Although it’s not the largest or most popular state park in Oregon, Champoeg State Heritage Area is perhaps the most important. Important not only to those looking for a scenic area to camp, hike, bicycle, picnic or play disc golf, but important because this park is located on the exact site where the first American government on the Pacific Coast was organized in 1843. If it weren’t for a slim margin of just two votes, the first democratic vote in the West, Oregon’s allegiance would have gone to the great English trading monopoly, Hudson Bay Company, instead of to the United States. A stone marker was erected on May 2, 1901 in honor of the historic vote. The names of 52 men who voted to form the government (50 voted against) are inscribed on three sides.
Your first stop inside Champoeg State Heritage Area should be the visitor center. Displays and artifacts tell the story of the parks first inhabitants, the Kalapuya Indians as well as European trappers, traders, and settlers. In the early 1800’s, French-Canadian fur trappers, associated with the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver, roamed the region in search of beaver fur.
But by the 1830’s, the fur trade declined and the trappers turned instead to wheat farming. The rich loamy soil of the floodplain and centuries of controlled burning by the Kalapuya made the prairie an ideal place for farming. Before long, Champoeg had several steamboat landings that brought passengers and goods to town, and carried area farm products to Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Vancouver.
Champoeg eventually grew to about 200 settlers, but a powerful flood in 1861 completely destroyed the bustling town. Today, stone markers show us where the original streets were laid out, but since no buildings remain, you’ll need a little imagination when you walk here. During the summers and when funding is available, park visitors can watch Oregon State University archeology students uncover pieces of ceramic dishes, metal utensils, glass bottles, bricks, nails and other everyday articles that belonged to early residents.
Champoeg State Heritage Area also includes the nearby Historic Butteville Store founded in 1863. It is considered the oldest operating store in Oregon, and is the last commercial reminder of the once thriving Willamette River community of Butteville. A paved path leads from the campground to the store if you care to walk or ride your bike over for lunch, ice cream, or to buy souvenirs.
IF YOU GO:
$5 per vehicle day-use fee; camping fees extra.
For more information on Champoeg State Heritage Area, call the parks Visitor Center at (503) 678-1251, ext 221, or visit the website of the Friends of Historic Champoeg, a non-profit organization dedicated to working in partnership with Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department to interpret Oregons rich heritage.
In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith is also a treasure hunter and loves a good latté. She and her husband own an online gold prospecting and metal detecting equipment store found at GoldRushTradingPost.com