These pioneers are reliving the Oregon Trail days.
Baker City was a bawdy place in the late 19th century. One block of Main Street boasted five saloons and several brothels, yet more refined tastes also had a place in the "Queen City of the Mines." An opera house lent the Oregon hinterlands a little taste of Europe, and the ornate Geiser Grand Hotel was considered the finest between Salt Lake City and Seattle.
The area had been a mere way station for pioneers on the Oregon Trail, but the region's fate changed in 1861, when the discovery of gold in nearby Griffin Gulch sparked decades of frenzied mining in the Blue Mountains. Towns sprang up, among them Baker City, named for Edward Dickinson Baker, the U.S. senator from Oregon who died fighting in the Civil War. By the beginning of the 20th century, Baker City was home to 6,700 people—more than Boise. But as the mines played out, the gleam wore off the area. By the late 1960s, once-bustling mining towns stood abandoned, the Geiser Grand had shut its doors, and travelers relegated Baker City to rest-stop status.
Then Baker City got lucky again. The Bureau of Land Management chose Flagstaff Hill, five miles north of town, as the site for its National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Unveiled in 1992, just in time for the legendary trail's sesquicentennial, the museum drew more than 500,000 visitors in its first 18 months. Its success was not lost on local residents, who, convinced that a heritage tourism boom was under way, began seeking outside investors for the by-then dilapidated Geiser Grand. Three years and $6 million in restorations later, the hotel was back in business.
Still, Baker City is hardly a classic tourist town, and that's its greatest appeal. There are no trendy restaurants here—even the Geiser Grand's acclaimed dining room serves mainly meat-and-potatoes fare (though the place is packed for special culinary events, which include lobster weekends featuring fresh seafood flown in from Maine). Shopping is as limited as you'd expect in a far-flung town of about 10,000 people, and nightlife nearly nonexistent. But Baker City and its surrounding mountains are rich in historic and scenic appeal, and for many, that's enough.
The Oregon Trail center is the area's must-see attraction. Its entryway centerpiece is a 100-foot, walk-through diorama that puts you right in the mix of pioneer life, depicting a man's pride over his hand-built wagon as well as a woman mourning the loss of her child. (For every five children who started the trail, one would die en route.) The scene ends at a wall of windows where wagon ruts can plainly be seen leading toward the Blue Mountains.
Before or after surveying the extensive indoor exhibits, take time for the 75-minute round-trip hike to the trail. The wagon ruts are not especially deep, but they're easy to see and roll on for about a mile. It's smart to make the trek early in the day in summer, when temperatures often soar to 90 degrees or more by midday. Living history camps outside the center offer still more insight into one of the largest peacetime migrations that the world has ever seen. Plan on a half day or so here.
Another good half-day excursion can be made less than an hour west of Baker City on Highway 7. The Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area showcases a 1,240-ton earthmoving machine that produced about $4.5 million in gold during the first half of the 20th century. The Sumpter Valley Railroad steam train chugs, 40 minutes each way, between two depots. Park at McEwen (22 miles west of Baker City) and ride to Sumpter for a look at the dredge and a walk around the storied little town before making the return trip.
Back in Baker City, check out the impressive architecture—more than 100 buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Historic Baker City Walking Tour Guide pamphlet points out such sights as the 1887 Luther B. Ison Home at 1790 Washington Avenue, its fanciful Queen Anne design now disguising a Bank of America branch, and the 1908 St. Francis Cathedral. Like many prominent local buildings, the church was constructed of volcanic tuff stone quarried nearby. The old Baker Hotel, built in 1929 at Main Street and Auburn Avenue, is another preservation success story. The 10-story building, tallest in eastern Oregon, fell into disrepair in the late 20th century before renovations brought back its classic appeal. Now known as the Baker Tower, it houses offices on its first few floors, with condominiums filling the upper stories.
A former natatorium at Campbell and Grove streets is home to the ever-expanding Baker Heritage Museum. Although the museum is most notable for its outstanding rock collection, with more than 2,000 specimens, it also displays antique cars and plenty of pioneer memorabilia. The same volunteers who run the museum help maintain the handsome Adler House at 2305 Main Street. And for a look at the town's glittering past, visit the U.S. Bank at 2000 Main Street during business hours to see an exhibit of gold that includes the impressive Armstrong Nugget, an 80.4-ounce hunk discovered nearby in 1913.
Although summer is a good time to visit Baker City, winter activities beckon visitors, as well. Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort, 35 miles west, has frequent powder days and Sno-Cat skiing, along with a network of cross-country ski trails. In the same vicinity, horse-drawn wagon tours of the Elkhorn Wildlife Area offer close-up views of elk in their winter habitat. But no matter what season you visit Baker City, you'll discover an unpretentious place where scenic and recreational riches—if not veins of gold—remain easy to find.
Photography by C. Bruce Foster
This article was first published in May 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
All phone numbers are area code 541 unless noted. Pick up the Oregon & Washington TourBook and map as well as the Northwestern CampBook at your local AAA office. For additional information, contact the Baker County Chamber & Visitors Center: 523-3356, (800) 523-1235, www.visitbaker.com.
Things to See and Do
Adler House Museum, 2305 Main St. Tours Friday-Monday, late May through mid-September. 523-9308. National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Hwy. 86. Daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. 523-1843, oregontrail.blm.gov. Baker Heritage Museum, 2480 Grove St. Open late March through October. 523-9308.
Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area, 30 miles west via Hwy. 7.
894-2486, www.oregonstateparks.org. Sumpter Valley Railway, west via Hwy. 7. Runs weekends and holidays Memorial Day weekend through September. 894-2268, www.svry.com.
Barley Brown's Brew Pub, 2190 Main St. Handcrafted beer and creative dishes such as pasta tossed with shrimp and alligator. 523-4266. El Erradero, 2100 Broadway. Authentic Mexican fare. 523-2327. Geiser Grand Hotel, 1996 Main St. Casual dining in elegant surroundings. 523-1889, www.geisergrand.com. Phone Company Restaurant, 1926 First St. Romantic atmosphere and upscale cuisine in a 1910 building. 523-7997.
Best Western Sunridge Inn, One Sunridge Lane. Courtyard-style motel with an outdoor pool and patio dining. Rates $69 to $89. 523-6444, (800) 233-2368, www.bestwestern.com. Geiser Grand Hotel, 1996 Main St. Renovated historic hotel has spacious rooms with high windows for mountain and downtown streetscape views. Ask about special themed events, including Murder Mystery weekends. Rates $79 to $199. 523-1889, (888) 434-7374, www.geisergrand.com. Wallowa-Whitman National Forest The Baker City Ranger District features several campgrounds. Union Creek, 20 miles southwest of Baker City via Hwy. 7, is among the most accessible. 523-4476, www.fs.fed.us/r6/w-w/.