Most recently updated on January 29, 2023
Originally posted on May 17, 2021
We head straight down the center of Oregon today before we veer off to the state’s picturesque coastline.
Along the route, we’ll visit a track mecca, a boat wreckage that looks like it’s here to stay and a town that forgave a Japanese pilot for bombing them during World War Two.
We begin our Day 59 virtual journey by traveling due south on Interstate 5, a 1,381-mile-long freeway that runs from the Mexican border in San Diego to the Canadian border in Blaine, Washington. I-5 is the sixth longest north-south interstate in the country and travels through Los Angeles, Sacramento, Portland and Seattle.
Today, it’s taking us through the midsection of Oregon.
The Kalapuya tribe originally lived in the region. The first European settlers arrived in the 1840s. The region was mostly a farming community. The town was laid out in 1878 after the arrival of the Oregon and California Railroad. It was named after a fire in the 1880s in a wooded area.
In the 1960s, a large number of Russian Orthodox Old Believers immigrated to the Willamette Valley due to the availability of farm land. About 2,000 set up a community near Woodburn. The followers are members of a Christian traditionalist church who centuries ago rejected the 17th century reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church. The men have beards and the women wear long skirts and scarves. They live among themselves and reject modern devices, so they sometimes are known as the Russian Amish. About 10,000 church members live in Oregon now, mostly in Marion County, where Woodburn is located.
Woodburn is also the largest city in Oregon with a majority Hispanic or Latino population. About 58 percent of the residents are listed as Hispanic. Many of them are migrant workers who decided to settle here in a community surrounded by agricultural land rather than troll the state looking for work.
There is a lot of Mexican heritage on display in Woodburn. The community holds an annual Woodburn Fiesta Mexicana. The first fiesta was in 1964 and it’s usually held in early August. Local residents say one of the reasons the event has been successful in the past is that ranchers and merchants recognize the importance of the town’s bicultural relationship.
We jet down Interstate 5 south and in another half hour we arrive at the state capital of Salem.
As we enter town, we cross the 45th parallel, the imaginary line halfway between the equator and the North Pole, for a sixth and final time on our virtual travels.
Native Americans inhabited the region for about 10,000 years. The Kalapuya tribe was forcibly removed in the 1850s.
There are several theories on the town’s name, including that it was named after Salem, Massachusetts. Like the East Coast Salem we visited on Day 28, there’s also the conjecture that the Oregon town’s title is an abbreviated version of Jerusalem or a shortened version of “Shalom.”
The city has had three Capitol buildings. The first two burned down with the third one being built in 1938.
Agriculture has always been a prime industry with cherries having always been a big crop. Wool mills were also important in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The city has seen its share of saw mills, too.
State government is now the city’s biggest employer, but there are a number of food processing centers that support local farms. Salem has also been the home of a Kettle potato chips manufacturing facility since 1982.
We continue our straight shot southward on Interstate 5 for another hour to reach a college town that is one of the world’s centers for track and field.
Eugene is the second most populous city in Oregon with more than 182,000 residents, about 1,000 more than Salem. It’s known as “The Emerald City” and “Track Town USA” and “A Great City for the Arts and Outdoors.”
The first Europeans here were French fur traders. They mixed cultures with the local Native Americans. They began to settle and tend the land around 1830. An epidemic of malaria arrived with them and wiped out 92 percent of the Native American population.
Over the next 30 years, more than 11,000 colonists came to the town. They included the namesake Eugene Skinner, who arrived in 1846 with 1,200 other colonists. Skinner built the first Anglo cabin on top of a hill now known as Skinner’s Butte Park.
A whiskey distillery, a saw mill and a furniture factory opened in the 1850s. The city incorporated as Eugene City in 1862. The Oregon and California Railroad arrived in 1871, allowing for exports of wheat and oats as well as packed vegetables and fruits.
Racial strife and intolerance, including a 1924 Klan rally, were part of Eugene’s history in the 1900s.
The Eugene economy these days revolves around lumber, plywood, education, food processing and light manufacturing.
Allergy sufferers don’t always do well here.
Willamette Valley grass seed farms send pollen over to Eugene, giving the city some of the highest allergy and pollen counts in the United States. In 1972, Jim Ryun was flown into town by helicopter on the day of his 1,500 meter race at the U.S. Olympic Trials to avoid the pollens. Ryun won and went to the Munich Olympics that year.
Eugene has a long history of alternative lifestyles, especially since the 1960s. The town has had a large hippie population. It was the adopted hometown of Ken Kesey, the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” who was also known as “The Merry Prankster.” Natural food stores as well as health food stores and food cooperatives abound. One of them, the old Growers Market, is run entirely by volunteers
Sports has also been a mainstay, mostly due to the University of Oregon campus. In October 2021, college officials announced plans to build a 170,000-square-foot indoor practice facility for all sports. That project is still awaiting city approval.
The University of Oregon track team was dominant in the 1970s and 1980s as they competed at the college’s legendary Hayward Track. Coach Bill Bowerman’s runners won 24 NCAA individual track titles during his tenure. They also racked up four team titles. In addition, Bowerman invented the waffle running shoe and with Phil Knight co-founded Nike.
The college’s best known runner was Steve Prefontaine, who ran in the 1972 Olympics and was killed at the age of 24 in a car crash in 1975. There is a plaque at the site of crash called Pre’s Rock. People leave an assortment of items at the spot, including running shirts, medals, notes and energy bars.
Coasting Toward the Coast
A half-hour south of Eugene, we exit Interstate 5 and grab Highway 38 westbound for a drive over the Oregon Coast Range mountains.
Almost 90 minutes later, we hit Highway 101 and the Oregon Coast.
The state’s protected and scenic coastline stretches for 363 miles between the coastal mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The northern boundary is the Columbia River and the southern boundary is the California border.
The North Coast region stretches from the Columbia River to Cascade Head. The Central Coast runs from Cascade Head to Reedsport. The Southern Coast covers from Reedsport to the California state line. It’s the most mountainous of the three areas.
The Ocean Beach Bill of 1967 requires there be public access to all beaches, even those that are privately owned. In exchange, those land owners don’t have to pay property tax.
About 210,000 people live along the Oregon Coast. The most populous town along the coast is Coos Bay, where we will arrive in a few minutes.
Highway 101 is the main road, It intersects with 9 state highways that cross the Coastal Range mountains from the Oregon Coast. There are also numerous bridges along Highway 101 that offer picturesque views of the beaches.
The coastline has 79 states parks as well as 11 lighthouses, seven of them open to the public. A number of shipwreck sites are here, too, including the remains of a Spanish galleon believed to have been the inspiration for the movie, “The Goonies.” There is also an Oregon Coast Trail for hikers.
A variety of plant life flourishes along the shorelines. The woods still house large land animals such as Roosevelt elk, cougars and black-tailed deer. The variety of marine animals is one of the most diverse in the world with at least 30 species. Seals are plentiful and there are laws against disturbing any resting on beaches. Whale migration happens between December and June with 18,000 gray whales swimming close to shore. There is a wide variety of birds from which to choose, too.
Native Americans lived on the coastal land thousands of years ago. Little is known about their existence.
The first European visitors were Spanish explorers who sailed along the coast in the mid-1500s. There’s evidence that explorers from Asia may have also arrived on Oregon’s coast as early as the 1600s. In 1778, English Captain James Cook visited Oregon. Boston merchants also sent two ships to the Oregon coast. The first overland travel here was the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. In 1811, John Jacob Astor set up a trading post for his Pacific Fur Company near Astoria in northwest Oregon near the Washington border.
The main mode of transportation on the coast in the late 1800s and early 1900s was water-borne, much of it via steamboat. These were small vessels known as the Mosquito Fleet. The boats skimmed along the shoreline as well as up some of the rivers. The industry in Coos Bay and the Coquille River area lasted until the 1930s when better roads reduced their demand. The 14-ton wheeler named “Welcome” operated in the Coos River area until 1948. Many steamboats were simply abandoned along the shore. We’ll examine one a little later today.
The Oregon coast was the only place in the contiguous United States to be attacked by Japanese forces.
The first attack was on June 21, 1942 when the Japanese submarine I-25 surfaced offshore and fired 17 shots at Fort Stevens in the northwest corner of the state.
The second attack was on September 9, 1942 when the same submarine surfaced off Cape Blanco in southern Oregon and sent a small seaplane to attack. We’ll visit the town that was the target a little bit down the road.
The first European explorers visited in the 1500s. Sir Frances Drake reportedly sought shelter for his ship, The Golden Hinde, in the area in 1579. Fur traders explored the area in the 1820s.
The initial European settlement occurred in 1851 when survivors from the shipwreck of the Captain Lincoln established a camp. The town was first named Marshfield. In 1872, the Coos Bay Wagon Road was completed.
Coos Bay is the site of the only lynching in Oregon history. The killing happened in 1902 when Alonzo Tucker, an African-American man accused of raping a white woman, was shot twice and hung from the 7th Street bridge while a mob of more than 200 people watched. The local newspaper described the crowd as “quiet and orderly.”
Until 1916, the town was isolated due the difficulty of traveling the Coast Range as well as crossing the nearby rivers. In 1916, a rail line was completed that made the journey easier. The town began to grow over the next four decades. Residents officially changed the town’s name to Coos Bay in 1944.
Since Coos Bay is the largest bay between San Francisco and Seattle, the harbor has always been a center of its economy. In the late 1800s, shipbuilding, fishing and wood products were primary industries. At one point, according to the book Road Trip USA, Coos Bay had the world’s largest lumber port. Many mills have closed since then. One converted to the Mill Casino, which opened in 1989 and is run by the Coquille tribe. Wood chips are the harbor’s number one export, much of which is shipped to Asia for paper products.
Coos Bay is also the hometown of Steve Prefontaine, the University of Oregon track star. He grew up here and attended Marshfield High School. Prefontaine earned six national collegiate distance titles while at the University of Oregon and set eight middle distance and distance running records before dying in that 1975 car accident in Eugene.
Prefontaine is buried at Sunset Memorial Park a little south of town. His sister, Linda, now gives visitors a “Tour de Pre” through town from May through October. There’s also a Prefontaine Gallery at the Coos Art Museum downtown as well as a Prefontaine Run in Coos Bay every September, a 10-kilometer race over one of Pre’s old training courses.
Cranberries, Storms and Lighthouses
We continue our run south on Highway 101, a roadway we’ll be on the next two days and will take us all the way back to home base.
The highway travels along the West Coast through California, Oregon and Washington, occasionally merging with California State Route 1.
The roadway basically parallels Interstate 5, which is quicker and goes through more major cities.
Highway 101 used to go all the way to San Diego, but its most southern part was taken over by Interstate 5. The highway now begins near Hollywood in Los Angeles where it crosses with Interstates 10 and 5 at the East Los Angeles Interchange.
Highway 101 travels 1,623 miles (935 miles in California, 363 miles in Oregon and 325 miles in Washington), finishing near Olympia, Washington, after doing a loop around Olympic National Park near the Canadian border. Both ends of the highway do little circles.
The roadway was designated in 1926. It used to be cut off at the north end of San Francisco before the Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937. Drivers had to take a ferry or motor over to the Carquinez Bridge in the East Bay to get back on track.
In 1852, a ship owned by Henry Baldwin of Bandon, Ireland, was wrecked along the Coos Bay coast and Baldwin walked to where the present day community now sits. The first permanent settlers arrived in 1853. The town was founded in 1874 by George Bennett of Bandon, Ireland.
In 1883, the first sawmill, schoolhouse and Catholic church were built here. In 1884, the Army Corps of Engineers began working on a jetty. The Woolen Mill was established in 1893. By 1912, Bandon had established itself as a major port between San Francisco and Portland with 300 ships arriving that year.
Cheese used to be a major industry in Bandon. Manufacturing began in 1880. A fire damaged the town’s main facility in 1936. It was rebuilt in 1937 and eventually known as the Brandon Cheese Factory. In 2000, the Tillamook County Creamery Association bought the Bandon cheese brand and closed the Bandon facility in 2005. Bandon is still a brand for Tillamook. In 2013, Face Rock Creamery opened a facility on the old cheese factory site. They produce gourmet cheese and offer a sampling room.
Cranberries remain one of the big industries. They were first grown in Bandon in 1885 when Charles McFarlin of Massachusetts planted some vines, creating the first cranberry bog west of the Rocky Mountains. That bog produced cranberries for 80 years as it adapted to the growing conditions along the Oregon coast. These type of cranberries were named the McFarlin hybrid in his honor.
Bandon is also the location of the first “wet harvesting” of cranberries. Growers accomplished this feat by flooding the bogs. Today, about 100 growers harvest 1,600 acres of cranberries in the Bandon region. The harvest is from mid-October to early December, later than the rest of the country. The average harvest is 30 million pounds. The town has an annual Cranberry Festival in September. The festival started in 1947 to honor the town’s proclamation as being the “Cranberry Capital of Oregon.”
Another facet of the local tourism industry is “storm watching” where people enjoy the sometimes windy, turbulent weather that produces big waves along the region’s shoreline, especially in winter. Wave crashes can be as high as 300 feet as they slam across the state’s rocky coastline. Shore Acres State Park just north of Bandon is considered the premiere spot to “storm watch” because it’s perched atop an 80-foot cliff.
One thing people in Bandon don’t like to see is gorse, a spiny, oil plant that was first introduced by George Bennett in 1874. The plant secretes an oil that can cause fires. A 1936 gorse-enhanced fire killed 10 people and destroyed many of the city’s 500 homes and much of its business district. The city was rebuilt, beginning in 1937. Local codes now restrict how high and thick gorse can grow.
Bandon also has a spot in literary history. There are reports it was the setting for the Jules Verne 1879 novel “The Begum’s Fortune.” The book centered on a utopian town called Ville France that was overseen by a French doctor. In the novel, Verne writes about the Oregon Legislature allowing the construction of Ville France on a “small river of sweet mountain waters” in the vicinity of where Bandon is located.
The town is the also the home of the Bandon Driftwood Museum, which is housed inside the Big Wheel General Store. The art inside the museum varies quite a bit. The store sells food, clothing and other items. It’s apparently notorious for its fudge factory that produces 26 varieties of the sweet treat.
Cape Blanco is the westernmost point in Oregon and the second most westernmost point in the continental United States, behind only Cape Alava, Washington. Port Orford, just south of here, is the westernmost incorporated city in the continental United States.
Cape Blanco is home to the Cape Blanco Lighthouse, a 245-foot-tower that was first lit in 1870. It’s the oldest lighthouse on Oregon coast.
The cape is level land that sits 245 feet above the ocean, so it affords some tremendous views. It has an all-time record high temperature of only 85 degrees and gets 75 inches of rain a year. Winds during the winter storms can reach 75 mph to 100 mph. One gust was recorded at 145 mph in 1962.
Ship Wrecks and Forgiveness
We blow back onto southbound Highway 101 and after nearly an hour we arrive at Gold Beach, a community of 2,300 that is known for its mail boats and an abandoned steamer that is literally stuck in the mud.
Fur trappers, fishers and loggers were the area’s original settlers. As you may have guessed from the town’s name, gold was discovered here in 1853 near the mouth of the Rogue River. The prospect of quick riches brought hundreds of stream miners to town, which was quickly named Gold Beach.
After the gold rush, the local economy developed around salmon fishing, logging, tanning and supply stores. Salmon fishing in the Rouge River was big driver until 1908. Logging was important until environmental regulations stymied the industry in the 1990s. Tourism and services for retirees now drive the economy.
Mail boats docked in Gold Beach have been delivering mail 32 miles upstream to the town of Agness since 1895. The current service boat is owned by Jerry’s Rogue Jets. It’s one of only a few mail boat routes in the United States. Jerry’s also offers scenic tours of the Rogue River.
Gold Beach is also the locale for the wreckage of the steamboat Mary D. Hume. The boat was built from local timber in 1881. It hauled goods between Oregon and San Francisco from 1881 to 1889. From 1890 to 1899 it served a whaler in Alaskan waters. From 1900 to 1904, it was a service vessel in Alaska’s cannery industry. From 1906 on, it was mostly a tugboat in Puget Sound near Everett, Washington. The steamer was retired in 1977 and returned to Gold Beach. The boat sank in the Rogue River in 1985 and has been there ever since. You can get a glimpse of it as you cross the 101 bridge over the Rogue River to get into town.
Another bridge catches our eye as we zoom down Highway 101.
The Thomas Creek Bridge about 20 minutes south of Gold Beach is the tallest bridge in Oregon at 345 feet above the coastal ground below.
It’s just another 15 minutes down Highway 101 to reach our final destination for today.
Brookings is a community of 6,800 just 6 miles north of the California border. It’s the second town of this name we’ve visited on our virtual journey. We stopped in Brookings, South Dakota, on Day 49 on our trip.
The Oregon town was founded in 1913 as a logging community for the California and Oregon Lumber Company. It was named after the company’s president, John E. Brookings. The Brookings Lumber and Box Company logged high quality Douglas fir until its saw mill was closed in 1925.
Before Highway 101 was completed in the 1930s, the town relied on a weekly supply boat. Brookings suffered during Great Depression. The 250 residents at that time made a living by fishing and by growing Easter lily bulbs. This region, in fact, still produces 100 percent of these bulbs grown in North America. The climate, soil and rainfall in this area that stretches down into the far northern reaches of California are considered ideal for the bulbs. The demand for these flowers seems to be waning, however. Production peaked at 13 million per year in the 1990s to less than 7 million today. There are now only 4 bulb growers in the region, down from 26 in the 1960s.
Brookings is also famous among history buffs for what happened here during World War Two.
In 1942, Mount Emily near the town was the target of a Japanese aerial bombardment. A submarine sent out a small seaplane piloted by Nobuo Fujita to drop incendiary bombs on the nearby forests in hopes of starting a forest fire. Even though the bombs were dropped, only a small blaze emerged and it was quickly extinguished by forestry crews.
Fujita was forgiven by the local townsfolk. He returned here at the invitation of the Brookings Jaycees in 1962 after the Japanese government was given assurances he would not be arrested as a war criminal. As a token of international goodwill, Fujita gave the town his family’s 400-year-old samurai sword that was with him in his plane’s cockpit.
In 1992, Fujita returned to the bombing site in the forest and planted a small redwood tree he called a “symbol of friendship and peace.” Brookings made Fujita an honorary citizen just days before he died in 1997. Some of his ashes were scattered in the forests of Mount Emily by his daughter. Fujita’s sword is on display at Chetco Public Library in town.
Since the 1980s, Brookings has attracted a number of retirees. It’s also the home of a number of people who commute across the California border to jobs at Pelican Bay State Prison. The main employer in town is South Coast Lumber. Tourism is also an important industry. In addition, Brookings is also become a “foodie” town.
Azalea Park is a popular place in town. Besides its flowers, the park also has picnic areas, a bandshell, baseball fields, a disc golf course and a children’s playground.
Seems like a good time to park and end Day 59. One more day to go.
Tomorrow, we finish it off with Day 60 through the northern coast of California where we will drive through some of the continent’s largest redwood trees and check out a museum dedicated to one of our nation’s most popular comic strip artists.