At 160 years old, Oregon City is the oldest town in Oregon. For those who read this blog in other, more ancient places, that’s laughably young, and yet it has some oddities about it that make it unique in the United States.
First, unlike many of its contemporariess among the U.S.-settled cities west of the Mississippi River, Oregon City’s first industry was not in primary resources, such as ranching or mining. It began as a town of merchandise and industry. The End of the Oregon Trail website says that soon after its 1844 incorporation, Oregon City had 500 residents, two churches, two saloons, a newspaper, 75 houses, two blacksmiths, two coopers, two cabinet makers, two hatters, two silversmiths, and four tailors. It’s never been a cowboy town; we’ve got no exciting tales of gunfights in the street or cattle drives through the saloon or miners betting their last dollar on a gold mine out in the hills.
In fact, when the California Gold Rush broke in 1859, a number of men left their wives in charge of the new homesteads to go south and make a little cash to get started on. When they came home years later, with a lot of nothing to show for their efforts, they discovered that their wives had put away a tidy stash of cash by selling wool or knitting socks or some other domestic occupation. The California gold, which eluded so many miners, came here in search of stuff the miners needed.
By 1889, these falls at Oregon City were supplying electricity to run the street lights in Portland, an upstart town 14 miles downriver.
Anyway, Saturday was a celebration of 125 years of the locks on the Willamette River that provide boat passage around the falls. A local jet boat company gave free rides to the falls, and there we saw a three-foot-long sturgeon leaping out of the water, blue herons and one of a half-dozen or so sea lions who follow the salmon more than 120 miles upriver from the ocean to eat the salmon looking for the fish ladder up past the falls. The sea lion’s head looked like a Labrador retriever’s as it surfaced, and it had a good-sized salmon in its mouth. It shook the salmon the way a dog would shake a toy, then flung it across the water and dove for another one. The fishermen hate the seals and sea lions because they take one bite from a salmon and then grab another.
I told my 18-year-old daughter about it, and she said, “Mom, you sound like a kid.” Maybe so, but how can I tell her–or anyone–the mystical feeling of touching something so old and so new, where the ghosts of the Indians netting salmon from the falls, John McLoughlin setting up a grain mill, 19th-century pioneer industrialists with their big ideas and their innocence of the consequences, and even us, pointing over the windscreen of the jetboat at a blue heron lifting itself out of the mist and spray, are so close that they all seem to be there all at once, layered like pages of a book. I’m glad I’m not so old as 18 any more.