I’d picked up a brochure about the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City, OR. Since that’s where we were camping this week, it seemed like a good idea to check it out...after lunch in Baker City at York’s Covered Wagon, a rather unique deli/sporting goods store. We ate outside next to the World’s Largest Map of the Oregon Trail.
Then it was five miles to the Interpretive Center on Flagstaff Hill.
Sister to the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper we visited last month, it’s another BLM interpretive center, which means it’s more a learning experience than just museum collections. I never did figure out what the shape of the Visitor Center was supposed to represent. Often it symbolizes something about the park, and usually you can tell...
There’s lots of life-size dioramas. And these are not your parents’ dioramas. They’ve actually used taxidermy animals so they look real because they were real. (Except for the people, of course.) As you can see, the guy with the camera is George, so he looks more real than the guy on the horse. The oxen--being stuffed--look even better.
One section of the floor is made to look (and feel) exactly like the trail the pioneers walked on, like dried-out mud complete with wagon ruts and footprints.
In the next area of the museum, there are exhibits that show what choices the people had to make at different stages of the route. Even before they started, they had to decide what to take and what to leave behind. It was pretty obvious that the piano had to stay, but it would be hard for me to leave books. The list of staples they had to take surprised me. I know that sometimes they ate venison and buffalo (and ox), but they wouldn’t have been able to take the leftovers with them in freezer. (Once again, I’m really glad I was born in the 20th century! I am such a wimp.)
See the little doors with handles in the picture below? In many of the exhibits they detail some of the decisions the emigrants had to make, then you lift up the little door to see if you would have made the right choice. Sometimes the choices determined whether the travelers would have lived or died, or maybe just had a really miserable time. In this exhibit about South Pass, they had to choose which trail to take: Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest; Mormon Trail to the Salt Lake valley; California Trail to the Gold Rush; various cut-offs that were supposedly short cuts but didn't always work out--or even to turn back and go home (not a good option!)
If you look outside and down the hill, you can still see the ruts the wagon wheels left during the migration. It’s been 150 years and they still show as scars in the landscape. They're kind of hard to see, and not where I thought they were...
Outside there’s a circle of wagons they call it a “wagon encampment”. Some are replicas, but the one by itself was built in 1880, and it was used on the Oregon Trail. Sometimes they do demonstrations on weekends. Kids love 'em!
There’s a trail out the backdoor of the museum down to the wagon ruts. Although it’s paved, it’s a 2 mile trip downhill, then 2 miles back uphill. (Really? It's 80 degrees out here. Oh, come now...Besides, George outvoted me.)I had an alternate plan. We drove downhill 1/2 mile, stopped at a historical marker pullout, then walked about 180’ to the ruts.
In this section of the trail, because there was room to spread out, there are three sets of ruts, but most of the time two are very difficult to identify. Cars leave 2 parallel tracks from the wheels; wagons leave the same 2 parallel tracks, and a trench in the middle where the oxen hooves packed down the earth, so it can be harder to identify. It helps when BLM posts markers. Sometimes you’re just not sure, even if there are signs.
Then it was back to Baker City to head to our own version of a covered wagon. Emigrants, eat your hearts out!
To view more pictures, click here: Natl Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center