Oregon City, Oregon
Oregon City is the oldest city west of the Mississippi River, located at the "End of the Oregon Trail". It is rich in museums and historic homes and buildings. Oregon City is the county seat and home to Clackamas Community College and Willamette Falls Hospital. Located at the confluence of the Willamette and Clackamas Rivers, the town is strategically situated near 1-205, and State Highways 99E, 43, and 213. Major employers include Clackamas County Government, Clackamas Community College, Willamette Falls Hospital, Smurfit Newsprint Corp, and PED Manufacturing.
Currently in Oregon City
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History: 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.
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.
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 Mollala Indians (of the Waiilatpuan Linguistic family). The nearby Clackamas Indians, also of the Upper Chinookan Linguistic group, located their villages along the Clackamas River.
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.
In 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.
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.