One of my bucket list items was to visit the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, Oregon. My interest had been peaked by visits to Three Island Crossing State Park and the End of the Trail Museum in Oregon City last year. We were only going to travel this way if the Interpretive Center reopened to the public after a Covid-19 closure. At the very last minute it did. It was just in time for us to travel that way before we made our way to Redmond, OR.
We left our overnight stop in Caldwell, Idaho after having a great time sharing a meal in a wonderful outdoor Mexican restaurant there with our friends, Deb and Ce. They had spent the winter there and had stories of snow and cold temperatures while staying in their Montana fifth-wheel. They were also excited because they were picking up a new rig that following week.
From Caldwell, which is near Boise, it is an easy drive up to Baker City, OR. After touring the Interpretive Center there, we were planning to drive on to John Day, OR for the evening before the upcoming rains arrived.
Most of us know little about the emigrants westward migration to the Oregon territory except for the early computer game with its terrible graphics. The Interpretive Center is adjacent to some existing pioneer trail ruts and sits high on a hill overlooking the Blue Mountains of Oregon. The emigrants knew that they were getting close to their goal with this beautiful sight.
The Interpretive Center has a very good collection of the Prairie Schooners parked overlooking the valley below. These wagons are smaller than those commonly used on the East Coast, the Conestoga Wagon. The Conestogas were much too large to make the difficult Oregon Trail journey. While the Conestoga could carry up to six tons, the Prairie Schooner typically would hold about 2,000 pounds of the emigrants’ belongings. The wagons were typically also full of flour, bacon, and various tools. Because the wagons were full of possessions and food, the pioneers typically walked along with the wagons instead of riding in them. It was too bumpy a ride anyway, so only the sick typically rode in the wagons.
The emigrants typically spent about 30-40 thousand dollars in today’s dollars to outfit themselves for the journey. They sold their farms and other possessions to finance the journey. There was very little in the way of supplies along the trail and what did exist was extremely expensive.
Up to 10 percent of the pioneers died along the way, averaging a grave every 80 yards. While there was tremendous fear of Indians, they were the least of their worries. Most died of disease, especially cholera. While clean water and good hygiene are common for us, at that time the cause of cholera was still unknown. Some travelers would be fine in the morning, feverish in the afternoon, and would die by evening.
When someone died, the travelers did not delaying their journey. Bodies were buried in the trail itself. The wagon wheels would compact the ground making it difficult for animals to disturb the recently deceased. The graves were typically left unmarked to discourage grave robbers.
These were some of the daily challenges of the emigrants who made their way west for five to six months, traveling 15 – 20 miles a day on foot. The quest for a new life and the promise of abundant land pushed them to continue each day. After all, the pioneers wanted to cross the Oregon mountains before the winter snows came.
Eventually “Oregon Fever” grew and thousands made the journey to the west. While Oregon City, south of present day Portland, was the site of the original land office and considered the end of the trail, many also traveled to California especially after receiving word of gold strikes.
The history of the emigrants traveling the Oregon Trail is an amazing story of the people who made such an impact on our country. America was literally reshaped by this westward expansion. Currently there are only 300 out of the over 2000 miles of trail visibly remaining and places like Baker City are seeking to preserve that history. It is history worth exploring and I am glad that we were able to spend some time taking it in.
Notes if you go to the Interpretive Center: Because of Covid-19, there are no events held at the BLM run facility but there are still several things to see and do. The life-sized depictions of the emigrants with oxen and wagons are on display inside the Center. There are detailed displays throughout with a lot of information. Also videos are interspersed throughout the building. The movie theater is currently closed.
The historic town of Baker City is a few miles from the Center and it has all the basics that you would need. It is also adjacent to Interstate 84 which continues westward toward the Columbia River Gorge. After our visit, we took in the beautiful drive from Baker City to John Day, OR. More on that in an upcoming post.