A History of Early Baker City: 1862-1910

This short history of Baker City, Oregon, was authored by Gary Dielman, local historian and long-time resident of Baker City.  Many thanks for Gary’s time as well as his attention to detail.

In 1864, there were just three cabins within the urban boundaries of present Baker City. That year attorney Royal A. Pierce laid claim to a portion of today’s downtown area and platted it. Within a year, Center Street (now Main) had a saloon (first structure built), a couple of hotels, a livery stable, a variety store/post office, a blacksmith shop, and several other buildings.

In 1862, the seat of Baker County government was Auburn, a gold mining boom town located five miles southwest of present Baker City and the first town after The Dalles east of the Cascades. As placer mines played out, Baker City soon eclipsed Auburn as the county’s commercial center and in 1868 became the new county seat.

In 1870, a two-story wood-frame building was erected as the first county courthouse. In 1885 it burned along with five inmates in the jail. A brick structure followed and was itself replaced by the current courthouse in 1909.

In 1874, the legislature approved Baker City’s first charter, which set up a board of five trustees. In 1887, Baker City adopted a “strong mayor” charter with blacksmith and farm implement dealer Syrenus B. McCord elected the city’s first mayor along with five councilmen. For years city hall was a barn-like building with council chambers on the second floor and fire wagon and horses on the first.

Beginning in its earliest days, Baker City had a Chinatown located on Auburn Street between Resort Street and Powder River. Chinatown included several businesses, a Chinese temple, private dwellings, opium dens, and prostitution cribs.

Baker City’s buildings were constructed of wood until 1873, when former Sheriff James W. Virtue, who had established the county’s first bank in 1870, built a three-unit, two-story stone “fire proof” business structure on the southwest corner of Main and Court. It burned down in the 1880’s.

Several fires ravaged Main Street buildings over the years. The most disastrous was the 1887 fire that destroyed all structures on the east side of the 1700 block of Main. Before the year was out, all those frame buildings were replaced by brick ones, which still stand, except those on the south end torn down in 1934 to make room for a gas station.

As Baker City grew in population—300 in 1870, 1,200 in 1880, 2,600 in 1890, 6,600 in 1900--all the downtown frame buildings were replaced by buildings constructed of brick and native tuff stone quarried at Pleasant Valley. The most impressive brick building still standing on Main Street is the elegant Geiser Grand Hotel, which the Warshauer brothers, Jake and Harry, constructed in 1889. It went by the name Hotel Warshauer until purchased by the Geiser family about 1900.

Beginning with construction of the Jett Building in 1901 (NE corner 1st and Valley), there followed an eight-year period of more construction using tuff stone: City Hall in 1903; St. Francis Academy in 1904 (razed in 1970); Rand Building in 1906 (NW corner of 1st and Washington) (burned down in 1985); Shoemaker Building in 1906 (SW corner 1st and Court); Rogers Hotel in 1907 (1930 1st); St. Francis Cathedral in 1907; Pythian Castle in 1908 (SW corner 1st and Washington); Baker County Courthouse in 1909; Carnegie Library in 1909; and North Baker School in 1910. The Old Post Office building was constructed in 1910 of native granite and Indiana terra cotta. Not until late 1909 did Baker City start paving downtown streets, which until then were either muddy or dusty.

The first Baker City public school was a two-story frame building for grades 1-12 located in the 2000 block of 4th Street. It was replaced in 1889 by a three-story brick building. As the population grew, neighborhood schools were built beginning with Brooklyn in 1900 (replaced in 1954), South Baker in 1901 (replaced in 1952), and North Baker in 1910 (after the first one burned in an arson fire in 1908).

Some prominent early Baker City citizens: entrepreneur William H. Packwood, a member of the Oregon Constitutional Convention in 1857, came to Baker County in 1862 and remained until his death in 1917; James W. Virtue, a native of Ireland, served as sheriff 1866-1870 and was Baker County’s first banker and a political power broker; German native Sigmund Heilner, founder of the Neuberger-Heilner store, was a successful Baker City businessman from 1872 until his death in 1917; attorney Charles A. Johns served several terms as mayor in the 1890’s and early 1900’s; native-born Harvey K. Brown was sheriff 1902-1906, presided over the only legal hanging in Baker County in 1904, and was assassinated outside his Baker City home in 1907; in 1906 both Johns and Brown ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor; William Pollman started in Baker City as a butcher in 1889, became a successful banker, and was elected mayor in 1906; the Baker Middle School building is named for Helen M. Stack, a Baker City teacher and high school principal 1889-1913; attorney John Rand served in several elective offices: Baker City attorney 1886-1888, Baker County district attorney 1888-1890, Oregon State Senator 1902-1906, and 21 years on the Oregon Supreme Court.

The Baker County Library has an extensive historical photos archive. Don't miss visiting their website!