Sunday, February 28, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Millions Expected To Follow Oregon Trail -- Celebrations Abound Along Route Of Wagons


BAKER CITY, Ore. - The Oregon Trail Sesquicentennial is rolling into 1993 like covered wagons rumbling downhill.

Just as hundreds of thousands of emigrants crossed 2,000 miles of plains, mountains and rivers 150 years ago, the celebration is massive and undeniable.

People can walk in the dusty ruts left by pioneer wagons, play a computer game, buy a bottle of trail dust, and join a catered covered-wagon train.

The Oregon Trail Coordinating Council expects 3 million people for the party, 10 times the number who traveled the trail from 1840 to 1860.

The celebration marks 150 years since the "great migration" of 1843.

Anticipating the gold rush, residents of this Eastern Oregon town pitched in to build the $10 million National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.

The Oregon Trail wasn't punched through the wilderness like a six-lane interstate. The route first was traced west to east along existing trails by a party of trappers in 1813.

Missionaries and a few hardy souls had gone before, but the 1943 migration was the first time a large number of people - nearly 1,000 - hit the trail, said Edwin Bingham, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon.

"It was a middle- or upper-middle-class migration," Bingham said. "Probably on average it cost $200 to $400 to make the five-month trip. Not until the Gold Rush in 1849 was it contaminated by adventurers."

The young nation was gripped by Oregon Fever. Ignorant of how to carve life out of the Great Plains, people leapfrogged to the familiar forests of the Willamette Valley, helping cement their nation's claim to the Northwest over England's.

From a gentle grassy swale through Minor City Park in Kansas City, Mo., to deep cuts through rock near Guernsey, Wyo., the ruts left by wagons are visible along 10 percent of the trail.

States along the way publish guides to follow the footsteps of the pioneers and are planning celebrations. Wagons will ford the Snake River in Idaho. Wyoming has reconstructed frontier outposts, such as Fort Laramie. Bayard, Neb., is holding Chimney Rock Pioneer Days.

Museums dot the route from the National Frontier Trails Center in Independence, Mo., to the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Oregon City.

The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City is the latest.

"Where they crested that pass and entered into the Powder River Valley, the overlanders saw for the first time the promise of Eden," said Jim Renner, interpretive director for the coordinating council.

Visitors step into a life-sized wagon train, where they can talk to a mountain man and peer into the fly-flecked eye of an ox. With model wagons, they can make their own wrenching decisions whether to take a family heirloom or a barrel of flour.

"I've seen old folks come out of here with tears in their eyes," said Bud Butts, a retired shipping foreman who dresses up in buckskins to become mountain man Festus Coopman. "They've heard all their lives about what Grandma did and how she never complained. Then they saw what it was really like."

Motion detectors trip recordings that give voice to the trail. A woman keens at a rude grave. A child taunts a goat. A Cayuse Indian worries about white people filling his land.

"The foremost majority of those who came were land speculators," said Stephen Dow Beckham, a Lewis and Clark College professor who developed the story line.

"Technically, they were subsistence farmers. But if you look at their profile used in the 1850 census, you see from the places of birth of their children that these people pulled up stakes and moved several times before."

"There has been a terrible tendency in the past . . . to see the pioneers as larger than life or perfect people. They weren't," Beckham said.

"From 1843 to 1856, virtually all the Indians west of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington were either vanquished in warfare or removed to small reservations. This was an exceedingly brutal, almost genocidal process."

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla are developing a $3 million interpretive center of their own outside Pendleton.

"What we want to tell the world is that Manifest Destiny didn't work," said Jackie Cook, project curator. "We're still here."

The land suffered, too, as the pioneers laid the foundation for the Northwest's battles over the northern spotted owl.

----------------------------- INFORMATION -----------------------------

Here are addresses to write for more information on the Oregon Trail Sesquicentennial celebration: Oregon Trail Coordinat ing Council 222 N.W. Davis, Suite 309 Portland, OR 97209 Oregon State Tourism

Office 775 Summer St. N.E. Salem, OR 97310 Idaho Vacation Informa tion 700 W. State St. Boise, ID 83720


Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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