Baker City in the Eighties

Boyhood Memories
By: Wesley Andrews

You will have passed your three score and ten years and will have a good memory to recollect the days when Baker City had three breweries, twenty-one salons, gambling houses that never closed; when there were a flour mill, a church, a school, blacksmith shops, fast houses, horse-watering troughs and large poplar trees on Front street.

On the evening of April 16, 1886, the writer, then a boy of ten years, was gathering sagebrush for a campfire near where the North Baker School now stands. This was an open plain and the Andrews family were camped for the night. They had just arrived by horse team covered-wagon from Boise after coming from Toronto, Canada via Kelton, Utah to Boise City, as it was then named, in 1881. Kelton was the nearest railroad point to the Pacific Northwest from 1867 until 1884, during which years the increasing travel to Umatilla Landing on the Columbia was by stage, covered-wagon and long horse-drawn freight trains. It took my uncle, Robert C. Aikens, just one week to make the trip from Boise City to Baker City, but before he died he made the trip by automobile in six hours.

In those days the streets of Baker City were not named or numbered. Main Street was known as Front Street. None were paved, the sidewalks were wooden, and the cross walks were long planks laid about four feet wide. The name was not changed until 1911 when Baker City became Baker, Oregon, officially, after strong objection from the federal government because there was a town named Baker in every state of the Union, but only one Baker city and this name was printed on money orders, maps and government records.

In the rotunda of the national capital stand five marble statues of the men considered important in the acquirement of the territory comprising the United States. One of these five is Col. E. D. Baker, poet, statesman and first United States senator from Oregon, so honored because of his effort to bring Oregon Territory into the Union. When Wasco County was divided during the Civil War the name chosen for the new mining district was Baker County, with Auburn as county seat.

Colonel Baker was killed at Balls Bluff in 1864 and perhaps never saw the new town named in his honor, Baker City. A few years later much of Auburn was moved to Baker City and the town became the county seat, when the legislative bill introduced October 24, 1866, by W.C. Hindman was approved.

The government census gives Baker City a population of 312 in 1870, 1258 in 1880, 2604 in 1890, and 6663 in 1900. From 1885 until after 1900 Baker was larger than Boise; the town was larger than Spokane until 1866. A local census of population was made in 1879, showing 1,197 inhabitants, of whom 143 were females and 166 were Chinese. The towns of Wingville and Auburn still had stores in the nineties, though these towns have long since disappeared and no longer exist except in memory.

Where Powder River passed the east end of Chinatown an irrigation dam diverted a small stream east; an open ditch flowed westward along Auburn Avenue for the benefit of lawns and gardens and also supplied water for fire fighters. There were a number of water wheels along the river which lifted water for the irrigation of gardens of home owners along Resort Street and some on the east side of the river. A number of the more modern homes of that period had windmills. Some were boxed in from top to bottom, the reservoir being in the tower being in the tower about fifty or sixty feet above the ground with a vertical circular drum-shaped wheel that caught the wind from all directions. The vertical propeller blades powered the pumps that gave water pressure. Among the homes having such windmills were the Heilner home on Fourth Street, the Bamberger home on Court Street, the J.H. Parker home on Second Street and the J.W. Virtue home on Main Street.

A volunteer fire company had been organized in 1875 and most of the members were still active in the great fires of the late eighties. Some of the members of that first company were J.M. Shepherd, Charles H. Shellworth, W.G. Umbarger, S.R. Ross, J.P. Ross, T.M. Britten, James Stephenson, J.I. Deally, Peter Mann, J.W. Cleaver, S.H. Small, H.N. McKinney, Wm. P. Brewer, W.W. Coe, James Fletcher, Charles H. Littlefield, T.C. Hyde, Harry C. Shepherd, Wm. H. Packwood, H.C. Durkee.

In the summer of 1884 the first court house was burned and, though the officials fought to save them, several prisoners lost their lives, as the wooden building was quickly consumed. That fall, on October 8, the city jail burned, and also a small wooden building. A young German transient named Charles Meyers had been drunk and was disturbing the peace. He was put in jail about 2 A.M. When the fire occurred at 5 A.M. the police made a frantic dash through flames to save the man, but the fire was too hot. The charred remains were given a funeral by the volunteers.

On July 4, 1886, the entire block on the east side of Front Street between Auburn and Valley Avenues was burned. On September 5, 1888, the block between Valley and Court on the West side of Main Street was destroyed, except the Southeast corner on which were two wooden buildings protected by the J.P. Bowen stone building and hardware store. This building had a hinged, steel floored front porch which dropped and protected the entire front of the building. On the Westside of the block between the alley and First Street was a row of fast houses, all wooden and that was where the fire started. Along Main Street the buildings were mostly brick and the fire was so intense they crumbled from the heat. The staccato sound of exploding ammunition in the Basche Hardware store was like that of fire crackers at a Chinese New Year celebration. How welcome were the washboilers of hot coffee made by my mother which we helped to distribute in tin cups to the fire fighters that terrible night. No fire in Baker ever brought so heavy a loss as this fire which took the First National Bank and seven more of the best buildings on the block, and all the wooden buildings facing First and Court streets.

     In 1889 the block between Valley Avenue and Court Street on the west side of First Street was burned, including one of the first buildings of the new town, originally erected and operated as a store by A.H. Brown in 1862, and then occupied by Mrs. E.L. Miller’s boarding house. It was on the corner opposite the present Y.M.C.A.. The fire company worked frantically and was assisted by a bucket brigade of fifty volunteers lined along the irrigation flume on Auburn and passing rubber buckets of water, but the wooden buildings could not be saved.

There was a reorganization of the fire company and hose carts were added to the hook and ladder truck with the completion of water mains from the newly build reservoir. A fire bell had been erected on a wooden scaffold between the old wooden city hall and the new stone one-room jail. Hose Company No. 1 was soon augmented by Hose Company No. 2 and by 1894 the Boys’ Hose Company No. 3 was added. This method of fire-fighting had developed in most of the larger towns and soon contests with hose cart races and tournaments between different cities became annual events. Baker City, La Grande, Walla Walla, Pendleton, Waitsburg and Dayton alternated an interstate race meet each year. Races and fire contests were held for substantial prizes.. The hub and hub race was always the most important event. The meet would last nearly a week with daily contests and exciting finals.

In 1890 the Giroux Amalgamator Works was destroyed by fire, ending long litigation by dissatisfied stockholders. In 1894 the Baker City National bank failed. Grover Cleaveland was president during the depression of 1893 and 1894 when the great railroad strike conducted by Eugene V. Debs tied up rail trains for many weeks. Nine trains were stalled at the Baker City depot, and for thirty days no trains ran through to Portland. In August, 1898, the Baker City Iron Works burned and soon after a fire destroyed the McCord Hardware buildings and the Rust Opera House and Brewery.

Baker City had its First Fourth of July celebration in 1883. Memorial Day was the big day for the G.A.R. veterans, who always had a Joe Hooker Post parade on Main Street. Year after year as the Memorial or Decoration Day parade marched out toward the cemetery, one piece the band always played was “Flee as the Bird.”

Tuesday, August 19, 1884, was the celebrated day when the Iron Horse first whistled across the rail bridge on Powder River and through the outskirts of Baker City on its way to Portland. This first train linking the Pacific Northwest by rail with the east was an event of national importance. The next event of national interest was the fifteen-minute visit of a U.S. President, the first ever to visit Baker City. On May 8, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison accompanied by John Wanamaker, Post-master General, spoke briefly between 10:45 and 11:00 A.M. to about two thousand Bakerites who presented him with a miniature gold brick labeled “Baby McKee.” The president did not leave his train, but spoke from the rear platform. It was a lovely spring morning.

In January, 1889, the first Building and Loan Association started with $165,000 capitol. It became involved in financial difficulties in 1893 and was taken over by the Western Loan and Savings Company; a Salt lake Association. The Eastern Oregon Building and loan association was organized in 1894, becoming a strong financial firm.

During these years robberies and murders were frequent, gambling houses never closed, and sporting woman owned liver-kept horses and shining buggies. Sometimes they raced down Main Street. Once I saw a policeman, Percy Weller, dragged nearly half a block in stopping such a race and arresting two of these women driving a fast team. They screamed and wept when put inside the little stone jail, soon to be bailed out by their “landlady.”

During the winter of 1886, a vigilance committee took over the vice-controlled city streets, establishing a rigidly-enforced curfew of 7:00 P.M. for all boys and girls under eighteen, and a curfew of 9:00 P.M. for all under twenty-one years. Chinatown had about four hundred Celestials, with half a dozen stores, and several gambling places. Most of these sold opium which was openly on bunks. There were no Japanese until the nineties when a few Japanese girls were brought in for prostitution.

In the ornate Joss House sat a man-sized Buddha in the silence of burning incense and candles, highly decorated and deeply reverenced by the Chinese. One day this idol took a trip. He was kidnapped by some bad white boys. There was much consternation and mourning by the priestly temple attendants. A liberal reward was offered for the return of “Georgie” as he was called by the boys, and soon “Georgie” came back unharmed.

This Chinese temple was built in 1882 at a cost of $10,000. It was of red brick, twenty by forty-five feet in size; a two-story affair with balcony and porch in front. The site was on the bank of Powder River. It was the most substantial building in Chinatown. Except for two stone buildings occupied by stores and opium dens all the other buildings were wooden shacks, many being immoral cribs.

A stockade was built for the restricted district along Resort Street where it crosses Auburn.

Chinese New Year was noisy day and night---long strings of firecrackers popping off too quick, explosive sounds intended to frighten away the devils. It was the Chinese who brought the first grapefruit to Baker, and for a long time they appeared to be the only users of this fruit. Many Chinese were placer miners. Some sawed wood with buck saws. They did all the public laundry work at that time. Every neighborhood had its Chinese vegetable man who sold his vegetables from twin baskets carried at the ends of a balanced shoulder pole. The Chinese fished in Powder River for chubs and suckers using square nets on bowed poles on the end of a shaft pulled up by a long rope.

A reform movement in 1888, intensified by large cordwood bonfires on Front Street, anvil shootings and torchlight processions, swept out the city government and elected Serene B. McCord mayor. During his administration there was a real estate boom. A special train of prospective buyers was run from Portland and twenty-five boys assisting the welcoming committee met the train and escorted the visitors to many homes as prearranged because the hotels could not handle the arrivals. Some of the lots sold in that boom are still vacant.

The horse-car line from the depot to the new Willowvale Addition was being built in 1889, and also the first city reservoir on the east hill with a pumping plant near Kastner’s Brewery on Spring Garden Avenue at a cost of $25,000. Water mains were laid and water motors at a cost of $25,000. Water mains were laid and water motors gave a new source of power. One of the first users was the Morning Democrat, when in the early nineties they installed a water motor for the big new printing press.

Our first electric light plant was in a small wooden building near Fourth on Center Street. Old Dad Shepherd operated the big dynamo, firing the engine boilers with slab wood. This operation began about 1887. Soon, afterwards the telephone brought its first meager service, which along with the electric lights and power was to grow into general service for all the people.

The horse-car line began operation on June 1, 1890, and continued its service for fourteen years.

The old Ruckles ten-stamp quartz mill, powered by a water wheel and ditch carrying water several miles from Powder River, stood at the foot of East Hill and was grinding out free gold day and night for over a third of a century, stopping only for quick-silver cleanups, until 1898. It was first used for the old Virtue mine.

On Upper Main Street, before that part was named for Admiral Dewey in 1898, was the Dan smith flouring mill, powered by a large water wheel and a long mill pond in the rear. There was a spring-board where we went swimming in the summer and crowds skated there in the winter. Often in winter four or five hundred people, young and old, gathered around huge bonfires at the foot of reservoir hill, down which came scores of sleds and toboggans, some carrying as many as ten persons and traveling from the reservoir almost to the bridge over Powder River.

Who remembers the Baker City Tribune in 1887, with G.W. Plumley as editor, located on Resort Street next to Cleaver’s Furniture and Undertaking Morgue? There was a lodge and dance hall upstairs. This latter building was on the corner of Resort and Bridge streets.

Julius Lach’s Brewery was in operation where the post office now stands. Across Main Street was the Evening Reveille, Morris Abbott, editor; next was C.M. Foster, surveyor; then Elmer’s assay office, Lottie’s Chinese laundry and Hazeltine Studio.

Across the street where now stands the Baker Hotel was the famous Greer and Kellogg stage depot, hay scales and livery barn, housing about seventy horses, with blacksmith shops in the rear. The Wells Fargo Express office was next door and S.M. Kellogg was the agent. The late Joe Buckley worked there as a lad and became a jockey in 1884.

Next to the north was the Western Hotel, owned by J.A. Reid, with the John Ross saloon connected. The writer worked there for the manager, Mother Eliza gray, in 1887. The hotel had both white and Chinese boarders and the meals were twenty five cents. There was a small gold scales in the case on the counter and also one in the express office. Some of the stores had similar scales. There were nearly two thousand miners who made Baker their headquarters. Placer gold was often carried by the miners in long buckskin bags tied with string, called pokes, and this gold was used for money by some of the miners when the bank was closed. Adjoining the Ross saloon was a barber shop; Frank Small had a little fruit stand next to J.W. Wisdom’s drug store, which was established in 1867. This completed the block. On Valley Avenue in the rear was Dr. D.D. Stevenson’s dentist office.

On the block opposite, on the east side of Main Street, were the wooden buildings that burned in 1886, and new brick buildings were built in 1887. That year the cornerstone of the I.O.O.F. building was laid by the late E.T. Beers, bricklayer, and dedicated by C.L. Palmer, then noble grand of the order and later grand master of Oregon and now deceased.

The event drew a large crowd, including the writer, then twelve years old. Under the cornerstone in an open space in its center were deposited copies of the Morning Democrat, the Baker City Tribune, the Evening Reveille, some lodge member’s names and records, Chinese and American coins, dolls, pictures, etc. Beginning at the corner of Main and Auburn avenues was a vacant lot with John Palmers harness shop, Joe Lachner’s Railroad House and saloon, the I.O.O.F., Wisdom Building, George Henry’s butcher shop and Bob McCord’s saloon with the Alhambra Club upstairs , in rotation north. The first store in the new Wisdom Building was Adler’s Crystal Palace with the large tower clock on the outer edge of the sidewalk in front.

Going north across Valley Avenue was the James and Jones drug store founded by H.N. McKinney, a wooden building later replaced by the P.A. Mann brick saloon. Next north was Mrs. M.E. Alford’s millinery shop, later replaced by a brick building occupied successively by Cleaver Brothers shoes, Alexander Clothing Company, the Dime Picture Show and McGinnis cigar store. Joe Manadus built a saloon and gambling house next beside and behind a barber shop in which in which P.A. Mann, Val Bildner, and Mike Hoff succeeded each other as barbers and later each owned saloons. Charley St. Louis had a jewelry store next to the St. Lawrence saloon in the Smith and Hansen brick hotel which still stands since 1874. In 1889 Fred Ernst ran the St. Lawrence Hotel, restaurant and saloon.

Adjoining was Durkee and Dill Mint saloon and gambling house which extended behind Fox and Gundesheimer cigar store. The next building north was the wooden Henderson harness shop, replaced in 1887 by a brick building in which the Baker city National Bank operated until it failed in 1894. Washauer Brothers, L.X.L. dry goods store and Richardson and George saloon, with Harvey Dale’s gambling house in the rear completed the block.

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Reprinted from Wesley Andrews, "Baker City in the Eighties: Boyhood Memories," Oregon Historical Quarterly 50:2 (June 1949): 83-97. © 1949, The Oregon Historical Society. Reprinted with permission.

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