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Visitors come from across the Oregon Territory
By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
Some real-life politicians joined their fictional counterparts at the podium during Saturday's 10th anniversary celebration at the Interpretive Center.
Protected from the sun's rays by a straw hat, Barbara Roberts, who was governor when the Center opened in 1992, called the day NHOTIC opened "one of the most memorable days of my four years as governor."
Since that day, the Center has welcomed 1,527,199 visitors as of Friday night, NHOTIC director Gay Ernst announced.
Roberts said she recalled many of the questions raised when the Center was being planned early on in her administration.
"How is it possible to commemorate a 2,000 mile journey that involved 300,000 emigrants?" she asked. "How do we honor what has been called the longest graveyard in history? How do we understand a six-month trip where every human experience from birth to death happened in a wagon train, without even the pretense of privacy? How do we display the courage, stamina, hope and persistence that these emigrants exhibited?"
Somehow, she said, all of the questions were answered before the Center opened its doors 10 years ago this past weekend.
"This is a unique place of learning," she said.
Years ago, Roberts noted, the Umatilla Tribe published an article likening the Oregon Trail to "a great serpent stretching across the land" that was, at the same time, "a current event and a vision of what was to come."
"(The Trail) changed the history of families," she said. "It made heroes of people who had been hesitant" before the demands of the Trail changed their lives forever.
Her own predecessors buried a child along the Oregon Trail, the former governor said.
"I can't imagine the depth of sorrow of losing a child, and then harnessing up an ox team and leaving behind a grave that you will never see again," she said. "We must never lose sight of the heritage of courage this Center represents."
Rep. Tom Butler said he, too, lost a relative along the Trail. His great-great-great grandmother became lost on the Trail and was never found.
"My prayer would be that God would sanctify this place as a memorial for those who did not make it," Butler said. "Those of us who finished the race should pay tribute to those who didn't make it all the way."
Tessie Williams, of the Confederated Umatilla Tribe, urged the crowd "not to look behind at the hurts. They're gone.
"In these mountains, we have beautiful roots, deer and salmon. This water is a beautiful gift, a gift meant for all people. As an Indian person I carry on my life according to the way I was raised. The Creator judges us all, but will take care of our mistakes for us."
"As Tessie just said, it's all about the future," said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Kulongoski. "There is no problem in this state that we can't resolve together."
Baker County Commission Chair Brian Cole echoed that theme, noting that the germ of the idea to build the Center came from Roberts' predecessor, Gov. Neil Goldschmidt. Former U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield was instrumental as only members of Congress can be in securing the construction funding, he said.
"Because of that challenge and this community's response, we're where we are today," Cole said. "I'm convinced that the men and women on the Oregon Trail Steering Committee would have succeeded at any project. They must have heard No' a hundred times. When they heard that, they tried harder.
"This isn't just a monument to the pioneers. It's a monument to this community. There is great inertia in government to do nothing, but they would not have it."
Before inviting the crowd to sample a hearty lunch, BLM Vale District Manager Dave Henderson invited the audience to envision the Center's centennial celebration, in 2092.
"It'll be another gorgeous day on Flagstaff Hill, with Baker City sitting down below, pretty as a postcard, still one of the most livable cities on the planet," he said. "The exhibits themselves are animated and they wander throughout the Center like some hologram.
"If that vision is true, it will be the result of a lot more hard work by people like you."