Why Oregon City is the Perfect Destination for Everyone

Downtown Oregon City Photo via Oregon City Facebook page

Located at the southern end of the Willamette River in Clackamas County, Oregon City is a historic character in and of itself. Located south of Portland, the town is situated just below the majestic Willamette Falls, which has played a significant role in the development of the region. In this article, we'll take a closer look at the history and attractions of Oregon City (the "OC" to locals and residents), and explore why it's a great place to visit or call home.

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Downtown Oregon City, the oldest city to be incorporated west of the Rocky Mountains.. Photo via Downtown Oregon City Facebook page

Oregon City's Early History: Urbs civitatis nostrae prima et mater

The adopted motto of Oregon City is an appropriate one: Urbs civitatis nostrae prima et mater, a Latin phrase that translates to "First and mothertown of our state". In fact, this is a city of many firsts.

Oregon City in the 1850s as depicted in a painting by John Stanley
Detail from "Oregon City on the Willamette River" by John Mix Stanley, c. 1850s (Amon Carter Museum of American Art) via Wikimedia Commons

Founded in 1829 by the Hudson's Bay Company, the town holds the distinction of being the oldest incorporated city west of the Rocky Mountains. Oregon City played an indispensable role in the rich history of Oregon and the West Coast itself, as it was the territorial capital of the Oregon Territory from 1848 to 1851.

The Father of Oregon

The imposing face of John McLoughlin via Wikimedia Commons

Initially, the city was established in Oregon Country as a fur trading post by Dr. John McLoughlin, the "Father of Oregon" and chief factor of the Hudson's Bay Company in the Pacific Northwest. McLoughlin selected this site at the confluence of the Clackamas and Willamette Rivers, knowing this could be a major conduit for trade.

The city's newspaper, the Oregon Spectator, was the first American newspaper to be published west of the Rocky Mountains, and a paper mill has been in operation ever since (until being slated for new use in recent years).

Oregon City's newspaper, the Oregon Spectator, was the first American newspaper to be published west of the Rocky Mountains
Oregon Spectator newspaper cover from 1846. From: Oregon: Her History, Her Great Men, Her Literature. By John B. Horner, copyright 1919. via Wikimedia Commons

The Oregon Territory

With the official organization of the Oregon Territory in 1848, Oregon City was designated as its capital. The battle between it, Salem, and Portland for early supremacy was finally won in 1851 when the headquarters of the state capitol was permanently shifted south to Salem (although Oregon City retains the title of county seat).

During the mid-19th century, Oregon City underwent unprecedented growth, propelled by the expansion of the lumber industry and the establishment of factories and woolen mills that operated along the banks of the river. The city also played a pivotal role in the historic Oregon Trail, serving as the last stop for pioneers before they filed Donation Land Claims and embarked on the final leg of their journey to the Willamette Valley.

Black and white image of main street in oregon city from 1910
Main St, circa 1910, via Wikimedia Commons

During the mid-19th century, Oregon City underwent unprecedented growth, propelled by the expansion of the lumber industry and the establishment of factories and woolen mills that operated along the banks of the river. The city also played a pivotal role in the historic Oregon Trail, serving as the last stop for pioneers before they filed Donation Land Claims and embarked on the final leg of their journey to the Willamette Valley.

Related: Play the Original Oregon Trail Game Online

Oregon City Today: The Seat of Clackamas County

At just over 37,000 residents, the city population as of the 2022 census, OC still retains that small-town feeling while being only about 30 minutes south of Portland. Public transportation includes the Oregon City Transit Center, located on 11th between Main and McLoughlin. Three state highways also pass through the city (OR 43, OR 99E, and OR 213). To the north across the Clackamas River, you'll find the city of Gladstone, and across the Willamette River, the city of West Linn.

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Willamette Falls in Oregon City photo via Oregon City Facebook page

Communities and neighborhoods in OC include Barclay Hills, River Crest, South End, McLoughlin, and Hillendale. The Caufield neighborhood is where you'll find Clackamas Community College.

The Willamette Falls Legacy Project

This outstanding project is a collaborative effort to enhance public access to and revitalize the natural, cultural, and historic significance of Willamette Falls. The project includes the creation of a riverwalk to provide public access to the falls, as well as the restoration of the historic Blue Heron paper mill site for mixed-use development. Educational and interpretive programs will also be offered to educate visitors about the significant role the falls play in the area's ecology and tribal significance.

Willamette Falls Legacy Project from Willamette Falls Legacy Project on Vimeo.

The project is a partnership between Oregon City, Clackamas County, the State of Oregon, local Native American Tribes, the Oregon Historical Society, and public and private organizations. Its goal is to create a world-class destination that supports Oregon City's economy and creates new jobs and opportunities for businesses.

Rendering via willamettefallslegacy.org

Relax and Unwind: Finding Serenity in Oregon City on the Willamette River

Located just off the 205 Interstate and built into the hills overlooking Portland and the Willamette River, there are endless things to check out and do in this historic town.

Ride the Oregon City Municipal Elevator

This is the only outdoor public elevator in the United States as well as the only vertical street! It provides visitors with a quick and easy way to access downtown Oregon City from the upper bluff area and is also a convenient way for residents and visitors to reach the downtown area, which features a variety of shops, restaurants, and other attractions. The elevator was built in 1915 and has been in continuous operation ever since.

A view from the top of the elevator via / Ian Sane / Flickr CC2

The Oregon City Municipal Elevator is located in the center of downtown at the corner of 7th and Railroad Streets, and is open to the public year-round. Visitors can ride the elevator for free, making it a great way to experience the beautiful views of Willamette Falls and the surrounding area.

Visit Willamette Falls on Foot or By Kayak

Willamette Falls is the largest waterfall in the Northwestern United States by volume and the 17th widest in the world. It's incredibly fun to rent a kayak or canoe from eNRG and paddle up to the falls. If you're not into the idea of getting wet, walking along the McLoughlin Prom is an equally lovely way to see the river and waterfall.

Image via Google Local / Soriah V.

Hike at Canemah Bluff

The Canemah District is rich in Native American history, and hiking here truly feels like you've left the city for a trip to the forest. Start off in Oregon White Oak savannah, then head into the woods past a pioneer cemetery. Visit at the right time of year and you'll be greeted by deep blue fields of indigenous Cammasia in bloom.

Canemah Bluff Trails via / Kirill Ignatyev / Flickr CC2

Take in the Historical Buildings and Houses

John McLoughlin and George Abernethy were two of OC's original settlers, both taking land claims and building houses in what would become the capital and county seat. Abernethy was Oregon's first provisional governor, and you'll find his namesake legacy all over town, from the Abernethy Bridge to Abernethy Creek. Although his pioneer home is long gone, you can still visit the historical marker site today.

Dr. John McLoughlin House via Flickr CC2

McLoughlin's 1845 home was moved up Singer Hill from its original location near the waterfront, and he and his wife Marguerite are buried on the grounds. Today it's designated as a National Historic Site.

The 1843 Francis Ermatinger House in Oregon City played perhaps the most significant role in Oregon's history, and it's the third oldest home ever built in the Oregon Territory.

The unassuming facade of the Frances Ermatinger House via / Mt. Hood Territory / Flickr CC2

One fateful evening in 1845, Asa Lovejoy of Boston, Massachusetts, and Francis Pettygrove of Portland, Maine were relaxing in the parlor of Ermatinger's home when they decided to flip a penny that would determine the name of the new town in the woods down the Willamette. Pettygrove won the toss, and Portland has forever been instead of Boston. Self-guided tours are available on weekends. If you want to see the original penny, visit the Oregon Historical Society in Portland where they have the real deal on permanent display.

Other buildings of note are the Barclay House, the Carnegie Library, and the Holmes House / Rose Farm.

Take a Ghost Tour

If you are a fan of history and believe in ghosts, (or even if you don’t), make a reservation to participate in a walking ghost tour. Visit Northwest Ghost Tours website to book your tour and learn about all the early history and spooky tales from the city's founding.

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Ghost Tour of Oregon City, Frances Ermatinger House via Northwest Ghost Tour Facebook page

Find Some Great Food

If you want to try one of the most raved-over tacos in the area then you have to check out OC Taco. They have 8 styles of street tacos featuring your classics and other tasty seasonal options.

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Taco plate at OC Taco photo via OC Taco Facebook page

 Other great spots to consider are The Verdict Bar & Grill (a play on words for the courthouse located across the street), Oregon City Brewing, McMenamins (residing in an old church), Mike's Drive-In, Super Torta (I love their nachos), and my personal favorite, The Highland Stillhouse.

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Oregon City Brewing photo via Oregon City Brewing Facebook page

I've been to England, and the Stillhouse is the closest thing I've ever found stateside that exactly mimics a true British pub. From the football (soccer to us) memorabilia covering the walls to the best selection of Irish and Scottish whiskeys outside of Kell's, this eatery has it all. I'm particularly fond of their Fish & Chips, especially when drenching them in malt vinegar. The Scotch Eggs are on point, and the homemade Bread Pudding is easily the best I've ever eaten.

Highland Stillhouse Pub via Google Local

Visit a Museum

If you enjoy history, Oregon City's museums are a must.

The old pharmaceutical display room at the Museum of the Oregon Territory is amazing to see in person.

The Museum of the Oregon Territory overlooks the Willamette and contains many exhibits detailing the city's founding, its pioneers, and Native American culture.

The Stevens-Crawford Heritage House will transport you back to what life was like in the Edwardian Era.

The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is both museum and historical site, as it resides on the very meadow where pioneers would finally rest on the last stop after their long journey to Oregon Country from the east. Here you can see living-history in action, view video presentations about Oregon's First Peoples, and participate in historic games and crafts. It's an excellent place to bring the family.

Related: Take An Epic Oregon Trail Road Trip This Summer

Take in a Concert or Movie in the Parks

Every Thursday from mid-July to the end of August, free community concerts are held at the End of the Oregon Trail at 1726 Washington Street. Find more detailed information here.

Image via / Oregon City dot Org

Family-friendly movies are shown at Wesley Park off Leland Road during the summer as well. You can even vote to see your favorites here.

To Sum Up Oregon City

Oregon City is a vibrant city with a low population, cherished, and preserved by its local residents as a center for its rich cultural heritage, historic character, quaint shops, and varied restaurants. The city retains a small-town community vibe and proudly boasts several historic landmarks and other buildings, including the McLoughlin House, the Oregon City Municipal Elevator, and the Willamette Falls Heritage Area. Furthermore, the city hosts several annual events and festivals, such as the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center and the Oregon City Farmers Market, which pay tribute to the city's unique culture.

Downtown Oregon City Facebook Page 

Oregon City Website