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Letting history remain in the past

Former Baldock Rest Area is renamed


by: JOSH KULLA - The Grove of the States is an easily overlooked attraction at the French Prairie Rest Area. It features the state trees from most of the 50 states and a few overseas American territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico. The Baldock name still carries a lot of positive weight within the Oregon Department of Transportation.

As highway engineer, the top position in the former Oregon State Highway Department, Robert “Sam” H. Baldock oversaw the construction of the interstate highway system across the state and helped establish state and national standards for geometric highway design prior to his 1956 retirement.

Fast forward a half-century, however, and the name had become synonymous in the public’s mind with homelessness, panhandling and crime at the Baldock State Rest Area off Interstate 5 south of Wilsonville.

On Monday, however, the Baldock name was relegated to the history books, as the rest area was officially renamed the French Prairie Rest Area. A brief ceremony highlighting the history and culture of the French Prairie area was held on the northbound side of the rest stop

“The road to this day took five years,” said Greg Leo, a Wilsonville resident who helped form the Baldock Rest Area Coalition in 2009. That group got the ball rolling on a proposed name change, which ultimately was approved in July by the Oregon Transportation Commission.

“We worked with the Oregon Travel Experience and the OTIC (Oregon Travel Information Council, governing body for the Oregon Travel Experience) to try to solve some of the law enforcement and social problems here at the rest area, successfully, and through community involvement,” Leo said. “And the name change is important because this rest area is changing. This is a far safer place today than it was in the past. This is a far more informative place today, with our solar panels, with our new interpretive activities and with hopes in the future for other kinds of interpretive things happening.”by: JOSH KULLA - Oregon Travel Information Council Chairwoman Gwenn Baldwin speaks at last week's ceremony at the newsly named French Prairie Rest Area.

Originally named for Baldock because of his role in motorizing Oregon, the name change to French Prairie will better reflect the heritage of surrounding communities, said Charlotte Lehan, former Clackamas County Commission chairwoman and Wilsonville mayor.

“We’ve been working on this process of rehabilitating these rest areas, and the naming process, for about three or four years, so it’s been a long process to get to this point,” said Lehan, who has worked closely with the rest area coalition and Oregon Travel Experience. “We have two goals here today; one is to recognize and draw connections to the historical connections that make French Prairie important to Oregonians, and secondly, we want to recognize the contributions of Sam Baldock, who was instrumental in the building of the interstate system in Oregon.”

Military contingency

Constructed in 1966 in the midst of the Cold War, the then-Baldock Rest Area’s location and size — it totals more than 80 acres — made it a perfect venue for staging military operations.

Fortunately, it never needed to take on that role in an emergency. And over the years it has become the most heavily visited rest area in the state, with more than 4 million visitors annually. by: JOSH KULLA - This solar field at the French Prairie Rest Area was built in 2012 and is run by PGE.

By 2010, however, Baldock had become known to law enforcement as a haven for the homeless, as well as place to find prostitutes and drugs.

That same year, the Oregon Travel Experience, a quasi-public firm that draws its $6 million budget both from advertising and the Oregon Department of Transportation, was given responsibility for maintaining and operating nine rest areas, including Baldock.

Working in coordination with Oregon State Police, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies, the state helped homeless individuals living at Baldock find work and shelter, and eventually eliminated a large portion of the activity that had been causing public concern.

“This is one of the first places, 4 million people here going northbound and southbound, but rest areas are one of the first moments that visitors spend inside the state of Oregon,” said Gwenn Baldwin, chairwoman of the Oregon Travel Information Council. “What we say to them, how we welcome them, how we allow them to feel comfortable and rested, invigorated, excited, all of that, plays out in these rest areas. It’s an opportunity we cannot lose and shouldn’t lose.”

In addition to safety, said Leo, the French Prairie name is a reminder of the local region’s history and its role as the beginning of modern self-governance in the Oregon Territory and beyond. It finds its modern analogy, he added, in the renaming process.

“The first self-government on the Pacific Coast happened a few miles away from here over at Champoeg,” Leo said. “And that’s when neighbors got together in small groups to solve community problems. That really is the spirit of Oregon, the spirit of us and community working together, meeting those community challenges upfront, hearing everyone’s point of view and finding mutually agreeable solutions.”



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