Oregon (ŏr´Ĭgən, –gŏn), state in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. It is bordered by Washington, largely across the Columbia River (N), Idaho, partially across the Snake River (E), Nevada and California (S), and the Pacific Ocean (W).
Facts and Figures
Area, 96,981 sq mi (251,181 sq km). Pop. (2010) 3,831,074, a 12% increase since the 2000 census. Capital, Salem. Largest city, Portland. Statehood, Feb. 14, 1859 (33d state). Highest pt., Mt. Hood, 11,239 ft (3,428 m); lowest pt., sea level. Nickname, Beaver State. Motto, The Union. State bird, Western meadowlark. State flower, Oregon grape. State tree, Douglas fir. Abbr., Oreg.; OR
Oregon's contrasting physical features are characterized by great forested mountain slopes and treeless basins, rushing rivers and barren playas, lush valleys and extensive wastelands. The major determinant for these unusual climatic differences is the Cascade Range, a rugged mountain chain running north to south c.100 mi (160 km) inland. As the eastward-moving air masses, warmed by the Alaska Current and heavy with moisture from the Pacific Ocean, rise and meet the cooler mountain temperatures, rain is precipitated over the western third of Oregon. Dry air and continental climate prevail over the eastern two thirds of the state.
The Pacific shoreline (c.300 mi/480 km) is bordered by narrow coastal plains of sandy beaches, luxuriant pastures, and occasional jutting promontories. About 25 mi (40 km) inland, the rugged Coast Range rises to heights of 4,000 ft (1,220 m) to serve as the western wall of the Willamette Valley. In the valley, where the navigable Willamette flows north through miles of rolling farmlands into the Columbia River, lie the agricultural, commercial, and industrial centers of the state. Portland, the largest city, whose metropolitan area contains nearly half the state's population, straddles the Willamette near its junction with the Columbia. Salem, the capital, and Eugene, the second largest city, lie southward in the valley, which is sealed off in the south by the low range of the Calapooya Mts.
The snowcapped volcanic peaks of the Cascades are E of the Willamette, with beautiful Mt. Hood rising to the state's highest elevation (11,235 ft/3,424 m). Mighty stands of timber, many protected as national forests, cover the slopes. Eastward the Cascades level out into high plateaus drained in the north by the Deschutes and the John Day rivers. To the south a variegated pattern of marshland and mountain merges in the east into the semiarid Basin and Range Region. Little vegetation grows here, and the absence of potable water makes habitation difficult.
North of this area rise the pine-covered Blue and Wallowa mts., which in some places extend to the Snake River to form precipitous gorges. Other parts of the region where the Snake cuts through the plateau are more level and have been made productive through irrigation. Oregon's irrigation projects include the Deschutes, the Umatilla, and the Vale; the Klamath, shared with California; and the Boise and the Owyhee, shared with Idaho.
Oregon's major sources of farm income are greenhouse products, wheat, cattle (huge herds graze on the plateaus E of the Cascades), and dairy items. Hay, wheat, pears, and onions are important, and the state is one of the nation's leading producers of snap beans, peppermint, sweet cherries (orchards are particularly numerous in the N Willamette Valley), broccoli, and strawberries. Oregon has developed an important and growing wine industry since 1980.
The state's 30.7 million acres (12.4 million hectares) of rich forestland (almost half the state) comprise the country's greatest reserves of standing timber; huge areas have been set aside for conservation. Wood processing was long the state's major industry; Douglas fir predominates in the Cascades and western pine in the eastern regions. Since 1991 many areas have been closed to logging in order to protect endangered wildlife. Nevertheless, Oregon has retained its title as the nation's foremost lumber state, producing more than 5 billion board feet a year. Other major products are food, paper and paper items, machinery, and fabricated metals. Printing and publishing are important businesses. In recent decades Oregon (now sometimes called
) has become home to many computer and electronic companies; growth in this sector has offset job losses in the timber industry.
Abundant, cheap electric power is supplied by numerous dams, most notably those on the Columbia River—Bonneville Dam, The Dalles Dam, and McNary Dam. The John Day Dam is one of the largest hydroelectric generators in the world. The dams also aid in flood control and navigation. The Bonneville Dam, in the steep gorge where the Columbia River pierces the Cascades, enables large vessels to travel far inland, and although river traffic is less vital than formerly, the Columbia River cities still serve as transport centers for a vast hinterland to the east.
Oregon's river resources are one of its greatest assets. Its salmon-fishing industry, centered around Astoria, is one of the world's largest; other catches are tuna and crabs. Although mining is still underdeveloped, Oregon leads the nation in the production of nickel.
Oregon's beautiful ocean beaches, lakes, and mountains make tourism another important industry. Major attractions are the Oregon Caves National Monument, Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks, and McLoughlin House National Historic Site (see National Parks and Monuments, table); Crater Lake National Park is a famed destination. There are 13 national forests, one national grassland, and more than 220 state parks.
Government and Higher Education
Oregon still operates under its original (1857) constitution. Its executive branch is headed by a governor elected for a four-year term. Its legislature has a senate with 30 members and an assembly with 60 members. The state elects two senators and five representatives to the U.S. Congress and has seven electoral votes. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat elected governor in 1994, was reelected in 1998. He was succeeded by fellow Democrat Ted Kulongoski, who was elected in 2002 and reelected in 2006. In 2010 Kitzhaber was again elected governor. He was reelected in 2014 but resigned in 2015 amid investigations into his fiancée's financial affairs. Kate Brown, a Democrat and Oregon's secretary of state, succeeded him as governor.
Among the state's more prominent institutions of higher learning are the Univ. of Oregon at Eugene; Oregon State Univ. at Corvallis; Reed College and Portland State Univ. at Portland; and Willamette Univ. at Salem.
Early Exploration and Fur Trading
Initial European interest in the region was aroused by the search for the Northwest Passage. Spanish seamen skirted the Pacific coast from the 16th to the 18th cent., hoping to claim the area. The English may first have arrived in the person of Sir Francis Drake, who sailed along the coast in 1579, possibly as far as Oregon.
Two centuries later, in 1778, Capt. James Cook, seeking the award of £20,000 for the discovery of the Northwest Passage, charted some of the coastline. By this time the Russians were pushing southward from posts in Alaska and the British fur companies were exploring the West. Oregon's furs promised to become an important factor in the rapidly expanding China trade, and the Oregon coast was soon active with the vessels of several nations engaged in fur trade with the Native Americans. British captains, among them John Meares and George Vancouver, made the coastal area known, but it was an American, Robert Gray, who first sailed up the Columbia River (1792), thus establishing U.S. claim to the areas that it drained.
Canadian traders of the North West Company were approaching the Columbia River country when the overland Lewis and Clark expedition arrived in 1805. David Thompson was already making his way to the lower river when John Jacob Astor's agents (in the Pacific Fur Company) founded Astoria, the first permanent settlement in the Oregon country. In the War of 1812 the post was sold (1813) to the North West Company, but in 1818 a treaty provided for 10 years of joint rights for the United States and Great Britain in Oregon (i.e., the whole Columbia River area). This agreement was later extended. The North West Company merged with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821, and soon the region was dominated by John McLoughlin at Fort Vancouver.
Settlement and Statehood
In 1842 and 1843 enormous wagon trains began the
westward over the Oregon Trail. Trouble between the settlers and the British followed. The Americans set out to form their own government, and demanded the British be removed from the whole of the Columbia River country up to lat. 54°40′N; one of the slogans of the 1844 election was
"Fifty-four forty or fight."
War with Britain was a threat momentarily, but diplomacy prevailed. In 1846 the boundary was set at the line of lat. 49°N, but disagreements over the interpretation of the 1846 treaty were not successfully arbitrated until 1872 (see San Juan Boundary Dispute).
Two years later the Oregon Territory was created, embracing the area W of the Rockies from the 42d to the 49th parallel. The area was reduced with the creation of the Washington Territory in 1853, and Oregon became a state in 1859 with a constitution that prohibited slaveholding but also forbade free blacks from entering the state. Although the California gold rush caused a temporary exodus of settlers, it also brought a new market for Oregon's goods, and the Oregon gold strike that followed attracted some permanent settlement to the eastern hills and valleys.
Wheat farming prospered and in 1867–68 a surplus crop was shipped to England—the beginning of Oregon's great wheat export trade. Cattle and sheep were driven up from California to graze on the tallgrass of the semiarid plateaus, and soon cattle barons, such as Henry Miller, acquired huge herds. They dominated the industry until the late 19th cent., when sheepmen and homesteaders succeeded in reducing the cattle range. The 1850s, 60s, and 70s were plagued by Native American uprisings, but by 1880 troubles with the Native American were over, and the next few decades brought increasing settlement and internal improvements.
Railroads and Industrialization
During the 1880s, and largely under the management of Henry Villard of the Northern Pacific RR, transcontinental rail lines were completed to the coast and down the Willamette Valley into California, bringing new trade and stimulating the beginnings of manufacture. Lumbering, which had long been important, became a leading industry. Seemingly overnight logging camps and sawmills were built in the western foothills. The huge stands of Douglas fir and cedar brought fortunes to the lumbering kings, but the threat to natural resources led ultimately to the creation of national forests.
By the time of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition at Portland in 1905, less than 50 years after statehood had been gained, the frontier era had passed. Most of the feuding on the eastern plateaus was over, and cattle and sheep grazed peacefully on fenced-in ranges. In spring the Willamette Valley was abloom with fruit blossoms, and the river cities were busy with trade and industry.
Reform Movements and Environmental Issues
Oregon has been a leader in social, environmental, and political reforms. It was the first state, for example, to institute initiative, referendum, and recall; to ease the laws governing the use of marijuana; and to initiate a ban against nonrecyclable containers. Several issues have sharply divided conservatives and liberals; one of the most important has been the question of minority groups. In the 1880s the influx of Chinese threatened the labor market and brought violent anti-Chinese sentiment, and in the 20th cent. there was opposition to the Japanese. Feeling against minorities has never been statewide, however, and large groups have vigorously opposed it.
In the 1930s one of the most disputed issues was the question of whether the development of power should be public or private. Today, however, it is widely recognized that the federal power and irrigation projects have had a profoundly positive effect on the economy of the entire Pacific Northwest. Many acres have been opened to irrigated farming, and the tremendous industrial expansion of World War II was to a large extent dependent on Bonneville power.
Environmental issues have dominated Oregon politics since the 1970s. Controversy arose in the late 1980s over the spotted owl, which has become endangered as old-growth forest has been cut down. Restrictions on logging on public lands were initiated in 1991, and attempts to establish forest policies acceptable to both environmentalists and the timber industry bogged down as other species were also shown to be in danger. There also is concern that the state's numerous hydroelectric dams are disrupting the migratory cycle of Pacific salmon.
See R. Atkeson, Oregon Coast (1972); W. G. Loy et al., Atlas of Oregon (1976); W. A. Bowen, The Willamette Valley: Migration and Settlement on the Oregon Frontier (1978); S. and E. Dicken, Two Centuries of Oregon Geography (Vol. I, 1979; Vol. II, 1982) and Oregon Divided: A Regional Geography (1982).