Baker City was founded on dreams of gold.
Until 1861, the land now known as Baker County was an unsettled wilderness, Visited only by Indians and travelers on the Oregon Trail headed for the green valleys of Western Oregon. Then four men searching for the fabled Blue Bucket Mine in the fall of that year spent the night in Griffin Gulch, a minor gulley in the sagebrush-covered hills south of present-day Baker. These early adventurers found gold in the gulch and the rush was on.
Auburn was the county’s first town. Attracted by the gold discovery in the area, 5,000 people soon called Auburn their home during the height of its brief existence. By 1864, the population of Auburn had dwindled and another hamlet was budding to become the county seat of Baker County in that year. Col. J.S. Ruckles, one of the owners of the Virtue Mine, had begun looking for a site with water access to run an ore-processing mill for his mine. He selected a site on the Powder River, about eight miles southwest of the mine. On this spot was born Baker City named, as was the county, after Col. Edward D. Baker. Baker was U.S. Senator from Oregon, having been elected in 1860. He was killed in 1861 during the Civil War at the Battle of Balls Bluff, Virginia. He was the only member of Congress to die in the Civil War.
In 1866, the state Legislature approved a bill that would designate Baker City as the county seat, provided a vote of the county residents was favorable. That election was held in June of 1868, and the electorate chose Baker City. Auburn faded into oblivion, and today only a few gravestones remain.
A mail route between Baker City and Canyon City was established in 1866, linking the two principal mining districts of Eastern Oregon. By then, Baker City was fast on its way to becomi9ng the financial and trade center of the region.
The town plat was officially recorded in 1868, being laid out in a north-south, east-west grid pattern. A.H. Brown opened the first mercantile store at what is now the northwest corner of First Street and Valley Avenue. The first saloon was on Front Street (now Main).
The first hotel, the Western, was built on Front Street in 1865, and was headquarters for the overland stages which passed through the city five times per week. The city’s first newspaper, the Bedrock Democrat, was printed in 187o. Gov. LaFayette Grover authorized the signing of the charter of Baker City, in October, 1874, and the town was incorporated.
Baker City’s economy soon was diversified by trade, lumber, cattle and transportation. The community called itself the “Queen City of the Mines”, and was the center for mining commerce in Northeast Oregon. The growing city was visited by many mine owners from the East, passing on their way to properties near Sumpter, Greenhorn and in the Elkhorn and Wallowa Mountains.
A major boost for the city’s fortunes occurred on August 19, 1884, when the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company line arrived in Baker City. The railroad joined the Union Pacific at Huntington, giving Baker City direct rail service to the east and west. The availability of the new rail service attracted the Oregon Lumber Company to Baker City. The company owned by Mormons from Salt Lake City, built the narrow-gauge Sumpter Valley Railroad, which at its peak in 1909 ran from Baker City to Prairie City, 80 miles to the south. The railroad nicknamed the “Stump Dodger”, hauled lumber and passengers, including cattlemen, prospectors and loggers. The railroad continued to carry passengers and mail until 1937, and afterwards only logs until 1946. It was abandoned and scrapped in 1947, although the line is currently being restored as a tourist attraction.
At about the turn of the century, Baker City was known as the “Queen City of the Inland Empire”, and boasted a population of approximately 6700, larger than Spokane or Boise City. Elegant restaurants in fine hotels served superb cuisine, orchestras played and the Baker Theatre opera house was frequently filled to capacity for road-show company productions. Baker City was also a 24-hour city for the less culturally inclined, offering all-night saloons, gambling houses, and hurdy-gurdy dance halls crowded with gamblers, miners, ranchers, cowboys and sheepherders. The east side of Main Street between Valley and Court Avenues had five saloons. Young people and ladies were warned against straying onto that side of the street. Members of the Salvation Army would march along Main Street, playing their instruments and preaching to the patrons of the saloons and houses of ill repute.
Although little evidence remains, Baker City also contained a sizeable Chinese population. The Chinese came to the area to work in the mines and to build water systems for the mills that serviced the mines. The city’s Chinatown extended between Resort Street and the Powder River on Auburn Avenue. The section included a Joss House, or Buddist Temple, built in 1883. After the mining activity slowed the Chinese worked as house servants and operated laundries and eating places. The Chinese established their own cemetery east of Baker. All the remains were disinterred and returned to China in the early years of this century.
Baker’s golden years for building activity were between 1890 and 1910. Eastern Oregon was enjoying its second mining boom during that period and the profits from the mines financed many of the fine brick, masonry and stone commercial buildings and residences that still grace the city. Baker’s first elegant hotel, the 70 room Hotel Warshauer, later named the Geiser Grand, was completed in 1889. It featured a richly-furnished interior, including a dining room which had a seating capacity of 200. Mining entrepreneurs from across the United States stayed at the Warshauer while visiting the area mines and making deals.
In addition to the mining boom, much building in the late 1880’s was due to the necessity to replace wooden structures lost to fires. A major fire destroyed most of the business buildings on the west side of Main Street between Valley and Court Avenues in 1888. Buildings of brick and stone replaced the razed structures.
By the early 1900s, Baker stonemason John Jett had mastered his trade, expanding from rock foundations and ornamentation to entire stone buildings. City Hall was built in 1903, St, Francis Cathedral in 1905, the Carnegie Library in 1909, the Pythian Castle in 1907, the Oddfellows Lodge in 1907 and the Rand Building in 1908. The tuff used in their construction was quarried 12 miles southeast of the city, near Pleasant Valley. The stone was easily worked when quarried, then hardened with exposure, providing distinctive texture for downtown. These banner building years were capped with the construction of the Post Office in 1910 and the Y.M.C.A. in 1912.
Baker residents indicated their desire for a more cosmopolitan image in 1911 when they voted to drop the work “City” from their town’s name.
After the boom years, downtown building activity remained relatively dormant for many years. After World War II, however, a number of property owners sought to “modernize” the appearance of their buildings with new plaster fronts. These facades covered the original architectural details on many commercial buildings.
In recent years, an awareness of the value of this architectural heritage has been rekindled and a number of property owners have removed the unsympathetic remodeling features and have restored their properties’ historic features. This movement has been encouraged by Historic Baker City, Inc.
The buildings and houses selected for the walking/driving tours relate a cultural and architectural history unique to this city. They are our link to Baker City’s heritage. (Courtesy and permission of Historic Baker City Inc., Baker, Oregon, 1986). (JRE)
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