Date of visit: May 29, 2011
Population: 160 (2010 Census)

You might think that Spray is named because of a nearby waterfall or river rapid. But it’s actually named after John Fremont Spray, who settled in the area in the late 1800s. In 1898 he built a horse-drawn ferry to cross the John Day River. In 1900 he purchased a piece of land known as Hogan Bottom, along the John Day River. He also purchased the land where the town of Spray would eventually be established.

The town was platted in 1900 and he built a store, hotel, dance hall, and saloon. When the post office opened he was the first postmaster. He was evidently a tireless advocate for settling the area, inducing people to move to Spray. Today Spray is a little town a long way from anywhere, best known for the annual rodeo held on Memorial Day weekend, which is also the weekend I happened to be visiting. I didn’t check out the rodeo, though.

Welcome to Spray

Spray Pioneer Museum
The Spray Pioneer Museum is in an old church and just happened to be open the day I was visiting!

Spray Post Office
Spray Post Office

Union High School
Union High School

Pretty church
Assembly of God Church

For Sale
Someone had painted a grin on the bumper of this truck.

Map of Spray

Oregon Towns Project


Date of visit: May 30, 2011
Population: 130 (2010 Census)

Mitchell is a tiny town in central Oregon that looks like it’s straight out of the old west. It’s pretty amazing that has an old look to it, because the town has been hit by destructive floods numerous times in the past. There’s a pretty little creek running through town called Bridge Creek. During the dry season it looks pretty harmless. But this passage from Talking on Paper: An Anthology of Oregon Letters and Diaries (which contains a letter from 10-year-old Julia Wilson describing how she survived the 1884 flood) describes how flash floods occur in this semi-arid region of the state: “hard, dry soils absorb very little water; rain, when it comes, collects in streams and rivers in an extremely brief period; the water drains downhill and overflows streams that have been dry or nearly dry for months; flood waters can rush miles downstream to places where the sun has been shining all day. Victims often have no reason to suspect that a flood is heading their way.”

A flash flood raced through the Mitchell area in June 1884, killing four members of the Carroll family. In October 1904 a cloudburst sent another flash flood racing through town. When the water receded, it left behind 15 inches of mud. Many people lost their homes or businesses. The same thing happened again in July 1956. The water rose 50 feet high on the canyon walls, tearing out highway bridges both east and west of town and destroying 200 feet of highway. 20 buildings in town were destroyed. During my visit, 55 years later, I saw no evidence of that catastrophic flood, and Bridge Creek burbled pleasantly through town.

Welcome to Mitchell

Welcome to Mitchell

Downtown Mitchell

Main Street

Whole in the Wall

Whole in the Wall, falling down

Bridge Creek Cafe

Bridge Creek Cafe


A fixer-upper on main street


The Oregon Hotel

First Baptist Church

First Baptist Church


Mitchell from the hills above

Map of Mitchell

Oregon Towns Project


Date of visit: April 17, 2011
Population: 55 (2010 Census)

Prescott is a tiny community off of Highway 30 (it’s so tiny in fact, that I was surprised to learn that it’s incorporated). Most people probably don’t know it’s there due to the complete lack of signage for the little town on the main highway. Prescott consists of a small collection of houses and little else. Two big landmarks in the area – Prescott County Park and PGE’s Trojan Park – are larger than Prescott is.

Prescott used to be next-door-neighbors with Oregon’s only commercial nuclear power plant. The Trojan plant was completed in 1974 and started producing power in 1975, although a visitor’s center had opened in 1973 to begin educating the public. The facility also included a public park with lakes, nature trails, picnic areas, and play structures.

In the early 90s the board of directors had voted to phase out the plant and shut it down by 1996. But in 1992 a steam generator tube leak was discovered. What was supposed to be a temporary shutdown became a permanent one when PGE realized that maintaining the steam generator for another few years would be more costly than an early shutdown. The nuclear reactor was eventually barged to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in 2005, and the 499-foot cooling tower was demolished in 2006.

Although the power plant is gone, the park is still around. The strange-looking picnic shelters designed by Norman Zimmer are still in the park, looking a little weathered after all these years. The park is a popular place for families on nice weekends.

A large ship in the Columbia, as seen from Prescott County Park

The former Training Building for Trojan staff. It now sits empty.

Geese at Trojan Park. Shortly after I took their picture, they ran at me in attack mode!

Reflections in the lake at Trojan Park

Map of Prescott

Oregon Towns Project


Date of visit: April 17, 2011
Population: 1,895 (2010 Census)

Rainier is the only spot where Oregon drivers can cross the Columbia River via bridge for 45 miles in either direction. The bridge was designed by Joseph Baermann Strauss, the engineer who designed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It was the longest and highest cantilever bridge in the country at that time. It was built with more than 12,000 tons of steel and is 8,192 feet long. When the bridge was opened in 1930, it opened as a toll bridge, but the toll was removed in 1965 when the bridge was paid off.

It was originally known as the Longview Bridge (Longview is the town on the Washington side of the bridge.) But in 1980 the bridge was rededicated as the Lewis and Clark Bridge in honor of the two explorers who paddled down the river 175 years before. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.


The Lewis and Clark Bridge over the Columbia River

A mural on a downtown building

The main drag on A Street

The main drag on B Street / Highway 30

A pretty blue house on the hill. On a clear day I bet they have a nice view of Mt. Rainier, for which the town is named.

John Diblee House, built in 1855

The Masonic Lodge

The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church

City Hall (and library too; the entrance is around the side of the building)

The Cornerstone Cafe (I had already eaten lunch; otherwise I would have tried this place out)

Map of Rainier

Oregon Towns Project


Date of visit: April 17, 2011
Population: 1,737 (2010 Census)

White settlers arrived in the Clatskanie area in 1852, a post office was established in 1871, and incorporation came in 1891. (The town was named after the river, by the way, which was named after the Tlatskanai Indians.) But what most people don’t realize is that decades earlier the very first white settlement in the northwest was established very near here. In 1810 the Winship brothers, Abiel, Jonathan, and Nathan, and their men sailed the Albatross up the Columbia River. On June 4 they landed on the tip of land opposite Crims (or Grims) Island which they named Oak Point and immediately set to work building a fortress right next to the river. But on June 7 a heavy rain fell and the river rose, flooding the site of the partially-built fort. The men tore down the structure and floated the logs downstream about a quarter mile to a new location, where they started building again.

However, the Chinooks and Klatskanais in the area got wind of this new operation and were none too happy about it. If the white men established a trading post this far up river, they would steal business from the natives. They made their displeasure known to the white men, and Captain Nathan Winship prudently decided that they had better leave. He knew that they could use force against the natives to get their way, but he also knew that once the ship left the men who stayed behind at the fort would never be able to defend themselves if the Native Americans decided to attack. So on June 12 they packed up ship and sailed back down the river. The settlement had lasted less than two weeks.

105 years after that first Winship settlement, Clatskanie became accessible by road when Highway 30 was completed in 1915. According to an Oregonian article about the opening celebration of the highway, more than 100 cars were purchased by residents in the area in the months prior to the highway opening. The new route to the coast was a boon for businesses in the town. One proprietor quoted in the article said her business had increased five-fold thanks to the highway.

Welcome to Clatskanie

Flippin CastleThe Flippin Castle, built between 1898 and 1900 by Thomas J. Flippin

Most important building in townThe public library

A bookish place

A wonderful and charming book shelter in the park near the library

The Bike Inn
This charming-looking building is The Bike Inn. It’s designed for Highway 30 cyclists seeking a place to crash for the night.

Lewis and Clark

A very cool wood carving of Lewis & Clark canoeing through a tree

Benson House

The Benson house, built by Simon Benson for his son Amos in 1903

Map of Clatskanie

Oregon Towns Project


Date of visit: October 31, 2010
Population: 2151 (2010 Census)

Vernonia was established in the 1870s when hardy pioneers came to the area, cleared the old growth, and started farming. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that the town really started booming. A railroad line from Portland was finished in 1922, connecting Vernonia to the outside world. The Oregon-American Lumber Mill was finished two years later and loggers set to work cutting down the vast swaths of forests near Vernonia. The mill caused such a population boom that the town became known as the “Biggest Little City in Oregon.” From 1920 to 1928, the population increased ten-fold to 1,500. The mill company had to build homes for managers and mill workers with families to alleviate the sudden housing shortage in town. The boom years also brought a new newspaper, the Vernonia Eagle, in 1922 and an airport in 1935, which had a two-day opening celebration and an Airport Dedication Queen.

By 1957 the mill had processed 2.5-billion board feet of lumber. But all the big old-growth had been cut down and the mill had to close. Now there is almost no evidence left of the mill. The planing mill was deliberately burnt to the ground, a scene featured in the 1959 movie Ring of Fire. One of the old mill buildings still remains, sitting roofless down by the lake. Trees grow from the dirt floor, their branches spreading out above the tops of the walls. The mill office became the Vernonia Pioneer Museum, which is chock full of cool old artifacts from Vernonia’s past. The rail line south to Banks is gone, converted to a 20-mile-long paved path that is popular with cyclists. The rail line east to Portland is also gone, converted to a logging road by Crown Zellerbach in 1943. That road has been purchased by Columbia County and is slowly being converted into the Crown Zellerbach Trail.

Although it’s days as a logging town are gone, Vernonia has become a quiet bedroom community for the nearby city of Portland.

The Vernonia Pioneer Museum

Yellow above me
Bigleaf maples along the banks of Rock Creek, which periodically causes disastrous floods in Vernonia

One of the many charming buildings in the downtown area

Shay Park
Shay Park is home to one of the Shay locomotives that was once used by the Oregon-American mill

Vernonia Lake
The former mill pond is now Vernonia Lake. At the right side of the photo you can see the last remaining mill building with a colorful tree poking up where the roof should be.

Map of Vernonia

Oregon Towns Project

Lake Oswego

Date of visit: October 29, 2010
Population: 36,755 (2000 Census)

These days, Lake Oswego is known as a well-to-do suburb of Portland, full of expensive homes and manicured lawns. But many people don’t know about Lake Oswego’s humble beginnings. The town started out in 1850 as Oswego, named after a town of the same name in New York. In 1865 the Oregon Iron Company started producing pig iron with the ore mined from Oswego’s hills. The smelter they used is still standing in George Rogers Park today (see photo below). The pig iron produced in Oswego was used for railcar wheels, water pipes, and structural elements in Portland’s many cast-iron buildings (downtown Portland has the section largest collection of cast-iron-fronted buildings in the country; New York City’s Soho district has the largest).

The iron business went belly-up in the late 1800s, but in the early 1900s developers started promoting the town as a great place to raise a family, and the Lake Oswego we know today started to take form. The lake had strictly been used as a source of power during the iron days, but it started to become a site for swimming and recreation. As more and more homes popped up along the shoreline, the lake was eventually closed off to people without lakefront property. In 1960 when it merged with the nearby community of Lake Grove, the name of the town was changed to Lake Oswego (although, confusingly enough, the lake itself is called Oswego Lake).

Welcome to Lake Oswego

Old furnace
The old iron furnace, at what is now George Rogers Park

One of the many fine houses along the lake

Oswego Lake
Oswego Lake during a draw-down, when they empty the lake for dock maintenance

Brown House
The historic Brown House, built in 1885

Conway House
The historic Conway House, built in the 1890s

An antique shop in downtown

Lakeview Village
Upscale shops in downtown

The place of yummy pastries
St. Honore, a bakery with many yummy things

View Map

Oregon Towns Project


Date of visit: Saturday, October 23, 2010
Population: 9,580 (2000 Census)

Florence is known for its charming Old Town area, as well as the nearby Heceta Head Lighthouse, probably the most photographed lighthouse on Oregon’s coast. But Florence is also famous for being the site of the exploding whale.

The reporter who reported on the whale was a 23-year-old named Paul Linnman. In 2003 he wrote a book about the experience called The Exploding Whale (And Other Remarkable Stories from the Evening News). On November 12, 1970, he had been a reporter for KATU for several years when he and cameraman Doug Brazil were given an assignment to cover the disposal of a dead whale that had washed up on the beach near Florence. The Oregon State Highway Division was going to blow the thing up with dynamite. The whale stunk to high heaven and definitely needed to be disposed of. For whatever reason, officials decided that explosives were the best way to go.

It didn’t quite work. To sum it up from the news story (in what is quite possibly the best quote ever uttered in a newscast): “The blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.” Paul Linnman says in his book, “If anything ever gave me the sense of what it might be like to be in combat and under fire, it was the day Doug Brazil and I ran in terror to escape the blubber shrapnel.” I’m sure it was plenty terrifying to experience that, but because of the incident, we now have a highly amusing news story that we can watch over and over again. The video has gone viral thanks to the internet, and Dave Barry even wrote a column about it once. And now, enjoy:

Here are my photos from Florence:

Weather vane

Weather Vane

Florence Old Town

Old Town



Over the Siuslaw

Siuslaw River Bridge

Waterfront Depot

Waterfront Depot


Roses on a picket fenceRoses on a Picket Fence

View Map

Oregon Towns Project


Date of visit: Saturday, October 23, 2010
Population: 918 (2000 Census)

The quiet little town of Mapleton sits on the banks of the Siuslaw River about 15 miles inland from the coast. The general consensus is that the town is so named because of the abundance of bigleaf maples in the area. And there are indeed a lot of these lovely trees, which turn a lovely golden color in the fall. Unfortunately, many of the leaves had already fallen during my visit, but I still got a taste of the autumn show.

Oregonians remember the recent floods of 1996. There was a lot of rainfall and flooding 31 years earlier too. Mapleton was still recovering from flooding in December (which left up to three feet of water in some stores), when at 2 p.m. on Thursday, January 28, 1965, a wall of mud and debris flowed down off nearby Neely Mountain. It flowed across the railroad tracks and the highway and clogged up a 400 yard stretch of Main Street.

It was pretty slow-moving – one witness said it moved as fast as a man could walk – so injuries were light. In fact, only one injury was reported: that of the postmistress, who was swept out a side door of the post office (which ended up being destroyed by the landslide). At least 15 cars were “tossed aside” by the slide as it swept through town, according to an article in the Oregonian the next day. Two feet of mud stood in Merle Beck’s store. They eventually got the mess cleaned up, of course, and now 45 years later there is no evidence of the slide whatsoever.

From the Mapleton LibraryView from the Mapleton Library

Frank's PlaceFrank’s Place

Cool architectureCool architecture

Maple rowMaple row

Public DockPublic Dock

Siuslaw RiverSiuslaw River

View Map

Oregon Towns Project