On a business trip to Baker City, Oregon, a sign on the side of the road caught my eye. It said: Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
The Oregon Trail brings many things to mind – pioneers, adventure, danger…an immensely popular video game played by thousands of school-aged children from the mid-1980s – mid-2000s…Yes, this included me!
Confident in my Oregon Trail prowess, I was interested to see what the video game taught generations of youth and how much of this was in line with the reality.
Our work days were pretty packed, but after wrapping up one day I found that I had about an hour and a half that I could spend visiting so I thought I would check it out.
The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is located just 5 miles outside of Baker City on a large hilltop between the Rockies and Cascades. You can hardly see the little speck on the top of the right side of the hill – that is the building!
The center, run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is probably one of the most accessible locations that I have visited! It seems as though a great deal of thought and planning went in to making this site friendly to all.
For those of you traveling with RVs, the parking lots are split for cars and then RVs/buses to give an easy in and out. The lots and building are conveniently positioned on one level for easy access.
When you arrive at the center and walk into the lobby, wheelchairs and strollers are available to borrow for the duration of your trip. Inside, hearing assistance devices are available to use in the exhibits, all videos are closed captioned and service animals are welcome. In addition, pets are allowed on site (not in the buildings) but must remain leashed and on the trails.
Outside of the center, there are miles of paved trails overlooking the valley that were designed at a 5% grade or less. Along the trails, telescopes are fixed at different levels to allow viewing for children or those in wheelchairs. Park benches, shade shelters and pull outs are located along the trails for rest and observation. If you are lucky, you might see deer or elk as they make their way across the golden prairie.
Because I arrived with limited time, I spent this time in the exhibit hall and didn’t worry about the trek down to see the wagon ruts. The sign at the top of the hill said that it would take approximately 45 minutes to walk down to the old trail and another hour to walk back up. I’m not sure who was pacing this route, but I knew I didn’t have that amount of time. The rangers close down the facility at 6:00 pm during the summer hours. This includes the parking lot! So you can’t wander down or you won’t have access to your car on the way out if it is past 6:00 pm.
If you are traveling with kids, the center has put together an amazing – and I mean top-notch – set of activities for children of various ages and teachers – complete with lesson guides. There are activities like scavenger hunts in the center, coloring books, homework helpers, kid’s diaries, etc…Honestly, I can’t wait to bring my children back here to learn about the Oregon Trail!!
As you enter the exhibit hall, you are greeted by a weathered trail guide mounted on a weary grey horse.
Take a better look at your guide.
Trail guides, who were often trappers or traders who knew the land, would accompany the thousands of emigrants who made the dangerous trek over two thousand miles from their homes. The guides would link together the old Native American trails winding their way to Oregon.
The first wagon train was comprised of one thousand emigrants starting from the launching point of Independence, Missouri in 1843. There were many reasons for people to leave. The U.S. was in the midst of a depression and money was scarce so thoughts for a better life, hope for fertile land, a new start for their family were all reason to leave. In all of these cases, it took great courage to leave behind an established life for one of the unknown! But then, “man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore”.
On a good day, the wagon train would travel about 15 miles. Most people, including kids, walked the entire way. The team of oxen, like the ones below, were prized possessions and were loved as one of the family.
The sturdy oxen would pull the covered wagons, which normally ranged between 1,600 – 2,500 lbs, across prairie, streams and mountains until they reached Oregon City.
As the years ticked on, and more and more settlers made the trip to Oregon, guide books were created to help the next wave of wagon trains. For example, each family was advised to take 200 lbs of flour, 150 lbs of bacon, 10 lbs coffee, 20 lbs of sugar, and 10 lbs of salt. They also shouldn’t rely on consistent hunting or fishing. In some areas, they would be able to trade with the Native Americans.
The items that families decided on taking could mean the difference between life or death. Do they bring a family heirloom or extra bacon? These decisions were made evident with the tetris-style mock ups where you can decide what to bring on a trip. This was similar to the video game where you could purchase supplies in preparation for your trip.
I was part of the generation of kids who grew up learning about the westward migration on the Oregon Trail, and the multitude of strange sounding diseases, from the computer game of the same name.
You have died of dysentery. Those are familiar words for anyone playing the game attempting to make the trek to Oregon with their family and oxen.
As you follow settlers through their journey in the Interpretive Center, you come across a river. Hidden under flaps in the exhibit, you can see how your choices of buying a ferry passage, trying to cross, moving on up river, or waiting it out would affect your trip. Sounds familiar, right?
Along the trail, settlers would inevitably come across Native American tribes. Many of these would be willing to trade salmon, wild game or vegetables for clothing or tools.
It has been estimated that from the 200,000 – 500,000 people starting the journey on the Oregon Trail, some 20,000 – 30,000 people died – averaging 10 or more graves per mile.
Those that made it, visited the land office to make claim to a piece of land in Oregon. Some became farmers, some ranchers, some merchants…and some were lucky enough to strike it rich as miners!
That’s right, after the gold rush died up in California, prospectors moved their sights to Oregon. Gold was discovered about 5 miles outside of Baker City sparking a new rush to Oregon. The Interpretive Center is located near the site of the Flagstaff Gold Mine which operated from 1898 to the 1920s. Its remnants can be seen below.
At the top of the hill, a wagon encampment with six full scale models is used to re-enact a wagon train “nooning” with Dutch oven cooking samples and demonstrations of pioneer life skills. The wagon models are able to be viewed all year long, but the re-enactments only occur on Labor Day weekend.
I mentioned that I didn’t have time to walk the trails to see the wagon ruts – but that was just from within the Interpretive Center. Luckily, I had a local friend from work tell me that there was a pull off, right off of the main road where you could walk just a short distance to view the ruts. The staff confirmed this and gave me a map, so right before 6:00 p.m. I headed down. From this access point, you only have to walk 20-30 feet before coming across the old Oregon Trail. In case you can’t notice it (it was pretty obvious), there are posted signs – “the trail is to your right” or “the trail is behind you, turn around”
Out of the 2170 miles of the Oregon Trail, approximately 300 miles remain. The trail has disappeared for various reasons – natural erosion, forming of roads and the development of cities and towns to name a few.
The BLM allows access to the trail and welcomes you to walk portions of the route, however bans any motorized access or activity that would damage the remaining ruts. Donations are collected to help maintain this piece of American history.
As I was viewing the ruts of the historic Oregon Trail, the sun was setting, the golden grasses shining, and the winds blowing the sagebrush slightly – I could only imagine the thousands of hopeful emigrants who made the 2,000 mile journey.
I must say, the old Oregon Trail video game got a lot right…