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The Spirits of Oregon City

Famous personalities from the city's past return to their old haunts
by: patrick sherman, Mike Jarrett portrays a crewman on the steamship Gazelle, destroyed by an explosion on the river below more than 100 years ago.

Oregon City will be visited by tragedy and disaster before the moon rises on Halloween - that is not a warning from a wandering spirit, but the plan of the Oregon City Heritage Coordinating Committee.

Now in its seventh year, the Spirits of Historic Oregon City tour will revisit the misfortunes that have descended on the community since it was settled by the Hudson's Bay Company more than 150 years ago. These include the worst maritime disaster ever to occur on the Willamette and a typhoid outbreak in 1852, which created a haunting legacy that lingers still.

'This has evolved from a small event - a walking tour on a single night, until now it runs on two nights with three motor coaches,' said Rolla Harding, a member of the committee and caretaker of historic Ermatinger House. 'Now, we even have a groupie. There is one lady in California who calls over the summer to see what we are doing, and she brings her friends up and they stay for the whole weekend.'

Real, live history

Participants will visit four sites around Oregon City: McLoughlin House, Stevens-Crawford House, Ermatinger House and Pioneer Mountain View Cemetery, where they will interact with living historians dressed in period clothing.

'All of these people, and there are more than 30 of them, do their own research from primary sources - letters and diaries written by the people that they portray,' said Harding's wife, Marge. 'These aren't just stories. They are as close to the truth as we can actually get.

'We have a wonderful historian on our committee, Herb Beal, who has written several books. He has a tremendous knowledge of the history of this region, and he helps keep us on track.'

Among the tragedies that the tour will revisit is the explosion of the steamship Gazelle, docked above the Willamette Falls in Oregon City.

'She was docked on the river, and there were a group of passengers waiting to disembark, and another group was waiting to get onboard,' said Marge Harding. 'The engineer wasn't paying attention, and he stoked up the boiler too hot. The pressure built up until he couldn't release it.

'He ran off the boat and up onto the bluff, where he watched it explode. In total, 28 people were killed, including the captain and many of the crew. That's a little-known piece of history, and that's what makes this fun - doing the research.'

After the tour, participants will be invited to return to Ermatinger House to participate in a spoof of a 19th century séance.

'Historically, in the 1840s, there was a resurgence of interest in spiritualism, and a belief that it was possible to make contact with the dead,' she said. 'There were two sisters back east, named Fox, who took advantage of this and started performing séances. The used all sorts of contraptions and gimmicks to make the spirits appear to susceptible people.

Rolla Harding added: 'It was a con game - a very successful con game.'

Partners for success

Unlike in previous years, when a dwindling number of seats were still available for walk-in participants, advanced reservations - with payment - are required. Reservations are available through the Rivershore Hotel. The hour-long tours depart the Carnagie Center every 20 minutes, and guests should check-in 15 minutes prior to departure.

The tour grew out of a desire among the individual committee members to help the public better understand history, and the lives of the people who lived it.

'It all started with the idea of using the month of October to talk about how people mourned during the Victorian era. Especially for women, there were a lot of rules and regulations that pertained to the mourning process,' said Marge Harding. 'The other historic homes in the area wanted to be involved, so we formed the committee and it grew from there.'

Rolla Harding was quick to credit the other groups and organizations that have contributed to the success of the tour.

'We couldn't do this without the support of the city, which provides the motor coaches from the Pioneer Center, and also the National Parks Service, which runs McLoughlin House, the Rivershore Hotel and Larry Potter, who provides us with access to the cemetery,' he said. 'The committee pays for this event out of the proceeds and its own coffers, but we really rely on the support of these other groups.'

For her part, Marge Harding hopes that area residents will take the opportunity to learn about local history.

'We have a lot of young people who come every year,' she said. 'I hate to use the word 'educational,' but it's a good learning experience for the whole family.

'It's not about spooks and goblins - it's about the people who were influential in the beginnings of Oregon City.'