As devastating as the more recent disasters were, the waters of the Willamette River have never risen higher than they did in June 1894. Turn-of-the-century Portland sprung up as a vital economic hub due to its position at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, a location that could be precarious when torrential rains fell. Severe spring snow melt and summer downpours combined that year to push the river deep into downtown, setting a record 33-foot high watermark that still stands today.
For many, the words “Oregon Trail” conjure happy childhood memories of hopping on old-school computers to transform oneself into a fearless wagon leader. Hours swiftly passed as we guided settlers from Independence, Missouri to Oregon’s Willamette Valley along the 2,170-mile emigrant wagon trail. On a good day in this wildly popular fantasy-land set in the 1850s, you’d hunt enough game for a hearty bison dinner for you and your team; on a really bad day, you’d die of cholera or a pesky snakebite.
In 2018, the Oregon Trail celebrates its 175th anniversary. Traders laid the 2,170-plus-mile wagon route from about 1811 to 1840. Between the boom years of 1840 and 1860, more than 400,000-plus pioneers traveled its path. Connecting the Missouri River to Oregon’s lush valleys, the east-west trail was only passable on foot or by horseback, and those who braved it faced challenges like wagon accidents, disease outbreaks and rushing river crossings.