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More U.S. meteorites


The Willamette Meteorite is the most famous heavenly body to end up in Oregon, but it’s far from the only one. Here are some of the others:

Sams Valley Meteorite, Jackson County: 1880s and 1890s

The area of Sams Valley, about 10 miles north of Medford, apparently was the target of a meteorite that broke up on entry into the atmosphere. There have been roughly half a dozen pieces of it found over the years, including three found in the 1880s by a gold panner, a 15-pound metallic lunker found in 1894, and a 2.6-pound piece acquired by the American Museum of Natural History in 1938.

The big Sams Valley chunk, the 15-pounder, got sold to a commercial dealer, which cut it into pieces to sell to museums and private collectors. And the 1938 piece got forwarded to University of Oregon astronomer J.H. Pruett, who agreed to slice the thing up in exchange for a one-pound piece. He did this (or, rather, his friend C.A. Coulter and Coulter’s teenage son Donald did — by hand! It took them 11 hours and 18 hacksaw blades) and his one-pound piece is now on display at the Oregon Museum of Natural History in Eugene.

Klamath Falls Meteorite, Klamath County: 1952

This meteorite was found somewhere in Klamath County, and it was a very large one — 38 pounds. The person who found it brought it to a meteorite expert and dropped it off for testing, but never returned to pick it up — so its origins are shrouded in mystery. It was acquired by the University of New Mexico and subsequently cut up so that pieces could be sold to private collectors and other museums.

Salem Meteorite, Marion County; 1981

A little after 1 a.m. on May 13, 1981, Marion County Deputy Sheriff James Price was sitting on the curb in front of his residence talking with another deputy when both men heard what sounded like a shower of gravel hitting the roof. They investigated, using their flashlights, and eventually found a still-warm piece of stony meteorite that had hit the ground within 10 feet of them.

The meteorite fragments were tested to confirm that they were of extraterrestrial origin and not just rocks from some neighbor kid’s slingshot. They turned out to be the real deal, and Deputy Price was no doubt happy to add them to his rock collection.

Morrow County Meteorite, 1999

Washington residents Donald and Debbie Wesson were driving home from a visit in north central Oregon when they saw a particularly interesting rock lying in the ditch. It was about 40 pounds, uniquely shaped, as if it had been partly melted. On one side a piece had been torn away, probably by a farmer’s plow.

Donald picked it up and took it home to add to his rock garden, where it remained for the next eight years. Then one day Donald watched a TV program about meteorites and it started him wondering if that weird rock he’d picked up in Oregon might be one. Asking around, he was directed to Dr. Dick Pugh at Portland State University, who, with the help of his colleagues at PSU’s Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory, was able to confirm it was a meteorite.

As meteorites go, the rock is a pretty common type; but there are a few things about it that are unusual, according to Dr. Melida Hutson, curator of the Meteorite Lab. “It has beautiful shock veins and glass, caused by a major collision in space,” she said, in a 2010 press release. “And the cone shape of the meteorite is very nice for such a large specimen.”

Fitzwater Pass, Lake County; 1976

In the summer of 1976, Lakeview rock hound Paul Albertson was out hunting for agate and jasper with his high-school teacher, James Bleaker, when he found a strangely heavy teardrop-shaped piece of metal the size of his thumb.

Albertson took the 2.3-ounce chunk to his local rock shop, where the staff members were stumped, but told him it was probably a piece of nickel ore. Albertson took it home and stashed it in a coffee can with some other interesting rocks, and there it remained until one day Dr. Pugh of the Cascadia Meteorite Lab came to the Lakeview Public Library to give a lecture about meteorites. Albertson, remembering the weird bit of nickel ore he’d found when he was in high school, dug it out of the can and brought it with him.

Dr. Pugh sent it in for analysis, which revealed that it was a very rare IIIF Iron meteorite.

South Slough Meteorite story, Coos County; 1890

This meteorite, if it existed, has been lost. This would be very difficult to do, because the description that has come down to us is of a piece of space rock roughly 40 times bigger than Namibia’s Hoba Meteorite, the world’s largest authenticated meteorite.

The story comes to us from Pioneer History of Coos and Curry Counties, a book by O. Dodge published in 1898 by the Capital Press in Salem. It’s probably best, as one of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective protagonists once put it, to take it straight from the neck:

“One of the largest meteors on record fell on the head of South Slough, Coos County, Jan. 17, 1890, at 11 o’clock at night, knocking a hole in the hill 30 feet across,” Dodge writes. “It came from the northwest and lighted up the heavens in fine style. A report, as of thunder, awoke people for many miles around. It was plainly heard at Coquille City. Excavations reveal a chunk of lava 22 feet across that resembles slag from an iron furnace.”

In the absence of any other information about this enormous meteorite, and in consideration of the fact that a meteorite that big would be very unlikely to survive the thermal shock of entering Earth’s atmosphere without shattering into a shower of smaller fragments, scientists generally consider the South Slough Meteorite to be either wildly exaggerated or simply fictional.

Mulino Meteorite, Clackamas County; 1927

In the story of the South Slough meteorite, there is a story, but no meteorite. The Mulino Meteorite has the opposite problem. It’s an existing very small chondrite (that is, stony, not metallic) meteorite in the U.S. National Museum, which the label says fell on May 24, 1927, near Mulino, a tiny community about halfway between Oregon City and Molalla on Highway 213. The problem is, according to geologist George Mustoe, there’s just no evidence in contemporary newspaper reports or other correspondence of any meteorite falling there.

So, what’s the story? Did the meteorite actually fall in Mulino, and did someone box it up and ship it to the museum with a note saying they might like to have it in their collection, without a word to the local media or neighbors? This does seem the most likely explanation, but we’ll probably never really know.

Port Orford Meteorite story; 1856

As the kids say nowadays on their YouTube channels, this is the one that’s going to really set off the flame wars “in the comments below.” But the scientific consensus is pretty clear: The Port Orford Meteorite was a hoax, a desperate play by a desperate explorer facing financial ruin and a total loss of reputation.

The story, or rather the most likely story, is this: It’s 1858, and explorer John Evans is on a sailing ship or steamer, on his way home from an expedition to Oregon for a government-funded geological survey. He’s coming home to face some serious music, as he’s overspent his budget and will be expected to make up the shortfall from his personal resources. And he doesn’t have enough personal resources to cover the bill.

The trip home for Evans isn’t “around the horn”; his ship stops at the Isthmus of Panama, and the passengers disembark and take a short overland journey to the other side for the second leg of their voyage. Along the route, Evans comes across a vendor selling pieces of a pallasite meteorite, the Imilac Meteorite, discovered about 30 years earlier in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Pallasite is the most valuable kind of meteorite. Pallasite is the substance that forms right at the borderline between the nickel-iron core and the rocky mantle of a small planet or large asteroid. When a meteor strikes or whatever, the chunks that result can be rock, metals, or pallasite — and pallasite is by far the rarest of the three, blows that heavenly body apart. A very large pallasite meteorite would be worth huge money, Evans knows.

So he buys this little three-quarter-ounce chunk of Imilac Meteorite and spends the rest of his journey concocting a story about it: how he found a huge 11-ton meteorite half buried in the side of a hill he calls “Bald Mountain” about 40 miles inland from Port Orford; how he cut the specimen off because it looked interesting, and only later learned it was a million-dollar visitor from space; and how he would really like the government to finance a return trip so that he could go and find it and retrieve it for posterity.

All of which is well on its way to working when the Civil War breaks out, and suddenly the government is no longer very interested in rock collecting.

So, is that what happened? Yeah, probably. But we’ll never know, because Evans died of pneumonia the day after the war started.

Also, there are some weird stories out there that hint at the possibility that the Port Orford Meteorite may have been a real item. Most notably, a nickel miner named Bob Harrison in 1937 claimed the meteorite was on his claim, and that the nickel he’d been mining was from the strike — chunks that had broken off the pallasite in an airburst. Harrison, though, disappeared from view after making this claim, and nobody knows what happened to him.

So, yeah. The Port Orford Meteorite is a magnificent antebellum hoax … or maybe that’s just what whoever found it wants you to think! Either way, it’s a deliciously fun South Coast legend.

(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,

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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