Next week: Back roads of Union County

OREGON CITY — Before there was an Oregon City or an Oregon Territory, before the first white immigrant homesteaded near the Willamette River, long before the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, the Willamette Falls was as much a geographical landmark as was snow-crested Mount Hood.

Its prominence is difficult to recognize today. The horseshoe cataract has been restructured by 140 years of industrialization, including construction of shipping locks and hydroelectric turbines, and extensive use by now-defunct paper mills.

But the Willamette Falls remains the largest waterfall in the Pacific Northwest — not the tallest, certainly, but the greatest by volume, with an average flow of more than 30,000 cubic feet per second. Twenty-six miles upriver from the Willamette River’s confluence with the Columbia, 40 feet high and 1,500 feet wide, it is the 17th-widest falls in the world, drawing distant comparisons to Niagara Falls.

From viewpoints on both sides of the river, off Interstate 205 in West Linn and along McLoughlin Boulevard in Oregon City, the powerful ring of water and rock is a point of fascination. It is best seen, perhaps, from the upper floors of the Museum of the Oregon Territory (MOOT), Oregon City’s bluff-top repository of two centuries (and more) of heritage artifacts.

Indeed, Oregon City has more than enough history to fill scores of museums. The first incorporated American city west of the Rocky Mountains and the first official capital of the Oregon Territory (1848 to 1851), this city of 33,000, a short drive southeast of Portland, demands that any history lover stay for at least a day and preferably two.

End of the trail

The logical place to begin that visit is the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, its distinctive architecture resembling a semicircle of covered wagons on Abernethy Green. This gentle knoll was the final stop for mid-19th-century immigrants on their 2,000-mile trek across uncivilized North America. Here, new arrivals said farewell to their traveling companions and set out to carve new lives for themselves in the fertile Willamette Valley.

Incorporating a visitor center for Travel Oregon and the Mount Hood Territory, the interpretive center is operated with the involvement of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, who provide a unique Native American perspective on the western migration. A multimedia film presentation, “Bound for Oregon,” narrated by the holographic image of Dr. John McLoughlin (the “Father of Oregon”), describes the trials of the epic Oregon Trail journey and the experience of settling into a new home.

Seasonally, living-history interpreters in period costume will demonstrate how to pack and unpack a covered wagon — including the difficult decisions of what to take, and what to leave behind — and how to grind wheat seed into flour. Mostly, though, museum visitors are left to explore exhibits on their own.

“It’s more flexible and integrated that it once was,” said director Gail Yazzolino, noting that the Oregon Trail Center reopened its displays in a new form last July after a four-year renovation. “Our exhibits are inclusive, diverse and authentic.”

McLoughlin House

From here, head to the McLoughlin House. The home of Dr. John McLoughlin and his wife, Marguerite, who lived in this house from 1846 to 1857, the two-story building anchors the McLoughlin Historic District, which overlooks the Willamette River and downtown Oregon City from the top of a basalt bluff — along which runs a five-block promenade.

The house was built near the river in 1845 and saved from demolition in 1909, when horses pulled it up Singer Hill to its present Center Street location on McLoughlin’s original city plat. Simple in appearance, but elegant for its time and location, it is now administered by the National Park Service in conjunction with Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

Free tours begin at the adjacent Forbes Barclay House, formerly the home of a mid-19th-century physician and Oregon City mayor. (It was moved from river level in 1937.) Ranger Heidi Pierson met me here and showed me an exhibit on the making of beaver hats, which were all the rage when Oregon was young. Then we walked over to the McLoughlin House.

My tour was conducted by Rolla and Marge Harding of the McLoughlin Memorial Association, the organization charged with preserving the house and its original furnishings. Assisted by historical photographs and paintings, they talked about McLoughlin and his times. Then they led me and other visitors through the first floor — a large parlor, dining room and the doctor’s office — and up a set of narrow stairs to the second floor, where we found three bedrooms and a sitting room. Kitchens and toilets were in separate buildings.

The ‘White Eagle’

John McLoughlin, I learned, was a big man not only in reputation but also in stature. The native population knew him as the “Great White Eagle.” He stood about 6 feet 4 inches in an era when few men were much over 5 feet 8 inches, and a mane of long white hair made him look even larger.

Born in Canadian Quebec of Scottish parents, McLoughlin was trained in medicine as a teenager, then moved west with the Hudson’s Bay Co. in the early 1820s. He rose in the ranks of the fur trade to become chief factor of Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River. In 1829, he had also established a small settlement beside the Willamette Falls, which he saw as ideal for powering future industry.

By 1842, as demand for furs dwindled, along with supplies, a constant stream of wagon trains filled with American pioneers was arriving in the Oregon Territory. In direct opposition to the policy of the British Empire, which was fighting for possession of the territory, McLoughlin supported the newcomers. He and his wife felt it was the right thing to do. He provided extended credit for food, seed and farm tools, and steered the emigrants southward into the Willamette Valley.

The community that grew up beside the falls became known as Oregon City. It quickly became the goal of every traveler on the Oregon Trail — especially after 1850, when the federal Donation Land Act was passed. This assured every settler a 320-acre claim, which must be filed at a federal land office: and Oregon City had the only one west of the Rocky Mountains.

McLoughlin himself built a home in the valley and retired to it in 1846. Five years later, at the age of 67, he became an American citizen. He died in 1857; Marguerite followed three years later. Their ivy-covered graves today remain on the property, surrounded by a small fence.

Heritage homes

This uptown district of Oregon City features numerous other historic houses. Notable among them is the 1908 Stevens-Crawford Heritage House, two blocks southeast of the McLoughlin House. Built in the Foursquare Craftsman style for the family of Harley Stevens, whose wife Mary Elizabeth was the daughter of Oregon Trail wagon master Medorem Crawford, the three-story house has 15 rooms, all fully furnished as it was left by its longest resident: the Stevens’ daughter, Mertie, who lived here for 60 years until her death in 1968 at the age of 96.

An artist and musician, Mertie bequeathed the house to the Clackamas County Historical Society. She was a bit of a packrat, having filled many of her rooms with all manner of collectibles. A careful restoration enabled the historical society to recreate the home in charming fashion. Docents are on hand to provide tours and interpretation.

Mertie Stevens was the longtime organist for the First Congregational Church, and she didn’t have far to go to play: The church is one block east and across the street. Now the Atkinson Memorial Church (a Unitarian Universalist fellowship), the church was founded in 1844 as the original Congregational church in the American West, and an early pastor, Dr. George Atkinson, was the prime motivator in establishing a public-education system in Oregon. The Gothic structure’s 14 stained-glass windows, created in 1924, have helped to earn it status on the National Register of Historic Places.

Directly opposite the church is the 1847 Francis Ermatinger House, which predates the McLoughlin House by a few weeks. The flat-roofed, Federal-style structure is presently closed for restoration. According to legend, Oregon City lawyer Asa Lovejoy and businessman Francis Pettygrove met in this house to decide who would name a land claim they had staked just north of Oregon City. Pettygrove won a coin flip and named the claim after his hometown of Portland, Maine.

Had Lovejoy won, it would have been called Boston.

The Rose Garden

About a mile southeast of uptown Oregon City is the William L. Holmes House, which has stood intact, on the very location where it was built, for more than 165 years.

William L. Holmes, his wife and three younger children were members of a wagon train that traveled to Oregon from Independence, Mo., over six months in 1843. On their 640-acre (one square mile) donation land claim, adjacent to McLoughlin’s, the family lived in a small log cabin until this Greek Revival-style home was completed in 1848. It is open today for tours on a limited schedule.

Docent Mike Jarrett, dressed as the gentleman farmer that Holmes would have been, told me the estate became known as “The Rose Garden” because Holmes’ wife, Mary Louise, was an avid gardener. The family loved to entertain, Jarrett said, and the house became the location of many political gatherings as well as social events. In March 1849, in fact, President James Polk formally proclaimed Oregon a territory of the United States while speaking from the upstairs balcony, and three months later Governor Joseph Lane gave a blustering seven-hour inaugural address from the same loft.

A half-mile east, the Mountain View Cemetery harbors the gravestones of many Oregon pioneers, notably including Peter Skene Ogden, a fur trader and Hudson’s Bay Company explorer who later became a company official. (He is honored at the Peter Skene Ogden State Scenic Viewpoint on the Crooked River just north of Terrebonne.)

Beside the cemetery is a unique and poignant memorial — a cathartic plaza built by a local organization called Parents of Murdered Children (POMC) and Other Survivors of Homicide Victims. Now nearing completion, it features a granite wall, with more than 500 names engraved, and a cascading water feature.

Down on Main Street

The Main Street Oregon City organization is doing its part, as well, to revitalize the riverside downtown blocks of a onetime mill town fallen on hard times. Five blocks of Main Street, between McLoughlin Boulevard and Railroad Avenue, have 36 buildings designated as being of historic note, and more than a half-dozen of them feature murals painted in the early 1990s by such Northwest artists as Roger Cooke and Larry Kangas.

A highlight of downtown exploration is the Oregon City Municipal Elevator — the only outdoor, city-owned elevator operating in the United States. By the early 20th century, most of Oregon City’s population was living not beside the river, where its paper, textile and grain mills were located, but 90 feet above the river, atop Singer Hill. City officials sought an alternative to the 722 steps required for the climb, and in 1915 they built an elevator — a $12,000 water-powered elevator of steel and wood. It was replaced in 1955 by a new steel-and-concrete elevator that makes the climb in a mere 15 seconds.

The elevator, brightly illuminated at night, is on Sixth Street. Also lit one block north, falling into Seventh Street, the Singer Creek Grand Staircase falls in five levels toward the Willamette River: In the late 1800s, the creek powered a flour mill.

Two blocks west, Sixth Street crosses designer Conde McCullough’s historic 1922 Arch Bridge to Oregon City’s sister community of West Linn. Just upriver, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers administers the Willamette Falls Locks, built in 1873 to enable small vessels to climb and descend the 40-foot falls through a series of four chambers. They are presently closed, but interpretive exhibits describe their use.

Belle of the Falls

The best way to glimpse Willamette Falls may be from the deck of the “Belle of the Falls.” The refurbished, 60-passenger paddleboat plies these waters on summer weekends on one-hour excursions from the Jon Storm Dock near Clackamette Park. That’s beside the Best Western Plus Rivershore Hotel, Oregon City’s best lodging option, just north of downtown.

But don’t leave Oregon City without perusing its best historical collection in the Museum of the Oregon Territory. It’s eclectic, covering a territory that in the early 19th century stretched from the Alaska panhandle to the California border. And it features not only early Oregon City, but also 10,000 years of Native American history.

My favorite exhibit is an early 20th-century pharmacy, stocked with a fascinating variety of make-you-wells like Karnak (“a stomachic tonic and system regulator”), Swamp Root (“for the kidneys”), and Dr. Pierce’s Smart Weed (“for the relief of acute pain and sudden development of the symptoms for which it is recommended”).

After considering all the things that I do not want to put in my system, I’m glad to walk next door to the Highland Still House. A traditional, two-level Scottish pub and restaurant, this is the place to go for fish and chips or a steak-and-mushroom pie — or for the Portland area’s largest selection of Scotch whiskeys, so long as you’re not driving.

I’m sure Dr. John McLoughlin, with his Scottish heritage, would have approved.

— Reporter: