Monday, February 20, 2012

John Brown's Son and the Capitol Fire: Chance Encounters on Mill Creek

Chance encounters and the ways they sometimes wrinkle time is a favorite theme; sometimes happy, sometimes not, the encounters are often interesting and enrich urban rambling in unexpected ways.

Since this month brings the birthdays of two important Presidents, the birthday of Oregon, and another sweet holiday, we offer a Valentine to history where you least expect it.

This one isn't exactly a mash note, though. The Valentine is a sad one, something of a dead-letter, broken-hearted from the rush of tragedy. It's sad history we should keep alive.

In July of 1896, just a few days after William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold Speech,
Two men of historical connections met by chance at McMinnville during the bimetallic convention Thursday...

Mr. Booth was introduced to a man of excellent appearance whose name was Salmon Brown. After the introduction, Mr. Booth and Mr. Brown chatted very pleasantly for a minute or two.
"Mr. Booth," said Mr. Brown, "was it your father who hanged John Brown at Harper's Ferry?"

"Yes," said Mr. Booth. "He was sheriff at that time and it was his duty to officiate at the execution. No relative of yours, I hope?"

"Only my father," was the quiet reply.

Mr. Booth and Mr. Brown walked to a quiet corner in the hotel and talked over old times for half an hour. They shook hands cordially when separating.
Tuesday was Oregon's birthday. In addition to statehood, 1859 also brought John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry.

Though we might prefer to maintain otherwise, slavery also casts its shadow over Oregon. On the 22nd Barbara Mahoney will lecture on "Slavery, Oregon Statehood and Asahel Bush." It should be a fascinating talk. (You can also read about it in Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 110, No. 2, Summer, 2009)

One of the most interesting spots in Salem has hidden links to that birthday year and to 1935, another big year for Oregon history. First brought to our attention by fellow Urban Explorateur Agent RC, the footbridge over Mill Creek at Olinger pool is a special place. Though the creek flooded last month, the waters have receded, and it's worth a look down and around. It looks undistinguished, even ugly, but there lurks surprise! In another age it might have generated an autochthonous shrine. As it is, it should activate our senses of wonder and mystery and grief.

It is, in fact, the site of Salmon Brown's home. Salmon was the son of John Brown and lived here for a period in the late 19th century. For a while he had a butcher shop and meat market. After he left Salem for Portland he killed himself, and it is not difficult to imagine he might have been haunted by past ghosts.

Salmon's house is on the left. The image looks north from 13th and Marion, and is taken from East School (or Washington School), at the present site of Safeway. You can see the trestle as the train tracks cross Mill Creek in the far left of the image. The field on the other side of the creek is the present site of North Salem High School, and you can see the jog of the train tracks to the north and south of Market Street. The course of Mill Creek doesn't seem to correspond exactly to its current course, but it wouldn't be surprising for it to have been ditched, modified, or for a flood to have shifted its banks.*

At the end of 13th Street, there is the foot bridge, and if you look down at the creek you will sometimes see fluted columns of brick.

Here they are in front of the house before they were rolled into the creek.

The columns, you may recognize, are from the the Second State Capitol, and are ruins from the great fire of 1935. We're not sure yet how they got there.

In any event, we're not going to claim some grand epiphany here; the traces are too indirect, too fragmentary. Bigger, more direct links to the past are available in the Jason Lee house, the Waldo house, our cemeteries, lots of places and things.

But you know, the landscape is almost always richer, more deeply textured, and yes sometimes sadder, than you think.

Here's a poem by Donald Hall on encounter, detritus, small history, and loss:
The Things

When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago, framed and hanging
—de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore—
that I've cherished and stared at for years,
yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
of the trivial—a white stone perfectly round,
tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
a broken great-grandmother's rocker,
a dead dog's toy—valueless, unforgettable
detritus that my children will throw away
as I did my mother's souvenirs of trips
with my dead father, Kodaks of kittens,
and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.
(John Brown from Wikipedia)

* The image is dated 1920 in the library's caption, but it is clearly from well before then, most likely the late 1880s or early 90s, shortly after the school was finished.

At the same time, the 1895 and 1926 Sanborn maps do not show a house in the same footprint, and so there may yet be some uncertainty in the identification of other images. The 1895 map shows a house and shed or barn in very much the location the older photo suggests. The 1926 map shows neither a house in the same location nor a house with the same footprint on the block. More mystery! And perhaps another note...

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