Heaven on Earth

Two boys sitting inside the Willamette meteorite at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, 1911. Photo courtesy American Museum of Natural History/New York Times

A deeply pitted, bell-shaped fiberglass rock about the size of a VW Bug sits outside the UO’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History. On a recent afternoon, a woman in a turquoise cardigan and matching sun visor walked right past it. Several cyclists in shorts and flip-flops pedaled on by. A UO law student running to class mentioned that she sees the rock every day. “I think it’s an abstract sculpture,” she says.

In fact, the object is a replica of the Willamette meteorite. According to UO geology professor emeritus William Orr, the real meteorite has a “fascinating history from the time it arrived on Earth to the present.”

Indians celebrated it. Farmers hijacked it. Then it was exhibited at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland. Immediately thereafter, New York City’s American Museum of Natural History acquired it. More than 100 years later, it’s still on display, but in a slightly smaller form. Curators sawed off a twenty-eight-pound lump in 1998 and traded it for a meteorite from Mars.

Dick Pugh, a member of the Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory at Portland State University, believes the Willamette meteorite was part of a planet, which was created in the asteroid belts between Mars and Jupiter shortly after our solar system’s formation. Asteroid collisions shattered the planet, creating fragments that circled the Earth for billions of years. Further collisions knocked at least one fragment out of its celestial holding pattern and onto a crash course with Earth.

Scientists agree that the Willamette meteorite’s impact, which occurred some 15,000 years ago, must have been spectacular—essentially an iron and nickel bullet weighing more than fifteen tons slamming into Earth at supersonic speed. Orr believes the meteorite would have penetrated the Earth’s surface by tens of meters.

During the next few thousand years, it got engulfed by an iceberg. At least 12,000 years ago, the Missoula Floods sent the meteorite-bearing iceberg through Idaho and Washington down the Columbia Gorge, past the present site of Portland and into the northern Willamette Valley. When the iceberg melted, the meteorite became stranded on a ridge near the confluence of the Willamette and Tualatin rivers—not far south of Portland near the city of West Linn.

Pugh says that forests eventually grew up around the rock. “Birds and squirrels crapped on it. Leaves fell on it.” Five tons rusted away over the millennia before it was discovered.

The Clackamas Indians called the meteorite Tomanowos, according to June Olson, writing in a 1999 article for Smoke Signals, the newspaper of the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde. She explained that it belonged to tribal healers, and they believed it came from the moon. Young warriors washed their faces and dipped their arrowheads in the water that collected in the rock’s pitted surface. “The water had special healing properties and was used by Native doctors to cure friends and relatives.” By the 1850s, the U.S. government not only moved the Clackamas tribe to the Grande Ronde reservation—more than fifty miles away—but also prohibited Native religious ceremonies. “ . . . The Clackamas people went no more to the site of Tomanowos,” Olson wrote.

Owners of the Oregon Iron and Steel Company unknowingly became its new guardians when they bought land under the deposited rock. According to Pugh, neighboring farmers Ellis Hughes and Bill Dale found the meteorite during the autumn of 1902 while chopping wood for a local schoolhouse. Hughes threw a stone against it and it rang like a bell. Recognizing his target as a meteorite, Hughes tried to buy the land, but Oregon Iron and Steel refused his offer. So he stole it.

Hughes cut roads from his property through heavily forested terrain to the meteorite. With the help of a specially built, heavy-duty horse-drawn wagon, as well as winches, cables, and his stepson’s back, he hauled the object away undetected. He enclosed it in a shed and charged the public ten cents per peek. The curiosity drew journalists from The Oregonian and Scientific American—and a lawyer from the Oregon Iron and Steel Company, who, by tracing the cart’s tracks back to the hole the rock left in the ground, concluded it belonged to his employer.

Court battles ensued, and the company eventually prevailed. The meteorite then reversed its earlier path and journeyed down the Willamette River to Portland for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. As celebrations were coming to a close and Oregon Iron and Steel put it up for sale, Oregon politicians scrambled to find money to buy it.

They could not raise funds quickly enough, so the company sold it for $26,000 to a wealthy New York socialite, who immediately donated it to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The meteorite made its final terrestrial migration by train—from Portland to Chicago, then eastward. A team of draft horses completed the meteorite’s journey, hauling it from a New York City train station to the museum.

In 1990, nearly 40,000 Oregon and Washington schoolchildren signed a petition to repatriate the meteorite back to Oregon. Nine years after those efforts failed, the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde began legal maneuvers to return the meteorite to Oregon. But by then, it had become the centerpiece of the museum’s newly opened Rose Center for Earth and Space. There was no earthly way to get it out of the building. The Grande Ronde Tribes and museum agreed that the Willamette meteorite would stay in New York City, but the museum would call it Tomanowos, describe its significance to the Clackamas Tribe, and allow members special access for spiritual ceremonies.

Like the real meteorite, the replica has led a transient life, though more obscure. In 1908, the Oregon Iron and Steel Company donated a plaster of Paris replica to the Condon Museum of Natural Science, which at the time was housed in the UO’s Villard Hall. Seven years later, the museum relocated to the newly opened Johnson Hall, but the replica was relegated to a deserted corner in Villard Hall due to lack of exhibition space in the new gallery. In 1930, the replica was sent to the porch of McClure Hall, the site of the chemistry department. Professor O.F. Stafford told a Daily Emerald reporter that it would remain on the porch permanently.

But McClure Hall was razed in the early 1950s to make way for Allen Hall; it’s not clear what happened to the plaster replica at that time. However, it re-appeared outside the Onyx Bridge building, which opened in 1962, and became the new home of the Museum of Natural History. Keith Richard, University archivist emeritus, says the replica was not permanently fixed in place, and it made frequent, early-morning appearances around campus and in front of the president’s house. Students even painted it.

When the UO moved the natural history museum (now called the Museum of Natural and Cultural History and celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary this year) from Onyx Bridge to its present location on East 15th Avenue in 1987, the meteorite moved with it. In 1993, artist Pete Helzer used the plaster cast’s original framework to make the fiberglass model now on display. Curators also decided to end its days as the object of fraternity house pranks by making it a permanent fixture in the museum’s Glen Starlin Native Plant Courtyard.

When a visitor from Minnesota lingered in the sunny courtyard recently, taking in the replica, she remarked to her husband, “It’s kinda cool.”

—By Michele Taylor MS ’03, ’10