Kids who attended elementary school in the 1980s likely share one common experience: playing the Oregon Trail computer game. Students simulated a journey along the Oregon Trail, complete with fur trading, rationing food, and possibly dying of dysentery. It was a staple in American education at the time. And the entire goal was to help your party survive all the way to Oregon City. Arriving in OC was a huge victory!
Original Home To Many Indigenous Groups
The land that is now Oregon City and its surrounding areas was the native land of several indigenous groups:
First Western City
Eventually, white explorers, trappers, traders, and missionaries made their way out west. The Oregon Trail brought hundreds of thousands of people in this direction. They had to endure a 2000-mile journey, complete with all the woes and dangers the iconic computer game included.
But if the travelers survived, they arrived in Oregon City to start their new lives. During the gold rush era, many settlers continued south to California to seek their fortunes.
Originally called Willamette Falls, Oregon City was incorporated in 1844 to become the first city west of the Rockies. It was the capital of the territory until 1852 when the capital moved to Salem.
Oregon City was a hub of commerce and politics in the mid-1800s as mills, shipbuilders, and other businesses set up shops along the river. Timber and agriculture became crucial industries for the region, and the population continued to grow. The establishment of the railroad and an electric company in the late 1800s furthered this growth and development.
Eventually, much of the industry and political importance shifted to Salem and Portland. But Oregon City remains the Clackamas County seat and is currently (2022) home to nearly 40,000 people.
The Unique Topography of Oregon City
Sitting southeast of Portland proper, Oregon City has some unique topography. It has a lower level near the river, where many businesses are, and a residential upper level on the bluff.
Indigenous groups had trails to connect the two areas, and settlers eventually built stairs between the levels. This route included 722 stairs!
In 1915, the town built its unique Oregon City Municipal Elevator. This 130-foot water-powered elevator moved people between the two sections of town. The ride lasted about three minutes and often didn’t go smoothly.
In fact, the elevator was unreliable enough that it included a trapdoor to allow passengers out whenever it got stuck. The current elevator is much more trustworthy and only takes about 15 seconds to make the trip.
I would venture to guess that most Oregonians don’t realize that Oregon is home to North America’s second most powerful waterfall. Willamette Falls is a horseshoe-shaped waterfall that spans about 1500 feet and drops nearly 40 feet.
Formed by a basalt shelf, Willamette Falls was vital to the indigenous groups that lived nearby. With an abundance of lamprey and salmon, the falls and the river provided a significant amount of food for native people.
While there are viewpoints on I-205 and Hwy 99E, the falls are largely inaccessible to the public. The Willamette Falls Legacy Project
is seeking to change that, however. Through collaboration with inter-tribal leadership, the project envisions a beautiful riverwalk that will allow visitors and residents to enjoy this stunning natural treasure.
Today’s Oregon City
Residents and visitors love Oregon City’s small-town feel. With plenty of local shops and restaurants and its proximity to downtown Portland, OC is a fantastic place to live and work. And with the river and falls right in your backyard, you can enjoy hiking, biking, and watersports.
For a fun adventure outside, you can enjoy the historic McLoughlin Promenade. This linear park was a Works Progress Administration project under FDR, and it spans nearly eight acres along the bluff. The Promenade offers fantastic views of downtown Oregon City, the Willamette River, and Willamette Falls. And it gives you access to the beloved municipal elevator.
This fabulous town also boasts several wineries that offer you the best of the region’s wine, accompanied by gorgeous views. If a longer excursion is in your plans, you’re less than two hours away from Mt. Hood to the east and the Oregon Coast to the west. And Salem is less than an hour away! There’s so much to do here - Oregon City is a hidden gem in the gorgeous Pacific Northwest.
Is Oregon City Calling to You?