Back to the Future: Oregon City's rich heritage brings prosperity today. (Daily Journal of Commerce's Building Oregon, 1995)
By Richard Carson
Developers are born opportunists, and a successful developer is one who takes advantage of a trend before it becomes an established fact of life. One such trend is "heritage tourism."
As we grow older we take on different attitudes, especially an appreciation and interest in our own family history. The aging of the baby boomers - the largest single financial demographic group in America today - is creating a major new opportunity in the selling of history.
I know a little about this because my ancestor was one of the American West's better known opportunists -- Kit Carson. This trend has brought he and I back together after 150 years in a place that is being transformed by this phenomena -- Oregon City.
The Opening Up of the American West
In the Pacific Northwest, this interest is being generated by the recently opened End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. The Center, which is located in Oregon City, celebrates the greatest American expansion in our history.
The U.S. Congress sent two expeditions to the Oregon Country in the 1840s to survey and then connect the earlier over land explorations of the continent, done by people like Lewis and Clark, with the coastal explorations. However, the real purpose was to settle the area before the British could - it became America's greatest land development scheme.
Congress charged Colonel John Fremont with leading the expeditions, and Fremont in turn hired Kit Carson as pathfinder and scout. It was the longest expedition ever completed in the United States. It was also the most reported. More than 250,000 copies of Fremont's journal were printed and it became the most widely read, distributed and quoted publication of its kind in the country. It was said by one newspaper of the day, that after news of the expedition spread, that the "emigration poured like a torrent down upon the vale."
In 1842, fewer than 100 pioneers had attempted the difficult land route to the new Oregon Country. By 1860, more than 300,000 emigrants made the trek. These people have a lot of descendants who are fascinated by the incredible optimism and courage it required to undertake such a dangerous journey. How dangerous? Some 10 percent of the pioneers did not survive the journey.
The First City
There is more historical interest in Oregon City than the new Interpretive Center. Visitors to the city can now take a ride on the new Oregon City Trolley and experience living history.
Oregon City was the first city to be incorporated (1884) in the great American West, that vast area beyond the Missouri River which encompasses half of the continental United States. The list of firsts associated with Oregon City is truly remarkable. The city was home to the first moonshine whiskey still (1836), which was quickly followed by the creation of the first Oregon Temperance Society (1837). One could speculate that the need to discuss the pros and cons of prohibition probably led to the creation of the first debating society. Oregon City was also home to the first:
- Christian churches (1840);
- 300 book circulating library (1842);
- Provisional government (1843);
- City Jail (1844);
- Newspaper called The Spectator (1846);
- The Oregon Exchange Company which minted $5 and $10 gold pieces called "beaver coins" (1849); and
- Plat filed for the City of San Francisco (1850).
The tapestry of history and life are so intertwined in Oregon City that one new residential subdivision, Ainsworth Estates, includes the historic home of Captain John C. Ainsworth as its centerpiece. The city also has scores of other historic homes, including that of Dr. John McLoughlin - the founder of Oregon City and administrator of Fort Vancouver.
The Future of the City
People's perception of Oregon City is changing. The city embodies Shakespeare's observation that "what's past is prologue." It is no longer just an old blue-collar mill town. It is a city with a great heritage and a vibrant future.
The regional government (Metro) recently designated Oregon City a Regional Center in its 50-year planning effort called Region 2040. It also identified some 3,000 acres of urban reserve lands for future development adjacent to the city, Last year the city had the third highest total of new residential building permits, which is more permits than 22 of the other 24 metropolitan cities. And add to this the recently approved $475 million bond measure which will help bring light rail to The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. This development interest and the land still available will combine to eventually make Oregon City triple its population to over 50,000 people.
However, Oregon City has never aspired to be a major metropolitan city. The founders of the city of Portland, Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy, understood this. Even as they flipped the coin which named Portland, they decided they would rather live in Oregon City. Perhaps they too understood that the city was more than just the end of the Oregon Trail. It was also the beginning of the history of the people who settled the great American West.
Richard H. Carson is the director of Oregon City's Community Development Department and is a board member of the Kit Carson Historic Foundation in Taos, New Mexico.