In Oregon, you don't need to visit a stuffy museum to enjoy or explore the state's history. In many ways, it's all around us, ready to be explored.
You can paddle in the park that once hosted the country's first (and only) state-sponsored rock festival, snowshoe along one of the most treacherous stretches of the Oregon Trail, or run along what was once the main highway through downtown Portland. These fascinating Oregon landmarks tell stories about Oregon's history as a frontier state that has long done things a little differently. Whether we realize it or not, they reflect elements of our state's past that help inform the present and future, and they better connect us to the people, places, and landmarks that have come before.
Looking for an adventurous way to gain a deeper appreciation for the state's history? Take a trip back in time to these Oregon landmarks; here's a little bit about the fascinating history that comes with them.
1. Tom McCall Waterfront Park
If Pioneer Courthouse Square is like Portland's living room, Tom McCall Waterfront Park becomes its hip waterfront patio every summer. Thousands attend the Waterfront Blues Festival, which brings legendary musicians to the banks of the Willamette River. Revelers knock back some of the country's best craft beer at the Oregon Brewers Festival. Others compete in dragon boat races or go for a run along its flat, paved path.
But less than 50 years ago, the picturesque strip of land sat under Harbor Drive, perhaps the most important highway cutting through Portland at the time.
Harbor Drive (officially: U.S. 99W) opened in the early 1940s and connected north Portland to communities south of town. In doing so, Harbor Drive sliced through an otherwise bustling downtown core and separated Portlanders from the Willamette River. "When Harbor Drive went in there, it really cut off a lot of access," says Doug Kenck-Crispin, resident historian for the Kick Ass Oregon History podcast.
It remained that way until the Marquam Bridge opened, completing Interstate 5 through Portland, in 1966. The new bridge diverted traffic to the east side of the Willamette River, siphoning cars from Harbor Drive and hastening the end of the small freeway. Harbor Drive closed north of Market Street in 1974, one year after Interstate 405 opened through downtown Portland. The closure signaled the end of one era in Portland history and laid the groundwork for another.
The surplus of highways in and around downtown Portland raised questions about how to reclaim the city for its citizens. "It really gave an opportunity to look at city planning and sprawl," says Kenck-Crispin.
Harbor Drive would become the first major freeway in the United States to be demolished but not replaced, metaphorically paving the way for a scenic park open to all. Construction on what would become Tom McCall Waterfront Park started in 1974, and the 40-acre park opened in 1978.
Today, the park hosts numerous running and cycling events each year, and its wide, paved trails provide runners with ample opportunities to enjoy the nearby Willamette River, springtime cherry blossoms, and the bustling Portland Saturday Market.
2. Balch Creek Canyon
Balch Creek Canyon provides hikers and trail runners with some of the most beautiful scenery in Portland. Moss-covered trees, a bubbling creek, and towering Doug fir trees line the well-maintained trail and offer a relaxing respite from nearby freeways and the downtown core.
Incredibly enough, it's also named for a murderer and the first man to be legally hanged in Portland.
Danford Balch arrived in Portland in the mid-1800s via the Oregon Trail. He staked a land claim near present-day Forest Park and remained there, living in peace, until 1858. In November of that year, a young man named Mortimer Stump professed his love for Balch's 15-year-old daughter Anna and asked Balch's permission to propose. When her father rebuffed the overture, Anna eloped with Stump and decamped to Vancouver, just across the Columbia River.
A few days later, Balch encountered the newlyweds, who'd taken the Stark Street Ferry into downtown Portland for supplies. A scrum ensued, prompting Balch to retrieve a loaded shotgun from home. He returned to the waterfront that day and, aboard the mule-powered ferry, shot and killed Stump.
Balch was found guilty of murder in 1859 and became the first man to be legally hanged in Portland history. About 500 to 600 people attended the public execution on October 18, 1859.
Balch's story didn't have a happy ending, but his property endures today. Donald Macleay, a prominent Portland banker in the mid-1800s, eventually acquired the 108-acre tract of land and donated it to the city of Portland in 1897, under the condition it be preserved as parkland. Today, Macleay Park serves as the gateway to Balch Creek Canyon, a popular hiking and running trail. "It's such a beautiful gift to the city of Portland," says Kenck-Crispin.
3. Milo McIver State Park
Milo McIver State Park is a peaceful Portland park with 14 miles of hiking trails, a 27-basket disc golf course, and several opportunities for flat-water paddling. But about 40 years ago, it had a far less wholesome atmosphere.
In the summer of 1970, just a few months after an otherwise-peaceful demonstration at Portland State University turned bloody, Portland faced another potential confrontation that could have devastating impacts on the city and its citizens.
The American Legion was slated to hold its annual convention in town that August and had invited President Richard Nixon to give the keynote speech. But law enforcement and intelligence officials feared that upwards of 50,000 protesters might descend on the city to hold demonstrations against the Vietnam War, then in full swing.
Oregon Governor Tom McCall wanted to avoid a repeat of the violence and bloodshed that had marked that spring's riot. So he met with activists to formulate plans for preserving peace. Those meetings inspired McCall to approve an unusual solution: Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life, what may be the first and only state-sponsored rock festival in United States history.
McCall hoped the festival would draw would-be protesters out of Portland proper and to Milo McIver State Park, roughly 35 miles southeast. There they could listen to live music and partake in illicit substances over the course of several days—all while law enforcement turned a blind eye to the proceedings. "Vortex was authorized a safety valve—as a defusing mechanism for reducing the numbers we may have to deal with in Portland," McCall said in a televised address in August 1970. He's reported to have called the move "political suicide."
Yet, against all odds, it worked.
The week-long festival kicked off August 28, drawing more than 30,000 attendees to the muddy banks of the Clackamas River and easing tensions in Portland. Scores of national acts were rumored to take part, but local bands ultimately dominated the lineup. For their part, attendees did exactly what you would expect. One popular conspiracy theory insists that the Oregon State Police emptied its evidence lockers and handed out drugs at the event—essentially hoping that the attendees would be too stoned to protest back in Portland. The jury is still out on that one, but exploring the park today, it's not hard to imagine the kind of revelry that once happened there.
4. Neahkahnie Mountain
Today, most Oregonians known Neahkahnie Mountain for its challenging hikes that deliver breathtaking views of Nehalem Bay, Manzanita, and the Pacific Ocean. The stunning landscape also served as the setting of one of the cult classic movies of the 1980s, "The Goonies," which told a fantastical story about buried treasure on the northern Oregon Coast.
But what if the story has some real history behind the Hollywood plot?
To this days, heaps of gold may actually sit buried near where Mikey and his friends looked for One-Eyed Willy's treasure. European and American explorers in the early- and mid-1800s had been trading with the local Clatsop Indians near present-day Manzanita and Cannon Beach when they caught wind of an old legend. As one version of the story goes, a pair of shipwrecked sailors in the late 1600s came ashore near Nehalem Bay and carried a large chest up Neahkahnie Mountain. At one point, the sailors dug a hole and buried the chest.
The mystery might have died there (along with one of the sailors, who allegedly was shot and buried with the treasure). But in the late 1800s, a treasure hunter named Pat Smith found a large rock adorned with strange markings. He interpreted the markings as directions to the buried treasure on Neahkahnie Mountain and spent the rest of his days searching. Smith even took engineering and navigation courses to sharpen his skills, learned Spanish, and allegedly married a Clatsop elder to gain inside information, according to JB Fisher, a Portland historian, author, and professor at Portland Community College.
Smith's efforts were for naught, but that didn't deter future treasure-hunters. Tony Moreno, of Salem, used construction equipment to dig for the treasure in the 1960s after estimating that the buried treasure could be worth $500 million. Moreno found only a few metal objects, and other treasure hunters have been about as successful.
Given his research into the buried treasure, what does Fisher make of the legend? "It would be neat to have an answer to this, and at the same time, it's neat there there isn't one," he says.
Fisher explains that Spanish sailors may have paid Smith a visit, bringing a map to the buried treasure. But Smith, so confident in his skills and knowledge, declined the help and turned them away. "That's amazing to think about," Fisher says. "What are the odds of that? I'm kind of glad he did turn them away; it leaves the mystery open even more."
5. Barlow Pass
Barlow Pass, once the highest point on Barlow Road, is a popular back-country skiing and snowshoeing destination these days. The trail, ideal for intermediate and advanced skiers, promises views of towering evergreen trees and scenic Twin Lakes.
But many outdoor enthusiasts who use it might be surprised to know about the hardy souls whose footsteps came first.
Up until 1845, Oregon Trail travelers, heading west in search of a new life, routinely faced disaster along the 2,000-mile trek. Extreme and unpredictable weather, sickness, raging rivers, sick animals, and uncertain hunting were just a few of the trials and tribulations facing travelers—and that was before they actually reached Oregon. At that point, the final stretch required travelers to board rafts that would carry their wagons down the Columbia River, and many families faced arduous waits or exorbitant costs.
That all abated when the Oregon Legislature in 1845 authorized the creation of the Barlow Road, a safer route that wrapped around the south side of Mount Hood en route to Oregon City. It was the first route to allow wagons to traverse the Cascade Range and, while still dangerous, proved to be a popular alternative. It led travelers through Barlow Pass and present-day Government Camp before turning west toward Sandy.
What was once the site of a difficult journey is now a back-country playground for skiers and snowshoers—not to mention a link with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). A few interpretive signs inform visitors about the area's historical significance and the PCT, which runs through the area, but the region is a quiet, remote wintertime destination today.