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'From the heavens': The story of the United States' largest meteorite

Willamette Meteorite believed to have arrived in Tualatin Valley during glacial floods.

COURTESY ARTWORK BY STEV OMINSKI - An artist's rendering, 'Fire to Ice' by Stev Ominski, depicts the Willamette Meteorite crashing to Earth sometime during the last Ice Age. The meteorite is believed to have been carried on a raft of glacial ice from western Montana to the Willamette Valley during the Missoula floods.Parks and trails staff and local historians in Tualatin, West Linn and Wilsonville will happily tell you about how a series of cataclysmic floods more than 12,000 years ago shaped the local landscape.

The floods deposited rich soil from what is now eastern Washington in the Willamette Valley, carved rock formations and contoured ridgelines, and even carried granite boulders all the way from modern-day Idaho and Montana, huge rocks that are now termed “erratics” when found so far from the place they were originally dislodged from the earth.

They also brought one particularly huge rock that did not come from Earth at all.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mark Buser, past president of the Ice Age Floods Institute, gives a lecture about the Willamette Meteorite and the Missoula floods at the Tualatin Public Library.

Believed to be billions of years old

Mark Buser, a past president of the nonprofit Ice Age Floods Institute, told the story Thursday evening of that “exotic erratic”: the Willamette Meteorite, a 16-ton chunk of iron and nickel believed to have impacted the planet during the Ice Ages, landing on the glacial ice sheet that covered western Canada and the northern United States and eventually being carried on an iceberg by floodwaters until it reached its resting place in between modern-day Tualatin and West Linn.

“Meteorites were formed, they think, 3 to 5 billion years ago,” said Buser, who lives in West Linn and founded the local chapter of the IAFI, speaking at the Tualatin Public Library. “These are remnants from the formation of our universe.”

At some point in the early solar system, Buser said, the meteorite was “impacted, heated up, recrystallized and so, serendipitously, sent on a path toward West Linn.”

Humans arrived in the Willamette Valley not long after the floodwaters receded. For generations, the Willamette Meteorite occupied a special place in the culture, traditions and spiritual beliefs of the Clackamas Indians, who called it “Tomanowos.”

“The Willamette Meteorite has a very rough face,” Buser said. “There's a lot of holes in it, and it looks like Swiss cheese, kind of.”

The Clackamas collected the rainwater that pooled in the crevasses and openings on the meteorite's face for healing and dip their arrows into them for strength, Buser said.

But in the mid-19th century, as waves of American settlers arrived in the Willamette Valley on the Oregon Trail, the Clackamas and other Native bands were rounded up and removed to tribal reservations. The meteorite apparently remained unknown to the settlers for decades.

COURTESY ARTWORK BY STEV OMINSKI - This painting, 'Rafted' by artist Stev Ominski, depicts the Willamette Meteorite atop an iceberg during the Missoula floods. The floodwaters are believed to have carried the 16-ton meteorite from western Montana to the West Linn area.

A disputed discovery and legal battles

In 1902, a Welsh immigrant named Ellis Hughes was heading home from work near what was then the town of Willamette, now part of West Linn, when he noticed a large rock he had not seen before. He was sitting on the rock the next day when a friend of his, Bill Dale, happened by and asked him about it, according to his later account.

“Apparently, (Hughes) had picked up an erratic — he had picked up a piece of granite,” Hughes said. “And he hit (the meteorite), and it rang like a bell.”

Dale remarked, “Hughes, I'll bet that is a meteor,” Hughes later recalled.

The land where Dale and Hughes had discovered and identified the meteorite was owned by the Oregon Iron & Steel Co, but Hughes wanted to keep the meteorite for himself.

“It was not on his property, but it was about three-quarters of a mile away,” Buser said.

Hughes was somewhat less than an upstanding citizen, Buser suggested.

“There's archived letters and archived citations and grocery bills that were unpaid,” he said. “There's a sense that he was pretty rough around the edges.”

Regardless of his character, Hughes was certainly enterprising. An account of the meteorite's history by Erwin F. Lange, a professor at what was then called Portland State College, originally published in 1962 describes the efforts he went to both to retrieve the giant space rock and keep the company and his neighbors in the dark as to what he was doing. Ultimately, over the course of three months in the summer and fall of 1903, Hughes towed the meteorite on a makeshift sled from where he found it in the woods to his home in Willamette.

“In magnitude and ingenuity, the accomplishment of Hughes surpasses the work of the ancient Egyptians who performed their tasks with unlimited manpower,” Lange wrote.

“He had to drag this thing down a mountain, through a forested area,” Buser said, impressing upon his audience the difficulty of Hughes' task.

Once he had brought it to his home, Hughes began charging visitors admission to view the meteorite as a curiosity.

Unfortunately for him, as journalists, researchers and collectors descended on Willamette to look at the meteorite — quickly declared to be genuine — Hughes' handiwork attracted the attention of the Oregon Iron & Steel Co., which quickly deduced that he had found it on company property. Lange wrote that the company attempted to buy the meteorite from him, but Hughes refused.

“To them, they saw a large iron deposit that they could melt down and make a lot of money off of, so they sued Ellis Hughes to regain possession of the meteorite,” Buser said. “His argument was that this rock came from the heavens, and it just landed here. … It was a property argument of whose it was.”

Not surprisingly, the court found for the Oregon Iron & Steel Co. the next year. Hughes appealed the decision, but the Oregon Supreme Court confirmed it in 1905, ruling that “meteorites … are real estate, and consequently belong to the owner of the land on which they are found.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LAKE OSWEGO PUBLIC LIBRARY - A photograph of the Willamette Meteorite from the 1900s shows its unusual surface texture, which Ice Age historian Mark Buser likened to Swiss cheese.

Preservation and dedication

That summer, the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition was held in Portland. The meteorite was among the attractions put on display, with the Oregon Iron & Steel Co. placing it on a barge and floating it up the Willamette River to be put on exhibit.

If the smelting company planned to break it up and melt it down for ore after displaying it, as Buser suggested Thursday, the meteorite was spared by the intervention of Sarah Dodge, the wealthy widow of a New York industrialist, who came to Portland for the exposition. The Oregon Iron & Steel Co. had tried to purchase the meteorite for as little as $50 from Hughes in 1903, Lange wrote; after viewing it, Dodge paid the company a reported $26,000 to acquire it.

Millennia after its westward voyage from Montana, the Willamette Meteorite headed back east again. Dodge donated the meteorite, the largest that had ever been discovered in the United States, to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It remains there to this day, permanently on display through a 2000 agreement between the museum and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, which had originally sought its return.

No larger meteorite has been discovered to date in the United States. It ranks as the sixth-largest meteorite ever found on Earth, according to the museum.

A replica of the meteorite can be seen at Fields Bridge Park in West Linn. Buser said the creation of an area near where the space rock came to rest was a top priority for the local chapter of the IAFI when he and other Ice Age enthusiasts started it.

Tualatin, West Linn and Wilsonville wear their Ice Age heritage proudly. A mastodon skeleton is displayed at the Tualatin Library, where Buser spoke Thursday, and a section of a regional trail that runs from the library to an underpass beneath Interstate 5 is dotted with interpretive elements and signs recalling that period of prehistory.

The floods that brought the Willamette Meteorite and other erratic rocks to the Willamette Valley were massive in scope, occurring repeatedly over the course of several thousand years between about 15,000 and 12,000 years ago, Buser said. They were caused by the failure of an ice dam that formed and reformed in western Montana, which trapped some 530 cubic miles of water held in Glacial Lake Missoula from rushing westward toward the Pacific Ocean.

“One of the hardest things for me, when I learned this story, was really to get my mind wrapped around how big this was. That was always hard for me,” Buser said, adding, “The scale is incredible. And I think that that's why people are so fascinated by the story, is the scale.”

The Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail charts the course of those floodwaters, which formed temporary lakes of their own as they made their way through Idaho, eastern Washington and northern Oregon. The Willamette Meteorite exhibit in West Linn and the Tualatin Historical Society have been identified as exhibits on an interpretive plan for the trail, which is in the process of being developed.

Metro regional planners are also working on establishing a 22-mile, multi-use Ice Age Tonquin Trail between Sherwood, Tualatin and Wilsonville.

Editor's note: The paintings depicting the Willamette Meteorite were created by artist Stev Ominski.

By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor
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