Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"The Road That Won an Empire": Commemoration, Commercialization, and the Promise of Auto Tourism at the "Top O' Blue Mountains"

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"The Road That Won an Empire": Commemoration, Commercialization, and the Promise of Auto Tourism at the "Top O' Blue Mountains"

Article excerpt

OVER 30,000 PEOPLE GATHERED in tiny Meacham, Oregon, on July 3, 1923, as a slight morning breeze broke the promise of a warm day in the Blue Mountains. Located in the eastern part of the state, Meacham rarely hosted more than a few people at a time and for much of its recent past had primarily been what one observer dismissively labeled a "water-tank station" --a stopping point for travelers on their way to other destinations. (1) The convergence of so many people in Meacham signaled a great event. Many visitors had arrived via a freshly graded and graveled roadway, swarming into surrounding campgrounds and placing great stress on the region's limited resources. They gathered to witness the opening of a two-day celebration that brought together the particular commemorative talents of three surrounding communities. Baker City arranged a historical pageant, La Grande oversaw a dance hall and concessions, and Pendleton was called on to "furnish Indians," a request that expected members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), who regularly participated in the Pendleton Round-Up, to eagerly perform in Meacham. (2) Described as occurring at the "Top o' Blue Mountains," the event incorporated the simultaneous purposes of "Commemorating [the] 80th Anniversary of the coming of the First Immigrant Train to the Pacific Northwest and Dedicating the New Oregon Trail Highway." It also represented several separate efforts, including the organized remembrance of Oregon's pioneer past and the embrace of the state's future potential as a site of commercial manufacture and tourist draw. (3) These various purposes found validation in the greatest of the day's attractions: the scheduled participation of President Warren G. Harding and his wife First Lady Florence Harding.

The president attended the Meacham celebration as part of his extended speaking tour of the western United States en route to Alaska, a trip that ended in his untimely death in San Francisco in August. The demanding schedule of his voyage reflected the trip's larger purpose of correcting a perceived disconnect between the president and his western constituents. (4) Of the towns and cities that Harding visited during his travels in the West, Meacham was an anomaly for its limited population and relative isolation, requiring an audience of significant size to come from a considerable distance. Writing in a volume produced in memoriam to the president, the editor in chief of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, James A. Wood, suggested that "any one of the towns visited in Alaska had much more of a permanent population than Meacham" and that "probably no such crowd was ever brought to a practically unpopulated place at any time or for any peaceful occasion in American history." (5) For Wood, like other commentators at the time, the contrast between the smallness of Meacham and the largeness of the crowd served as testament to the dedication and patriotism of those in the Pacific Northwest. (6) Yet, Wood also understood Harding's participation in the dedication of the Old Oregon Trail Highway as appropriate within the larger purpose of his trip, as the Oregon Trail had, "in the course of time, opened the way to the great territory of Alaska." (7)

The audience's efforts to reach the Blue Mountains were rewarded by the presence of the Hardings and their genuine interest in the small-town affair. By all accounts, the Hardings participated heartedly in the celebration, even bypassing a planned golf outing to witness an afternoon staged battle, re-creating an Indian attack on a wagon train. (8) The day's activities, intended to both entertain and engage the first couple, also included the Old Oregon Trail Pageant, a luncheon prepared by "pioneer ladies," and a "pioneer's [sic] fiddler orchestra." The president contributed to the event by dedicating the silent-screen epic The Covered Wagon to the Old Oregon Trail Association (OOTA, the group most associated with the days' events), becoming a lifetime member of that organization, and being adopted, along with the first lady, into the Cayuses of the CTUIR, an event marked by the gift to Florence Harding of a blanket manufactured by the nearby Pendleton Woolen Mills. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.