Orleans, OR

1848-1861, Destroyed by Flood

In 1846, John and William McCoy, Dr. W.B.Maley (a Scotish-Irish physician), and their families staked a claim on a promising stretch of land along the Willamette river. Their choice of land was situated in Indian country; This really didn't bother them, however, and they moved right in. However, they were not the first explorers to come to this area. The year before, one Joseph C. Avery also staked a claim -- Right across the river from theirs. In 1848, Isaac Moore also moved in for a piece of this exceptionally fertile land. Staking a claim on a 322-acre chunk of land immediately north of the McCoy-Maley homesteads, he marked off the waterfront section to be used for the construction of the city of Orleans.

The same year, Avery also declared that his claim was to be used for the foundation of a city -- The city of Marysville. Marysville, Oregon, however, was frequently confused with Marysville, California, and so it was that the city was quickly renamed Corvallis.

Unfortunately, no records survive detailing the first 3 years of Orleans -- of the few records that actually survived in the first place. What is known is that early on the settlers had a nuisance from the local Indians (Calapooyas mostly, but also some Klickitats), whom turned out to be quite the door to door salesmen. So intent were they on trading with their new neighbors, that they would walk in unannounced into the homes of the unsuspecting settlers. This got to be so irritating, it became common practice for settlers to saw their doors in half and latch the lower part. This allowed them to ventilate and illuminate the interiors of their homes, while keeping the Indians out.

Naturally, not all encounters were so light-hearted. In one case, 25 Indians killed a calf belonging to a settler and feasted upon it. The enraged settler had his friend hold the Indians at gunpoint, while he whipped them fiercely. The whipping of Indians was fairly common practice. In another case, 50 Indians camped out on W.B. Maley's farm, and declared that he took their land from them without payment. At first, he attempted to ignore the natives -- However, he eventually gave in (allegedly from the smell) and paid the hefty price of one steer for the land. The natives never bothered him again.

By 1856, Orleans had become a popular trading post -- boats were fond of its low wharfs and easy access. Reverend George H. Atkinson, a Methodist missionary who travelled through the vicinity in 1847, remarked that with proper tilling, "all the grounds may be a garden, and all the mountains may be an orchard, growing apples and oranges and pairs," (paraphrased) but noted that the existing farmers were so lazy as a result of the fertile soil that they did not even plow their soil -- they relied entirely on the natural seeding from their existing crops. Orleans grew surely, and she aspired to outrival her sister Corvallis.

In 1856 and 1857, Moore sold several deeds for properties in the town, and indicated that the town was to be divided into 15 city blocks, with a central street called (predictably) Main Street. However, he never actually filed any plats at the Linn County Courthouse in Albany. The settlement continued to grow slowly and uneventfully. The easy river access allowed it to continue to enjoy popularity as a trading post -- Unfortunately, on December 1st, 1861, the river turned against them.

The settlers never saw it coming. The flood did not strike the city until many hours after the sun had set on that fateful Sunday evening, when the settlers were asleep. The first to be awakened were those lodged on the river front, who heard the sound of driftwood crashing against their homes. People took as quickly as they could to any safety they could find. For many, the waters entrapped them, forcing them to take refuge in barns and trees.

Desperate victims fired guns into the air and lit branches, lanterns, or anything else they could burn in an attempt to summon help. Those with boats worked as fast and as hard as they could to rescue their comrades and paddle them to safety, but some refused to abandon their homes to the rising waters. William Lewis, one of the better-known residents of Orleans, stayed put in his home with his wife. His mind was changed, however, when she took ill and gave birth to a baby girl. They were immediately evacuated to the home of Isaac Moore, and were given lodging on the second floor -- through the second-story window.

As soon as the sun rose, the boats again set across the flood waters, ferrying the women and children to the opposite bank, where Corvallis was faring better. In Oreleans, the devastation wiped out the livestock, ruined the farms, destroyed all the buildings, and completely washed away several homes. Corvallis, however, saw one warehouse swept away, and the foundation of another damaged. Several barns and a small storehouse of grain were destroyed, as well as countless heads of livestock.

The following day, newspapers incorrectly reported that the entire city of Orleans had been washed away. While they were incorrect in that there were many buildings that still stood (albeit severely damaged), the spirits of the residents were crushed. Not having much money to begin with, the poor homesteaders would have had enough to worry about merely losing a few cattle, much less their entire farms. The town attempted to stagger on, but failed.

The Oregon Argus detailed the monetary losses of the residents of Orleans. (The text has been reformatted.)

  • F. Lewis: $600

  • W.Splaun: $150

  • R.T.Baldwin: $600

  • Sage: $600

  • Philip Phile: $1000

  • Gearhart: $400

  • Wm. Lewis: $200

  • Mr. Moore: $3000 {...} {Mr. Moore} lost his safe.

  • The Stage Company lost a horse and one coach.

Today, nothing remains of the original city of Orleans. Off Highway 34 between Corvallis and Albany, there is a road called "Riverside" which will lead you to the Orleans Chapel and the Orleans Cemetery (sometimes called the Cushman cemetery). The chapel was not constructed until around 1900 or 1901. The history of the Orleans cemetery is more vague. It is thought that there was an earlier cemetery, established in the early 1850's, located in an oak grove a mile to the south of the present cemetery. This location was deemed to be impractical for whatever reason, and one Daniel Cushman donated 1 acre of his land adjoining a public road to be used as a cemetery.

The only graves I could find in the cemetery predating the flood were Cushman's own family, starting in 1855. If other bodies were moved from the original cemetery, they went unmarked. The earliest graves besides Cushman's family were dated 1862, the year Cushman donated the cemetery for public usage. Although most of the tombstones seem to be dated 1930-1960, the most recent grave in the cemetery is dated 2000 -- With one grave reserved for a woman to be laid to rest beside her late husband.

Orleans, though it is no longer a city, continues to be a voting precinct in Linn County.

Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol.47, Issue 2, p.86,
Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol.48, Issue 2, p.60-65
Various Corvallis residents
Glowing Fish, for giving me the idea to node Orleans