Footprints of Eugene’s past

By Mark Baker | Living Here | |

If there is one thing that identifies Eugene more than any other, it’s the University of Oregon. It’s hard to imagine Eugene without it. What a very different city this would be if Deady Hall had never been built and the UO had never opened its doors in 1876.

And what if Eugene Skinner had never come south down the Willamette River from Polk County in 1846? What would this place be called?

Those two events, the opening of the UO, and the arrival of Eugene Skinner, were the top two vote-getters in a survey of Register-Guard editors and reporters asked to rank the most significant events in the city’s history.

Keep in mind that this is a very unscientific poll determined from a long list of events, some of them, such as Skinner’s arrival, which occurred before the city incorporated in 1862.

No doubt some will disagree with our list, or wonder: How could you forget that? Or why didn’t you include this?

The Slug Queen probably will cry bloody murder that she, and the birth of the Eugene Celebration, which celebrated its 30th happening last month, aren’t worthy of a Top 20 vote. And where’s the Saturday Market? What is more quintessential Eugene than that?

Even Oregon football, something that draws more spectators — close to 60,000 — than any event in the entire state on any given fall Saturday, didn’t make the Top 20 cut. Nor did Eugene holding its first-ever U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in 1972 or the Big Snow of 1969 or the anarchist movement of the 1990s.

So, with apologies to The Grateful Dead (which played in Eugene more than once), what a long, strange list this is:

1. The opening of the University of Oregon — 1876

The Oregon Legislature established the University of Oregon in 1872. Eugene area residents raised $27,500 — nearly $500,000 in today’s dollars — through strawberry festivals, church socials and produce sales to buy 17 acres of land to build the university’s first building, Deady Hall — named for Matthew Deady, Oregon’s first federal judge — which still stands and is in use today.

The university opened Deady Hall’s doors in 1876. Five faculty members taught 155 students. The first graduating class in 1878 had just five students. The UO nearly closed in 1881 because of a $8,182 debt. Railroad magnate Henry Villard donated $7,000 to pay down the debt, and the faculty took a 25 percent salary cut. In 1885, the UO received its first appropriation from the Legislature, for $30,000. That funding increased to $47,500 by 1901.

Today, nearly 25,000 students representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia, three U.S. territories and 85 countries study at the UO.

2. Eugene Skinner arrives — 1846

Eugene and Mary Skinner came west on a wagon train from Illinois on the Oregon Trail in 1845. After arriving in Northern California, they came north and temporarily settled in what is now Polk County, west of Salem, in the summer of 1846. Eugene Skinner and a few others came south looking for the best land claims, and he built his first cabin — near what the local Indians called Ya-Po-Ah, and what is now known as Skinner Butte — here that fall, before returning to Polk County to spend the winter with his wife. The Skinners would move here permanently, along with their first child, in the spring of 1847.

In 1850, Skinner’s Post Office was established with Eugene Skinner as postmaster. He ran a ferry across the Willamette River at the present-day site of the Ferry Street Bridge. In 1853, Mary Skinner chose the name Eugene City, and it was established as the county seat of Lane County. The core of downtown was formed when Eugene Skinner and Charnel Mulligan each donated 40 acres. The city’s name was changed to Eugene in 1865.

3. The birth of Nike — 1964

Yep, the swoosh was born right here. Actually, the swoosh came later, but the genesis of what is the multibillion-dollar Beaverton-based athletic apparel giant began in Eugene as Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964, when a UO alum and former middle-distance-running Duck, Phil Knight, teamed with his coach, Bill Bowerman. It’s hard to pinpoint one event that made Eugene Track Town, USA, but this one didn’t hurt the cause. Not to mention what it would do for UO football decades later. Or what it did to Barbara Bowerman’s waffle iron.

4. The decline of the timber industry — 1970s and ’80s

Protesters who became known as environmentalists fought to protect the region’s old growth forests, beginning with federal lawsuits in the “Me” decade. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, something that would set the stage for the northern spotted owl controversy that bloomed in the ’ 80s. On May 14, 1977, more than 600 log trucks from as far away as Northern California paraded through downtown Eugene to protest Congressman Jim Weaver’s (Peter DeFazio’s precursor) sponsorship of the Endangered Wilderness Act. People held signs that said, “Kiss my Axe, Weaver,” and “Up Weaver’s Rump with a Cedar Stump.”

A national recession in the early ’ 80s, along with automation, did more severe damage to an industry that was a huge part of Eugene’s economy throughout the 20th century. Mills closed. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost. In 1990, the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, further reducing logging of old growth forests.

5. Incorporation of Eugene City — 1862

Local historian Douglas Card of Veneta was emphatic in a recent e-mail to The Register-Guard: “Eugene City did NOT complete its incorporation in 1862,” Card wrote. Although all systems are go for the city’s big sesquicentennial bash on Oct. 17, 150 years to the day some say the city was incorporated, others still disagree, and probably always will. According to Card and the state’s Archives Division, the process of incorporation was begun in 1862, but it wasn’t completed until 1864. That’s why the latest edition of the “Oregon Blue Book” lists Eugene’s incorporation as the latter year, based on recent research that found two records for Eugene’s incorporation in legislative session laws.

But in a memorandum to Mayor Kitty Piercy and the City Council in January of this year, the city’s community relations director, Jan Bohman, wrote: “There is some lack of clarity and room for interpretation about what was completed in 1862 … but it is clear that our founders first took action to form a city in that year.”

6. The railroad arrives — 1871

The Oregon and California Railroad was routed from Portland to Eugene in October of that year. Travel changed drastically, loggers and farmers could easily send their harvests to other parts of the country, and the area’s economy began to flourish. Also, people could comfortably travel to and from the city. By 1915, five trains a day ran between Eugene and Portland.

7. The Zorn-McPherson Bill — 1932

UO Law School dean and future U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse led a successful statewide effort to defeat this bill, an initiative intended to dissolve the UO by combining it with Oregon State College in Corvallis.

8. Creation of Sacred Heart General Hospital — 1936

Pacific Christian Hospital went bankrupt in the 1930s. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace bought and renamed it Sacred Heart General Hospital, which began as a 60-bed facility and grew to 366 by 1965. At the turn of the 21st century, Eugene and Springfield waged a battle for a new site, and the half-billion-dollar Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend opened in Springfield in 2008.

9. Kalapuya moved out — 1855

The Kalapuya Indians had inhabited the Willamette Valley for thousands of years when white settlers such as Eugene Skinner began to arrive in the mid-19th century. Thus, tensions naturally arose over land ownership, according to Card’s historical account of early Lane County, “From Camas to Courthouse.” The treaties of 1855 in the state included moving the Kalapuya a year later, in 1856, from the valley to reservations in Eastern Oregon. This included the Chafan (Tsanchifin) Band from the Eugene area.

“It was less than a decade from December of 1846 when the Kalapuya at Skinner Butte shared their camas cakes with the starving emigrants … until January of 1855, when they were forced to sign away all their rights and their land, paving the way for the ethnic cleansing of the Willamette Valley,” Card wrote.

10. The Death of Pre — 1975

The sudden death of former UO distance runner and 1972 Olympian Steve Prefontaine, killed in a car accident near Hendricks Park in Eugene on May 30, 1975, at the age of 24, stunned the city, as well as people across the state and the nation. Walter Cronkite reported the story the next day on the “CBS Evening News.” Thirty-seven years later, Pre still is everywhere in this town, from the annual Pre Classic international track meet, to Pre’s Trail to Pre’s Rock, the spot where he died on Skyline Boulevard, which is visited by people from all over the world. Two major motion pictures, 1997’s “Prefontaine,” and 1998’s “Without Limits,” have told his life story.

11. Valley River Center and the Eugene Mall — 1969 -1971

Here’s a question: If Eugene’s first suburban shopping mall were never built, what would Eugene’s downtown look like today? Valley River Center, anchored by Meier & Frank on the south and J.C. Penney on the north, opened in August 1969. Less than a year later, bulldozers and other heavy equipment began to claw away at Willamette Street between Eighth and 11th avenues, and Broadway between Oak and Charnelton streets. Downtown was never the same. The mall, with its 25-foot concrete fountain at Broadway and Willamette, officially opened in February 1971. Fourteen years and three months later, the mall was so deserted one evening in 1985, that a naked man was discovered taking a shower in the fountain.

12. Opening of the Hult Center — 1982

On Sept. 24 of that year, 30 years and six days ago, arrived one of Eugene’s proudest moments: the opening of the $22.3 million Hult Center for the Performing Arts. At least 3,000 residents and arts community celebrities came for the formal opening, including Emmy Award-winning singer-songwriter Mason Williams of Eugene, who paddled a canoe from Springfield to Skinner Butte Park while wearing a tuxedo and red high-top sneakers. Williams then walked from the park to the Hult — while carrying his canoe.

The sparkling gem of a performance hall was paid for with an $18.5 million bond measure and donations — the largest of which, $3 million, came from Nils and Jewel Hult, for whom the center is named.

13. Columbus Day Storm — 1962

Five were killed in Eugene in the Oct. 12 storm whose 50th anniversary is less than two weeks away. Also known as the “Big Blow,” the storm originated from Typhoon Freda in the Pacific and brought 100-mph-plus winds from Northern California to British Columbia, killing 46 overall.

The Register-Guard listed the local dead as: UO student Larry Johnson, 21; Safeway manager DeWitt Bevans, 54; laundry employee Herbert Beeson, 65; Curtis Ray, 85; and Margaret Blythe, 73.

“Two deaths were caused by the storm’s brute force, which ripped roofs and buildings asunder,” The Register-Guard reported on Oct. 13, 1962. “The others were apparently caused by the excitement and apprehension that accompanied the big blow.”

Johnson was killed while putting a piece of cardboard over the window of his apartment at UO Amazon Married Students Housing after a piece of roof from nearby Roosevelt Junior High School blew into the window, the paper reported.

14. Vietnam War protests at UO — 1970

Unrest on college campuses across the nation was common in 1970, and the most tragic day occurred on May 4, 1970, when Ohio National Guardsmen shot four Kent State University students to death. Three weeks before that, the UO was the scene of student protests against the Vietnam War.

On April 15, 1970, after a day marked by local and national demonstrations against the war, Eugene police were called after students stormed the ROTC building on campus. Police later used tear gas to disperse a crowd of 300 to 400 students as UO President Robert Clark conferred with Gov. Tom McCall, who wanted to send in the Oregon National Guard. Clark famously convinced McCall, who called the students behavior “wanton destruction,” to do otherwise.

The incident came two months after arsonists set fire to Esslinger Hall, which contained an ROTC storage unit, causing $250,000 damage. Between April 22 and 24 that year, UO students also staged a sit-in at Johnson Hall that police finally ended by once again using tear gas.

15. Opening of Mahlon Sweet Field — 1943

Yes, Eugene Airport was originally known as Mahlon Sweet Field, named for a Eugene car dealer who was a strong supporter of aviation and pushed to get Eugene’s first airport, the Eugene Air Park near West 19th Avenue and Chambers Street, built in 1919.

Mahlon Sweet Field initially served two airlines, West Coast Airlines and United Airlines, and forever changed access to Eugene.

16. Creation of EWEB — 1911

The Eugene Water & Electric Board began 101 years ago as the Eugene Water Board, three years after Eugene voters approved $300,000 in bonds to create a public water utility. That movement was partially borne from a 1906 typhoid fever epidemic that sickened about 400 of the city’s 4,000 residents. Until EWEB formed, a private company pumped residents’ water from the Willamette River. Water was found to be contaminated from the sewer and nearby Eugene Millrace, according to a 2011 Register-Guard story on EWEB’s 100th anniversary.

Although it also provided electricity almost from the start, the utility did not change its name to the Eugene Water & Electric Board until 1949.

Today, EWEB employs more than 500 people and serves more than 85,000 customers.

17. Black Tuesday — 1969

When it comes to field burning, no day was worse in the Willamette Valley than Aug. 9, 1969. Winds blew huge clouds of black smoke from thousands of acres burning grass-seed fields. Gov. McCall, in Eugene that day, stood atop Skinner Butte and looked on in a state of bewilderment. Upon returning to Salem, he declared a 10-day emergency ban on field burning, something grass-seed farmers had been doing for decades to clean their fields of disease and straw post-harvest. But it would be another 40 years before the state Legislature completely outlawed the practice on June 29, 2009.

Field burning’s greatest tragedy occurred on Aug. 3, 1988, in the northbound lanes of Interstate 5, about a mile north of the Corvallis exit, when a 23-car chain-reaction pileup caused by smoke from a field-burn resulted in seven dead and 37 injured.

18. The birth of the Oregon Country Fair — 1969

True, it’s been held near Veneta every year since 1970, but the Oregon Country Fair was born on a southwest Eugene hillside in 1969 as the Oregon Renaissance Faire. It was held on Nov. 1 and 2, 1969, on Hawkins Lane off West 18th Avenue as a benefit for a Eugene alternative school.

More than four decades later, this annual stilt-walking, bongo-playing, mosquito-swatting, half-naked merrymaking affair on 385 wooded acres is a counterculture legend.

19. Tent City — 1940s

Eugene always has been predominantly white, but in the ’ 40s most of the few blacks who lived here made their home on then-county land in a ramshackle cluster of tents and makeshift homes that whites called Tent City. The village was on the flood-prone north end of the Ferry Street Bridge in what is now Alton Baker Park.

But the community became so tight-knit, according to a 2004 Register-Guard story, that residents were devastated when they were evicted to make way for reconstruction of the Ferry Street Bridge in 1949.

“When we look back on it, that was one of the most pleasurable times,” said the late Mattie Reynolds, who died at age 91 in 2010 and lived there with her husband, Sam R. Reynolds. “We were oppressed and depressed, but we had one another to raise each other up.”

20. The filming of “Animal House” — 1977

Many films have been made in Eugene over the years, but none as popular and successful as the National Lampoon comedy that is No. 36 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest comedies. Director John Landis and star John Belushi were not here long in the fall of 1977 (the whole thing was made in a matter of a few weeks), but when it hit theaters across the nation in 1978, it garnered $141 million at the box office.

Filmed mostly on the UO campus, plenty of local residents were in the film about a misfit group of fraternity brothers who create havoc at the fictional Faber College. Thirty-five years later, UO football fans at Autzen Stadium traditionally dance at the end of the third quarter to the film clip of Otis Day & the Knights singing “Shout!”