Brief History of Oregon City


Oregon City, the county seat of Clackamas County, is located southeast of Portland on the east side of the Willamette River, just below the falls.  Its unique topography includes three terraces, which rise above the river, creating an elevation range from about 50 feet above sea level at the riverbank to more than 250 feet above sea level on the upper terrace.  The lowest terrace, on which the earliest development occurred, is only two blocks or three streets wide, but stretches northward from the falls for several blocks.
Oregon City 1858
Originally, industry was located primarily at the south end of Main Street nearest the falls, which provided power.  Commercial, governmental and social/fraternal entities developed along Main Street north of the industrial area.  Religious and educational structures also appeared along Main Street, but tended to be grouped north of the commercial core.  Residential structures filled in along Main Street, as well as along the side and cross streets.  As the city grew, the commercial, governmental and social/fraternal structures expanded northward first, and with time eastward and westward to the side and cross streets.  Before the turn of the century, residential neighborhoods and schools were developing on the bluff. Some commercial development also occurred on this middle terrace, but the business center of the city continued to be situated on the lower terrace.  Between the 1930s and 1950s, many of the downtown churches relocated to the bluff as well.  The industrial area remained at the south end of the downtown area throughout the 20th century.  As the city continued to grow, development eventually expanded to the upper terrace and spread eastward.
The small community of Canemah, located just south of Oregon City (and now included within its city limits) developed just above the falls on the river.  Canemah is a National Register historic district.

Native Americans, Early Exploration, Fur Trade and Missions: to 1846
Much of Oregon City’s importance lies in its early history as the first permanent Euro-American settlement in the Willamette Valley and the first incorporated city west of the Rocky Mountains.  Founded in 1829 and incorporated in 1844, it first became the home to fur traders and missionaries.  As “the end of the Oregon Trail,” it soon became the final destination for many early immigrants. 
Prior to Euro-American settlement, the area where Oregon City is located was a focal point for fishing and trade among the Native Americans and home to the Clowwewalla (also known as the Charcowah) and the Cashhooks Indians (of the Upper Chinookan Linguistic group) and the Molalla Indians (of the Waiilatpuan Linguistic family).  The nearby Clackamas Indians, also of the Upper Chinookan Linguistic group, located their villages along the Clackamas River. Smallpox, cholera and other Euro-American diseases introduced by early explorers decimated the tribes.  By the time Euro-American settlement in the area began, only about 650 Clowwewalla and Cashhooks remained.  Their numbers steadily declined into the mid-19th century.  After the remnants of the tribes were relocated to the Grand Ronde reservation, they became extinct.
In the 1810s, fur traders explored the Willamette Valley and surrounding areas.  Donald McKenzie, a partner in the Pacific Fur Company located at Fort Astoria, is believed to be the first white man to visit the area of the Willamette Falls when he ascended the river in 1812.  The company and the fort were sold to the North West Company, a British enterprise in 1813.  By 1814, both the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company regularly trapped the lower Columbia and Willamette Rivers.  In 1821 the two fur companies merged under the Hudson’s Bay name and four years later built Fort Vancouver.
Dr. John McLoughlinIn 1823, Dr. John McLoughlin was appointed Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver.  In 1829, McLoughlin laid out a two-square mile claim at the Willamette Falls and began construction of three houses to shelter employees working at the site.  The houses were burned by the natives, but rebuilt by McLoughlin.  A small fur trading center was also established and work was begun on a millrace. These buildings became the first permanent white settlement in the Willamette Valley.  By 1839, the settlement had grown to a collection of small houses clustered around the millrace populated primarily by employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  The settlement, which would become Oregon City, was originally known as Willamette Falls. 
In 1833, Reverend Jason Lee and his nephew, Reverend Daniel Lee, were approved by the Mission Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church to establish a mission in the west.  When the Lees arrived at Fort Vancouver, McLoughlin encouraged them to start their work south of the Columbia River in the Willamette Valley.  The Willamette Mission was established in 1834 in present-day Marion County. 
During the winter of 1839-1840, Reverend Jason Lee gave a series of lectures in Peoria, Illinois in an effort to recruit reinforcements for the Methodist Mission and to encourage American settlement in the Oregon Territory.  Following these lectures, the first overland American immigrant party was organized.  Led by Thomas J. Farnham, the Peoria Party arrived at the Willamette Falls settlement in late 1839 and early 1840.  Others arrived via ship, including George Abernethy and Alvin F. Waller, both part of the “Great Reinforcement” for the Methodist Mission, in June 1840.  Reverend Waller was dispatched to establish a church and store at Willamette Falls later that year.  Abernethy was appointed manager of the store.  McLoughlin donated land and materials for the church and a parsonage.  In 1841, Waller established the Island Milling Company and by 1842 was operating a small sawmill and was making plans for a flour mill on a portion of McLoughlin’s claim in what appears to have been an effort to secure an American claim to the land near the falls.  McLoughlin, in a further effort to stake his claim, platted and named the growing village “Oregon City” in 1842. 
The Methodist Church, the first Protestant church west of the Rocky Mountains, was completed in 1843, the same year that a Provisional Government, under the jurisdiction of the United States, was established.  Oregon City was incorporated in 1844, the first incorporated city west of the Rocky Mountains, as the number of immigrants was growing and Oregon City boasted 75 buildings.  In 1845, Oregon City became the seat of the Provisional Government and George Abernethy was appointed governor.  Oregon City continued to grow and by 1846, had a population of more than 500 and a growing number of businesses.  The first Masonic Lodge in Oregon, Multnomah Lodge No. 1, was granted a charter that year.
 Settlement, Statehood and Steampower: 1847 to 1865
Oregon Territory was officially created in 1848 and Oregon City was designated as the Territory’s first capital, an honor it held until the capital was moved to Salem in 1852.  Oregon was granted statehood in 1859.
The city continued to grow rapidly with the increase in overland migration.  Industry continued to develop as a number of mills were established to support the need for lumber and flour.  Although the discovery of gold in California in 1847 initially reduced the territory’s population as a number of settlers left for the gold fields, it also opened the market for supplying provisions to miners, stimulating industry and commerce.  A number of miners returned to the area after the gold rush passed.  By 1849, the population of Oregon City was over 900.
A new industry developed in 1850 when the first steamboat on the Willamette River, the “Lot Whitcomb,” was built.  An increase in agricultural production in the mid-Willamette Valley required improved methods of shipping goods and river transport became common between the upper valley and Oregon City.  Because the falls initially required the movement of freight from one ship to another, shipbuilding enterprises developed at both Canemah (above the falls) and Oregon City (below the falls).  Shipbuilding was more prolific at Canemah, but at least eight steamboats were built in Oregon City in the 1850s and 1860s.
Oregon City’s position as the hub of the Territory declined in the 1850s as the capital was moved to Salem and Portland surpassed it as a population and shipping center.  Its position as the center for trade, politics and urban activity in the county, however, was secure. 
In the 1860s, Oregon City’s growth continued, but at a slower, steady pace.  The economy shifted from a service and shipping-based economy to one firmly rooted in manufacturing.  The Imperial Flour Mills were built in 1863-1864 and the Oregon Manufacturing Company (Oregon Woolen Mills) was established in 1864.
 Railroads and Industrial Growth: 1866 to 1883
Industrial growth and diversification mark the first years of this period.  The first paper mill in Oregon was established in Oregon City in 1866 as the Pioneer Paper Manufacturing Company (also known as the Oregon City Paper Mill and the Oregon City Paper Manufacturing Company) began operations.  Although financial difficulties resulted in closure of the mill the following year, it introduced an industry that perhaps has had the greatest impact on Oregon City over the years.
The Oregon and California Railroad Company began laying tracks in Portland in 1868, and heading south on the east side of the Willamette River, crossed the Clackamas River and arrived in Oregon City in 1869.  The line was completed as far as Roseburg before being stalled by financial difficulties.  As the first rail transport in the state, it opened the Willamette Valley to shipping ports to the north.  High rail freight costs, however, resulted in the construction of the Willamette Locks to improve river transport by the Willamette Falls Company in 1873.  Not only did the opening of the locks serve to drop the freight rates, but it further stimulated shipbuilding as crops could then be shipped directly to Astoria for transfer to European ships.  The railroad, which helped extend the life of steamboat transportation for awhile, was eventually its undoing as rail lines – and freight rates – became more accessible throughout the valley.
Oregon City continued to grow throughout this time period.  By 1880, the population was nearing 1400.  Commercial businesses developed to accommodate the growing number of residents, as did educational, religious and social organizations.  Most of the development continued in the area of the original townsite on the first terrace, although the congestion was moving people to look at development on the bluff above the city center. 
The Progressive Era: 1884-1913
The Progressive Era saw continued growth.  A new Clackamas County Courthouse was constructed in Oregon City in 1884.  The original courthouse had burned in 1849 and government business had been conducted in rented offices and halls during the intervening years.   In 1888, the West Linn and Oregon City suspension bridge was constructed across the Willamette River.
The timber and wood products industries developed into major contenders and the end of this time period were the largest employers in Oregon City and the county.  Although the H.L. Pittock and Company Paper Mill, located just north of Oregon City at Park Place, relocated to Camas, Washington in 1885, other mills soon opened in Oregon City.  The Willamette Falls Pulp and Paper Company was organized in 1889 and the Crown Mill in 1890.  The Hawley Paper Company was established in 1908.
In 1889, the Willamette Falls Electric Company made history when it transmitted the first electricity over long distance power lines to Portland.  The growing use of electricity made possible the construction of the first interurban electric railroad in the county, the East Side Railway, which made its first run between Portland and Oregon City in 1893.  The establishment of the railway made the concept of commuting a reality for the first time and paved the way for further growth by persons wishing to live in Oregon City and work in Portland. 
A number of new subdivisions and additions were platted between 1888 and the mid-1910s and growth began in earnest on the bluff.  Residential neighborhoods shifted from the city center to the second terrace before the turn of the century, as did the location of the schools.  A small number of commercial enterprises located on the upper level, but the commercial core remained in the downtown business center.  The bluff was accessed by wooden stairs and unimproved roads.
Several civic improvements took place during the Progressive Era.  The city water system and fire department was expanded and improved.  Electric lights and sidewalks were installed and street improvements began.  The Carnegie Library was completed in 1913.  Interestingly, the city’s first major effort at historic preservation occurred in 1909, when Dr. McLoughlin’s house was relocated from downtown to the bluff where it has been restored and designated as a landmark.
The Motor Age: 1914 to 1940
Birds eye view of Oregon City c.1914The arrival of the automobile brought significantly changed life in America.  The first automobile arrived in Oregon City in 1903 when C.G. Miller established his automobile dealership.  His business became known as the Miller-Parker auto dealership in 1913 and the C.G. Miller Company in 1922.  Several other dealerships followed and a number of auto-related businesses, including garages and service stations, were established.  The State Highway Commission was created in 1913 and legislation in 1917 created the State Highway Fund.  Soon after, construction on a modern highway system began.  Highway 99E, referred to in 1923 as the “Super Highway,” was constructed through downtown Oregon City.  In addition to construction of the highway, street paving improved.  A new bridge across the Willamette River replaced the Oregon City-West Linn suspension bridge in 1922.
Transport of another sort developed in 1913, when the first municipal elevator in Oregon City was constructed.  The water-powered elevator made the trip between the downtown and bluff easier for residents and supported a continuing trend to locate the residential neighborhoods on the upper terraces, while the downtown remained the focal point for commercial and governmental business.  After the construction of a new fire station on the bluff, a new city hall office building was built downtown in c.1925.  Commercial development was strong following World War I and a number of new store and office buildings in the downtown were constructed and existing buildings remodeled.  Growth continued through the Great Depression, but at a slightly slower rate.
Although the Great Depression was not as devastating in Oregon as it was in other parts of the country, its affects were felt locally.  Oregon City was the recipient of a variety of funds from federal programs, many of which results in new improvements in the downtown area.  A new Clackamas County Courthouse was constructed in 1936-1937 with assistance from the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  The highway underpass was also constructed in 1936-1937 with WPA funding.  The Singer Creek Falls and Steps were constructed in 1936 with funding from the WPA.  Other federally funded projects in Oregon City included a new high school, a new grade school, a new swimming pool, and street and highway improvements.
With improved roads and new trucking technology, the timber and wood products industry experienced great expansion.  The Willamette and Crown mills merged in 1914 to become The Crown Willamette Pulp and Paper Company.  The Great Depression, however, brought a slowing to the industry and several smaller mills closed.  In 1937, Anthony Zellerbach took control of several mills, including Crown Willamette, which became Crown Zellerbach.
 World War II and the Post-War Era: 1941 to 1950
World War II brought an end to the Great Depression and ushered in a fully modern period.  Although growth and development was slowed during the war, the period following the war was one of substantial expansion in Oregon City, as it was in most communities around the country.
The timber and wood industry recovered from the Great Depression slump and was restored to its position as the state’s leading industry with the building boom that followed the war.  New residential neighborhoods expanded eastward to the third terrace above the river as newfound prosperity allowed many to buy their own homes.  Schools followed and churches that had been located downtown for years migrated to the bluff as well. 
Commercial growth in the downtown area continued, although only a handful of new buildings were constructed.  Much of the development involved the creation of new “modern” businesses, which opened their doors in existing buildings.
  •  Barry , J. Neilson .  “The Indians of Oregon—Geographic Distribution of Linguistic Families,” Oregon Historica Quarterly. Volume 28, 1927:57-60.
  •  Bowen, William A. , The Willamette Valley, Migration and Settlement on the Oregon Frontier.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978: 7-8.
  •  Koler/Morrison Planning Consultants,  Oregon City, Oregon: Historic Context Statement for the Park Place Vicinity.  August 1990, 3.
  •  Miller, C.G. , Oregon City Enterprise article for Anniversary Edition, October 27, 1926.
  •  Miller, Tom ,Oregon City Enterprise article for Anniversary Edition, October 27, 1926. Oregon City Enterprise, January 1, 1937.
  • Webber, Bert and Margie   Oregon City (By Way of the Barlow Road) at the end of the National Historic Oregon Trail.  Medford, Oregon: Webb Research Group, 1993: 37-38.
Dennis, Historic Context Statement, City of Oregon City, 2000 ©