My weekend in Baker City did not have the most auspicious of beginnings.
First, I’d chosen the destination practically at random. My only criterion was proximity to Sumpter Valley Railway, where Ben was attending a steam locomotive event. Second, I’d done no research whatsoever. This bout of what I can only call “travel apathy” is very out of character. What was Baker City like? Was there anything to do in town, especially in October? I hadn’t the faintest idea.
How surprising, then, that this weekend became one of my favourite parts of our Pacific northwest trip! Baker City’s blend of history and charming architecture alongside rugged natural beauty won me over almost immediately.
Here are 4 lovely things I got up to during the course of my visit…
1. Admiring wonderful architecture
Baker City is small and eminently walkable, so my plan on a bright October morning was to sling my camera round my neck and follow my feet.
I love autumn, especially when the weather’s mild, so I immediately fell for 1st Street and all its rosy, golden foliage. Plus, the clock tower on the horizon called to me, so I headed in its direction.
An Art Deco Gem
Baker City was forged in the gold rush of the 1860s, and much of its notable architecture built in the Victorian era, so I was overjoyed to stumble upon this Art Deco treasure further up 1st Street.
I was a little intrigued by the unusual name “Eltrym”. Apparently the building was due to be called the Times Theatre but upon opening in 1940 it was renamed in honour of Myrtle Buckmiller, a prominent member of the Baker City theatre community and the driving force behind the Eltrym’s construction. Sadly she died just 6 months prior to its completion, but what a lovely way to pay homage to her legacy. (Eltrym is Myrtle backwards!)
Since Art Deco is a style that’s very close to my heart, I was already considering the morning a roaring success as I spent a good 20 minutes trying to be creative and do justice to all angles of the Eltrym Theatre with my camera.
Baker City Historical District
Another way to my heart? Vintage advertising. Painted adverts on the side of buildings are high on the list, and Baker City has quite a few. While I doubt they’re authentic, I found these wonderfully evocative of the town’s past.
As I turned onto Main Street, I began to spot “Baker City Historical District” placards in ever increasing numbers.
At first I was determined to read every one I saw, not wanting to miss any lively details about ravaging fires or WWII Sky Watch Operations. But I soon realised that I would have to be more discerning if I wanted to both eat lunch and visit the museum in the same day.
To that end, I homed in on the illustrious Geiser Grand Hotel (c. 1889, above). While I was awed by its exterior, I wish I’d had the sense to take a look inside too. The dining room, with its enormous skylight and opulent chandeliers, looks especially beautiful.
There are many elegant homes in Baker City, but my final stop was the Italianate-style Leo Adler House (c. 1889), which stands out from the rest by virtue of its famous occupant.
Leo Adler was a philanthropist who ran a successful magazine and newspaper distribution business. On his death in 1993, he bequeathed $20 million to the city, including a college scholarship fund for local students in perpetuity.
Today, it’s home to the Adler House Museum, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to go inside; it had already closed for the season when I visited.
2. Sampling yummy food at Sweet Wife Baking
One look at the menu and food on display at Sweet Wife Baking and I was sold. Partly because the Resort Street café had a really good range of vegetarian options listed, partly because everything I saw looked amazing!
I thoroughly enjoyed some veggie soup and a strawberry-mango macaroon, but I could easily have stayed all day to sample the many delicious-looking treats (the lemon ginger scones sound divine).
3. Enjoying some intriguing exhibits at the Baker Heritage Museum
Cost: $7 for adults; open 9am – 4pm
Housed in a former natatorium (nicknamed “the Nat”), the Baker Heritage Museum is home to one of the most wonderful exhibition spaces I’ve seen in ages: the expansive, light-filled ballroom on the first floor, which charts various domestic scenes through history.
With most of the partitioned “rooms” set around the edge of the ballroom, there’s so much space that you feel you could still dance in there if you wanted!
The ballroom was my favourite part of the museum, and my favourite display within that the 1950s kitchen.
I found an awful lot to admire here, but the Ironrite Automatic Ironer instantly caught my attention. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before! Initially I thought the whole concept was ridiculous – interesting to see in a museum but hardly a useful machine. After watching a few videos on Youtube, though, I might be coming around to the idea. Apparently some people still use these and find them a really efficient alternative to hand ironing, particularly for large amounts of napkins and table cloths.
Also, let me take a moment to celebrate this electric blanket from 1911. I had no idea these existed so early.
Rather than simply keeping you warm, it seems to have been peddled as a bit of a cure-all. According to the label, it’s “been used with most marvelous effect in the cure of rheumatism, gout, neuralgia, kidney and liver diseases, insomnia, bronchitis, nervousness, paralysis, la grippe, pleurisy, catarrh, asthma and many other diseases”. Impressive!
While there were some interesting displays on the ground floor, I’d definitely recommend doing the upstairs first. The mezzanine, which sits above where the old swimming pool used to be, has a string of delightful dioramas, including a grocery store, barber shop and schoolroom.
There’s a small adjoining room devoted to Wally Byam, Baker City native and inventor of the Airstream Trailer.
I love these excerpts from his “Creed”:
“To lead caravans wherever the four winds blow…over twinkling boulevards, across trackless deserts…to the traveled and untraveled corners of the earth. To play some part in promoting international goodwill and understanding…To strive endlessly to stir the venturesome spirit”
Makes me want to write a creed for The Painted Globe!
And speaking of venturesome spirit…
4. Heading out on the Oregon Trail
Between the 1840s and 1880s, hundreds of thousands of people packed their lives up into wagons and began the 2170 mile journey westward from Missouri to Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Though much of the physical Oregon Trail was erased due to erosion and land development, around 300 miles of wagon ruts remain visible today. One such stretch cuts through the sagebrush hillside a mere 5 miles west of Baker City.
You can park by the side of the I-86 and walk the short distance from your car to see them, but before you do, I’d recommend getting a sense of context at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center up on nearby Flagstaff Hill.
National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
Cost: $8 for adults; open 9am – 4pm
The exhibits here complement the bare bones history of the ruts, providing vivid historical context and additional detail through first hand accounts, audio-visual displays and quality storytelling.
I went in feeling completely ignorant about the move west, and came out equipped with a decent understanding. And, perhaps even better, a real fascination to learn more.
My only qualm was the coverage of the First Nations people of the Oregon region. Their interactions and trade with those on the trail was covered, but I would’ve liked a greater emphasis on the devastating consequences of land acqusition following the mass migration. While this was touched upon towards the end, it wound up feeling like an afterthought. As if it paled in comparison to the adventures and tribulations of the pioneers…
Wagons, views and ruts
Back outside the centre is a ring of wagons, one of which is original. Set against the desolate backdrop of the hills and the canopy of the blue sky, the sight of them does bring the history off the page.
After admiring these and the views across Baker Valley to Virtue Flat in the east, I set off down the Ascent Trail to see the wagon ruts down below.
As I mentioned earlier, you can also park up and walk to the ruts. But since I had time to spare, I thought I’d do both.
While I found the lone wagon at the bottom of the hiking trails photogenic, I must say for the ruts themselves I preferred the ones nearer the highway.
I suppose the experience is less about ruts in the dirt, though, and more about walking in the shoes of those who were on the trail. About taking in the surroundings that likely haven’t changed a great deal over the years.
Some quick practical notes:
Food: There’s no café or food available on site, unusual for an attraction that’s a little distance from town. They do sell bottles of water and have some indoor seating, but that’s it.
Hiking to the wagon ruts: Information boards warn that visitors should “plan approximately one and a half hours to hike the trail system and return to the parking lot”. That becomes more important later in the day. You’ll want to ensure you’re back before the car park closes at 4pm.
Also, although there are shade shelters and benches, there are no drinking fountains or restrooms along the trail. So be sure to bring water if you can. The signage also recommends appropriate footwear, insect repellent and a hat!
Perhaps because such a small town isn’t an “obvious” destination, I’ve found myself questioning everything I felt about Baker City while writing this post.
Are some lovely architecture, tasty food and local history gems enough? Was it really that great? Sure, I don’t think it’d be everyone’s cup of tea. And I don’t think I would’ve stayed longer than a weekend…but I nevertheless felt a genuine affection for the place.
When we left, we went on to large, bustling cities. They had plenty of merits, but the comparison definitely cemented Baker City in my mind as a peaceful, slower-paced haven. Somewhere I felt safe and happy, strolling around quiet streets with my camera, finding odd little artefacts in a museum, or wandering a sagebrush hillside in the sunshine…
Over to you
I’d love to hear your thoughts on small-town travel. For convenience, I nearly always gravitate towards cities, but I have a huge fondness for smaller locales too. It’s something I want to concentrate more on with future travels!
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