- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

BAKER CITY, Ore. — When they strung up poor Bogs Greenwood on a ranch near here in 1864 for murder, most people probably figured it was the start and finish of his moment of fame.

However, when a Main Street bank building was torn down decades later, a time capsule turned up, and there was Bogs’ skull, along with a brief biography.

The skull and its manuscript are missing, but a plaque on the replacement building tells all about it. That explains a lot about Baker City.

The town is within spittin’ distance of the Oregon Trail, the 1,900-mile route used by a half-million pioneers headed west before the transcontinental railroad was built. Later, when the mines were belching gold, oh, how the money rolled in.

With the mines silent and the timber industry in shards, Baker City’s future may be defined by its past. Visitors to the area will find buildings restored to 19th-century architectural glory, gold-rush ghost towns and tributes to the pioneers’ ordeals.

The town, built to support the gold rush, was named for Edward Baker, one of Oregon’s first U.S. senators. Baker, a close confidant of Abraham Lincoln’s, was the only member of Congress killed in the Civil War. Lincoln named a son after Baker, and another Lincoln son wrote a poem — an awful one — mourning Baker’s death.

The people in their stiff poses and derby hats in early photos of the town are long gone, but much of the city looks as it did then. Original building facades have been restored, and the Geiser Grand Hotel, then as now the town pride, has undergone a $7 million makeover.

The hotel opened in the 1880s and was said to be the finest between Portland and Salt Lake City, with the third elevator ever built west of the Mississippi.

More than 100 cut-glass chandeliers (the originals vanished long ago) dangle from its high ceilings. The hardwoods glisten, and the stained-glass ceiling in the dining room defies description.

Local history buff Beverly Calder owns a deli and wine shop in the town’s historic district. The store originally was located on what once was considered the shady side of Main Street — where respectable people didn’t walk and the Salvation Army trolled for lost souls.

“Older women told me not to open it there, that ladies would never shop there,” Miss Calder said. “This was in 1998 — but they remembered how it was as recently as the 1930s and 1940s.”

The county also was rough enough to inspire Walter Winchell to comment that if you wanted to kill someone, Baker County was the place to do it.

Visitors can use Baker City as a jumping-off point for the Snake River and Hells Canyon, the nation’s deepest, as well as for the magnificent Oregon Trail Interpretive Center and a collection of ghost towns left over from the 19th-century gold rush.

While Baker City’s population has remained at 10,000 for decades, nothing is left of nearby Auburn — which once had 5,000 people — except a cemetery that’s hard to find.

In its heyday, Auburn was a tough town of tough people. In a memoir called “The Golden Frontier” (University of Texas Press, 1962), prospector and teamster Herman Reinhart recalled the fate of a man who killed two men in a knife fight over cards. The miners “fired his cabin and he had to come out and they threw a rope around his neck and dragged him through the street, filled his body full of bullets, hung him up and strangled him and shot him to death and threw him into his burning cabin.”

Hobby miners still find gold in the streams and rivers, but the big operations are gone, silenced largely by environmental regulations and high costs.

“There’s not much of the easy gold left to be found,” says Terry Karp, owner of Baker City Gold and Silver, which has a display of gold found in the area. Gesturing to a small container, he adds, “and 90 percent of what they find is like that in this vial of dust.”

It wasn’t always like that. The Armstrong Nugget, a 5-pounder found in 1913, is on display with other samples at the U.S. National Bank.

The massive Sumpter Valley Dredge, still intact in nearby Sumpter, was one of three that took about 9 tons of gold from the Sumpter Valley. Do the math at today’s price of about $400 an ounce. Gold worth millions more came out of other mines.

The dredge is a State Heritage Site today, free for the public to explore. You can ask questions at a small gift shop. Buy an inexpensive gold pan if you want to try your luck, or buy a tiny nugget of Baker County gold for as little as $5.

Seven large area claims are held by Eastern Oregon Miners and Prospectors Inc., a nonprofit organization that sells family memberships for $50 a year. Six of the claims have basic camping facilities.

Closer to Baker City is the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center on the actual Oregon Trail, a museum that does a superb job of bringing the Great Migration to the West to life.

The life-size wagon replicas and excerpts from diaries debunk many myths. Most of the pioneers didn’t ride in on the billowy prairie schooners of Hollywood. They walked, sometimes barefoot, to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, described by one pamphleteer as “a place where God tempers the wind to shorn lambs.”

Getting there wasn’t so pleasant, and by the time the wagon trains reached eastern Oregon, they were in rough shape. Oxen were dying, heirloom furniture had been jettisoned, the pioneers were exhausted, and many had perished. Mountains lay ahead, and winter was coming.

Most people had sold everything for the trip, and there was no going back. You can stand on the trail, still visible after tens of thousands of wagon wheels formed it, and wonder how on earth they made it. The museum documents it all with diaries, photos and careful replicas in displays that put the era in context.

“Nothing but rock upon rock, nothing but sage,” Esther Hanna recorded in 1857.

“The roads here is very deep, dust something like hot ashes,” George Belshaw recorded four years earlier.

“A lazy person,” wrote another, “should never think of going to Oregon.”

Visiting Oregon’s gold-rush towns

Baker City, on Interstate 84, is a five-hour drive east of Portland, Ore., two hours from Boise, Idaho, and a little more than two hours from Walla Walla, Wash.

Baker City has a wide range of hotels and restaurants. Eateries include the Haines Steakhouse (910 Front St.; 541/856-3639, entrees $7 to $24) and Barley Brown’s Brewpub, a microbrewery that also serves food (2190 Main St., 541/523-4266). Rates at the Geiser Grand Hotel (1996 Main St.; 541/523-1889, www.geisergrand.com) begin at $79.

Expect hot summer days and cool evenings. Winter can be brutally cold. Baker City has magnificent 19th-century Italianate and Victorian architecture. The Adler House (1889) at 2305 Main St., where town benefactor Leo Adler lived, is a museum. The Baer House (1882) at 2333 Main St. (800/709-7637) is a bed-and-breakfast; rates begin at $75.

Historic Baker City offers walking tours past many of the 68 structures listed on the Natural Register of Historic Places. Call for a printed guide if you want to do it yourself: 541/523-5442.

The Eastern Oregon Museum, 10 miles from Baker City in Haines, a town once known for having “gold in the streets and whisky in the water,” is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through mid-September; admission $2. For more information, call 541/856-3233.

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center: 22267 Route 86; 541/523-1843 or www.or.blm.gov/NHOTIC. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 1 through Oct. 31; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 1 through March 31. Admission $5, $3.50 for children 6 to 17.

Sumpter offers gold-panning on the Elkhorn Crest Trail: www.historicsumpter.com.

Anthony Lakes Ski Area: 541/856-3277 or www.anthonylakes.com.

Eastern Oregon Miners and Prospectors: PO Box 66, Baker City, OR., 97841.

For more information, call 800/523-1235 or visit www.visitbaker.com

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