Saturday, August 16, 2014

Lewis & Clark Column

Here's a slideshow of the Lewis & Clark Column at the east entrance to Washington Park, just uphill from the Lavare Lions. I've lost track of how many times I've been nearby and taken photos of the column, but somehow it didn't occur to me to do a post about it until just recently. The column was built for the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition, a quasi-World's Fair held here to mark the centennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Other than this column, almost nothing survives from the fair; the fairgrounds were built around Guilds Lake in what's now the industrial part of NW Portland, and afterward almost everything was demolished, and then they filled in the lake and built on top of it.

Some details, from the column's Smithsonian database entry:

Shaft crafted as a Classical column with a sphere on top. The shaft stands on a square base. Seals for the states of Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho, which once comprised the Territory of Oregon, are installed on the sides of the base.
Commissioned by the Lewis & Clark Exposition Commission for approximately $10,500 as a gift of the people of Oregon in memory of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, first explorers of what is now the states of Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho. The first cornerstone was laid by President Theodore Roosevelt on May 21, 1903. The path leading to the work is lighted. IAS files contain the text of a commemorative plaque and a related article from the Oregonian, Feb. 11, 1967, which details a drive to restore the monument.

Thanks to the library's Oregonian database, I can link to the original newspaper story about Theodore Roosevelt laying the cornerstone, during a brief whirlwind visit to the city. Intriguingly, the article briefly mentions some sort of copper box sealed up inside the monument. I've actually heard this story before; I'm not sure where I saw it, and I don't have a link to share, but supposedly in recent years the city looked for this box and couldn't find it. Furthermore, legend (i.e. a story I don't have a link for) indicates the box may have contained Lewis & Clark gold dollar coins. At one point there was an effort to use proceeds from the sale of these coins to fund construction of the memorial, but I'm not sure whether that came to pass or not. (That link refers to a "memorial building", and I'm not sure whether that refers to the column, or some other, possibly unbuilt, structure.) I caution that I'm recalling a lot of this from a vague memory about something I read years ago, and the source material may or may not have been correct. All we can say for certain is a.) there may or may not have been a box; b.) this hypothetical box may or may not still exist; and c.) if it exists, what's inside is anyone's guess.

The February 1967 article isn't helpful in this regard. It discusses a letter by Francis J. Murnane, prominent longshoreman and civic activist, pointing out that the column was then suffering from vandalism and general neglect, and pestering the city to do something about it.

So I have a theory, based on the fact that laying a cornerstone was just the beginning of construction, which continued on for several years. (Here's a 1906 status update, claiming it was almost done, and then an October 1907 story announcing it really was finally done, for real this time.) I figure the box was either removed by officials right after the ceremony, or later by some underpaid construction worker who quietly pocketed it and its contents at some point during the four years it was under construction. A third possibility is that the anonymous city worker who later searched for it actually found it, claimed not to, and scored a few grand for it at an out-of-town coin dealer. Perhaps you've concluded by now that I tend to be a cynical person. It's not just that, though. I'm partial to the theories that don't lead people to go digging for gold in the middle of a public park, possibly toppling a historic (and heavy) column onto themselves in the process. To be on the safe side, I would like to add another detail to the legend, namely that there's a really gruesome Indian curse that falls on anyone who digs up the Lewis & Clark gold. I mean, it seems only reasonable that there'd be a curse attached, considering everything that happened to Indians later on as a result of the Lewis and Clark expedition. And if there isn't one, well, technically speaking I do have one Indian great-grandparent (albeit not from a Northwest tribe), so I totally have the power to place this Indian curse myself, as far as you know. And I can come up with some rather creative curses if need be. So, basically, why risk it?

Anyway, I have one random bit of column trivia to pass along, regarding a strange 1911 publicity stunt. Automobiles were new back then, and they tended to be rather underpowered, or at least that was the public image. A manager at the local Buick franchisee wanted to show his company's delivery trucks had power to spare, so he drove one up the steps to the monument, to prove it could be done, so long as you had a manly-man Buick truck at your command. Which just goes to show that truck commercials have changed very little in the past century.

No comments :