Imagine it to be 1842 in Oregon Country – your spouse hasn’t arrived home by nightfall, although expected to return by horseback to Oregon City after a week away in Astoria. As worried as you may be, a logical choice might be to go out into town and knock on doors within this small settlement for news. Or wait: another day, a week, longer? Or, perhaps you could await morning light to retrace your loved one’s steps with your own horse!
Visiting with a friend last weekend – let’s call him “John” – at the Willamette Ale and Cider House in Historic Willamette, I was introduced to the “Find my Friend” app. In response to my inquiries about his kids, “John” pulled out his phone. Before he headed home on this Friday night, he wanted to check to see if they were where they said they would be, taking an extra minute to show me the location of his wife. Although I’m mostly technologically savvy, the “Find my Friend” app isn’t one I’ve paid attention to. Not only do I have no interest in figuring out where my 28 year old daughter might be, it’s darn creepy to be able to learn if my spouse is still at Safeway or perhaps loitering somewhere else in our little town, or – egads – beyond? I do admit to turning on the TV to our local public access channel during long-lasting City Council meetings, looking to see if he is still at the dais, not because I’m concerned about where he is but simply to know if I’m likely to see him before I go to sleep for the night.
I feel fortunate to parent kids who missed out on phone and similar screen options during childhood. They are young enough to have learned early on computers, our youngest more proficient on keyboard at seven than most, finding it much quicker for her than writing. Yet the screens of their childhood sat on desks, and lacked the bells and whistles of today’s models. Our kids were teens by the time they got cell phones. We called to check in, or otherwise expected to see them at whatever our agreed upon time was. We were lucky, our kids didn’t cause too many late night worries, none as bad as the time one of them arrived alone in Tokyo, and – news to us until learning by email 24 hours later – without a compatible phone to text her safe arrival.
But what about communication in the Oregon Country? Before Territory or Statehood? If you weren’t physically with someone, who is to say you could be certain you’d hear from them anytime soon?
Chloe carried few possessions. Her seaward journey was easier than walking or riding the many tough miles of the Oregon Trail, yet still nearly incomprehensible to most modern travelers. Chloe was confined to the Lausanne for nine months, unsure whether she would ever see family again..The Falls, My Music Man
Chloe left the Atlantic seaboard in 1839, arriving at Fort Vancouver in 1840: it would be a very long time before her parents knew whether this 21 year old daughter arrived safely in the wild west. Back in Chloe and Williams day? They might write a letter and have it carried by an acquaintance traveling overland, or, perhaps, sent by sailing ship. In 1847, one year before the formation of the Oregon Territory, the U.S. Post Office began delivering postal items from the east coast to the west coast – all via Panama. We had two post offices, not surprisingly, in Astoria and Oregon City. It wasn’t until a year after the Oregon Territory was formed that the Pacific Mail Steamship Company served routes from Panama along the west coast. Some of the mail during this time was carried by military between Fort Leavenworth and Santa Fe. Wagon trains might successfully carry mail, unless interrupted by ambushes or tragedy. When the Overland Mail Company stage line of John Butterfield was under contract, stages covered a 2,800 mile southern route between Missouri and San Francisco, claiming a 24-day run, but often taking months. Sometime after items might be carried, like passengers, by stage coach to steamship.
Of course, that all only speaks to communication by letter. For those of us in our middle years, many of our grandparents remembered the days before telephones, sending a telegram if you must, or post a letter and await its arrival. Telegraphs – the system of sending messages along a wire, creating signals by making and breaking electrical connections – began in Oregon in 1856 with service between Portland and Oregon City, service extending to Corvallis within the next year, but not to San Francisco until 1864.
Steamboat captain George Ainsworth brought the first telephone to Oregon in 1878, just two years after Alexander Graham Bell patented the device. The first Oregon call took place between Captain Ainsworth and his wife on a line constructed between his office and home in Portland. Local telephone exchanges opened in Astoria and Salem in 1884, and in Union in 1885, calls connected by operators, or “hello girls”. (Oregon History Project.) Yet, it’s probably fair to say the average Oregonian didn’t see a phone until after the turn of the century. (Hint: in 1900 there were almost 600,000 phones in U.S., but by 1910 the U.S. had close to 5.8 million sets.)
Parents of those of us growing up in the 1960’s generally didn’t have many options for tracking us down during a day we weren’t in school. They might be lucky enough to know the phone number of the home where we might have said we would be, though mostly they had no idea. We were likely farther away than any corded phone could stretch. In my world of today, it’s more common for my grown kids to tell me to get off my screen, a reminder I appreciate receiving. While I don’t wish to be back in the days when friendship and family ties were difficult to sustain over distance, and I appreciate not having to wait a week to know that a family member traveling is safe, I do hope we set our devices aside to be present, in the now. To take in the real beauty present in our lives, minute by minute, and perhaps not always need apps to know all is well.