We gained a new (old) name but didn’t lose any of what we love most

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald September 18, 2009 03:38 pm

Baker City has gained quite a lot besides a new name in the past 20 years.

A McDonald’s, for instance.

Although the city’s new name is in fact its old name, resurrected after 79 years of oblivion.

Here’s a brief historical summary:

Baker City was founded in 1864 and incorporated, with that exact name, in 1874.

Baker City was derived in turn from Baker County, which is older still, having been created by the Oregon Legislature in 1862, just three years after statehood.

In both cases the namesake was Col. Edward Dickinson Baker, a U.S. Senator from Oregon and friend of President Abraham Lincoln.

Baker was killed in action during the Civil War.

Baker City maintained its two-word moniker, apparently to the general satisfaction of its citizens, until 1911, when voters decided to delete the “city.”

That word remained in official exile, in the manner of a deposed dictator, for most of the rest of the century.

But then on Nov. 7, 1989, Baker voters, by a count of 1,752 to 1,149, released “city” for its triumphant return to letterheads, maps and other miscellaneous media.

Baker officially became Baker City on Jan. 1, 1990.


This was not, by the way, anything like a hasty reversal (not that any change which took 79 years to come about could reasonably be described as hasty. Unless you’re a geologist).

Baker voters could have revived “city” back in November of 1984 but they weren’t yet ready, and brevity, by a vote of 1,948 to 1,706, reigned for another five years.

We needn’t apologize, in any event, for what might seem to outside observers our puzzling reluctance to take a consistent stand on something as vital as a name.

Because even though Baker City, taken at a casual glance, appears to have changed substantially since residents restored “city” to its original position, this place is, by a simpler but less visible measure, basically the same now as it was at the start of World War II.

That measure is population.

Among Oregon towns which today boast between 5,000 and 25,000 residents, Baker City is a statistical oddity.

And as a symbol of stability, we shame pretty much any city you’d care to name — even if ours has changed twice.

Since the 1940 U.S. Census, Baker City’s population has staked out the narrow range between 9,140 and 9,986.

To put it another way, for almost three-fourths of a century Baker City has defied the demographic trend that has so dramatically transformed Oregon and, come to that, most of the nation.

Although, as I alluded, not even Baker City could thwart the fast-food industry.

To illustrate Baker City’s unique refusal to grow in the manner Americans have come to expect, let’s delve a bit deeper into history, to 1920.

In that year Baker City (although it was then early in its Baker-only phase), with a population of 7,729, was the largest town in Oregon east of the Cascades.

Today we rank 10th.

We have during the ensuing nine decades been surpassed both by cities that were almost as bustling as we were in 1920 — La Grande had 6,913 residents that year, Pendleton 6,837 — and by places that were mere villages back then — Hermiston at 647, Ontario at 2,039.

The only other Oregon city of similar size that has bucked the otherwise inexorable growth trend is Astoria.

Yet compared with Baker City’s constancy, even Astoria’s history seems the epitome of upheaval.

Astoria not only has shrunk — its current population of about 9,900 is far below its 1920 Census tally of 14,027 — but along the way it has fluctuated wildly while Baker City plodded along.

In 1940, for instance, Astoria was just slightly larger than Baker City — 10,389 to 9,342, about 10 percent.

But over the following decade Astoria widened its lead to 23 percent — 12,331 to 9,471.

This was due in part, I suspect, to the U.S. military’s comparative interest in the two places during the war.

Astoria, being considerably closer to the Japanese fleet, attained a greater strategic importance than did landlocked Baker City. I doubt, anyway, that the U.S. Navy was particularly worried about the possibility that a Japanese destroyer or submarine would slip through the locks at Bonneville Dam, slink up the Snake and start lobbing shells from Hells Canyon.

The singular nature of Baker City’s population trends, in comparison with other Oregon cities, has intrigued me for years.

But the matter of how this place has changed during the past 20 or so years, even as its numerical status has not, piqued my curiosity only last weekend, when my wife Lisa and I visited her two brothers and their families in a pair of Portland suburbs, Beaverton and Tigard.

Lisa and I walked several miles in each city. During our travels we passed hundreds of homes, almost all of which, I’m confident in claiming, were built after Jimmy Carter relinquished the White House to Ronald Reagan.

It occurred to me that had we made the identical journey in, say, 1980, we would have had to dodge Douglas-firs rather than Dodge Durangos, and been more likely to see a loose coyote than a leashed collie.

(Also, since Lisa would have been only a year old, I would have had to carry her.)

Baker City has not been immune, of course, to the spore-like spread of the four-bedroom, double-garage layout. Except around here the predominant shrub that had to be bulldozed was sagebrush instead of Scotch broom.

But even though Baker City’s newer subdivisions — on the hill near the golf course, and between Cedar Street and the freeway — could be neatly excised and then sutured onto Beaverton without anyone noticing, the level of change that our developments represent is of such a vastly smaller scale that any comparison to the Portland metro area seems to me illogical, and a little silly.

The additions here since voters put “city” back on our name 20 years ago have been in the main incremental rather than wholesale.

The construction of Baker Towne Square, for instance, altered the landscape on East Campbell Street. But the change was subtle compared with what has happened during the same period in places such as Beaverton.

Building a grocery store across the street from another grocery store is quite a different thing than transforming a forested hill into a neighborhood of 500 homes, two mini-malls, an Olive Garden and an Applebee’s.

It pleases me that much of what might be termed “development” in Baker City since 1989 has been designed to enrich the lives of people who already live here rather than to entice, or to accommodate, the hordes who might be coming.

The Leo Adler Memorial Parkway has made it much easier to enjoy the tranquil trilling of the Powder River.

The Baker Sports Complex is a pleasant place to listen to the ping of an aluminum bat striking a baseball or softball.

Even the sorts of work more intimately associated with suburban sprawl — the extension of D and Birch streets, for example — seem to me intended to make Baker City better, but not necessarily bigger.

There is, to be fair, an abundance of well-groomed ball fields and walking paths in Beaverton and Tigard, too — more per capita, probably, than in Baker City.

But it seems to me that Baker City residents are extraordinarily lucky in that they can revel in most of the urban amenities without having to endure many of the penalties.

It is a fine thing, at any rate, to live in a place where the phrase “gridlock on 217” rings in the ear with all the relevance of the news that rain is falling in Des Moines.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.