Oregon’s visitor from the sky: the Willamette Meteorite

Most West Linners, at least those who have been here for awhile, likely know at least a little bit about a famed humongous piece of iron that sits today in the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. And if you happened to know nothing, but were out walking the paved trail that meanders along the Tualatin River at our West Linn Fields Bridge Park, you might surprise yourself to learn the details of this unique story.

This meteorite, the largest one ever found in North America, and sixth largest found in the world, weighs about 32,000 pounds, and is composed of mostly iron, with a bit of copper and traces of a few other metals. This hunk of a rock was found by Ellis Hughes in 1902 on land owned by Oregon Iron and Steel (see: From William Stafford to George Rogers and back again) located adjacent to Hughes’ Farm, just about two miles west of the town of Willamette. Willamette wasn’t incorporated into West Linn until a few years later in 1913.

Mr. Hughes reported later that he had been cutting wood for the Willamette School when he saw this big rock. Ellis Hughes was one ‘business savvy’ farmer as he imagined profiting a bit by charging folks 25 cents to see this unusual piece, once he, ahem, moved it onto his land. Moving this 32,000 pound object wasn’t a simple task, taking him through a good part of the year to secretly put in a road, attempt to cable and plank the heavy piece into a wagon with little extra power – his wife, son, and a horse. The details of this story are well worth reading in a booklet first written by Portland State University Professor Erwin F. Lange, and now sitting on West Linn’s website.

Later, Oregon Iron and Steel claimed rightful ownership, but not before Henry A. Ward heard stories about the meteorite captured by newspapers, and in 1904 traveled from New York to Willamette where he verified its celestial origins, and named it for the nearby town. Mr. Ward wrote about it in the 1904 Scientific American supplement.

This meteorite was soon after loaded on a barge, taken through the Willamette Falls Locks and towed to the Lewis and Clark Exposition at Guild’s Lake in Northwest Portland. I mention this 1905 fair briefly through my grandfather’s small boy’s eyes in the beginning of my memoir, My Music Man. Now i only wish I could ask my Daddy Dick if, in fact, he too got to see the meteorite! Soon after the exhibition had closed, Mrs. William Dodge bought the meteorite for over 20K, and donated it to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where it still sits today.

Of course, to be true to the story, we must remember that researchers believe that this hunk of iron didn’t first pop out of the sky directly into our Oregon, but rather was transported to the Willamette Valley during the Missoula Floods around 13,000 years ago. And, as importantly, we would be ignorant not to mention that this meteorite had long been considered sacred by indigenous people of the Willamette Valley, including the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, who made an unsuccessful effort to return the meteorite to their land. They were the ones, after all, who referred to this stone as Tomonowos, the visitor from the sky.

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The Tualatin River at Field’s Park in West Linn.

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