Travel: Oregon City blooms with history

By Mary Williams
Rebels By Bus Blog

A blue-sky day with a hint of autumn, new rebel Mary Celniker made her first trip with me.  We walked down from my new home to the Milwaukie transit center and caught TriMet bus 33 (which runs between Portland and Clackamas Community College) to Oregon City.

Oregon City is a small city 12 miles south of downtown Portland, along the east side of the Willamette River with a view of the 40-foot-high Willamette Falls. The oldest incorporated city west of the Rockies, it is steeped in history.  One day was clearly not enough to see all that OC has to offer.  It is now on our “must return” list.

It was founded by John McLoughlin, an employee of the British Hudson’s Bay Company. Often called the father of Oregon, McLoughlin established a settlement in 1829. By 1849 it was the capital of the Oregon Territory, an area that included what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana, Wyoming, and British Columbia. The McLoughlin house was moved uptown to the top of Singer Hill, at the corner of 7th and Center streets and has been preserved as a museum by the National Parks Service.The early European settlers built homes and businesses at the river level, but soon houses were built on the 100-foot bluff above. A 722-step staircase supplemented a trail, but something better was needed. In the early 1900s, the City Commission built a municipal elevator. It worked well but by mid-century, it needed major updating. Rebuilt in 1955, it is 130 feet high and remains the only vertical street in North America. It is free and open daily. The elevator was our initial destination and we planned to get off  Transit Center on Main Street and walk to 7th and Railroad Avenue to take the elevator up.  However, when we told the bus driver where we were going, he suggested that instead of getting off at the downtown transit center we stay on the bus which would take us uptown.

So, our plans quickly changed. We explored uptown first. When we got off the bus, we walked for a short distance along the bluff. There we saw a number of historic homes and a sign acknowledging the work of Keith and Lily Kelly in preserving the Historic Oregon City Promenade. They, along with other volunteers, put in countless hours to beautify this walk for all to enjoy.

Across from City Hall, we saw a mural on the side of a building depicting an historic river view.  It was on the side of the Friends of Oregon City Library Used Book Shop and Gallery. Of course, we went in. Lots of great books and displays of work by local artists—and a friendly person working there told us about the free trolley that stopped across the street. When we asked places to eat, she provided us with several suggestions. There is no lack of places to eat! We opted for the Springer Hill Café a block down the street. The café was a comfortable space that included an art gallery, outdoor seating, and a vertical living wall. The food was great and the staff friendly. It is clearly a hub of community activity—including offering a free workshop on how to build a vertical living wall on September 9th from 3-4 p.m.

The trolley was next on our agenda and we decided to take the full circuit to see where it would go.  We hopped on at the McLoughlin House—7th and Center streets.  The trolley was delightful—big open windows, a clanging bell that sounded like San Francisco, and an informative driver. More than just a free ride, the driver/tour guide Leon provided us with a history along the trolley’s many stops.  We headed to the City’s lower level and the first stop downtown was at the End of the Oregon Trail interpretive center. Unfortunately, it was closed on Mondays. Next, we stopped at Clackamette Park, which is at the confluence of the Willamette and Clackamas Rivers—and hence the name. This is supposed to be a great site for bird watching.

As it went along Main Street (downtown), we passed the County Courthouse (build with WPA money), restaurants and shops, and murals depicting the history of Oregon City on several buildings. The trolley then made its way up back up the bluff. It stopped at the Museum of the Oregon Territory (also closed on Mondays), where we walked to the edge of the bluff to view the Willamette Falls.

Then it was on to the center of the McLoughlin district uptown. We stopped at the Stevens Crawford Museum, the Ermatinger house, and the Carnegie Center. Leon told us that it was at the Ermtinger house where the naming of Stumptown took place—heads was Portland, tails was Boston. We then returned to the McLoughlin house, where we had boarded. The trolley will stop running after Labor Day, Leon explained, so the drivers can return to their regular jobs as school bus drivers.

At last, we made out way to the Municipal Elevator.  It was a short trip down and provided a view of the city but not the falls.  Beginning our return trip, we walked along Main Street to the Oregon City Transit Center.

One goal was to take pictures of the several murals painted on various buildings. Getting good pictures is harder than it might seem, but that is part of the challenge of photography.  We took TriMet bus 32 that went to Milwaukie by a different route than bus 33.

This was a great trip. For one thing, it was simple—just one bus! Always a plus.  It is an also example of a trip planned with a general idea of one thing to do and how helpful people we met along the way shaped the journey.  I had not done much research prior to the trip and so the discovery of so many things to learn and do was a delight.  There are many more walking areas—along the river and up to the higher levels of the bluffs, and a garden. There is a brochure for a self-guided tour of the historic homes. This is a place proud of its history and the many museums are inviting. I see a return trip in our future timed for when the museums are open.


Contact information:

The Oregon City Municipals Elevator at 7th and Railroad Avenue is open every day. Admission is free.

The McLoughlin House. Admission is free. 360.696.7655, ext. 10.

The Museum of the Oregon Territory: 503.655.5574.

The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center: 503.657.9336.

The Stevens-Crawford Heritage House: 503.655.286.



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