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Offbeat Oregon History

Largest U.S. meteorite found on neighbor’s land

It was getting toward the end of the summer of 1902, and West Linn resident Ellis Hughes was getting worried.

His neighbor, William Dale, had traveled back to Eastern Oregon to sell some land he owned there. With the proceeds, Dale and Hughes planned to buy a piece of property next to the Hughes farm.

The property belonged to the Oregon Iron and Steel Co., which wasn’t really doing anything with it and which Hughes was pretty sure would be happy to sell … unless, of course, they found out why he wanted to buy it.

Because earlier in the summer, while trespassing on it, Hughes had stumbled across the biggest meteorite that has ever been found on American soil, before or since, lying half-buried in a remote and thickly forested part of it.

One imagines him gnawing at his fingernails, waiting to hear back from Dale, hoping it would happen before the property owner got wise or someone else found the meteorite. He’d piled brush over it, but there was only so much you could do to hide a 16-ton hunk of extraterrestrial nickel iron. Sooner or later someone would spot it, and his chance to grab it would be lost.

Finally, realizing that Dale was not coming back, Hughes decided on another solution:

Theft.

He would simply load the 31,000-pound meteorite onto a wagon in the middle of the night and drag it three-quarters of a mile onto his property, where he would “discover” it later.

And believe it or not, this hair-brained scheme probably would have worked, if Hughes had kept his mouth shut a little longer….

The meteorite, known today as the Willamette Meteorite, most likely didn’t land where Hughes found it. A rock that big hitting anywhere around West Linn would have buried itself to bedrock in the deep Willamette Valley topsoil, never to be seen again. Scientists believe it came down somewhere in Montana or northern Idaho during the last ice age and embedded itself in a glacier. Then, at the end of the ice age, the glacier melted, calving off icebergs into the massive inland sea that was Glacial Lake Missoula — which, of course, torrentially drained, icebergs and all, down the Columbia River during the Missoula Floods. The theory is that an iceberg containing the meteorite floated to what’s now West Linn before melting and depositing its load gently on the ground there.

And there it sat for a million years or so.

Native Americans, when they found it, recognized it as special. They gave it a name, Tomonowos (translated as “Visitor from the Moon”), and dipped their arrowheads in the rainwater that collected in its pockets.

Hughes was out cutting firewood when he noticed it: an oddly-shaped boulder, oddly colored, like rusty iron. Could it be, he wondered, a piece of iron ore?

He consulted his neighbor, William Dale, who came over with a rock hammer and tapped on the strange rock.

Instead of the expected rocky “chup,” the hammer rang with a bell-like “ting” on impact. Dale and Hughes looked at each other. This wasn’t iron ore, they realized; this was straight-up iron. And the only way iron appears naturally on the surface of the Earth in pure form … is when it falls from the sky.

(To be precise, the meteorite is 91.65 percent iron, 7.88 percent nickel, 0.21 percent cobalt, and 0.09 percent phosphorous.)

So, that’s how Ellis Hughes learned that there was a massive, priceless visitor from outer space parked on his neighbor’s land.

The plan to steal the meteorite kicked off with Hughes and his wife and stepson cutting a wagon road through the woods to the site, from their home.

Next, Hughes built a super heavy-duty wheeled platform to put the meteorite on, and a super heavy-duty capstan winch for his horse to drive. Using the winch, with the help of his wife and stepson (and the horse), he managed to roll the massive thing onto the platform; then, anchoring the winch to a big tree in the general direction of home, he started using it to slowly drag the loaded wagon through the woods.

Progress was excruciatingly slow. For days on end, the horse walked in circles around the capstan, winding a cable around a spindle and dragging the platform inch by inch along the road. The best day’s progress was 150 feet. Later in the summer, unseasonably heavy rains turned the wagon road into a mud bog, and progress slowed to just a few feet per day; finally, they had to stop and put down planks for the cart to run on.

But finally, three months after they started, the Hughes family had their stolen meteorite safe and sound on their own land.

This was the point at which a wiser man would have spent the winter carefully and painstakingly repairing the damage to the neighboring land, filling in the crater out of which the meteor had been dug, and maybe even planting some small trees and shrubs in the wagon path. A year’s wait, with some careful cultivation, would have gone a long way toward making the casual observer think nothing had happened there.

But, of course, that’s not what Ellis Hughes did.

Instead, he built a gazebo over the meteorite and started charging people 25 cents a head — worth about $9 in modern money — to see it.

The meteorite was a big sensation, and for a few weeks, it was the talk of the town. It was, as Hughes rightly asserted, the biggest meteorite ever found in the U.S., and at the time the third biggest in the world.

Very soon, though, rumors started to circulate that Hughes had not found the meteorite on his own land. When these rumors reached the ears of the Oregon Iron and Steel Co. people, they apparently went into the woods to look for evidence — and found it.

They started off by offering to buy it from Hughes for $50, basically reimbursing him for the expense of dragging it out of the woods. But Hughes said no, so the company sued him, demanding its return.

In court, Hughes argued that the meteorite was not real estate, belonging to the land — it was personal property, belonging to the Native Americans. Presumably, he was working with the Indians at this point and probably had made some sort of deal with them, because two tribal leaders from the Clackamas Indians testified on his behalf. The meteorite, they told the judge, was theirs, a holy object belonging to the Clackamas people.

It was a surprisingly plausible argument, and in a modern court of law it would probably be a no-brainer; after all, if the president of Oregon Iron and Steel left his briefcase behind after a visit to a Clackamas village, they wouldn’t be allowed to keep it based on a claim to have found it on their land.

But, not in 1903. The court promptly awarded the disputed meteorite to Oregon Iron and Steel, and when Hughes and the tribe appealed to the state supreme court, the decision was affirmed.

The victorious company, possibly feeling some pressure from the tribe, announced that the meteorite would remain in Oregon forever, and prominently featured the big space rock at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. But when, after the Exposition ended, wealthy philanthropist Sarah Dodge offered to buy it for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for $20,600, they apparently changed their mind and took the money.

The Willamette Meteorite has remained on display in the museum ever since. There are two replicas of it — one at the United Methodist Church in West Linn, near where it was found, and the other outside the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene — but Oregonians who want to see the real thing will have to travel to New York to do it.

In 1990, local Indian tribes sued for the return of the meteorite; but ten years later they came to an agreement with the museum that lets them come and visit the meteorite and hold private ceremonies around it. The agreement also stipulates that if the museum ever takes it off permanent display, the tribes will get it back.

Everyone seems to have been happy with this compromise, and when, in 2007, a bill got introduced in the Oregon House of Representatives demanding its return, the tribes released a statement saying they were happy with the existing arrangement and did not support the bill. So, as Willamette Week put it in an editorial that year, “neither the bill nor the 16-ton meteorite went anywhere.”

(Sources: “Meteorites from the Pacific Northwest,” an article by George E. Mustoe published in the March 1999 issue of Oregon Geology; Images of America: West Linn, a book by Cordelia Backer Seigneur published in 2009 by Arcadia Publishing; “Oregon Meteorites,” an information hub page maintained by Portland State University’s Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory, meteorites.pdx.edu)

(Sources: “Meteorites from the Pacific Northwest,” an article by George E. Mustoe published in the March 1999 issue of Oregon Geology; Images of America: West Linn, a book by Cordelia Backer Seigneur published in 2009 by Arcadia Publishing; “Oregon Meteorites,” an information hub page maintained by Portland State University’s Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory, meteorites.pdx.edu)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

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