Important parts of Oregon's history still waiting to be dug up

By Jayson Jacoby February 06, 2009 10:39 am

Oregon is putting a lot of effort this year into touting its past, which seems to me logical since we’re hardly overwhelmed with events to celebrate here in the present.

And if you believe what you hear we’re not likely to be burdened with such in the near future.

The real reason for the revelry, of course, is that Oregon turns 150 this year — on Valentine’s Day, to be specific.

I’ve never gone along with the notion that 150 years counts as a significant milestone when the honored guest is a state, which can’t even blow out its candles.

Now if a person ever keeps breathing for that long it’ll be big news, sure.

And by “big” I mean Oprah’s sending a limo to drive you to the studio.

But states have been reaching the 150-year mark for better than 80 years. Also, 32 of the 50 got there before we did.

One thing you can say about the 150th is, well, something most people can’t say, at least on the first try.

The word is sesquicentennial.

Even if you dismiss Oregon’s festivities as a numerical contrivance, you have to admit they don’t skimp on the syllables.

My cynicism notwithstanding, this occasion has revived my interest in a topic that I’ve long thought deserved more attention than it’s been given.

Two of the more important sites in Oregon’s modern history lie within 10 miles of Baker City, yet there isn’t a single sign to show either spot.

One is the place where, on the evening of Oct. 23, 1861, Henry Griffin saw the glint of gold in his pan.

The significance of Griffin’s discovery can hardly be exaggerated.

At the moment Griffin glimpsed those flakes, the whole of Oregon east of the Cascades was solely the province of Native Americans, as it had been for thousands of years.

There wasn’t a single white resident in the region.

Six months later there were thousands.

The other noteworthy site is a few miles to the southwest, where Auburn, the boomtown that sprang up as a result of Griffin’s find, once boasted a population that surpassed every city in Oregon except Oregon City.

None of Auburn’s buildings remains.

I don’t mean to imply that either the town’s site or the gulch is a secret.

There is a Griffin Gulch Road and an Old Auburn Road.

But so far as I know the actual location on the gulch where Griffin dipped his pan is a mystery.

And the wooden Forest Service sign that tells an abbreviated version of Auburn’s history, and that stood less than a quarter mile from the townsite, was taken down almost 20 years ago.

(I am, in a minor way, responsible. I had a summer job with the Forest Service, and I wielded one of the wrenches that removed the bolts that attached the sign to its pair of posts. It didn’t occur to me then to ask why we took the sign, or why we never brought it back.)

It seems to me a pity that Griffin Gulch and Auburn have been neglected, at least compared with other places in Oregon where important events happened.

For instance, there’s a state park at Champoeg, the site beside the Willamette River where, in 1843, a meeting took place that led to the formation of Oregon’s first provisional government.

Auburn and Griffin Gulch lack well-documented legacies in part, I suspect, because neither lasted long.

Stripping the gulch of its gold probably was the work of a few months.

Auburn, though it once claimed 6,000 residents, was within three years of its founding overshadowed by the fledgling settlement of Baker City, which counted among its chief advantages proximity to both the Oregon Trail and the Powder River.

Auburn’s post office survived until 1903 but the town’s death was basically assured in 1868, when Baker County voters decided to move the county seat from Auburn to Baker City.

And yet, as brief as Auburn’s heyday was, it seems curious to me that so little has been written about it. This recurring feeling came over me most recently last Saturday afternoon as I stood, my boots clad in snowshoes, inside the Auburn Cemetery.

This burying ground is the most tangible remnant that remains of Auburn. It seems appropriate that one of its handful of marked graves is that of Henry Griffin himself (although the marble stone, sadly, misspells his name as “Griffen”). He died in Auburn on Jan. 3, 1883.

Mark Highberger wrote a short history of Auburn, a 2000 book titled “A Town Wild & Uncultivated.” It’s a valuable volume, in part because it includes excerpts from a letter that Cynthia Stafford wrote when she was living in Auburn in 1862.

I wonder, though, whether similar letters, perhaps even diaries or other more detailed documents, are mildewing in a trunk or an attic or even in some rarely opened state archives.

Maybe Oregon’s 150th birthday celebration will instill in some student a fascination for history, and maybe that student will pursue the tale of Griffin Gulch and Auburn with the persistence and skill the two places deserve.

I hope I stay around long enough to read that story.

I’d write it myself except I’m not an historian.

Nor much of a writer. I’ve never authored anything longer than a term paper. And you pad those with footnotes, anyway.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.