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Discovering Oregon's past by visiting its ghost towns

Oregon has more than 250 ghost towns, more than any other state. Grant McOmie takes us to a few of them.

SUMPTER, Ore. — The best backroads can lead you down trails to secret hideaways that provide rich history lessons that continue to teach today. 

It’s the travel that lets you roam into town sites, villages or communities that barely exist. Some that local history buff, Steve Arndt, calls “ghost towns” that are rich with history about the shaping of the state.

For example, when the Sumpter “Stump Dodger” steam train engine blows its whistle, one thing is certain — you’d best be on time, or you’ll miss the ride. “Last call! Train Number One to Sumpter departing in five minutes!” said Sumpter Railroad conductor Daniel Bentz.

The young man strolled across the wooden planks of the McEwen Depot and played his part well in a period costume and a full-on character performance. He continued, “So hurry and buy a ticket, then step aboard the Stump Dodger because even a century later, this railroad is always on time.”

For the price of a ticket, you can ride across a unique chapter of Oregon’s past. A gold mining past marked by a giant dredge that chewed up the North Powder River Valley and pulled 9 tons of gold out of the ground.

Square-bowed and built of steel, wood and iron; three giant dredges lifted and sifted the terrain, reaping a golden harvest worth $12 million during the peak of the depression era. Today, it is a park that holds on to history and takes visitors aboard to see and touch the past at the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area.

Oregon’s backroad byways are the best. Across North Central Oregon, less than 20 miles south of The Dalles, you quickly see that distances are great, and the people are few and times gone by are easy to find. I found a good ghost town where the sun shines 300 days a year.

It’s only 90 minutes from Portland yet feels a million miles away from city hubbub and noise. Oregon history buff, Bob Waldron, said that the Friend School, built in 1909, offers a sneak peek to the promising life that folks wanted to find when they settled in this part of the Oregon country.

“Life here could be dirty, bad, nasty and too short,” said Waldron. “But it held the promise of a new beginning. The availability of land was, for a lot of folks, the opportunity to start a new life.”

At Friend, Oregon, in Wasco County, “life” reaches back to the 1870s. Named for a local homesteader, Friend was the sort of place that flourished for a moment and then disappeared:

“One of the beauties of Eastern and Central Oregon is that there are still lots of places like this — where you can find plenty of elbow room and live in solitude,” added Waldron. “It’s not for everybody, obviously, or everybody would be out here, right? But, look around. It is gorgeous.”

Historian and Oregon author, Steve Arndt insisted that even more valuable riches are waiting for families to find anytime across Oregon. “Well, first of all,” explained the retired college teacher, “Oregon has more ghost towns than any other state . . . 256 of them. Some are well-known like Sumpter, but many more towns are really obscure like Friend.”

By his own admission, Arndt has been a ghost town buff since he was a youth and tagged along with his dad who would scour the countryside for old town sites. The bug really bit Steve at an early age. “For me, a true ghost town,” said Arndt, “has buildings but no people, and one of the buildings needs to be a church, a school, a store or the post office.”

Arndt has made finding and learning about Oregon’s past easy in his book: Oregon Ghost Towns: A to Z. The book includes real time-tested treasures too! Like Golden, Oregon. A true ghost town that’s but a stone’s throw from the popular Wolf Creek Inn.

Wolf Creek Inn is an Oregon State Park that is located near Grants Pass, just off I-5. “Golden, Oregon was never really a town — more like a mining camp,” noted Arndt. Golden was a booming place in the 1850s when millions of dollars in gold was dug or power-washed out of nearby Coyote Creek.

At one time there were as many as 25 buildings including several homes, a general store, a blacksmith shop, a school and a church. Remarkably, four buildings remain standing at the Golden State Heritage Site today. “The Golden Church is especially worth your time to visit,” added Arndt.

Arndt added that you don’t have to travel far to find an Oregon ghost town for many sites are easy to reach on short drives from Portland into the Willamette Valley — like McCoy, Oregon. Steve led us into a concrete building that seemed more a bunker than a former working rail line building:

“This is one of the old booster stations from the electric railway days and these booster stations were located about every five miles up and down the rail line.”

Oregon’s Electric Railway was ahead if it’s time in the early twentieth century. The electric railway connected Portland with Eugene and many smaller towns throughout the greater valley.

Towns like McCoy flourished for a time because they were so well connected with the outside world, and it was easy to ship goods and products.

The Oregon Electric Railway era ended in the late 1940s. Arndt explained, “The diesel trains were quick, carried more freight, and all these little stations along the line, gave up the ghost, and became ghost towns.”

He’s right. There are scores of old Oregon town sites to find, explore and admire. Some, like Hopewell, Oregon, are marked with a storefront or two that have somehow managed to endure the decades. Steve’s ghost town adventures provide plenty of places and information to ponder and wonder. Plus, as you explore more of Oregon, you have the chance to know the place you call home.

“It’s funny,” said Arndt. “Not only do I look at the buildings and the structures that have lasted, but I often think about the tears, the laughter, and the people who had lives in these buildings. As people have souls, I think community does too.”

I believe holding on to Oregon’s past is important — not only do we get to better know this place we call home, but without understanding where we have come from — we risk losing ourselves in the future. It’s important to remember that these places are important links with Oregon heritage, so it’s best to take nothing but pictures and memories and leave nothing behind but footprints when you visit.

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Be sure to follow my Oregon adventures via the Grant’s Getaways Podcast. Each segment is a story-telling session where I relate behind the scenes stories from four decades of travel and television reporting.

You can also learn more about many of my favorite Oregon travels and adventures in the Grant’s Getaways book series, including:

"Grants Getaways I," Photography by Steve Terrill

"Grant's Getaways II," Photography by Steve Terrill

Grant’s Getaways: 101 Oregon Adventures,” Photography by Jeff Kastner

Grant’s Getaways: Guide to Wildlife Watching in Oregon,” Photography by Jeff Kastner

Grant’s Getaways: Oregon Adventures with the Kids,” Photography by Jeff Kastner

This collection of books offers hundreds of outdoor activities across Oregon and promises to engage a kid of any age.

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