History of Champoeg Park

What’s the best way to memorialize history? Should we plant a tree, mount a plaque, or erect a building? Make speeches or create a space for quiet contemplation? Every generation has had its own answers to this question, and every generation has had its own ideas of what to do with Champoeg.

Key Concepts:

  • Every generation has had a different idea of what is important about history, and how history should be memorialized.
  • Ever since the park was created in 1901, every generation has left its mark on the park—on its size, buildings, landscaping, and on the way it is used.

Through the 19th century there was no Champoeg Park at all, because it didn’t occur to anyone that there should be a park. People were too busy making a living. They were looking forward, not back.

But by the end of the century the original pioneers were growing old or were gone. They and their children now had the time—and the money—to reflect on Oregon’s past. The Oregon Historical Society, founded in 1898, created a list of historical events that they believed should be memorialized. On their list was the vote at Champoeg, taken on May 2, 1843, to form Oregon’s first government.

In that era, memorialize meant “erect a granite monument.” Champoeg Park began as a modest monument on a square of land barely large enough to hold it. Dedicated in 1901, it cost $300, or less than $6500 in today’s dollars.

The monument itself was not as important as the idea it represented. To Oregonians, the 1843 vote decided “Oregon to be and belong to American territory,” and that the men of 1843 had voted “in behalf of the United States of America.” This idea inflated until Oregonians were calling Champoeg “the Plymouth Rock of the Pacific Coast,” with the vote becoming as significant to them as the Pilgrims’ arrival. Every May 2, from 1901 on, as many as 3000 or 4000 people gathered by the monument for an all-day celebration that featured speeches, pageants, and brass bands. The monument stood idle the rest of the year.

The park expands

At first, these Champoeg Day celebrations were held on the private land surrounding the monument, under the open and unpredictable May skies. Civic groups began to pressure the state government to provide permanent facilities. By 1918, “Provisional Government Park,” as it was officially known (although everyone called it “Champoeg Park”), consisted of 12 fenced acres and the Pioneer Memorial Building. The open porch or “Pavilion” was added in 1922.

Theodore Gegoux moved into the building in order to display his huge painting, “The Birth of Oregon,” that now hangs in the Visitor Center auditorium. He charged visitors 25 cents to go upstairs see it. Still, for all practical purposes the park was only used one day a year.

Not just once a year

In 1925 Gegoux was replaced by Albert Tozier and his sister, Edith Tozier Weatherred. Despite being well along in years, “the Toziers” were the park’s first true caretakers, interpreters, and promoters. They scheduled events, advertised, encouraged picnics, reunions, and annual meetings of organized groups. They even built picnic tables. By their count, visitorship jumped from 3000 in 1925—almost all on Champoeg Day—to 133,446 in 1932, spread throughout much of the year. But the Toziers were not totally responsible for the change. Much of the credit goes to the automobile.

When the park began in 1901, automobiles were a rarity, the dirt roads were generally awful, and most people came to the annual celebrations by steamboat. By the late 1920s, automobiles were relatively cheap, reliable, and common. Vast quantities of money were being spent to improve (and pave!) the roads. Oregonians could go where they wanted, when they wanted, and one of their favorite destinations became Champoeg Park.

These new ways of using the park led to more improvements. By 1929 the park had expanded to 107.7 acres. It included restrooms, a campground, and, if not actual parking lots, it had plenty of room to park cars. It was no longer necessary to drive across private property to get into the park. Although history remained important, the park was being reshaped by recreation.

Who’s in charge here?

By the late 1920s a new generation had taken the reins, and they wished to memorialize history in their own ways. Although the State Parks Department was created in 1921, Champoeg was not yet a state park. Instead, it was governed by a Board of Control that was subject to political pressures. Consequently, civic organizations had an unusually large say in everything that was done. Here are some examples:

In 1929, the Veteran Steamboatmen’s Association began decorating the Pavilion with ships’ wheels and nameboards. They also erected a flagpole that was a park landmark for many years.

The Sons and Daughters of the Oregon Pioneers, along with the Veterans of Indian Wars, considered erecting a replica pioneer cabin just outside the park. Although they didn’t follow through on this, they did begin moving historical artifacts into the Pioneer Memorial Building, which became a makeshift museum for over 40 years.

The Daughters of the American Revolution, or D.A.R., wanted a replica of Oregon’s first state house, which had been at Oregon City. They scaled back this idea, and in 1931 completed the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Log Cabin. (This museum still operates in the park.)

At a time when good highways were still new and romantic, a politician named Milton A. Miller hoped to honor Champoeg by routing the Portland- Salem Highway right through the park, crossing the river on a “Memorial Bridge.” If he had had his way, the park would now be echoing with the trucks and traffic of Route 99E.

When this idea was rejected as being too expensive, Mr. Miller pushed for a cross-road between Aurora (99E) and Newberg (99W). The road would have hugged the river as much as possible, and again, it would have gone right through the park. The section from Butteville to Champoeg—the “Butteville-Champoeg Memorial Highway”—was to be decorated with log cabins, wigwams, rail fences, and “other appropriate historic reminders.” The county went so far as to purchase land in 1936, but the project never went any further.

Mr. Miller also tried hard to get Champoeg recognized as being nationally significant, in hopes of obtaining federal funding. One plan was for a 4000-seat auditorium, in a style like that of the Jefferson Memorial, standing by a non-existent pond in today’s Pet Exercise Area. Starting in 1929, and frequently thereafter through the 1950s, the Oregon delegation to Congress unsuccessfully attempted to gain national recognition for “Oregon’s shrine.”

Giant Sequoias

If granite was the memorial of choice in 1901, then gardens were favored in 1930. The D.A.R. conceived of Champoeg as being an arboretum, to be filled with native Oregon trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. (This put them into conflict with those who wanted grass and picnic tables). They made some headway, and also created a rose garden with varieties that were thought to have been brought by Oregon Trail pioneers. Years later, in the 1950s, a portion of the park was set aside, and the arboretum was completed by the Oregon Federation of Garden Clubs.

The most enduring living memorial is the rows of giant sequoias11 near the Pioneer Memorial Building. They were planted in 1943 in honor of the centennial of the 1843 vote. (1943 is also the year the park finally became a state park.) Not yet the tallest trees in the park, some of them already have the largest diameter. If they are left alone, they will continue to grow taller for the next 750 years, after which they will only grow wider.

Greenways and ecology

The next idea to influence the park’s development was environmental awareness. Greenways legislation in the 1960s and ’70s led to a major expansion to the east, with riverbank land stretching nearly to Butteville. The park reached its current size of 615 acres.

Even though the idea was to preserve public access and natural resources, this expansion was perhaps more important because it brought significant historical sites into the park:

  • The eastern half of the Champoeg town site.
  • Robert Newell’s farmstead, now one of Oregon’s most important archeological sites.
  • John Ball’s farm, the first American farm in the Pacific Northwest.
  • The site of the Hauxhurst Mill, first gristmill in the Willamette Valley.
  • The site of the Manson farmstead, and with it, the 1862 barn.

The campground was moved out of the archeologically sensitive town site. And for the first time there was a safe place—above any possible flooding— to build a real museum: the Visitor Center, completed in 1977.

A closer look at history

Today, memorializing the past has moved in yet another direction. Instead of focusing on one event—the 1843 vote—the park promotes understanding of all areas of Champoeg’s past, including aspects that previous Oregonians thought were unimportant: the Kalapuya Indians, the contributions of women, changes in Willamette Valley ecology, and the details of the everyday lives of ordinary people during the 19th century.

This new direction has led to the creation of the 1860s Kitchen Garden, the restoration of the Manson Barn, prairie restoration, and archeological studies. Living history programs teach visitors about everything from butter-churning to plowing with mules.

What will be Champoeg’s next direction? That depends on the thinking of future generations—on what our children and grandchildren believe to be important—and that can’t be predicted.

Further Reading

  • Champoeg: Place of Transition by John A. Hussey, printed by the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, 1967. This book is our primary source of historical information about Champoeg. Although out of print, it can be found in libraries and in used book stores such as Powell’s Books.