History runs deep across Oregon’s varied landscapes that seem to offer a treasure trove of places and activities that reveal much about our past.
In fact, one region in particular offers plenty of hands-on lessons in history that – with a little imagination – can transport you to a very different Oregon.
Hells Canyon of the Snake River offers you thrills, chills and maybe a spill along Oregon’s most challenging whitewater river.
But rugged and remote adventure is but one entree from a remarkable menu of Eastern Oregon adventures.
Upriver from Hells Canyon at Farewell Bend State Park (at Brownlee Reservoir) you’ll enjoy an oasis of green – where acres of spreading locust trees provide cool shady relief from the summer sun.
Joe Kenick, Oregon State Park Manager, said that the historic site earned its name from the earliest pioneers who passed through the area on their westward treks:
“This is where they had to say ‘farewell’ to the Snake River and move up toward the northwest and Baker Valley. You must remember that walking down Hells Canyon was not an option, so this place stood out and was a draw because it’s the only green around.”
The Farewell Bend State Park Campground offers plenty of elbow room across its 74 lakeshore acres with more than 120 sites for tents or trailers. There are also two rental cabins that offer all of the comforts of home, so it’s a good place to spend some time, cast a fishing line and enjoy a break.
“An archeologist once told me,” added Kenick, “that a good place to camp is a good place to camp whether it’s 150 years ago or today. That’s why this was a gathering spot on the Oregon Trail.”
Less than an hour away - near Baker City – the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is a fine gathering site for your family. The site provides you with a perspective and context to better understand the region’s early days.
The OTIC opened in 1993 and shows - through tours and exhibits – how the westward migration that began in the 1840’s changed Oregon forever.
“We tend to think about coming across the Oregon Trail as this great big adventure –'Hurrah, let’s go!” said Jeremy Martin, BLM Park Ranger. “But the fact is there was a sense of desperation that moved most people west. People who came this way in the 1840’s and 50’s needed a better life!”
Outside the OTIC you can explore replicas of covered wagons that give you a feel for the pioneering experience, but Martin is quick to point out that you won’t need to travel far to see the real thing. That’s because the actual trail – deep wagon ruts and all – is adjacent to the OTIC.
“It’s important to remember that there wasn’t just one trail,” noted Martin with a chuckle. “There were many Oregon Trails and the reason for many trails is because no one liked eating dust for long. So, often-times the wagons would spread out across the valley floor. We are a place that holds on to Oregon history and we tell the story of the largest non-forced human migration in human history. “
In nearby Baker City – just four miles away – make time to visit the grandest site of all – In fact, the Geiser Grand Hotel is in the center of what was once called the “Queen City” of Oregon’s gold country. There’s no finer place to rest your head!
“Baker City is the next historic chapter that followed the Oregon Trail,” said Barbara Sidway, the owner and General Manager of the Geiser Grand Hotel. “The trail blew through this area and brought hundreds of thousands of pioneers into the Willamette Valley, but settlement in this area didn’t really happen until later – after gold was discovered.”
The Geiser Grand Hotel offers a certain elegance that may spoil you with fine crystal chandeliers, rich mahogany millwork and a spectacular stained glass atrium that collectively - take the breath away.
Thirty guest rooms invite you to linger longer, “We are big on comfort here,” said Sidway. “The scale of everything, including decorations and furnishings - you won’t see anything petite here.”
It is also comfort and elegance that traveled a long road to recovery. You see, the Geiser Grand Hotel’s story began in 1889 during the rough and tumble days of Oregon’s gold rush.
Albert Geiser made a “statement” when he built his namesake hotel that said Eastern Oregon rivaled any of the big city offerings that travelers might encounter between Seattle and San Francisco.
The hotel thrived for nearly half a century before the gold played out and harder times arrived. In fact, the hotel was boarded up and abandoned when Barbara Sidway and her husband arrived in the early 1990’s.
They found a tremendous mess with damage throughout a building that didn’t have a roof: “Oh, it was horrible,” said Sidway. “Pigeons flying in and out of the open roof and the walls were so wet you could grab the plaster and feel the water.”
But Sidway also saw something remarkable in the building’s details and it’s bones: the promise for a new life!
“There was so much of the original millwork still intact and it was done with a lot of care and money and artisanship – it was all just extraordinary,” said Sidway.
So, an 8-million dollar restoration followed - an "investment" in the hotel and in Baker City’s future was completed when the hotel reopened in 1998.
Denny Grosse, the official tour guide at the Geiser Grand Hotel, (she is also Barbara Sidway’s mother) has a passion for history and noted that, “the hotel offers elegance – which is what Albert Geiser originally wanted to bring to town more than 120 years ago. This was elegance in the wilderness.”
Denny can tell you much about the hotel, its place in history and why the family thought it was all worth saving: “Because once it’s gone, history has disappeared – you can’t retrieve it if you tear it down.”
Barbara agreed and offered: “When you stay at the Geiser Grand Hotel you are really stepping back in time and connecting with what Eastern Oregon is about now. If you just show up we will get you pointed in the right direction for history and adventure.”