Oregon City is steeped in history. It’s the oldest city in Oregon, and for many years, it was also the most important. Its roots go back to the early 19th century, when fur traders and trappers were roaming the Northwest wilderness.
At that time, fur-trading companies were actively exploring and settling the Northwest. Instead of competing, these companies eventually merged to form one powerful force, called the Hudson’s Bay Company. This company established some of the first towns in the Northwest, including Oregon City.
Hudson’s Bay strategically chose the location for Oregon City. It was next to Willamette Falls and close to where the Willamette and Clackamas Rivers meet. This location was ideal for the lumber industry, as well as for trade.
At its foundation in 1829, the outpost had only three houses for company employees. Its growth was limited to employees until the 1840s, when it was officially platted and incorporated. It was one of the only towns in the Oregon Territory, and as such, it became the capital of the Oregon frontier.
Soon, Oregon City was humming with activity and new settlers. As the capital, it was the final stop for Oregon Trail pioneers who wanted to file land claims. Fur traders, politicians, and missionaries were also among its population. It was no longer just a trading outpost, but an important urban center. It even had its own newspapers, the Oregon Spectator, the first published west of the Rocky Mountains.
However, in the 1850s, Portland’s economy and population began to surpass Oregon City’s. This shifting of power was partly due to the California Gold Rush, which drew residents away from Oregon City. In addition, the capital of Oregon was moved to Salem in 1951. Although Oregon City was still a center for trade and urban activities, it was no longer the seat of government or endpoint for pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
Initially, Portland and Oregon City were economic rivals, but by the end of the 19th century, they were starting to work together. The production of electricity in Oregon City, and Portland’s need for electrical power, helped to motivate this cooperation. Starting in 1889, Portland began to receive electricity from Willamette Falls via long-distance power lines. This transmission helped to build a partnership between the cities that endures to this day.
Besides powering homes and offices, the electricity generated at Willamette Falls improved the railway connection between Oregon City and Portland. With so much electricity, it was possible to construct an interurban electric railroad between the cities. In 1893, the Eastside Railway Company ran its first passenger train between the cities. It was an immediate success, creating opportunities for residents in both cities to commute to work.
Many Portlanders took this opportunity. Around the turn of the century, the population and development of Oregon City really took off. New subdivisions were platted along the bluff, and many new houses were built.
Some of these homes eventually became historical landmarks. For example, the pioneer Harley Stevens built a home for his family in 1908 that has since become the Stevens-Crawford Museum. Designed with the foursquare architecture popular at that time, the home has been well-preserved with original fixtures and details.
Historical preservation has been a key part of Oregon City for a long time. Already in 1909, residents were thinking about how to keep their historical treasures intact. They wanted to preserve important homes from the 19th century, which were endangered by 20th-century developments.
To protect these residences, the city government moved them to other locations, away from the neighborhoods being developed. Although these moves sometimes resulted in damage to the homes, they ultimately saved them from being demolished.
The first home the city preserved was built in 1846 by Dr. John McLoughlin, who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company for two decades. After resigning from his position, he became the manager of a general store in Oregon City where Oregon Trail pioneers often ended their journey.
Later, other historic homes were also moved and preserved. For instance, the Ermatinger House—the oldest house in Clackamas County—was built in 1845 and moved in 1910.
Some homes were set apart for their architectural beauty more than their historical value. For example, the Harvey Cross House was built in the late 1880s and moved in 1915 because of its elegant Italianate architecture.
The residents of Oregon City didn’t stop at preserving these homes, either. They also worked to keep their downtown and natural surroundings beautiful. It’s a great city for a history buff, but also for anyone who treasures beauty.
Currently, the community is working to bring the Willamette Falls back to the people, with plans for a public river walk and a connected downtown Oregon City with room for housing, public spaces, habitat restoration, education, and employment.