In Eastern Oregon, the small town of Baker City offers a 19th-century downtown and the nearby Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
BAKER CITY, Ore. — With Victorian-era buildings nearly uninterrupted along the city’s expansive Main Street — wide enough for a mule team to turn around — Baker City makes a modern visitor feel like a time traveler.
More than 100 Baker City buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. And Baker City, in northeast Oregon, is just seven miles from the Bureau of Land Management’s Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, where visitors can still walk the same path as the Pacific Northwest’s pioneers.
Although the Oregon Trail runs near Baker City, it does not go through the town, which was built during the gold rush of the 1860s and during a second, 20-year mining boom from 1890 to 1910, well after the Oregon Trail’s 1840-60 heyday. Discoveries from the gold rush are on permanent display at the U.S. Bank on Main Street, where a 5-pound gold nugget shines in a glass case.
With gold flowing freely, Baker City was variously nicknamed Queen City of the Mines and Queen City of the Inland Empire. As the decades passed, mining gave way to ranching and efforts to update the cityscape resulted in the erection of aluminum storefronts that hid the history beneath. These facades may have been ugly, but they did protect the buildings.
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By the 1970s, Baker City had fallen on hard times. Efforts to revitalize the city core took off in the 1990s with a strategic plan to promote the city’s historic buildings, unearthed from their midcentury makeovers.
The historic district includes a 1909 Carnegie Library (now home to Crossroads Art Center), the 1908 St. Francis Cathedral, the Baker Heritage Museum and several Victorian private homes.
But the Geiser Grand is indisputably the city’s iconic building. Designed in an Italianate style, the 1889 building was home to only the third elevator west of the Mississippi when it was built.
The 30-room hotel is said to be haunted and its history is included in the book “Ghost Stories of Oregon” by Susan Smitten, which describes hotel guests hearing the voices of people talking and laughing and a lady in blue who has been seen walking up and down the grand staircase. There are once-a-week tours of the hotel, plus an evening ghost-hunting tour offered about once a month.
It’s not difficult to imagine ghosts on the windswept prairie outside Baker City. And you can walk in the ruts of history at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center just outside the town. There, visitors get a sense of the long, tough wagon journeys of the 19th-century pioneers who made the trip from Missouri to the West.
One of the simplest displays is the most evocative: Visitors are asked to pack a toy-sized wagon full of supplies, a nearly impossible task that results in leaving some items behind, something that happened to those who made the 2,000-mile, five-month journey.
Perhaps nothing puts a visitor in a pioneering mind frame more than a hike on the Oregon Trail itself. The path is still visible beneath the ridge where the interpretive center sits. Paved paths from the center lead down to the wagon ruts, which also can be reached are from nearby Highway 86.
It may be impossible to duplicate the experience of those early settlers, but walking the dusty trail, after time spent at the center, gives a glimpse of what a long, arduous journey it must have been.