Baker County History
1705 Main Street, Baker City, Oregon 97814
(From the Meyer Memorial Trust, 1998-99 Annual Report)
"Most students of Baker County history begin with the Oregon Trail that traversed the county through the Powder River Valley, a welcome and promising sight to the pioneers who had just passed through the seemingly endless and monotonous sagebrush plains to the east. One wagon train immigrant described the 'Powder Creek' valley as 'the most handsome that we have seen since leaving Bear River. The valley is several miles wide, covered with a heavy coat of grass and the creek runs through its center, its banks lined with willows, cottonwood, etc.' Although immigrants looked longingly at the lush grasses that grew in the valley, knowing there was no good access to markets they kept moving west to the Willamette Valley.
White settlement began with discovery of gold in 1861. Mining was very lucrative very quickly and brought gold seekers from the Willamette Valley and California in addition to those that were still arriving from the east; within a few months some four to five thousand men were said to have come to the areas. Prospectors swarmed over the countryside staking claims. Placer mining was the first extraction method, but hard rock mining quickly followed. One early inhabitant later reminisced that 'Gold was the medium of exchange and great fortunes are built on the wealth that flooded from nearby hills.' Farming, ranching and lumbering in the area first sprung up to supply the local market created by mining, and then expanded to furnish more distant markets as well.
Baker city was sited in 1865, named after Colonel Edward Dickenson Baker, Oregon's first U.S. senator and the only member of Congress to be killed in the Civil War. Baker City became the county seat and by 1874 had a population of nearly, 1,200, making it the largest settlement in Oregon east of the Cascade Mountains. A new era of growth was ushered in by arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1884, with its daily service greatly improving connections between Baker City and the rest of the country. Between 1890 an d1900, its population grew by 155 percent.
The gold wealth - and subsequent success in other businesses - led to the development of a substantial downtown area, a broad main street lined with multi-story and elaborately designed building of brick and stone. Fortunately there were local sources of clay and stone (notably a volcanic tuff rock) that could be easily quarried to provide building materials.
Gold mining went through several boom and bust periods in Baker County in the twentieth century, depending on the price of gold. For example, large dredges operated in Sumpter Valley from 1913 -1924 when gold reached $20 an ounce, and again from 1935 to 1954 when it was set at $35.
Over the years, cattle ranching and lumbering grew in economic importance in Baker County and were responsible for the greatest number of jobs. The Sumpter Valley Railroad was built by the Oregon Lumber Company in 1890 to haul logs from Sumpter Valley to a new sawmill in Baker City. The end of the track extended westward as logging advanced, finally reaching the town of Sumpter in 1896. The rail line greatly improved the ability to move heavy mining equipment in the valley, and contributed to a local hard rock gold mining boom that transformed the verdant valley into several miles of continuous rock piles. By 1910 the rail line had reached all the way to Prairie City, 80 miles southwest of Baker City. It provided both passenger and freight service (primarily logs and cattle), but during the 1920's began losing business to cars and trucks. (During the 1930's scheduled passenger service ended and segments of the line were abandoned. Even logging rail traffic diminished and the line was finally abandoned in 1947.)
In 1911, cosmopolitan Baker City decided its name was too quaint, conjuring up images of its early history, and because it was entering the new century looking ahead, not back, citizens voted to drop the word "city" from its name.
Following World War II, the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest expanded greatly to meet the construction demand unleashed after the war. By the end of the 1950's Baker's population had finally broken 10,000. Ranching and dairy production also flourished.
The 1960 census counted a population of 17,295 in Baker County, the highest level ever. But even during the 1960's the county's population began to decline and by the 1980's, all of northeastern Oregon experienced heavy out migration as the bottom fell out of the local resource based economy. Many young people moved away to metropolitan areas.
Employment in the region's timber industry has been affected by several forces, all beyond the control of anyone in Baker county: High interest rates set nationally and triggered by a national recession discouraged housing construction; devaluation of the Canadian dollar encouraged American builders to import less expensive lumber from north of the border; the distance of the Pacific Northwest from major markets in he U.S. made for higher freight costs than to those of competing mills in the South; and national legal and policy decisions led to a dramatically lower timber harvests in area forest.
Historically, the bulk of raw logs processed by Baker County mills came from public lands, but in the last decade or so, timber harvest from Oregon's national forests have been severely reduced. By 1996, more than two-thirds of the harvest on northeastern Oregon came from private lands; total harvest levels were less than half of what they had been just five years earlier and only about one-third of what they were in 1986, the peak year for regional timber harvests in recent history. In addition, many mill workers saw their jobs exported to Asia in the form of raw logs that were converted into plywood or finished lumber in Japan."