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The Willamette Meteorite and the man who stole it and turned it into a peep show freak.

July 15, 2009

The Willamette Meteor and how it turned into a Peep Show Freak

As part of the mission of this blog I will be researching and telling stories about innovators and entrepreneurs, particularly those from and about the Willamette Valley. I have been a student and fan of the history of science and technology since high-speed ball bearings were considered advanced technology.

The stories in this blog are true and are meant to be informative and entertaining. They will help to flesh out the History of Innovation of the Willamette Valley Timeline (HIWV Timeline) we are developing for introduction at the Willamette Innovators Night event on November 5, 2009. However, this blog and the HIWV Timeline are not truly scholarly endeavors and are meant to help start the ball rolling in that direction.

Citizen Hughes Discovers a Treasure from Space

Our first true tale is about a rock that rolled afar, let’s go to 1903 and meet Ellis Hughes and The Willamette Meteorite as introduced by Douglas J. Preston in the below excerpts.

“Purloining a 32,000-pound chunk of iron is not an easy task. In August 1903, Hughes began excavating the huge meteorite. Working in great secrecy with the crudest of tools, he was assisted only by his teenage son and an old horse. After digging around the sixteen-ton mass, they jacked and levered it out of the hole onto a primitive flatbed cart they had built entirely of logs, using tree trunk sections for wheels. The resourceful Welshman then rigged up a capstan device for hauling the cart. The capstan consisted of a post sunken into the ground, attached to a steel cable. Hughes harnessed his horse to the capstan so that the horse, by walking around in endless circles, caused the cable to wind up around the post, inching the cart and meteorite forward. Since the ground was spongy, Hughes had to lay down a roadway of wooden planks. After every hundred feet of progress, the capstan had to be dug up and move another hundred feet forward, a new clearing made for the horse, and the roadway dug up and re-laid.


The Inventive Mr. Hughes & Son

Hughes with meteorite

Hughes and his son labored for three back-breaking months to move the iron three-quarters of a mile to his house. During, this time his secrecy had been so effective that his neighbors later said they had no idea that anything out of the ordinary was going on. When it finally arrived, Hughes built a shack around it, announced he had found it–on his property, of course–and started charging twenty-five cents admission to view the heavenly visitor.


One of Hughes’ early customers, unfortunately, was the attorney for the Oregon Iron and Steel Company. He had somehow deduced that the meteorite had been stolen from the company–probably by following the conspicuous trail back to the large pit on company property. The attorney told Hughes he knew damn well the meteorite belonged to his client, but as a matter of courtesy and to avoid a law- suit, he would graciously offer the miner fifty dollars for it. Hughes threw the man out. The lawyer then filed suit on behalf of the company to get the meteorite back, and the case went to court.


Space Rock Stars at Expo

LW expo cover

On July 17, 1905, the state Supreme court upheld the earlier ruling and awarded the meteorite to the Oregon Iron and Steel Company. The company carted it off to Portland, where it was unveiled with great fanfare at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in a ceremony attended by the governor. It was announced that this–the largest American meteorite–would forever remain in Oregon, its home state.

When the exposition closed, however, the Oregon Iron and Steel Company, unmoved by this patriotic rhetoric, sold it to Mrs. William Dodge for $20,600, who gave it to the American Museum of Natural History. It was the highest price paid up to that time for a single specimen in the Museum’s collection.”


See full article The Willamette Meteorite.

However, that was not the end of the story of this “misplaced meteorite.” Today that space rock  is valued at over a million dollars. But, don’t feel too sorry for the owners of the Oregon Iron and Steel Company though. The company failed as a smelter in 1926, but it sold much of 24,000 acres of its land to developers who turned it into the city Lake Oswego, some of the most desirable real estate in Oregon.

WV meteorite compPhoto and caption from: The Macovich Collection of Meteorites

“The Willamette meteorite is the largest meteorite found in North America. As it was discovered on the surface of Oregon woods, it is believed the meteorite fell in Canada and was deposited in Oregon during the last Ice Age. According to Clackamas Indian tradition, however, the meteorite called “Tomanowos,” or “Heavenly Visitor,” was delivered from the Moon to the Clackamas, and healed and empowered the Native American community in the Willamette Valley since the beginning of time.

The last time a specimen of the Willamette meteorite sold at auction, it brought nearly eight times its weight in the price of gold today. This is an extremely important offering; a singular specimen of a preeminent meteorite. 246 x 279 x 158mm (9.5 x 11 x 6.25 inches) and 13.399 kilos (29.5 pounds). $1,100,000 – 1,300,000″


Even though we have lost our space rock for now to the Hayden Planetarium. Oregon students and some  native tribes have sued the museum for return of the meteorite. We’ll store this story in the “What goes around comes around file.”

fbs meteorite

In the meantime, you can visit a full sized replica of the Willamette Meteorite in Eugene at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

Fran Saveriano (unpaid model) with replica

photo 07/09, jws

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