Bilderbacks: Prospector's sequoias are our Gold Rush treasure
In the 1840s, the Oregon Trail lured hundreds of pioneers across the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades in search of free land in the Tualatin Valley. By the late 1840s, the California Gold Rush lured many of those intrepid folks south in search of even greater treasure.
Johnny Porter was one such eager "Forty-Niner" who arrived in Forest Grove in 1847 and left in 1849 to strike gold. Like nearly all such prospectors, he came home seemingly empty-handed, although Washington County still enjoys the treasures he brought home from California. Sadly, those riches will not last forever, as we learned last week.
Johnny Porter came home without gold but armed with tales of magnificent coniferous trees that grew to seemingly unimaginable heights along California's coast. He returned to the California coast at least twice more until the early 1880s, bringing home bags of cones. He nurtured his seeds and allocated them to people who would preserve the resulting trees long after they, and Johnny, had passed on.
The largest stand is along a stretch of Porter Road, north of Forest Grove and south of Verboort. Those trees, which line the driveway to Johnny Porter's family homestead, are surprisingly easy to miss.
It's much harder to miss another magnificent stand of Johnny Porter's sequoias: the one that surrounds the Washington County Courthouse in downtown Hillsboro. The five remaining specimens at the Courthouse are designated as Heritage Trees by the state.
But the finest specimens of all prospered in Forest Grove, a city that since its founding has protected trees. Over the decades, most examples have fallen to disease, development, or disregard. But some ended up on the Pacific University campus, while others grew to become behemoths at such places as Pacific Avenue and B Street or at Elm Street and 18th Avenue.
The 18th Avenue example is the latest victim. It's a victim of having been planted 140 or so years ago in an untenable place, too close to houses, streets and utility lines. Some of those utilities, such as public water, sewer, and electricity, were unimaginable to Johnny Porter when he planted the tree.
But it's also a victim of time, and age. All of Johnny Porter's trees will die someday, probably sooner than most of us care to admit.
But Johnny Porter was smart. He planted seeds more than 130 years ago that still resonate with Washington County residents. We still think about what is worth saving, and what should be mourned at its passing, because of those seeds that Johnny Porter cultivated from his failed attempt at glory.
Ken and Kris Bilderback are authors and local historians. Their books include "Walking to Forest Grove: The Life and Times of the Prettiest Town in Oregon," "Fire in a Small Town: How Volunteers Civilized the Rural West, and How Civilization Betrayed Them," and "Creek with No Name: How the West Was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon." They live in Gaston.
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It can cost as little as 3 cents a day.)