The Lost City of Orleans

 A while back, I took you on a historic walk from Madison Plaza through some interesting parts of downtown. This time around, we head through Corvallis to the nearby town of Orleans. Never heard of it? Well, that’s not too surprising. But, I assure you that it’s right around the corner. Be sure to bring a crayon and a piece of paper. What? Oh, that’ll make more sense later.

Let’s start off by crossing the corner from Madison Plaza to that quirky 1970s office building at 4th and Madison. It’s an odd structure — a former bank, raised on the former site of the Corvallis Opera House. I’m not too sorry for the loss of the Opera House, though. To judge from the picture on the plaque, it wasn’t much of an architectural treasure. Probably the most noteworthy thing about the building that stands here now is the ornate and elaborate welded drinking fountain at the corner. I’ve passed it many times without ever looking at it too closely. It appears that it was erected in memory of Frank Groves. I have to admit, I have no idea who that was. Still, there are worse memorials around Corvallis, and I’ll have a drink in his memory, whoever he was.

Continuing down Madison we spot The Book Bin, which is on the former site of Corvallis’ Victorian City Hall /
fire station. That beautiful building really was a loss, not to say that we’re not all really glad to have our beloved bookstore. Further down the street you’ll spot Richard Gretz Jewelers. Did you ever notice a doorway off to the side of the main entrance? It’s locked and unmarked. I suppose it’s just a service entrance, but for some reason it has always struck me as just a little bit… spooky. As if it might lead, not into the back of the jewelry store but to… someplace else entirely. Gretz is a tenant of the Masonic Lodge, and until recently so was Mehlhaf’s Men’s Clothing. I think it’s kind of funny, people believing the Masons are some kind of weird secretive and immensely powerful organization when they’re right in plain sight in downtown Corvallis. The height of their local power seems to be renting business space to jewelers and clothiers. A conspiracy, perhaps? Well, let’s move on before we get in too deep. That secret Mason-rented door doesn’t open to Orleans, anyway.

Further down Madison are some fine specimens of some of my favorite things: sidewalk glass-block windows (for letting light into basements), sidewalk elevators (for letting people into basements), 1930s Art Deco storefronts (specifically, the glass-tiled former jewelry shop which until recently, housed the Gearbox), quirky public sculptures (that is, the giant insect perched on the alley wall at the back of the Kline Building between 2nd and 3rd Streets), and 1920s cast iron and brass storefronts (specifically, the Madison Avenue entrance to Five Star Sports).

At the corner of 2nd and Madison you’ll notice a highly recognizable piece of public art, a bronze statue of a dog next to a bronze statue of a water dish. The dog, known as “Cassie,” is petted by passing children often enough that her head is always well polished. The water dish is kept filled by the staff at Five Star Sports for the benefit of living dogs, which brings to mind an interesting philosophical point: a statue of a dog is just a statue, but a statue of a dog’s water dish really is a water dish.

Looking up from Cassie, we can see by the clock at the Clothes Tree across the street, that time is passing. We’d better continue along if we want to get to Orleans while the day is still nice. Speaking of nice though, the Clothes Tree sure looks better since they took down that ugly 1960s metal siding. Now it looks more like the way it did when the building first went up. Classic, I’d call it.

Even further down Madison, we pass the bank building at 2nd, with its steps leading down to a long-defunct steam bath and its long-snuffed gas lamps. Still an eye-catching building, I’ve often wondered what it would be like if either of those features were to be restored.

Finally reaching our destination at 1st Street and Riverfront Park, we pass a climbing structure of laminated wood and elastics that seems like the jungle gyms of my childhood died and went to Heaven. This structure is partnered with a beautiful bronze sculpture of leaping fish and earnest humans, that children won’t stop climbing on even though it’s not made for it. Just down the way we come to a plaza which hosts a busy fountain in the summertime, but even though the weather has turned, the water is not yet flowing. This is okay though, as it makes it easier to see the map laid out in the blocks making up the plaza itself. This is the river course as shown as it was in the 1850s. You could read the map better if it hadn’t been laid out sideways, but it’s not too hard to figure out.

If you look closely, you’ll spot the tiny settlement of Albany, occupying just a few little squares on the river. Nearby, you can spot a few more squares representing Corvallis, still known by its earlier name of Marysville. And there across the river, between where the bridges cross today, you’ll spot the ill-fated settlement of Orleans, our destination. You see, Orleans was completely washed away in the flood of 1862, which also destroyed Champoeg, site of the first Provisional Territorial Government, and Linn City. No houses or businesses survived, and although neighbors from Marysville and other local communities braved the waters in boats and managed to rescue most of the residents, nobody returned to rebuild the town, citing bad luck and low elevation.

Still, memories count for something, and I’m thankful for this remaining evidence of the lost city. Still have that crayon and paper? You can do a rubbing of Orleans’ spot on the map, and bring a little piece of it home with you.

But hey, we can get a little closer yet. Walking across the Van Buren Bridge and then onto Suzanne Wilkins Way you’d be almost there. It’s a steep climb down, because the road has been raised by hundreds of truckloads of fill to protect it from flooding, but the paved path turns right and goes under the bridge. Taking the dirt track to the left (obviously not an official path, but it’s also obvious that a lot of people go this way), and you wind up smack dab in the middle of where Orleans once stood.

You’ll notice that the ground level drops down quite far, so much so that along with the trees overhead it feels like its own little world. But even this lovely dell, what the Kalapuyas call a takena, is much higher than it used to be. We’re not going to see a trace of Orleans here, because the former site of the town is buried beneath immense truckloads and barge loads of fill. But you’ll know better.

by John M. Burt