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The ghosts of Oregon Citys past
- Matthew Graham
- Oregon City News - Features
OC native Rocky Smith shares tales of hauntings on his guided ghost tours
Is John McLoughlin still something of an active figure in Oregon City? Does the fabled crash of the Portland steamboat into Willamette Falls repeat itself in the darkest hours of the night? Does Sarah Chase still protest the city's municipal elevator, causing people to turn away at the last minute and take the steps downtown?
One resident has had enough experiences to think it's at least a possibility.
'You asked why Oregon City has so many instances of ghosts and spirits - I think part of it is graves were moved and houses were moved … So that's caused some uneasiness in the neighborhood.'
Oregon City High School teacher and lifelong city resident Rocky Smith Jr. tries to offer an explanation of the heavy concentration of 'experiences' he's had or heard of in downtown Oregon City as he leads tour groups around the city.
'It's easy to doubt stories when people tell you them, but when you have stories yourself or you hear multiple stories from a single location, then you can start questioning them.'
But Smith, who leads the ghost tours throughout the year, tends to acknowledge and play to the skepticism of his groups, not trying to convince them but simply sharing tales. He also shrouds those tales in the rich history of the city, immersing listeners in the life of the city's founder and various events that have shaped the community over the last 150 years.
Pioneer. Statesman. Restless spirit?
Dr. John McLoughlin built his home in Oregon City in 1846. From there, he helped newcomers to the territory establish themselves and survive their first winter in their new home. Through his service to the newcomers, McLoughlin built ties to the local Catholic Church, and was buried there upon his death in 1857.
But in 1910, as Oregon City's downtown developed into the industrial and commercial center of the area, residences that were built on the lower shelf, including McLoughlin's house, were moved up the hill.
Eventually the church was moved as well, and with it, McLoughlin's grave. He was buried at the site that now houses the Pioneer Center, at the northeast corner of Washington and 5th streets. Finally he was placed at his current resting spot next to the McLoughlin house at Center and 7th streets on top of Springer Hill.
But is that really where he rests?
Smith told one story of a woman working at the Pioneer Center. She told him that one night she was locking up when she looked up and saw a man sitting in the waiting room. She panicked, thinking she had locked someone in, and fumbled for her keys to let him out.
When she looked back up there was no one there.
She called Smith, and he asked her to describe the man. White shirt, black pants, long white hair parted down the middle, she said.
Smith took her outside, pointed at the mural of McLoughlin on the side of the St. John's School across the street, and said, 'is that him.'
And, of course, it was.
Other apparitions spotted in town
Smith also tells the story of a steamboat named the Portland that was traveling down the Willamette.
It pulled out of Canemah on March 17, 1857, not having realized the unnatural strength of the current that day. Before the captain and crew realized the danger they were in, they were locked on a course with the falls, without enough steam to push through the current.
As they were about to pitch over the edge of the falls, Smith said, Captain Archibald Jamieson let out one last blow of the ship's horn.
Legend has it the boat was sucked under and no part of it was ever found.
But some say that if one stands in Canemah at night and looks out toward the Falls, they will see an apparition of a steamboat headed in.
Ghost stories, myths, apparitions - many are skeptical, some believe, but Smith said he doesn't do the tours for any agenda regarding the paranormal.
A lifelong resident of the city, he loves his town, and ghost tours are the innovative and engaging way he's found to explore its history and share it with all those willing to listen.
To set up a ghost tour and hear more of Smith's tales, visit nwghosttours.com.