Tuesday, September 6, 2011


The most important tool at the 50th High school reunion is the name tag – one with a thick, healthy font and good copy of the yearbook photo.  I recognized exactly two people by their faces out of the roughly 90 attendees at my reunion last month.
Oregon City has long been a paper mill town just south of Portland – with two large mills on the south end of the city, one on the Oregon City side and another on arch rival West Linn’s side.  Both had been there for over a hundred years and the one on the Oregon City side was supplied, in part, by a train that ran down the middle of Main Street around 1 AM.  It took a steady hand to maneuver a car between the parked cars and the train, its one headlight sweeping crazily from side to side and you with a couple of beers after playing pool in the basement of Jerry Carlson’s house.   

We lived in an apartment above the Bush Furniture Company on Main Street and there was no option but to drive by the train and the disconcerting headlamp, all this shrieking and clanking coming off an eerily slow speed. 
I’d been leery about going to the reunion because I hadn’t been to one since the 10th year reunion and felt, when I left Oregon City after burying my mother next to my father, that I was done with the place.  My time there was happy, the education caring and good and the baseball teams in the school and in the Portland Industrial League consistent winners.  
But after some anxiety, there I was, at the High Rocks Steak House, immediately at ease, touching some wonderful, accomplished people in the meeting room, laughing and touching them again and doing the math of the Oregon City Pioneers of 1961. 
Of the 223 people who graduated, 33 were dead, one as early as 1962, most after 2000.  Twenty one of them were missing – simply unaccounted for – a somewhat ominous idea since the organizers of the Class of 1961 franchise were dogged investigators.  They had the mailing addresses of 167 people and the emails of 112 people.  Most, like me, had left.  Just 34 had stayed in the town while 48 remained in the greater Portland area.  The rest were elsewhere in Oregon – a bunch on the coast – and distributed fairly heavily in Washington and California and then randomly across the country.
We could only stay for the first event of the reunion and so made the most of it, leaving the bar with the last couples.  Next morning, I gave my wife the tour of Oregon City, which had just under 8,000 people when I graduated and now was home to 30,000 people. 
The place retained the prosperous blue collar look from our high school time, but it clearly had taken some hits.  The Bush Apartments, where I lived during high school, were gone, part of a conflagration that had vacated a very large part of the northern end of Main Street, leaving several ugly gaps where people had lived and worked. 
The goofy mascot was now replaced by a harder edged guy who meant business and was better-armed.
The Enterprise-Courier building was gone too.  It was the only daily newspaper in Clackamas County but it had purpose in the town beyond its circulation numbers.  It nurtured young people like me and forgave them their many miscues, like the headline that read:  “Nine Canby Students Get Straight Ones.”  
This little daily also fought to make the small but active downtown competitive with the inevitable shopping center that did come, two miles up the highway, and it had the effect on the downtown predicted by the editorial page.  The mill on the Oregon City side had closed recently, with a loss of 175 jobs.  Reading about it broke your heart.  Two years before, the employees purchased it from a paper company called Blue Heron, and their wage concessions, converted into stock in the new company, were now without value.
Taking this picture of the Willamette Falls and the West Linn paper mill, I looked across Highway 99 and noticed that the gas station and restaurant where Robin Tomlin worked was still there -- at least the restaurant part.  He’d pump gas, change oil and mash a big pot of potatoes when he was not out with the cars.  I’d visit and cash in a free lunch.  Robin was a hell of a baseball player who overcame a bizarre family to become an FBI agent.  Had he not left town after his sophomore year with a man who told him he would make him a major league baseball player, we would have played for the Oregon High School championship in 1961.  His shoulder went bad at San Jose State and he became a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.   I've always wondered if I ever flew in a helicopter he was piloting.  Robin is one of the 33. 
My heart, a bit heavy, sang when I saw Tony’s Fish Market at the foot of the Tenth Street hill.  Its neon sign was freshly painted, but it was the same one that was there when we’d bring a bag of carp we caught in the Willamette river and sold them to Tony Petrich for crab bait at 15 cents a pound.  Sometimes we would bring 50 pounds of the fish, who happily worked the outfall pipe behind the Clackamas County Courthouse in a then very polluted Willamette River.   It seemed like a lot of money.
I immediately noticed the crayfish at $5.95 a pound.  They were a staple at Tony’s and at one of the three ball fields or ball field remnants I showed my wife that morning.  Kelly Field, now re-branded as the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, was the best of the fields and there would often be a big pot of crayfish boiling for major events like when the House of David baseball team would barnstorm through or when the Portland fast pitch softball league had a big tournament. 
The crayfish were served in a big newspaper cone and many of the bodies found their way underneath the stands making up a fast food rubble that would feed the surrounding fields for a couple of days. 
I ordered crab, crawdads and a bottle of wine for lunch and set outside in the little patio next to the concrete crab boiler and baked in a warm sun.  That's the table right there. The crawdads were bigger than I remembered.
Oregon City has taken all the hits the country has taken since the financial collapse, but its unemployment is a bit better than the rest of the state.  However, because the Oregon economy is about half the size of Washington state’s economy, its hard times have a harder bite.  Oregon lacks the defense industry sector that Washington has and doesn’t get the counter-cyclical benefit military spending provides.  Washington state’s defense industry supports nearly 200,000 jobs, according to Berk, the Seattle economics firm.  Oregon ranks just 45th in defense contracting and takes in about a third of what Washington gets from Pentagon contracts.  In addition, Oregon doesn’t have a defense giant like Boeing or huge military bases from all three services as does Washington.
Looking at the unemployment stats, you find another difference in the economy between the two states – rural communities in Oregon are significantly harder hit.  Washington’s farm economy is double the size of Oregon’s and farm commodity prices have been strong for some time.  Most of the farm counties in Washington have significantly lower unemployment rates than those in Oregon, even though the statewide unemployment rates are about the same.  In addition to farming, south central Washington has the Hanford clean-up, the project that never ends.  The southern tier of Oregon – the big empty counties like Malheur, Harney, Lake and Klamath, don’t have the kind of high value farm products produced in the Washington's Palouse wheatfields.  On the west side of the Oregon Cascades, the cluster of Jackson, Douglas and Josephine Counties is particularly disturbing -- two, three and four points above the state unemployment average.  Cutting Oregon in half east and west, only one county, Lane, the location of the University of Oregon, has no double digit unemployment.
According to Real Estate data collector Trulia, the median price of a home in Oregon City is now about $200,000, about where it was in mid-2003.  At the peak, the end of 2007, the median price was $315,000, which means a lot of the homes we drove by were underwater.  One in three homes sold in Oregon this past spring was a foreclosure sale.
After lunch, we drove around a bit more, looked at the home of John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company who moved to Oregon City in 1829 after he was forced out of the company for helping all those Americans who were coming to Oregon.  Then we took a ride on the Oregon City Municipal Elevator, which connects the lower and upper sections of the town and avoids the 722 stairway steps that scaled the steep bluff before 1915 when the first iteration of the elevator went up. 
At 1 PM on a sunny Saturday, Barbara and I were about all the traffic there was, so we drove home to Seattle.


  1. Thank you for writing this about Oregon City. It sure brought back fond memories. God Bless,Love, and Light, Maryatha Leeper Miller Vashon Island,Wa.

  2. Hi Bob,
    You did a fantastic job on the "Reunion". You sure dug up some old memories about Oregon City. I'm sorry I missed you at High Rocks. I did make it to the great dinner, music and meeting of old friends at Larry & Donna (Harris) Hazel's farm. I would have really liked to sat and talked a while with you. Again, an awesome job of writing the "Reunion" article.
    Take Care and God Bless,
    John Harris (Back from 23 years in Kennewick,WA.) Now in Woodburn,OR

  3. Bob,
    I can still remember you and I either going to the Bush Apartments or up to my house. When I think about it now I realize how many miles we must have logged. Like John Harris, I wish we could have talked for a while.
    I was good to see you,

    Jim Wallace
    Vancouver, Washington

  4. Bob,

    Mom sent me the link to your blog .... Find it most interesting. Don't remember apartements above Bush Furniture? Seems like I remember working with your dad in the parts department at Weiler Chevrolet though. That was before Ben fired me, just after Gil Danielson fired me and before Les Bennett and Bob Wills showed me how to work. Do remember the trolly hitting a new Chevvy with 7 miles on it though.

    Metro is posturing themselves to buy the Blue Herron. On the one hand, good to get access to the falls squarely into public hands but on the other, in a struggling economy, tough to loose a job producing insustrial site like that.

    Jim Riggle
    Class of '64 and still live in OC

  5. Bob,
    What a great commentary on the reunion...but the evening was just the start of a wonderful reunion. I was amazed at how easy it was to connect with "kids" I had not see for 50 years, and was sorry for missing some who were not able to attend.

    Since you are a history buff...I was delighted to learn from Barry that he was able to move the paintings from the old high school library to the new high school. These are paintings of real historical importance from the Roosevelt era jobs programs. The next time in Oregon City I must see them since I really did not appreciate them at the time.

    David Sack
    Fallston, Maryland

  6. Bob, thank you so much for the trip down Memory Lane. I have always thought our class was especially close and still in the halycon days -
    memories of Elvis and rock and roll and peace -just before the devastating Vietnam War took hold and "politicl reality" ensued. I am always surprised at how many stayed in the area and we always feel the pain of those 33 that left us too soon.
    Thank you again for taking the time to do this valuable historical work for us.Come to our next reunion! We have them every five years.
    Sharon Ury (Jenika)