17 June 2010

Journey Back in History: The Columbia River Gorge

It's been awhile since I last wrote, so I have to make up for lost time. Last month my dad and I took a trip through the Columbia River Gorge to relish in our local history and drive through one of the world's greatest geological features. We left by nine that morning and drove straight to The Dalles for lunch at the Baldwin Saloon, circa 1876. Now, this most definitely isn't the oldest saloon in Oregon (saloons came to the West with the land speculators even before civilization came to the West), but it is one of the oldest saloons still in use today, which encompasses all of its authentic charm.The saloon was established by James and John Baldwin with the boom of the railroad (which is literally across the street from the saloon). Following the proprietorship of the Baldwin brothers, Dr. Charlie Allen (affectionately titled "doctor" by himself, for he was a seller and adjuster of eye glasses) purchased the saloon and married the Madam of the brothel next door. To ensure his costumers of his reputation as a "doctor," he included caduceus on the facade of the building framing the windows (as seen in the picture below).Since then the building has been a restaurant, warehouse, steamboat navigation office, coffin storage, state employment office, and saddle shop. In 1991 the saloon was refurbished to its original use and was reopened as Baldwin Saloon, including many original pieces from its early days (including a big brass cash register, floor safe, and scale).

Following our lunch of delicious sea food stew and grilled cheese turkey sandwiches, Dad and I traveled down Celilo-Wasco Highway and turned down Fulton Canyon Road to the small township of Locust Grove (if you can call it a township). From the road, Locust Grove consists of two or three homes, an old barn, and an abandoned church. Surrounded by hay fields, Locust Grove isn't even on Google maps. However, the church was enough to make my dad and I stop and get out of our car.
As we approached the weathered church surrounded by naked trees and overgrown weeds, I couldn't help but notice the peaceful serenity of the place. The wooden building was black and gray from sun exposure and weather, yet what remained of the tin roof gleamed. We could not enter the building due to a "No trespassing" sign and probably to decaying floor boards, but as we looked into the building the quiet sanctuary was not so quiet. The song of birds, which now inhabit the rafters filled the air. It reminded me of a quote from St. Francis of Assisi:
My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you...you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly.
The presence of God is still evident despite its human abandonment. Bails of hay still act as makeshift pews, yet the congregation has long since departed. On a metal sign beside the doorway tells the only history of this forlorn church.The sign left me wondering, what happened to the town and the church? Who was M.A. Van Gilder? Using all the databases available through my affiliated university and through Oregon Historical Society. Again and again my searches returned empty. Finally I decided to simply Google M.A. Van Gilder and I was able to find a biographical sketch about him and his family written in 1905. Milon A. Van Gilder was born in New York in November 1854 and married Miss Jennie Porter in 1864. As a farmer and carpenter, Van Gilder moved him and his family to Sherman County, Oregon in 1889, purchasing four hundred acres of land. By 1897 he built a two-story home and large barn. I am not certain if Van Gilder built the Locust Grove church on his own property or not, but by the time he built his home and barn, the church was erected. By 1904, Van Gilder's property increased to six hundred acres. Still the mystery of what happened to the town and Van Gilder remains...

Dad and I continued our journey to the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge and to our main destination: Maryhill Winery and Museum. Sam Hill (1857-1931), an entrepreneur of the Pacific Northwest, who helped construct the Historic Columbia River Highway, purchased 5,000 acres to establish ranchlands under the name of Maryhill (named after his daughter) for a Quaker community (his family had Quaker roots). However, the Quaker community did not spring up as he had hoped, and began building the mansion in 1914 and turned the ranchlands into vineyards. Still, the Hill family did not take up residence in the rustic Columbia Gorge, and by the persuasion of Hill's dear friend Queen Marie of Romania (1875-1938) the mansion was dedicated as an art museum in 1926. Through the combined efforts of other famous faces, the museum was open to the public in 1940.The museum houses artifacts from the Romanian royal family, gifted by Queen Marie, as well as sculptures, paintings, and other pieces of art from turn-of-the-century artists. A whole gallery is dedicated to the French sculpture Auguste Rodin. Another exhibit displays Native American artifacts.

As we returned to the Oregon side of the Gorge, we decided to stop for a chocolate dip cone at Wendy's and drive the Historic Highway up to Rowena Plateau. In the photograph below, the road beneath the plateau is part of the Historic Columbia River Highway. It was such a wonderful way to end our mini-road trip, for the whole plateau was abloom with wild flowers.If anyone gets a chance to travel to the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia Gorge is a must see! The fingerprints of God are everywhere.


  1. One of the worst typos a "historian" can make is a date typo. Please note that the date of Van Gilder's marriage to Jennie Porter was not 1864, but 1884. My bad!

  2. Jennifer, I'm related to Milon (sort of), but I would not have known about this church if you hadn't posted your story. Thank you. As you know, the church was built by Milon Alonzo VanGilder, husband of Jennie Porter. She was my great grandfather's sister. Milon and Jennie are buried at the Sunrise Cemtery near Wasco, OR. along with an infant son, one of their six children. Thanks again. Phyllis


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