there they could obtain parcels of land and begin their homesteads. The early settlers in the 1840's called the falls,"Hyas Tyee Tumwater" which is generally translated into "Great Chief Falls". This was the name given by the Clackamas Native Indians of the area. Today there is a dam and locks at the falls including a fish ladder. The Indians eventually relocated to Grande Ronde Reservation by the 1850's with a few groups remaining in Clackamas County. It's estimated that about 53,000 settlers arrived in Oregon between 1841 and 1860.

oregon city municipal elevator
Oregon City Municipal Elevator
Creation of America's Northwest

Ever since the end of the 1700's, the Pacific Northwest was a contested area between Great Britain and the United States. Great Britain's presence in the area was largely through the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1846, the United States and Great Britain finally divided the land of the Northwest. The U.S. obtained what is today Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Territorial status for Oregon would not happen until 1848 and not until a tragedy sped up the process. In November of 1847, the Whitman Mission near Walla Walla Washington was attacked by Indians. Both Mr. and Mrs.Whitman and several others were killed. Some 50 plus including women and children were kidnapped. This tragedy so shocked the U.S. Congress that the region was divided into Territories and Oregon received territorial status in 1848.

oregon city view
Oregon City from atop the bluff
Things To Do In Oregon City

The Willamette Falls- The Willamette Falls is the largest waterfall in the Pacific Northwest and only second to Niagara Falls in volume.

The Oregon State Welcome Center and Official End of the Oregon Trail- 1726 Washington Street.

McLaughlin House- 713 Center Street.

Two additional Western Trips articles and photos you'll enjoy are a trip on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and the Oregon Trail wagon ruts at Lake Guernsey State Park in Wyoming.

The Museum of the Oregon Territory- 211 Tumwater Drive.

The Oregon City Municipal Elevator- A very unique must stop on any visit to Oregon City.Most of the town during the early years was located along the river. When the city grew, there was a need to find an easier way to get up the ridge line to the east. In 1867, steps were built to help one get up the bluff. An elevator made of steel and wood was put into operation in 1915 powered by water pressure. In 1924, the power source was changed to electricity. The existing elevator was built in 1955. This is one of just four municipal elevators in the world. After ascending the bluff you'll have a terrific view of Oregon City, the Willamette River and the Willamette Falls.

This is a spectacular part of Oregon and filled with history.

(Photos from author's private collection)

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