Oregon Recreation History: Part One
Oregon is blessed with some of the most striking natural wonders in the nation. The state’s stunning coastline, Cascade Mountain Range and abundant rivers form a unique geography that has captivated Oregonians for generations. Very few aspects of Oregon’s past express this enduring relationship quite so well as the state’s history of outdoor recreation.
Popular pastimes such as gathering plants, hunting, fishing and animal husbandry arose out of the traditions of the state’s earliest inhabitants and remain important symbols of Oregon’s rich, natural heritage. As Oregon has grown, its outdoor culture has grown alongside it, and activities like biking, running and winter sports have made the state a mecca for outdoor recreation. Meanwhile, conservation efforts like the development of the state parks system, have ensured the preservation of the state’s natural resources. Over time, Oregon’s history of outdoor recreation has given it a distinct identity, rooted in a deep appreciation for the state’s natural beauty and an active commitment to its preservation.
Some of Oregon’s most popular recreation activities such as hunting and fishing, have been crucial to life in Oregon for centuries. Native tribes of the Pacific Northwest have long placed economic and cultural importance on fishing. For centuries before the arrival of Europeans in Oregon, fishing sites such as Celilo Falls supported enormous intertribal trading centers which attracted as many as 5,000 people.1 Although the construction of The Dalles Dam in 1957 submerged this area,2 these early fishing traditions established fishing as a key element of Oregon’s cultural identity. As the region developed, the commercial importance of fishing continued to grow as evidenced by the production of 450,000 cases of canned salmon in 18783 — only 11 years after the opening of the state’s first cannery.4
Oregon’s population eventually placed undue pressure on fishing and game stocks and, in response, Oregonians looked to balance commercial and recreational demands on natural resources. Oregon founded its first fishing commission in 1878 to address this issue and protect the state’s marine habitats. Later, in 1893, this commission was expanded to create a combined fish and game commission. Under director Hollister McGuire, the commission limited the game bird season for the first time and began marking salmon in order to monitor the population and make recommendations to the Legislature.
Oregon created its first official Game Board in 1899 and further restricted hunting and fishing in the state by instituting a closed season on beaver hunting and requiring fishing licenses for the first time in the state’s history.
The next few decades saw more significant milestones in wildlife management. In 1911, the state established 1.5 million acres of wildlife refuges, and, in 1938, Oregon State University graduated its first class of fish and wildlife students. By 1975, the newly formed Department of Fish and Wildlife managed 766,000 anglers and 390,000 hunters who spent $190,000,000 each year,5 and according to the most recent economic survey in 2008, Oregonians and visitors spent $2.5 billion annually on fish and wildlife recreational activities.6 Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife uses these funds to regulate outdoor recreation in Oregon and assist with long-term conservation strategies. Most of the state’s wildlife use now comes from sport fishing. Through outdoor recreation, salmon and steelhead still play an important role in Oregon’s outdoor culture. The Deschutes, Rogue and McKenzie Rivers are internationally known as blue ribbon fly-fishing destinations.
The boating that takes place on these rivers also has deep roots in Oregon’s history. In the 1890s when much of the state was still remote wilderness, the Rogue River was used to deliver mail to surrounding communities.7 Navigation of the Rogue and McKenzie Rivers also inspired the development of the drift boat and river dory. These new designs were created to help river guides maneuver river rapids as recreational boating became more popular at the turn of the century.8 Since 1958, Oregon’s Marine Board has kept the state’s waterways safe and clean by overseeing boater registration, safety education and law enforcement.9 Today, Oregon’s contributions to river travel and efforts to protect its natural areas have made it a popular area for boating and rafting.
Rodeo is also a sport whose history is intimately linked with Oregon’s heritage. This highly competitive sport combines a variety of events such as barrel racing, bull riding and calf roping designed to demonstrate each participant’s horsemanship skills. Several Oregon rodeo competitions have become well known in the rodeo community over the course of their long history. The first Pendleton show in 1910 was intended to be an exhibition of frontier life. That year, it attracted a crowd of 7,000 and has exploded in popularity over the years. High community involvement and enthusiasm made the four-day show a success. Today, over 60,000 attendees descend annually on Pendleton for the rodeo.10 11
Many other rodeos in Oregon have become part of Oregon’s storied history of outdoor recreation. Just three years after the founding of the Pendleton Round-up, the Molalla Buckeroo was established, making it only the third organized rodeo in the state’s history. Originally planned to celebrate the town’s first railroad in 1913, the rodeo as we know it today soon became an annual tradition.12 For decades now, the Molalla Buckeroo has been held each year during the week of July 4th and incorporates a large community parade in addition to the rodeo. The Saint Paul Rodeo in Marion County is also a long-running fourth of July tradition. Since 1935, the rodeo in Saint Paul has been a community cornerstone and is considered one of the best rodeo exhibitions in the nation. It also incorporates the entire community through parades and cook-offs.13 Rodeos such as these aim to foster a stronger sense of community and keep Oregon’s rich frontier traditions alive. Oregon’s many rodeos serve as a testament to its agricultural heritage and multifaceted culture.
Although traditions like fishing, boating and rodeo have contributed to Oregon’s unique identity, perhaps the oldest and most iconic symbol of recreation in Oregon is the beauty of the land itself. Over time, Oregon has become well known for its devotion to protect and share this land with the public through the parks system. The seeds of the public parks system originated with efforts towards highway beautification around the turn of the century. With the development of the automobile, tourism within the state grew, as did public demand for scenic preservation. In his Biennial Report in 1919–1920, State Highway Attorney J. M. Devers wrote that state highways might be improved if the State Highway Commission had some mechanism to acquire nearby land for public use.14