This month, we celebrate the 158th anniversary of Oregon’s statehood.
But back when Oregon got its start, some writers opined about its natural beauties, and others weren’t sure the territory was ready to become the 33rd state.
On Feb. 1, 1850, nine years before Oregon’s statehood, a writer for the National Intelligencer wrote, “Oregon possesses resources enough upon her surface to make her at once one of the richest and happiest spots in the Union.”
But The New York Times raised questions about whether Oregon had enough settlers to form a state, and whether it would be admitted to the Union as a free state or a slave state. Oregon was admitted by a close vote — 113 to 95 in the House, and 114-103 in the Senate, and became a state on Feb. 14, 1859.
Robert Lewisohn Hamm reports in “Becoming Oregon: From Expedition to Exposition,” that Oregon was admitted as a free state, despite the political games by politicians. Democrats, he writes, voted for admission because it would give them two additional Democratic votes in the Senate, one in the House, and three in the Electoral College. The issue of slavery, however, was still a problem
Hamm’s book compiles more than 150 19th-century newspaper articles about Oregon, and this one from The New York Times on the day of Oregon’s statehood, says, “Oregon is a Free State — her Constitution prohibiting Slavery — and she will unquestionably always remain so. At present however, the party that is in the ascendant there is quite as thoroughly devoted to the Slave-holding interest as South Carolina or Mississippi.”
Joseph Lane was the first governor of Oregon Territory and a defender of slavery.
“Even though Oregonians had decided we wanted in the Union, we then had to wait to be accepted, and it was a mighty struggle,” says Douglas Card, a historian and author of “From Camas to Courthouse: Early Lane County History.”
“First, we really weren’t as big as we needed to be, though that could be waived as with Kansas,” Card says. “More important, both parties back East were concerned about us — the Republicans saw us as mainly a Democratic state, as the Democrats controlled most of the offices in the state, with Joe Lane as our Territorial Rep back there. Plus, even though we banned slavery, we also opposed free Negroes. On the other hand, the Democrats were concerned we were officially a free state which could tip the balance the North’s way.”
Card says Oregon was the only state to enter with a racial exclusion law in its Constitution, although it was officially a free state. This affects Oregon’s demography even today, he says, because the attitudes of residents here were not so different than those in slave states.
During the Civil War, Card says, Oregon was officially on the side of the North, though it didn’t send any troops to battle. It also wasn’t interested in secession, although many of the residents were in support of slavery.
“We were rather bitterly divided, in fact,” he says.
Something that helped unite Oregonians was the building of coastal highways and bridges. Eugene author Joe Blakely has written several books about Oregon’s history, including “Building Oregon’s Coast Highway 1936-1966” and “Oswald West: Governor of Oregon 1911-1915.”
In 1913, Gov. Oswald West presented Senate Bill 22 to make Oregon’s beaches part of the public domain. He wrote, “The shore of the Pacific Ocean, between ordinary high tide and extreme low tide, and from the Columbia River on the north to the Oregon and California State line on the south is hereby declared a public highway and shall forever remain open as such to the public.”
Oregon’s coastal towns did not have the highways they do today, and several coastal cities were only connected at low tide. People already were using the beaches to drive between cities, like from Waldport to Newport, or Yachats to Waldport.
“What the law implied was that the people of Oregon could now drive legally on the Oregon coast beaches, which were the only connectors between some towns on the coast,” Blakely says. “Most roads on the coast were only accessible during the summer months, too muddy at other times, but when they dried out they were used. Some roads were built with logs and termed corduroy roads, then there were also plank roads. Ferryboats were common across bays and rivers.”
West, Oregon’s fourth governor, said, “I pointed out that thus we would come into miles and miles of highway with no cost to the taxpayer, the legislature took the bait — hook, line and sinker. Thus came public ownership of our beaches.” He thought he was “pulling one over on the state legislature,” because West was a Democrat and the legislature was nearly all Republican.
“He knew that if he wrote this legislation that they would be 100 percent for it because we would be gaining access to all of our beaches for free and there would be no cost in it,” Blakely says. “And there would be a highway. People were already driving on the beaches at that time so it was pretty common practice at that time.”
The law protecting public beach access to the high-water line remains in effect on Oregon beaches. Gov. Tom McCall formally protected Oregon’s beaches in 1967.
“Our coast highways had an early mystique about them,” he says. “It’s terrifically scenic and we’re very fortunate to have that great highway system.”
In 1919, Ben Jones, a state legislator who represented Polk and Lincoln counties, initiated the process to construct a highway along the entire Oregon coast. Stretching from Astoria to California, the road would be named the Roosevelt Coast Military Highway, to honor Theodore Roosevelt, who had died that year.
“This was the dramatic beginning to a saga that included lots of mud, gravel and concrete,” Blakely says. “Persevering against insurmountable odds, engineers at the Oregon State Highway Commission and the people in Oregon’s coastal towns built roads and bridges along the tricky coast terrain. It took them 17 years. When it was finished it was one of the most scenic highways in the world.”
Author Judy Fleagle has chronicled the history of Oregon’s coastal bridges in “Crossings: McCullough’s Coastal Bridges,” to recognize master bridge engineer Conde McCullough. “Building of the highway started in 1921 and didn’t finish until 1926, when the five major bridges were built to cross the major bays and rivers that were still without a bridge,” Fleagle says.
“‘Crossings’ is about the right man at the right time and the right place,” she says. “The first section is about the right place, where the coast needed those last five bridges and McCullough was the right man. Then the right time because Roosevelt came to office with the New Deal funding to pay for it.”
McCullough’s name is on more than 600 bridges built between 1919 and 1935 when he was Oregon’s bridge engineer. He designed 13 bridges on Oregon’s coast, with three of them — at Wilson River, Ten Mile Creek and Big Creek — being identical. One bridge, the Alsea Bay Bridge in Waldport, was replaced with a new bridge that opened in 1991.
McCullough’s bridges had an elegance as well as function that combined to make them admirable. The bridge at Yaquina Bay is now the most recognizable and photographed bridge in the Northwest. “These bridges on the Oregon coast are one of the world’s great collections of bridges designed by one of the world’s great bridge designers,” Fleagle says.
This had a profound effect on Oregon, because once those bridges were built the towns of Newport, Waldport, Florence, Reedsport and Coos Bay were no longer dependent on ferries. In most cities, ferries didn’t run after midnight. If the tide was very high or very low, if it was stormy, or if the river was flowing too fast, the ferries wouldn’t run.
“Once you had a bridge, oh my gosh, that was amazing,” Fleagle says. “People could go anywhere at any time. It introduced tourism to the coast. Even though this was the Depression and people didn’t have much money, driving to the coast to see the bridges and the ocean became a really big deal. Those bridges became incalculably important.”