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History Is Its Future Baker City, In Both Name And Spirit, Turns To Its Pioneer History As A Drawing Point For Visitors

Donna Ikenberry Aitkenhead Special To Travel

Baker. Baker City. Which sounds more inviting to you?

The town wants to be enticing, to strut its stuff so to speak; thus, the city is in the process of some really big changes. In reality, however, the Oregon town is just going back to what it originally was and should have always been.

Located at the southern end of the Powder River Valley, Baker City was founded in 1862 when gold was discovered a few miles to the west. Known as the “Queen City of the Mines” at the turn of the century, it was the first town established along the Oregon Trail in northeastern Oregon.

Boasting of a population of 6,663 in 1890, Baker City was a major trading center, a regular frontier metropolis with a population larger than either Boise or Spokane.

Here the wealthy abounded, and it showed in the unique style of architecture used downtown, including Carpenter Gothic, Victorian and Italianate classic revival.

Baker City also boasted the most elegant hotel between Portland and Salt Lake City. Built in 1889, the three-story Geiser Grande was erected for a grand sum of $65,000. Its restaurant, white-gloved waiters and the menus in French provided table settings for 200.

Tough times hit the town, however, when the gold rush era came to a screeching halt. In 1910, the city decided a new, more cosmopolitan image was needed, and Baker City became just plain Baker.

In the 1950s, Baker was still fighting for some sort of refinement; thus, civic leaders decided to cover up the frontier-era stone and brick buildings with a new, more modern front. Historic Baker became a city covered in stucco, plaster and aluminum.

With the recent interest in the Oregon Trail, however, came a renewed sense of past. In 1989, the city voted to go back to its original name. In addition, the renewed Baker City name brought on a desire to remove the modern facade and restore the old.

Currently the town is working to go back in time, to bring back the authentic architecture of old, with hopes of making the town a tourist destination, not just a place to stop, fuel the RV, and fill the tummy.

Brian Cole, former economic development director for the town of 9,300, was recently quoted as saying: “We expect to be the premier rural downtown shopping experience in the Pacific Northwest.” Some 36 downtown buildings are targeted for renovation, as is an unused railroad depot built in 1903.

Visit Baker City and you’ll see that some changes have already occurred. Take Betty’s Books. Located on Main Street in the 1888 Bamberger Building, the false stucco front was recently removed and a reconstructed replica of the building’s original cornice was mounted in place. Owner Betty Kuhl recently received the Best Design Project award from the Oregon Downtown Development Association.

Near Betty’s Books, eagle statues guard the nine-story Baker Hotel, eastern Oregon’s tallest building. Crowned by an observation tower and a flagpole, the hotel was built in 1929. At one time it was one of the finest hotels in Eastern Oregon and boasted such famous guests as presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey and Bobby Kennedy, and the cast and crew of the movie “Paint Your Wagon.” The hotel is being restored and will provide housing for all income levels, including those with special needs.

Visitors can explore the old with a walking tour of historic Baker City where there are 100 structures of historical significance. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, highlights include the St. Francis Cathedral, a native stone structure of Gothic Revival style built in the early 1900s.

Baker City Hall is of Renaissance Revival style and is also fashioned of tuff (a porous volcanic rock) from nearby quarries.

Built in 1903, it housed the public library until 1909, when the Carnegie Foundation provided a new library home also made of volcanic tuff but with Colonial-style architecture.

The local Bank of America is housed in the former home of Judge Luther B. Ison, a prominent member of a pioneer family. Built in 1887, this brick home of Queen Anne style is an architectural treasure and an outstanding example of Victorian architecture.

While you’re out and about exploring the city, don’t forget to visit the Oregon Trail Regional Museum. Once a natatorium - site of an indoor swimming pool - it contains many antiques, as well as a vast rock, mineral and fossil collection.

The U.S. Bank on Main Street is another must-see. You’ll find the largest display of gold in the state. The most famous piece - the 80.4-ounce Armstrong Nugget - is also the largest ever found is Oregon. George Armstrong made the lucky find in 1913 near Baker City.

Although the county’s current “gold” is in cattle, mining and logging, it hopes to strike it big in the tourism department as well. Helping the situation along is the new $10 million National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, which is expected to draw 200,000 visitors annually. Located just outside city limits, the center is open every day except Christmas and New Year’s.

After walking around town and the interpretive center, you might want to sit back and relax. If so, why not experience the true Old West with an Oregon Trail trolley ride. You’ll hear stories of the Oregon Trail and learn about Baker City and its history. The one-hour tours depart every Friday and Saturday.

When you’re plumb out of things to do in Baker City, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy just outside town. If finding gold is on top of your list, check with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in Baker City. It can help you locate mineral resources and has brochures on recreational gold panning.

If scenic drives are your thing, then you’re in luck. The Elkhorn Drive National Scenic Byway is a 106-mile loop comprised of lovely scenes, great fishing, camping, hiking, boating and picnicking opportunities. As you follow the byway, which circles the Elkhorn Mountains, you’ll pass Sumpter Valley, once home to an opera house, three newspapers, and 15 saloons A mere 140 residents live there today.

MEMO: For more information, contact the Baker County Visitor and Convention Bureau, 490 Campbell, Baker City, OR 97814; (800) 523-1235

The following fields overflowed: SECTION = DRIVE SEASON ‘96 SUMMER TRAVEL GUIDE

For more information, contact the Baker County Visitor and Convention Bureau, 490 Campbell, Baker City, OR 97814; (800) 523-1235

The following fields overflowed: SECTION = DRIVE SEASON ‘96 SUMMER TRAVEL GUIDE

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