About Downtown Oregon City

Oregon City is home to shopping areas, recreational opportunities, business, a wide variety of historical and cultural attractions, and several Interpretive Centers and Museums dedicated to celebrating the pioneer spirit.

Historic, yet Modern Downtown

Oregon City, the county seat of Clackamas County, is located southeast of Portland on the east side of the Willamette River, just below the falls. Its unique topography includes three terraces, which rise above the river, creating an elevation range from about 50 feet above sea level at the riverbank to more than 250 feet above sea level on the upper terrace. The lowest terrace, on which the earliest development occurred, is only two blocks or three streets wide, but stretches northward from the falls for several blocks. Originally, industry was located primarily at the south end of Main Street nearest the falls, which provided power. Commercial, governmental and social/fraternal entities developed along Main Street north of the industrial area. Religious and educational structures also appeared along Main Street, but tended to be grouped north of the commercial core. Residential structures filled in along Main Street, as well as along the side and cross streets. As the city grew, the commercial, governmental and social/fraternal structures expanded northward first, and with time eastward and westward to the side and cross streets. Before the turn of the century, residential neighborhoods and schools were developing on the bluff. Some commercial development also occurred on this middle terrace, but the business center of the city continued to be situated on the lower terrace. Between the 1930s and 1950s, many of the downtown churches relocated to the bluff as well.

Oregon City is the first incorporated city west of the Rockies. Established in 1829 by Dr. John McLoughlin as a lumber mill near Willamette Falls, it was later designated as Oregon's territorial capital.

Local Attractions

Oregon City, the county seat of Clackamas County, is located southeast of Portland on the east side of the Willamette River, just below the falls.

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Historical Timeline

Oregon City is a hotbed of history. As the first incorporated city west of the Rocky Mountains and the official end of the Oregon Trail, the city’s importance lies in its early history as the final destination for many early immigrants. Prior to Euro-American settlement, Oregon City was a focal point for fishing and trade among the Clowwewalla, Cashhooks, and Molalla Indians.

Pre-1815
1829
1839-1840
1842
1850
1866
1889
1913
1955
2009
2010-2012
2013
Pre-1815 - Native Americans

Prior to Euro-American settlement, the area where Oregon City is located was a focal point for fishing and trade among the Native Americans and home to the Clowwewalla (also known as the Charcowah) and the Cashhooks Indians (of the Upper Chinookan Linguistic group) and the Molalla Indians (of the Waiilatpuan Linguistic family).  The nearby Clackamas Indians, also of the Upper Chinookan Linguistic group, located their villages along the Clackamas River. Smallpox, cholera and other Euro-American diseases introduced by early explorers decimated the tribes.  By the time Euro-American settlement in the area began, only about 650 Clowwewalla and Cashhooks remained.  (Image drawn by Joseph Drayton of the Wilkes Expedition 1841.)

1829 - McLoughlin lays claim at the Willamette Falls

In the 1810s, fur traders explored the Willamette Valley and surrounding areas. Dr. John McLoughlin rose among the Northwest Fur Company ranks to chief factor. As a result of a merger, he joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1823 and was assigned to the Columbia Department. McLoughlin, today known as the father of Oregon, laid out a two-square mile claim at the Willamette Falls in 1829 and began construction of three houses to shelter employees working at the site. A small fur-trading center was also established and work was begun on a millrace. These buildings became the first permanent white settlement in the Willamette Valley. (Image: "JMcLoughlin" by Unknown - osl.state.or.us. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

1839-1840 - The first overland immigrant party arrives in Oregon City

During the winter of 1839-1840, Reverend Jason Lee gave a series of lectures in Peoria, Illinois in an effort to recruit reinforcements for the Methodist Mission and to encourage American settlement in the Oregon Territory.  Following these lectures, the first overland American immigrant party was organized.  Led by Thomas J. Farnham, the Peoria Party arrived at the Willamette Falls settlement in late 1839 and early 1840. (Image: Oregon Trail, by Albert Bierstadt, circa 1863.)

1842 - Oregon City is plated

With the arrival of American Methodist missionaries, McLoughlin, who was a British subject, was forced to adopt American standards for property that was clearly going to be in the United States. Oregon City was platted in 1842. In 1844, it was designated at the first capital by the Provisional Legislature, and in 1845 incorporated as the first American city in the West. (Image: Oregon City on the Willamette River, by John Mix Stanley.)

1850 - The First Plat for San Francisco is filed in Oregon City

Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons The first plat for San Francisco was filed in Oregon City in 1850. At the time, Oregon City was the site of the only federal district court in the West. The plat was filed in the first plat book of the first office of records, with the clerk of the United States District Court, George L. Curry and signed by F.S. Holland, deputy clerk. The plat still remains in Oregon City today at the Museum of the Oregon Territory. (Image: "San Francisco Harbor 1851c sharp" by Unknown - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

1866 - The First Paper Mill in Oregon is established

Industrial growth and diversification mark the first years of this period.  The first paper mill in Oregon was established in Oregon City in 1866 as the Pioneer Paper Manufacturing Company (also known as the Oregon City Paper Mill and the Oregon City Paper Manufacturing Company) began operations.  Although financial difficulties resulted in closure of the mill the following year, it introduced an industry that perhaps has had the greatest impact on Oregon City over the years.

1889 - The first long distance transmission of electricity in the United States

In 1889, the Willamette Falls Electric Company made history when it transmitted the first electricity over long distance power lines to Portland from the Willamette Falls.  The growing use of electricity made possible the construction of the first interurban electric railroad in the county, the East Side Railway, which made its first run between Portland and Oregon City in 1893.  The establishment of the railway made the concept of commuting a reality for the first time and paved the way for further growth by persons wishing to live in Oregon City and work in Portland. 

1913 - Oregon City’s first Municipal Elevator is built

Transport of another sort developed in 1913, when the first municipal elevator in Oregon City was constructed.  The water-powered elevator made the trip between the downtown and bluff easier for residents and supported a continuing trend to locate the residential neighborhoods on the upper terraces, while the downtown remained the focal point for commercial and governmental business. (Image: "Oregon City Municipal Elevator mural original elevator P1331" by EncMstr - Unknown artist and historic photographer. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution.)

1955 - A new Municipal Elevator is built

By the 1950s, the Municipal Elevator breakdowns became much more frequent and it was determined that a new elevator was needed to replace the wooden structure. A special election in May, 1952 authorized bonds for $175,000 to build a new elevator. The contract was awarded to James and Yost, Inc., who submitted a design proposal within the bond amount. The new elevator was dedicated on May 5, 1955, and the City Commission accepted it on July 13, 1955. The Oregon City Municipal Elevator continues to operate as one of only four municipal elevators in the world and “Elevator Street” remains the only “vertical street” in North America. (Image: http://www.pouted.com/worlds-20-weirdest-craziest-elevators/ Caption: The old elevator on the right and the new elevator on the left during renovations, temporarily bridged with a catwalk between them.)

2009 - Main Street Oregon City begins

What is now known as the Downtown Oregon City Association was funded to champion the revitalization efforts of downtown. To learn more, visit the Downtown Association page.

2010-2012 - The Oregon City Arch Bridge is restored

An iconic of the city, the Oregon City Arch Bridge was given an extensive rehabilitation from 2010 to 2012. Work began in July 2010, and the bridge was temporarily closed to all traffic starting in January 2011. The bridge reopened on October 15, 2012, with the $15 million restoration project nearly completed. The final items of work were completed in early 2013. One of the "intentions" of the project was to restore the bridge's original load-carrying capacity.” (Photo Credit: Steven Morgan.)

2013 - The Willamette Falls Legacy Project begins

For the first time in 150 years, Oregonians have the opportunity to rediscover a cultural and scenic treasure: Willamette Falls. A public vision and master plan are taking shape, with the goal of transforming a 23-acre industrial site nestled along the Falls in historic Oregon City. This former paper mill could someday serve as an economic engine, a waterfront destination, a unique habitat, a window into Oregon’s past, and a bold step into our future. The former paper mill was purchased in 2014, but the site’s complexity and risks still create a hurdle for transformation. That’s why Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro, the State of Oregon, and the new owners have come together to develop a vision and master plan. By rezoning the site and providing certainty for investors, the Willamette Falls Legacy Project will help a new era take shape along the Falls. (Photo Credit: Mark Gamba.)