Where'd Wheatland go?
We pull up to the Wheatland Ferry slip and await our turn. The sun warms our car and I daydream.
I daydream of what I would have seen here in the 1800s: the bustling town of Wheatland, a site that was an important shipping port, had numerous businesses including two hotels, said to offer better accommodations than could be found at any other river hamlet between Salem and Oregon City.
Wheatland Ferry “sprouted” that town.
Here to this southeast corner of present Yamhill County, in the Great Migration of 1843, came 50-year-old Capt. Daniel Matheny, bringing wife and seven children. And on the banks of this Willamette — a name newcomers could neither pronounce nor spell — Matheny bought squatter’s rights to a land claim of James A. O’Neal. He also bought a ferry that O’Neal had ordered.
By 1844, Matheny Ferry was in operation. At the time, it was the only ferry on the Willamette that could carry a wagon and team. This first Wheatland ferry was a wooden raft, powered by men with wooden poles. Although numerous ferries of different structures have followed, its original name has remained.
In addition to this historical happening, the Wheatland area was the site of other important events. Across the river from Matheny’s ferry site was the Willamette Methodist Mission, established in 1834, and headed by Rev. Jason Lee — the first of the missionaries to come to the Oregon Indians. Tents furnished shelter until housing could be erected, as well as, at a later date, a granary and hospital. And in 1837, to the Willamette Mission came the first white women in the valley.
But by 1842, the mission was moved to north Salem and the site abandoned. In the disastrous flood of 1861, all buildings except the granary and hospital were washed away.
Other historic developments happened locally. A sailor-pioneer, George Kirby Gay, settled on a claim near Wheatland, and in 1841-42 built the first brick house in Oregon — in fact, the first brick house west of the Rocky Mountains. Barefooted Indians tramped the native clay that was formed and burned as bricks at the site.
And what a house it was: 32-by-22 feet, 14 feet high, featuring large fireplaces at both ends of the great room with hand-carved and dressed woodwork.
When Oregon’s Provisional Government designated Yamhill County boundaries on July 5, 1843, the George Gay House was a point in the description, reading, “South along the coast of the Pacific Ocean to a point due south of George Gray’s (sic) house, hence due east to the middle channel of the Willamette River.” The brick house became a popular stopping place for government officials and territorial visitors.
As settlement of the Willamette Valley grew and business activities increased, so did use of the Matheny Ferry. Wheat was a favored crop in the Willamette Valley, and early settlers were said to often plant it within a few weeks of taking up a claim. Abundant crops resulted and at the height of the harvest, long lines of wagons encamped at the ferry site, awaiting their turn on the ferry, bringing wheat to market.
Entrepreneur Matheny then envisioned a town to accommodate that activity. In 1847, he staked out a settlement at the ferry site and named the town “Atcheson,” but that name did not take. It was forever to be known as Wheatland. Matheny placed ads for the town in the Oregon City Spectator — and the lots sold.
Activity increased as river transportation progressed to steam power. Warehouses, stores and homes were built, as well as two hotels: The Occidental, owned and operated by James T. Isham, and The Wheatland, owned by F.M. Adair.
By 1867, Wheatland had a post office where M. B. Hendrick distributed the mail. A.J. Smith operated a blacksmith shop. John Smith and John Fowler had a harness and saddle shop. Al Zieber, an early Wheatland merchant, opened a store, and a Mr. Drury began manufacturing grain cleaners.
The first school at the ferry site was a private subscription school, but by 1867, pupils attended school in a log building, with D.P. Mason as teacher. About 1878, a “lumber” schoolhouse was built — a capacious structure: 24-by-36 feet. The Wheatland Church next became the public school building. New desks were bought for the 50 pupils, and Maude Williamson was the teacher.
Sunday church services continued in the building until 1906, but it also was the schoolhouse until a smaller replacement building served that purpose. Wheatland School was consolidated with Hopewell in 1945, and the newer, smaller structure was moved to Hopewell to serve as gym and community hall.
Because of increased trade resulting from the advent of steam power, Wheatland had developed into an important shipping point and was one of the better equipped ports.
But then, the beautiful Willamette that had nurtured Wheatland turned nasty. The 1861 flood washed out the lower portion of the town’s shipping facilities. It devastated Zieber’s business and wiped out the local warehouse where 7,000 bushels of wheat were stored.
And fire in 1872 burned Hendrick’s great mill, although he rebuilt and added a merchandising business, continuing his milling and warehouse business until the 1890s.
In 1881, Wheatland’s population was 319. The town had at least 15 businesses.
But the shipping port was challenged by the coming of the railroads. Shipping dramatically declined. The mighty Willamette knuckled down to the rails. The hotels closed. In 1903, the post office was discontinued.
The 1915 Oregon Almanac listed Wheatland’s population as 85.
Today, sitting in the car, awaiting our turn for river crossing, I visualize this site of Wheatland in its heyday: shipments of wheat departing, more wagons arriving, important visitors checking in at the hotels, businesses humming.
Today, the Methodist Mission across the river from the Matheny Ferry site is gone. Gay’s brick house has crumbled. An entire town has disappeared. All that remains today is Wheatland Ferry — after 170 years.
And I am reminded: Time is the great obliterator of all things — except, to date, the Wheatland Ferry.
Elaine Rohse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.