BAKER CITY, Ore. -- With Victorian-era buildings nearly uninterrupted along the city's expansive Main Street -- wide enough for a mule team to turn around -- Baker City makes a modern visitor feel like a time traveler.
More than 100 Baker City buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and Baker City is just seven miles from the Bureau of Land Management's National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, where visitors can still walk the same path as the Pacific Northwest's pioneers.
Although the Oregon Trail runs near Baker City, it does not go through the town, which was built during the gold rush of the 1860s and during a second, 20-year mining boom from 1890 to 1910, well after the Oregon Trail's 1840-60 heyday. Discoveries from the gold rush are on permanent display at the U.S. Bank on Main Street, where a 5-pound gold nugget shines in a glass case.
Nicknamed variously Queen City of the Mines and Queen City of the Inland Empire, Baker City became one of the largest outposts between Salt Lake City and Spokane, Wash.
With gold flowing freely, opulence followed, including the arrival of a saltwater aquarium to hold live lobsters imported from Maine in the 1890s.
As the decades passed, mining gave way to ranching and efforts to update the cityscape resulted in the erection of aluminum storefronts that hid the history beneath. These facades may have been ugly, but they also protected the historic buildings. By the 1970s, Baker City had fallen on hard times.
"People walked out and closed the door," said Ann Mehaffy, director of Historic Baker City Inc., a nonprofit revitalization program. "They didn't have the will or the money to tear down old buildings and build new ones. That was a huge advantage in the end."
Baker City's historic district was nominated to the National Register in 1978 and efforts to revitalize the city core took off in the 1990s with a strategic plan to preserve and promote the city's historic buildings, unearthed from their mid-century makeovers.
"If there's one thing you're going to do, go explore the historic district," suggests Barbara Sidway, co-owner with her husband, Dwight, of the Geiser Grand Hotel. "It's the most intact, 19th-century streetscape in the American West and there are friendly shopkeepers who will welcome you in their doors. It's like a museum that's always open and it charges no fee."
The historic district includes a 1909 Carnegie Library (now home to Crossroads Art Center), the 1908 St. Francis Cathedral and several Victorian private homes. Nearby there's also a natatorium that's been converted from an indoor pool into the Baker Heritage Museum with a second-floor ballroom.
But the Geiser Grand is indisputably the city's iconic building. Designed in an Italianate Renaissance Revival style by architect John Benes, the 1889 building was home to the third elevator west of the Mississippi.
Denny Grosse, a spry 80-year-old, gives hotel tours on Saturday afternoon (free to guests, $2 for other visitors). At the start of the tour she pointed out the clocks in the building's cupola.
"The original clocks were wind-up, not electric, and were backlit by gas. In 1889 there were no streetlights, so that was the brightest spot in the night sky," she said. "Cowboys and miners would come into town, get all liquored up and shoot out the clocks."
After replacing the clocks multiple times, the hotel's owner replaced them with large lion heads. Those were also used for target practice. One wounded lion head, with a gunshot through an eyebrow, hangs in the hotel bar today.
The 30-room hotel is said to be haunted and its history is included in the book "Ghost Stories of Oregon" by Susan Smitten, which describes hotel guests hearing the voices of people talking and laughing and a lady in blue who has been seen walking up and down the grand staircase.
It's not difficult to imagine ghosts on the windswept prairie outside Baker City. The valley is surrounded by mountains that were still snowcapped in late April during a walk in the ruts of history at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. There, visitors get a sense of the journeys made by pioneers who made the trip from Missouri to the West Coast.
Kelly Burns, a park ranger, said it takes visitors several hours to work their way through the center if they read every placard about life on the Oregon trail, settling the area, gold mining, land management and American Indian tribes.
"We have a few artifacts and a few reproduction artifacts, but it's an interpretive center rather than a museum," she said. "It's artifact-light and interpretive-heavy."
That included a presentation by Dave Noble, 67, who was dressed as a mountain man in a typical 1834 outfit -- except for the cellphone hidden inside a pouch that dangled from his belt.
Noble explained common misconceptions about the Oregon Trail experience: That wagons were pulled by horses, that pioneers rode in the wagons and that Indians attacked every wagon train.
"The wagons were pulled by mule and oxen," he said, noting that horses that attempted the trail often starved to death. "Oxen are bovine, they have four stomachs, and they do well on prairie grass. The other thing about oxen is they travel at 2 miles per hour and if you head out on a walk, you'll walk about 2 miles per hour. It's really easy to keep up with them. A horse walks at about 5 miles per hour, so you'd have to jog to keep up."
Noble said riding in wagons was not much of an option except for the sick and injured or the smallest children. Most settlers walked with the wagon train.
Indian attacks were rare, especially between 1843 and 1858 when the Indians were helpful guides for the pioneers.
"Along about 1858, a light popped on and they said, 'These guys have been lying to us. They are not crossing our land, they're stopping. They said they wouldn't kill our animals or deer and they are killing them.' So, yeah, then things began to happen," Noble said.
Perhaps nothing puts a visitor in a pioneering mind frame more than a hike on the Oregon Trail itself. The path is still visible beneath the ridge where the interpretive center sits. Paved paths from the center lead down to the ruts and accompanying swale, which are also accessible from nearby Highway 86.
It may be impossible to duplicate the experience of those West Coast settlers, but walking the dusty trail on a windy late April day after time spent at the center, it wasn't difficult to get at least a sense of the long, arduous journey it must have been.