Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Past in Present Time

The past tugs at our hearts and minds with eerie threads of fascination, seduction and haunting. We can't go back, yet we curiously seek out places of history, we become nostalgic for a time we never knew and we long for what seem to be simpler days. I contemplated these peculiarities during a spring outing in central Oregon, where the flood of moments passing by erodes the relics of time more slowly than on the we(s)t side of the state. Part one was a short hop, and part two a giant leap, back in time.

Our first stop was a dot on the map of central Oregon called Shaniko, located at the intersection of Highways 97 and 218. Billed as a ghost town, the locals (who are generally not ghosts) perpetuate the old west image by restoring old store fronts and displaying relics. This is not wholly disingenuous. The town's roots lie in the 1870's, when August Sherneckau, a German immigrant, opened a store and inn at what was then called Cross Hollows. Legend has it that difficulty pronouncing his name resulted in the morph to the town name of Shaniko.

A century ago, with horse and train travel as the major means of transportation, no one would have dreamed that ghost inhabitants would eventually take over here. Making a trip by horseback was slow-going compared to our 60 mile an hour trips of today. Waystations like Shaniko catered to the same needs as McDonalds and Motel 6 do now.

Train stations likewise created population centers. By 1900, Shaniko's train station buzzed with activity as the largest wool shipping center in the United States.

Now, except for traffic going by on the highway, there is not much in the way of activity in the tiny triangle of “downtown.” A two story brick hotel from the heydays remains and its restoration continues. Several other structures are reasonably intact, housing a few shops. If you are lucky, you might be able to poke around in one. While we were there, the owner of one closed antique store left a note on the door apologizing because she had to leave town to get groceries.

Just down narrow, windy Highway 218 is Antelope. The wooden structures here are less contrived and touristy. Fire and relocation of the railroad killed this town, but during the roaring 90's it was booming with 170 residents. The population is barely one-third that now.

"The past is a foreign country." But at least they speak English here.

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