In the fall of 1902, Willamette Valley farmer Ellis Hughes, "a humble, intelligent Welshman," (according to Scientific American), was cutting wood near the present town of West Linn when lunchtime came. "I sat down on the rock," Hughes later recalled. "It was about 1 1/2 feet above the ground and very flat." His work partner, Bill Dale, stared at the picnic bench and realized it was no ordinary stone.
"Hughes," asked Dale, "Have you seen this rock before?"
"Yes," answered Hughes. "I saw it yesterday." Then he picked up a large white stone and began to hammer on the rock. It rang like a bell.
"Hughes," Dale said. "I'll bet it is a meteor."
Thus begins one version of the Willamette Meteorite story. In another it turns out that Hughes had spent time working in the Australian mining industry and Dale was a wandering prospector; together they had been combing the Willamette Valley for mineral wealth. One day Hughes had noticed the flat rough stone, deeply buried in the ground and obviously different from any rocks around it. The next day he specifically brought his partner out to have a look. After ringing it with the white stone, the pair realized they had found something out of the ordinary and retired to Hughes's farmhouse to parlay about its possibilities. Local lore says that it was Mrs. Hughes who insisted that the only way to capitalize on the find was to bring it home in one piece.
The meteor lay on rugged, forested land already claimed by a business named in various accounts as the Oregon Iron and Steel Company, Oregon Steel and Wire, or the Portland Land Company. Bill Dale mysteriously disappeared from the scene, and Ellis Hughes remained very quiet about his discovery, but his plans went deep. After blazing a road about 800 feet in a blind direction so that no neighbors would catch on to his game, he spent several months cutting a direct path between his house and the rock. Next the resourceful Hughes constructed "an ingenious car with log body-timbers and sections of tree trunks as wheels."
In the summer of 1903, with only his 15-year-old son and a horse for assistants, Ellis Hughes began an odyssey of practical engineering. After clearing away considerable brush from around the meteor, he jacked and blocked and jacked it some more until he raised a dome-shaped space rock roughly the size of a squashed Volkswagen Bug out of its depression and rolled it onto the cart. Then with heavy ropes, pulley blocks, a simple capstan anchored by chains and a hundred feet of wire cable, Hughes laboriously began to inch the meteor down his hacked-out road. It was three-quarters of a mile to the Hughes homestead and many hours were spent locked motionless behind stumps; the greatest distance they gained in any one day was 150 feet. When hard rains fell before the journey was completed, father and son laid a track of rough planks in the mud and carried on. Three months after the meteor was moved from its original landing spot, they finally got it to the farm.
Hughes quickly announced a price of 25 & cent; a head for local curiosity seekers to have a look. In those days an electric streetcar ran from Oregon City to the settlement of Willamette, but after that people had to walk the final two miles for their special viewing. They came in droves anyway, and it didn't take long for word of the oddity to spread to Portland and beyond.
In February 1904, a geologist named Henry Ward spent four days riding a train from New York state to Portland, then another two examining Mr. Hughes's odd rock in the pouring rain. Large meteors have long stood as objects of wonder, but the public was particularly interested at the turn of the 20th century. Arctic explorer Robert Peary, an early master of media control, had spent three years in the 1890s recovering pieces of the massive Cape York Meteorite from Greenland and landing them in New York City with much fanfare. So it came as no surprise when Henry Ward's colorfully detailed account of his journey to the Pacific Northwest — published with copious illustrations in March 1904's Proceedings of the Rochester Academy of Science and reprinted in the widely-read Scientific American Supplement in July — caused its own small sensation.
In the article, Ward declared that Ellis Hughes had discovered the largest meteor ever recorded in North America and the third-largest ever measured on our planet. He described the rock as a stubby cone, and recognized that Hughes had eaten his lunch on its flattened back side. Ward theorized that the apex of the cone must have formed the leading edge of the missile as it entered the atmosphere, and he described the relentless annealing effects of terrific heat and force as it plunged to Earth. He measured the length of the meteorite at a little more than 10 feet, its breadth across the base as 7 feet, the vertical height to the summit of the dome as 4 feet, and the total circumference of the egg-shaped base as 25 feet, 4 inches.
What struck Ward and other observers most about the meteorite was its extremely varied surface. He noted a large border area stretching entirely around the meteor covered with small "pittings" that he had seen on other iron meteorites. He measured round bore-holes, sprinkled irregularly across the lower half, at 1 to 3 inches in diameter and 3 or 4 inches deep. Such bore holes had also been recorded on other meteorites. But neither Ward nor anyone else had ever seen the next level of holes.
"The third feature of this upper face of the Willamette iron is one which now makes it the most remarkable meteorite known to science," he wrote. "This is the existence of deep, broadly open basins and broad furrows or channels cutting down deeply into the mass ... they cross the mass from side to side and end to end ... They make a confusion of kettle-holes; of wash-bowls; of small bath-tubs!" Hughes had taken advantage of these holes to chain the meteorite to his cart for travel. After he put the rock on display many visitors naturally let their children curl up in the oval bathtubs, or laid their infants in little niches so they could have their pictures taken there. Other onlookers, just as naturally, hammered at the warped edges in attempts to break off chunks for souvenirs to take home with them.
Back in New York state, Ward sent off samples from two of his own souvenir chunks to two separate labs for chemical analysis. Both agreed that the meteorite was composed of around 91 percent iron and 8 percent nickel — hence the ringing tones — along with traces of cobalt and phosphorus. All these findings were consistent with analyses of other examples of the iron meteorite group. Ward estimated the weight of Hughes's stone to be around 15 and a half tons, but recognized that because iron rusts, the rock had lost a considerable portion of its mass through oxidation over time. He also guessed that the acid reaction of iron sulfide with local rain and vegetation had eaten away softer areas of the stone to create its Swiss cheese appearance.
While Professor Ward made the rounds of Eastern scientific societies with his findings, local viewers around Ellis Hughes's attraction were much more interested in the brouhaha that had bubbled up when a lawyer for the Oregon Iron and Steel Company paid his 25 & cent; to view the meteor. Noticing the deeply rutted trail leading from the display to his company's land, the lawyer decided to offer Hughes $50 cash on the spot for what he said was the company's property. It wasn't long after Hughes refused to accept the lawyer's gracious offer before Oregon Iron and Steel filed suit to reclaim ownership of the rock.
When the case came before a jury in November 1903, the company claimed that meteors from space were part of the property they landed on. Hughes countered with the argument that the meteor was an abandoned Indian relic, no longer in use, that he had simply picked up as his own. To prove his claim, the Hughes defense team called on a 70-year-old Klickitat man named Susap, who testified that he remembered the meteorite from his childhood days.
Susap recalled hearing Wochimo, a Clackamas elder, refer to the meteorite as Tomonowos, which he said translates as "Visitor from the Moon." Wochimo had said that in former days, Clackamas people had washed their faces in water that collected in the pits and kettles of the rock, and that young men would dip their arrowheads in the water before setting off on raids. A 47-year-old Wasco named Sol Clark took the stand as a second tribal witness. Clark testified that he had heard that Clackamas medicine men performed rituals around Tomanowos until tribal numbers began to dwindle away in the face of white settlement. As far as he knew, the practice had ceased around 1870.
In the American West of that era, several legal cases had established a strong precedent for Hughes's disused tribal relic argument -- if it belonged to the Indians and they no longer used it, whoever picked it up became the new owner. But in this case the jury did not accept the testimony of Susap and Sol Clark. The members ruled in favor of Oregon Iron and Steel, then, as part of their instructions, set a value of $150 on the disputed property.
While Hughes immediately appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, the company set out to move the rock to its own viewing station. Neither party was deterred when the owner of the land between the Hughes homestead and the Oregon Iron and Steel land led authorities to a hole in the ground and argued that was the original impact crater of the meteorite. If the rock had landed there, the owner argued, it belonged to him; he filed a second suit for ownership.
The second trial dragged on until January 1905, when the jury (perhaps swayed by local rumors that the supposed original crater had been created very recently with dynamite) again ruled for Oregon Iron and Steel. Obviously moved by the contending claims, the new jury valued the meteorite at a staggering $10,000. Now everyone knew the space rock was more than a mere curiosity. The company started to move the meteorite again, and again Ellis Hughes halted progress, this time with a circuit court stay that placed the object under the protection of the Clackamas County sheriff.
By now it was spring and people were flocking to nearby Portland for the centennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. An article in the Oregon City Courier announced that both parties had agreed that the rock could be carted to Oregon City and displayed on the courthouse square, daring to hope that the many visitors "brought to Oregon City to see the big meteorite will spend thousands of dollars here and the business men will reap the benefit."
In keeping with the stuttered progress of Hughes's find, however, the meteorite was moved only a little way down the road to the Johnson property. In later years Harold Johnson, then a young boy, recalled with pride how his father was deputized to stand guard beside the rock. Harold also remembered how, over the next few months, their sleep was often interrupted by souvenir hunters who would sneak up to the Johnson house with hammers in hand and attempt to crack off pieces of the stone. At the first ring, Mr. Johnson would dash outside, gun in hand, to run them off. Young Harold even ended up with his own fragment of the meteorite, obtained, he insisted, from one thief who had been caught in the act.
In July 1905, the Oregon State Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of Oregon Iron and Steel. The rock, by now dubbed the Willamette Meteorite, was loaded onto a boat at the mouth of the Tualatin River and transported through the Willamette Locks (an event now annually reenacted at the Lock Fest celebration in West Linn). The boat steamed down the Willamette to Portland, where the meteorite was unloaded, dragged to a railroad scale, and its weight tallied as 31,107 pounds. On August 23 the Willamette Meteorite was unveiled as the main attraction inside the Mining Building at the great Lewis and Clark Exposition, and plans were soon made for a permanent display, with both Oregon City and Portland contending for the prize.
Before either site was settled on, however, a third bidder emerged. Well-known mining heiress and American Museum of Natural History patron Mrs. William E. Dodge offered the mining company an astonishing $20,600 for sole possession of the meteorite. Oregon Iron and Steel accepted, and the rock was soon on the move again, this time to New York City. When the meteorite was paraded through the Big Apple to assume its place in the grand museum, the wheels on the cart that carried it sank into the street.
In her donation to the museum, Mrs. Dodge stipulated that the Willamette Meteorite was to be kept as a single piece by the museum. In 1936, when it moved to an even grander display at the museum's new Hayden Planetarium, the pride of West Linn was placed in an exhibit with 569 other meteorites collected from around the globe. It stood second in size only to a piece of Peary's Cape York Meteorite, dubbed "Abnighito," which remains the largest meteorite ever recovered. Visitors to the Hayden could plainly see that neither rock could leave the building without a wall being torn down.
Back in Oregon, Ellis Hughes, still farming and still bitter about being cheated out of what was surely his, gave interviews about the Willamette Meteorite's epic journey along his ragged road.
Almost from the moment Hughes showed his meteorite to Professor Henry Ward, professional scientists and amateur fans have argued about its internal structure, odd exterior pits and basins, and long-term geologic history. Sleuths who relocated its original depression near West Linn found that a shard of oxidized iron crust, heavy with nickel, lined the pit, and determined that when the meteor originally landed, it probably weighed more than 20 tons. The origin of the "kettle-holes" appears to be not some kind of space effect but simple terrestrial weathering, much as Ward theorized in his original report -- a combination of the mineral troilite with coastal Oregon's heavy annual rainfall and acidic forest environment. Decomposing troilite on the surface of the stone released dilute, aerated sulfuric acid, which was further activated by precipitation; over a long period of time the puddles of acid ate down into the body of the meteorite.
The molecular structure of the Willamette has a more complex story to tell. For this a sample of the rock is needed and Mrs. Dodge's 1906 order that the stone remain in one piece might seem to be a deterrent to further study. But it turns out that in the course of its stays at Ellis Hughes's farm and Harold Johnson's front yard, at the Lewis and Clark Exposition and even in the august Museum of Natural History, more than a few nighttime raiders were successful in breaking off souvenirs. Today, in descending order of size by weight, the list of museums and private collections around the world that claim a shard of the Willamette Meteor includes Washington D.C. (around 5 pounds), Chicago, Tempe (Ariz.), Ottawa, Budapest, Berlin, London, Prague, Helsinki, Ann Arbor (Mich.), Los Angeles, Paris, the University of Oregon, Copenhagen, and the Vatican (15 grams). Almost all of these pieces have a distinct leggy shape that recalls a stretched animal hide. This is because the easiest place to hammer a piece off the meteorite is where corrosion had undercut the surface and left an hourglass form, tapering from the top down and the bottom up.
Spectrographs and photochromographs of thin sections cut from these various shards have allowed geochemists and structural geologists to assemble a biography of the Willamette Meteorite that spans the life history of our entire Universe, and winds its way through at least five distinct stages. It is a story that continues to be modified as new evidence and new lab techniques appear.
The first phase of the Willamette's existence, deduced from an internal structure that looks very similar to the makeup of the Cape York Meteorite from Greenland, consisted of an initial slow cooling period. This would correspond to clouds of matter cooling into the original planets our solar system, something like 4 billion years ago.
At some point after that, the Willamette Meteorite's crystalline structure recorded a terrific shock and subsequent reheating, then cooling into a very different form. Some scientists interpret this as an event similar to the explosion of the planet that created the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Other much smaller meteors have been analyzed that show a similar pattern.
Stage three consisted of a second, lesser shock — perhaps a glancing collision with another asteroid that flung the Willamette out of a stable orbit into a more eccentric path that eventually allowed it to be captured by the Earth's gravitational pull. The associated reheating and annealing of this event left a new chemical fingerprint on the internal structure of the stone.
The fourth leg of Willamette's journey came when it penetrated our atmosphere and descended in a fiery arc to solid ground. The heat would have sculpted the dome shape, which recalls the original manned Mercury capsules launched by NASA in the 1960s. When the Willamette Meteorite landed, it probably featured stress grooves caused by this reentry similar to the Morito Meteorite from Mexico.
Finally, long-term exposure to the Earth's elements erased most of those grooves and scooped the honeycombed complex of basins and bowls into the rock itself. Some scientists believe that the distinct shape of the troilite filaments, shocked and annealed in two separate incidents, contributed to this pattern.
More recently, Oregon geologist Richard Pugh has added several other layers to this story.
In 1986, when Pugh visited the shallow depression in the Willamette Valley where Ellis Hughes first found the meteor, he found a light-colored 12-inch boulder of granitic origin nearby. Recalling Ellis Hughes's "white rock," he searched through the poison oak that had grown up in the depression and found many similar pebbles of granodiorite, which does not occur in the bedrock of the Willamette Valley. Pugh compared the simple depression in the soft ground with the impact craters made by other large meteorites. Something did not fit.
Pugh's conclusion, now generally accepted by other geologists, is that the Willamette Meteor originally plunged to earth in southeastern British Columbia or northwestern Montana millions of years ago. During the most recent glacial epoch, less than a hundred thousand years ago, a lobe of advancing ice bulldozed its way south through the Rocky Mountain trench and captured the meteorite, tractoring it up into its body like a kid plowing through a sandbox with one hand. Instead of hurtling through space the meteorite was on a new journey, encased in ice and moving only a few inches a year.
The pace would pick up again, however. Pugh believes that during one of the Lake Missoula floods at the end of the last Ice Age, the meteor rode south in an iceberg that was flushed through the crumbling ice dam at Lake Pend Oreille. Its path would have taken it across Rathdrum Prairie and through what is now downtown Spokane, following the main flow of the torrent. A random eddy, a glancing blow from another renegade ice chunk, could have sent the iceberg careening up Latah Creek and laid it to rest in Spokane County. Almost any likely scenario would have left it buried beneath untold tons of flood gravel.
By chance, however, the iceberg that held the meteorite remained intact and bobbed downstream through the Columbia Basin. It was still large enough to hold the meteorite and stay on top of the torrent when it turned the corner at Wallula Gap and squeezed through the Columbia Gorge. Riding with the portion of the flood waters that branched south into the Willamette Valley, the iceberg and its cargo finally came to rest in a back eddy near the mouth of the present-day Tualatin River — only one of many glacial flood erratics that settled down along the high water mark of the Ice Age floods in the Willamette Hills, around 380 feet above sea level.
There our meteorite -- ours now because, according to Pugh's theory, it belongs not just to the Willamette, but to the entire route of the Ice Age Floods — was discovered by Clackamas tribal ancestors who recognized the unique properties of the ringing stone. The Clackamas called the stone Tomonowos, which modern linguists translate roughly as "heavenly visitor." And, although in 1904, two Oregon juries and one state Supreme Court judge did not pay particular attention to tribal usage, or to one Welsh farmer's claim of possession, times have changed.
In the late 1990s, the Museum of Natural History moved the Willamette Meteorite yet again, mounting it as a centerpiece of their new Cullman Hall of the Universe. At about that time the Cultural Board of Oregon's Grand Ronde Reservation — a consortium of native peoples assembled from all the displaced Columbia Gorge and Coastal tribes who had been pushed into the Willamette backwaters by white settlers — discovered accounts of the 1904 Clackamas elder testimony at Ellis Hughes's trial. They took the stories of Wochimo and Susap and Sol Clark to New York City as part of a new effort to restore the meteor to the Willamette Valley. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act forced the museum to take the native accounts seriously, and an agreement was forged.
Through the permission of the Grand Ronde, the Willamette Meteor can remain at the Natural History Museum in New York as long as the tribe has access to it for cultural and religious purposes. In a separate agreement, the museum has created an ongoing internship for any Native American youth who come to the museum to study the museum's extensive collections of tribal artifacts. And as a final stipulation, if the Museum of Natural History ever decides to retire the Willamette Meteorite from public use and study, its ownership would revert back to the tribe. It is possible, therefore, that at some future date the wonderful cone-shaped stone would begin once more to journey across space and time, perhaps passing through Spokane again as it makes one more orbit of our Earth.
Jack Nisbet will present "The Longest Journey: Tracking the Willamette Meteorite" on Wednesday, June 27, at 7 pm at the MAC's Eric A. Johnston Auditorium. Admission: $7; $5 for MAC members. (Admission fee gets you in to all exhibits, including "A T. rex Named Sue.") Call 325-SEAT.