written by Kevin Giffin
Forever defined by its massively tragic flood in 1903, Heppner pays tribute to its past and its Irish heritage. The rural town of nearly 1,500 residents leaves nothing in the bottle when it comes to celebrating St. Patrick’s Day and other community events. At the foothills of the Blue Mountains, Heppner is Americana with a tin whistle and a harp.
A brief history: On a hot summer day in Heppner in 1903, a hulking thunderstorm raced down the tiny Balm Fork and Willow Creek tributaries. Within minutes a wall of water twenty to fifty feet high swept over the small town carrying houses off and crashed wooden structures like toothpicks in a waterfall. Within the hour, 250 of the town’s 1,300 people were dead in a disaster that carried across the country to the New York Times and still resonates today.A smart chronicle of the disaster comes in Calamity, The Heppner Flood of 1903, by Joann Green Byrd.
Today there are plenty of reminders of the flood throughout the town’s historical society and in its cemetery, where a Days of Sorrow stone tribute commemorates its victims, but shamrocks are the whistle of the day. The Irish and the Swedes were among the first immigrants to settle the young Western town. The Swedes took up farming land on the west side of Willow Creek, and the Irish took up the other side to raise sheep, says Cliff Green, a Heppner native who’s grandfather survived the flood. It’s the Irish heritage that took, though, and today Heppner is known for its rollicking St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
Above it all stands the handsome Morrow County Courthouse, built from locally quarried blue basalt. The courthouse was finished in 1903 and, due to its hillside plot, escaped the worst of the flood. The population of quiet Heppner has only just returned to its pre-flood level. Once a mill town, farming and government jobs now anchor the rural community. “I don’t know of any better place to live than here,” asserts Green. “The people are great, the access to the mountains and the weather is nice.”
Amy and Mike Blauer, both 29, with infant son, Cable, moved to Heppner from Idaho almost two years ago and love the small-town community spirit. He is the administrator at the Morrow County Health District and she teaches Spanish at Blue Mountain Community College. They were touched when Heppner residents welcomed them with fresh bread, homemade jams and flowers. “We can get everything we need here,” says Amy Blauer. “What’s especially nice is that the hospital is right here and they can take care of all your needs. You see your doctor out at community events and giving back. I’ve never had health care like that, and it’s cool.”
Best time to go: St. Patrick’s Day is Heppner at its liveliest. The town bustles with music, drinking,
an amateur boxing smoker, arts and sheepdog trials. There’s “Ireland in Story, Song and Humor,” a variety show written by “Father O’Condon” of Heppner’s of St. Patrick’s Catholic Parish. In the foothills of the Blue Mountains, Heppner is a good bet for mountain and road biking, fishing and cross-country skiing.
- Eat and drink at Bucknum’s on Main Street.
- Visit the Morrow County Museum to learn about the world’s response to one of the greatest natural disasters in the United States at that time.
- Drive the 130-mile Blue Mountain Scenic Byway.
- Bike the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway, or break it up with a stay-over in Baker City.
- Create your own biking loop on rural highways around Heppner.
- Visit Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Church to hear it the way it was said in Ireland twenty years ago, when Father Gerry Condon left for Heppner, in the footsteps of a long line of Irish priests before him.
- Population of Heppner: 1,435 (2010)
- Population growth: 0.2% (2000-2010)
- Median household income Heppner: $33,421 (Census 2000)
- Median home price of single-family homes: $78,400 (Census 2000)
What to Do
- Drive the 130-mile Blue Mountain Scenic Byway
- Go fishing on Willow Creek or on the Balm Fork
- Sit down for a drink and dinner at Bucknum’s on Main Street
- Celebrate St. Paddy’s Day with food, drink, music and boxing
- Bike the rural highways that weave through Morrow County