Notable Oregonians: Lewis A. McArthur - Geographer, Historian

photograph of Mr. McArthur in black suit jacket with bowtie
Lewis A. McArthur, 1883-1951. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Lewis A. "Tam" McArthur was born in The Dalles, Oregon on April 27, 1883. His father, Lewis Linn McArthur, served as an Oregon Supreme Court justice from 1870 to 1878 and later served as the U.S. attorney for Oregon. His family lived on a farm near Rickreall during part of McArthur's childhood but later moved to Portland, where he was educated at the Portland Academy. He graduated from the University of California in 1908 after also working for The Oregonian newspaper during his college years. In 1910, McArthur started work with the new Pacific Power & Light Co. as one of its first employees. By 1923, he was appointed vice-president and general manager and continued with the company until retirement in 1946. He had four children with his wife, Mary, who died in 1943.
Although he had been compiling geographic names for years, McArthur's official connection with Oregon geography began when Governor Oswald West appointed him to serve on the Oregon Geographic Board in 1914. Two years later, the board elected him to be secretary, a position he held for the next 33 years. From that vantage point, McArthur could explore his fascination with Oregon place names, studying the diaries and journals of the region's explorers, traders, trappers, naturalists, and others while interviewing survivors of the state's pioneer era. Early results of his research appeared in eight issues of the Oregon Historical Quarterly in the 1920s. By 1928, McArthur had published the first Oregon Geographic Names, funded entirely with his own money. The book quickly became the recognized standard for information about the origins and history of Oregon place names.
Continuing research and more editions followed. A second edition in 1944 added information on Oregon post offices. The 1952 third edition, released the year after his death, benefited from the help of his second wife, Nellie Pipes, the long-time librarian at the Oregon Historical Society. His son, Lewis L. McArthur, later picked up the mantle after Governor Mark Hatfield transferred the languishing Oregon Geographic Board from state government administration to the Oregon Historical Society in 1959. The reorganization also changed the name to the current Oregon Geographic Names Board. Additional research resulted in the release of a fourth edition of Oregon Geographic Names in 1974, edited by Lewis L. McArthur. Subsequent editions followed, including the release of the seventh edition in 2003. Lewis L. McArthur's daughter, Mary, has voiced her interest in carrying on the family tradition for future editions.
In addition to his contributions to the Oregon Geographic Board, Lewis A. McArthur advised government agencies involved with topographic mapping and primary surveying. In this capacity, he convinced the U.S. Geological Survey to use a new method of incorporating photographic topography with existing maps, a process that continues in use. McArthur also served as president and director of the Oregon Historical Society.
He died in Portland on November 8, 1951. His ashes were scattered over "Tam McArthur Rim," a part of the Cascade Mountains named in his honor. His work on Oregon Geographic Names continues to be an essential part of any Oregon reference library.
(Sources: Oregon Historical Quarterly | Dictionary of Oregon History | "What's in a Name?" Eugene Register-Guard article)
Next Notable Oregonian: Tom McCall >