“What’s there to see in Baker City?” a friend asked when told that my husband, Michael, and I had stopped there on a recent (and rare) road trip.
“The town!” Michael declared emphatically,
Indeed, we turned off the highway at Baker City, Ore. for a lunch break and ended up spending an unplanned three hours in the town of 10,000. Most people stop here to visit the town’s excellent National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretative Center located just five miles east of Baker City or the Baker Heritage Museum found just off the highway as you enter the main section of town. Both are good museums and offer a glimpse into pioneer life for those who came through here during the gold rush of he 1860s. For many, Baker City was one of the last stopping points before traversing the Cascade Mountains that separate Eastern and Western Oregon.
Some are now crossing back to settle in Baker City. Like the architect from Portland (and a graduate of Kansas State University) who has retired in Baker City because it’s a ‘real town, with a walk-able downtown and doesn’t live behind walls.” Larry and his wife now own one of the many historic buildings in downtown Baker City and have been restoring it for new tenants.
As Larry pointed out, Baker City is almost an anomaly these days in America in that this town, with a fabulous view of the snow-capped Cascades, is a fully preserved and functioning small town. It’s what people who visit Disneyland’s Main Street expect, except that it’s not fabricated.
The buildings that line Baker City’s Main Street have been there since the late 1800s when Baker City was known as the “Queen City of the Mines.” At the time, the town’s population exceeded that of either Spokane or Boise. Miners, cowboys, ranchers and gamblers were drawn to its dance halls and five saloons. Those who needed a place to stay could pick from any one of the town’s ten hotels.
One of the grandest of these, the Geiser Grand, is still in business and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During our self-guided walking tour of the town, my husband and I wandered in to the lobby of this corner hotel to be greeted with a decor reminiscent of its glorious days past. The hotel was only reopened and restored in 1997 after having been shuttered for nearly 30 years. Today, the front desk clerk says the hotel is a favorite choice of government and business people who come to town. The hotel offers tours of its interior once a day at 2 p.m. but unfortunately one wasn’t available the day we visited.
I learned from the bartender on duty at the hotel that the people of Baker City made a conscious decision ten to 15 years ago, not to permit the big box discount stores to build in town. The nearest one of these you’ll find is an hour’s drive away in either Le Grand or Ontario. As Larry, the architect, explained, Le Grand is Eastern Oregon’s center for the Arts; Ontario is for the shopping and Baker City is all business.
The stores and shops in Baker City’s downtown appear to be thriving and cater to those who live there, not just tourists. There’s a fabric store, a toy store, a stationers, a couple bookstores, a home store, legal and financial offices, a radiator repair shop, a jeweler’s, a women’s clothing boutique, an eye clinic and a movie theatre–the kind of places you’d expect to find in any American small town not that long ago. If you’re hungry, as we were, there are plenty of tempting cafes, bakeries, breweries and restaurants from which to choose for whatever suits your appetite.
Don’t miss the town’s Crossroads Carnegie Art Center housed in what was once it’s public library. In fact, we started our tour of town there. Formerly a Carnegie Library, designed in the classic colonial style typical of so many Carnegie Libraries, the building was constructed entirely of “black speckled stone” quarried from the area, according to a docent I met there. The interior was similar, if not exactly, as the one I remembered from my hometown. The stacks have been removed to create an open gallery for rotating art exhibits, one of which was hanging when we visited. Downstairs, once occupied by the children’s library, is now an art studio and small space for lectures and special presentations. It’s well worth spending some time.
One of Baker City’s biggest events was brought to our attention by Larry, the architect. The Great Salt Lick , an art auction that occurs the third week of September, benefits Parkinson’s Disease research. It’s an event befitting the agricultural and ranching center and goes towards a good cause. Local ranchers and others scour the fields looking for the most creatively licked salt blocks by elk, deer, cows, horses, etc. The blocks are then named, poems are written about them and both are displayed for the auction. There’s even a sculpture downtown now commemorating this truly unique art form.
We stopped for lunch and ended up spending a little more than three enjoyable hours, strolling through downtown, looking at the building, talking with locals and finally finishing with a tasty late lunch at the Lone Pine Cafe on Main. I’d recommend it.
Driving out of town, I spotted what I thought was the official post office, again nearly an exact copy of the same post office in my hometown. But it turned out the building was now private offices; the official post office has moved up the street into a newer, less impressive structure. That was the only disappointment during our brief visit to Baker City. I’d happily drop in again, eat, visit the Oregon Trail Interpretative Center and maybe even spend the night because Baker City’s an authentic step into the past that’s living in the present.