Oregon State Parks Essay: Eastern Oregon

A dock extends into a still lake. Bare mountains show in the distance.
​Lake Owyhee State Park sits in the rugged terrain of southeastern Oregon. (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)
​​​ ​​​​​​​
Travelers crossing the Oregon Trail in oxen-drawn wagons in the 1800s were happy to stop at the site of Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area near Meacham. They were able to refresh their dwindling water supplies and finally relax under shade trees. The focal point of the park is an Oregon Trail memorial, which President Warren G. Harding dedicated on July 3, 1923. Thousands of people crammed into the park to see the president. Members of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes marched in the Meacham parade, and the Cayuse tribe adopted President Harding and first lady Florence Harding. 

Iwetemlaykin State Heritage Site near Joseph, Oregon, is part of the ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce Tribe and is sacred land to the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. 

After years of fighting and negotiations, the federal government sent troops, led by General O.O. Howard, to eject members of the Nimi’ipuu or Nez Perce tribes, from the Wallowa Valley in the northeastern corner of Oregon in 1887. Heinmot Tooyalakekt, widely known as Chief Joseph, led his band of approximately 750 Nez Perce men, women and children on a daring escape. For more than three months, the Nez Perce evaded the army, only to surrender less than 40 miles from the Canada border on October 5, 1887. 

A round barn constructed sometime in the late 1870s or early 1880s.
Pete French built a cattle empire in southeastern Oregon and trained horses in this round barn. (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)
​​​ ​​​​​​​
​Farther south, Lake Owyhee State Park sits below Owyhee Dam, which was the tallest dam in the world from its completion in 1932 until 1934. Lake Owyhee is named for three Hawaiian fur trappers who disappeared in 1811 while exploring the region; “Owyhee” is a phonetic spelling of “Hawaii.” The dam workers’ residential housing was turned into a Civilian Conservation Corps camp during the Great Depression. In 1942, the federal government turned the camp into a detention center for Japanese-Americans, interned in wartime concentration camps in Idaho and Colorado. The detainees were sent to the area with their families to harvest crops. The area surrounding Lake Owyhee State Park was the center of a thriving community of Basque immigrants from the 1880s to the 1940s. Most Basque immigrants to Oregon initially herded sheep or worked in the cattle industry until after World War II, when many families moved to Oregon cities.

In the southeastern Oregon high desert, the Frenchglen Hotel State Heritage Site and the Pete French Round Barn State Heritage Site are reminders of the period in Oregon’s history when Euro-American cowboys and Mexican vaqueros ran the cattle industry, and homesteaders fought, killed and died for water rights.

Pete French, working in California for his future father-in-law, Hugh Glenn, drove a herd of cattle to southeastern Oregon in 1872. Assisted by vaqueros from California, French built an empire around Harney Lake and Malheur Lake. His properties included a large, round, wood barn – actually, a roofed paddock – where cowboys could train horses in the winter. In the process of dominating Harney County, French alienated many of his neighbors, including Ed Oliver. Oliver lived in a homestead on the bank of Malheur Lake, land that French claimed. After many lawsuits, Oliver shot and killed French the day after Christmas, 1897. Today, the Round Barn is open to visitors. 

The Frenchglen Hotel, 35 miles south of the barn, is named for both Pete French and Hugh Glenn. The hotel was built in 1924 in dirt so hard that workers used dynamite to create holes so that they could plant trees to shade the two-story hotel. Park visitors can rent rooms and dine there in the summer.

Historic gold dredge worked by having large buckets pull gold-bearing earth up into machine and spewing waste out the back.
The Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Site takes visitors to a fascinating era of gold mining. (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)
​​​ ​​​​​​​
​North of the Frenchglen Hotel, Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, a small stone building, housed a Chinese grocery store, health clinic, temple, and social club for Chinese immigrants from about 1870 to 1948. In 1880, more than 2,000 Chinese immigrants lived in Grant County, drawn by gold mines and railroad jobs. Partners Lung On, an entrepreneur, and physician Ing “Doc” Hay lived and worked in the John Day building, which was also a boarding house for Chinese miners. The building, still stuffed with medicine containers, red-tasseled chandeliers, clothes, furniture, and games, is much as it was when Hay died in 1948.  Its collection of artifacts and archives is one of the most complete records in the United States of Chinese herbal medicine and the pioneer life and culture of Chinese immigrants.

Nearby, the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Site in Sumpter bears witness to the end of Oregon’s gold rush. When hard rock gold mining in the region became less profitable, miners turned to digging up rivers to get gold. From 1935 to 1954, the dredge, a three-level wood boat, chewed its way through the Powder River, scooping up rocks and sand. Massive iron buckets moved the riverbed into the dredge, where, using water and sluices, workers separated gold from the rocks, then dumped the rocks back into the river. The overwhelming environmental damage the process caused is still visible today. ​

Next: Southern Oregon >