Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Denver of Oregon

By Shanna Hatfield

Anyone driving on I-84 through Eastern Oregon will go right past the small town of Baker City. From the freeway, travelers might notice a few restaurants, hotels, and gas stations.

Few visitors realize that Baker City was referred to as the "Denver of Oregon" back in the 1800s, when gold mining drew people to the area and the town boasted any number of luxuries.

Baker City's history goes back to the mid-1800s. The Oregon Trail went through the area (The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center located just a few miles east of town provides a rich and colorful look at life on the trail) and many settlers decided to make Baker County their home.

The city (now the county seat) and Baker County were named in honor of U.S. Senator Edward D. Baker, the only sitting senator to be killed in a military engagement. He died in 1861 while leading a charge of Union Army soldiers up a ridge at Ball's Bluff, Virginia, during the American Civil War.

Gold drew settlers to the area. Auburn,  a gold mining boom town located five miles southwest of present Baker City, served as the seat of Baker County in 1862.

In 1864, only three cabins stood within the urban boundaries of present day Baker City.  A portion of what would become downtown was platted and by 1865, the main street offered a saloon, a few hotels, a livery stable, a variety store that housed the post office, a blacksmith shop, and a handful of other buildings.

By 1868, as placer mines played out, Baker City became both the county seat and commercial center. Auburn soon became little more than a memory.

In 1874, the legislature approved Baker City’s first charter, which set up a board of five trustees. In 1887, Baker City elected blacksmith and farm implement dealer Syrenus B. McCord as the city’s first mayor along with five councilmen.
Beginning in its earliest days, Baker City had a Chinatown that included several businesses, a Chinese temple, private dwellings, opium dens, and prostitution cribs. Today, visitors can see the Chinese cemetery just off the freeway.

Baker City’s buildings were constructed of wood until 1873, when former Sheriff James W. Virtue, who had established the county’s first bank in 1870, built a stone “fire proof” business structure on the southwest corner of Main and Court. Despite his claims, the building burned down in the 1880s.

Several fires ravaged Main Street buildings over the years. The most disastrous was the 1887 fire that destroyed all structures on the east side of the 1700 block of Main. Before the year was out, all those frame buildings were replaced by brick buildings, and some made of native volcanic tuff stone quarried at Pleasant Valley, south of Baker City.

One of the most impressive brick buildings still standing today is the Geiser Grand Hotel, located on Main Street. The Warshauer brothers, Jake and Harry, constructed the hotel 1889. It went by the name Hotel Warshauer until purchased by the Geiser family about 1900.

You can read a little about the hotel and life in 1890 Baker City in my latest sweet western romance - Crumpets and Cowpies, the first book in the new Baker City Brides series.

In the story, Rancher Thane Jordan reluctantly travels to England to settle his brother’s estate only to find he’s inherited much more than he could possibly have imagined.  Lady Jemma Bryan has no desire to spend a single minute in Thane Jordan’s insufferable presence much less live under the same roof with the handsome, arrogant American. Forced to choose between poverty or marriage to the man, she finds herself traveling across an ocean and America to reach his ranch in Oregon.

Available on Amazon


Caroline Clemmons said...

Shanna, I had not realized Baker City was so important in the past. I'm looking forward to reading your book. It sounds intriguing.

Shanna Hatfield said...

Hi Caroline!
It was important in Oregon's history. If you are into the Oregon Trail, the interpretive center right out of town is full of great information.
They also have a wonderful museum in town that highlights a lot of the town's mining past.
Paint Your Wagon was filmed in the area and Baker City was used as a headquarters during the shooting of the movie!
Happy New Year to you and Happy Reading!

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Your book sounds wonderful, Shanna! I'll have to check it out.

Shanna Hatfield said...

Gosh, thanks, Kristy! Wishing you a wonderful 2015!