One hundred years ago Baker City was the fifth-largest city in Oregon.
Today it ranks 49th.
This pair of statistics tells an interesting tale, and tells it with an immediacy that prose cannot match.
Numbers are useful that way.
That simple comparison — fifth then, 49th now — expresses a century’s worth of demographic change in a way our brains can instantly process.
You can access those figures rapidly by way of the internet, of course, but my curiosity was piqued when I picked up a book, an activity which is digital only in that it involved my fingers.
This book was tucked into a shelf in my living room but I can’t recollect where, or when, I acquired it. The title is “Oregon: Her History, Her Great Men, Her Literature,” and the author is John B. Horner, a professor of history at Oregon Agriculture College (now Oregon State University).
The book was published in 1919 and it looks it. The pages lie loose in their bindings, like rotting teeth in diseased gums. The rear cover appears to have had a considerable volume of liquid spilled on it, leaving a stain that vaguely resembles the outline of Texas.
Although I can’t explain the book’s provenance I’m certain I’ve never read it. Which is why I was surprised, when I inadvertently opened it, to find a folded map glued to the inside of the back cover.
(But it was quite a pleasant surprise, as I love maps and am happy to come across one regardless of the circumstances.)
The map was printed in 1921 to accompany a revised version of Horner’s book. So far as I can tell the map had never been dislodged from the book. Or if it had been the person who did so was much more dexterous, or at least clever in the use of solvents, than I am.
Anyone who has a passing familiarity with Oregon’s shape would immediately recognize the map, since our state’s borders haven’t changed, so far as I know, in the past 100 years.
There is an occasionally apparent cartographic discrepancy — Baker City, for instance, is labeled as “Baker,” the name the city went by from 1911 until 1990. But generally the towns and the roads and the counties are where we would expect them to be.
The part of the map that drew my eyes was the index along its right edge. This lists cities and towns with at least 200 residents.
My first reaction was how few places needed at least five digits to show their population. There were just four in that category in 1920, and I expect three won’t surprise you — Portland (285,288); Salem (17,769); Astoria (14,027); and Eugene (10,593).
Baker City, in fifth place, had a population of 7,729.
In one sense not much has changed in the nearly 10 decades since those figures, which are from the U.S. Census of 1920, were compiled.
Portland, with 639,100 residents, remains Oregon’s most populous city by a considerable margin. And Eugene (currently the runner-up, with 167,780) and Salem (in third place at 163,480) are still in the top four.
But the differences are both more numerous and more profound.
Astoria has fallen even further, so to speak, than Baker City has. The city at the mouth of the Columbia River has gone from Oregon’s fourth most populous in 1920 to its 53rd today.
During the past century Baker City’s population has been surpassed by several of its regional neighbors. In 1920 Baker City was slightly bigger than Pendleton (6,837) and La Grande (6,913), but much more bustling than Ontario (2,039) and Hermiston (647).
Today Baker City, with 9,890 residents, ranks fifth in its own region, behind Hermiston (17,985), Pendleton (16,890), La Grande (13,245) and Ontario (11,465).
But as anyone knows who has paid much attention to Oregon’s population trends, and particularly in the past 50 years or so, most of the 46 cities that have jumped ahead of Baker City on the population list since 1920 are west of the Cascades.
These include Portland suburbs that have grown immensely, such as Gresham (1,103 residents in 1920, 109,820 today), Hillsboro (2,468 in 1920, 101,540 today) and Beaverton (580 in 1920, 95,685 today).
Notable examples outside the Portland metro area are Corvallis (5,752 in 1920, 58,735 today), Albany (4,840 in 1920, 52,710 today), Medford (5,756 in 1920, 79,590 today), and Roseburg (4,258 in 1920, 24,015 today).
Although population trends interest me, I find it more compelling to ponder what those numerical trends mean, or don’t mean, as regards the relative stature, in a sociopolitical sense, of Oregon’s cities.
I wonder, for instance, whether Baker City, with more residents than all but four Oregon cities a century ago, truly was as prominent as its population in 1920 might suggest.
I’m inclined to believe the answer is no.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Baker City’s distance from Oregon’s political center in Salem, and its cultural hub in Portland. And considering how comparatively crude transportation and communications were in 1920, it seems to me that Baker City must have been even more isolated then than it is now.
A Model T couldn’t make it from Baker City to Portland in five hours, certainly.
And you couldn’t go to the local telegraph office and send 100 megabytes in photographs.
Although I’d pay to see the expression on the operator’s face if you handed over a thumb drive and a USB cable.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.