The McLoughlin House’s Unlikely Journey to a Local Historic Treasure


Image: Oregon Historical Quarterly##The McLoughlin House near the bottom of Singer Hill in 1909, during the moving process.

Image: Troy Wayrynen/NPS##The John McLoughlin House as it appears today.

Image: Troy Wayrynen/NPS##The John McLoughlin House as it appears today.

For the average Oregon City resident, there was little to celebrate in the vacant, dilapidated old house at the base of Willamette Falls.

Until a few years ago, the house had been known as the Phoenix Hotel, and it had been a very blatant brothel. Conveniently located right in the heart of what was then the industrial core of Oregon City, it had been a convenient location for workers in woolen mills, paper mills, sawmills and other operations that took advantage of the abundant water power. falls. Undoubtedly, he was doing particularly buoyant business every payday.

It couldn’t have been fast enough, because in 1906 the owners offered to sell the building and land to the city of Oregon City. There was a brief surge of interest and Mayor EG Caufield was very enthusiastic about it.

But when the proposal went to a referendum, voters canceled the deal and the former brothel was sold to the Hawley Pulp and Paper Co., which wanted the land to expand some of its adjacent facilities.

When this happened, the new mayor, WE Carll, stopped by to speak to Mr Hawley. He was hoping to make some kind of arrangement to save the house. Hawley was ready to help; he said he would gladly donate the building to the city if they could move it off the property. Carll agreed to see what he could do.

Now, that might seem like a huge hassle for people to go through to save an old brothel from the wrecking ball. The thing is, the Phoenix Hotel was no ordinary brothel. It had been built in 1846, before Oregon was a state or even officially a US territory, by the “Father of Oregon” himself: Dr. the Hudson’s Bay Company.

McLoughlin had been appointed as the company’s chief agent at Fort Vancouver in 1825, when the Oregon Territory was under joint occupation and it was unclear whether it would eventually become part of Canada or the United States. Later in the 1820s, McLoughlin had staked a land claim in Willamette Falls and Oregon City.

When the Oregon Trail opened up, it began to become apparent that the huge influx of American settlers was marring the United States-British joint occupation treaty, pushing the territory toward total United States control in numbers. McLoughlin, of course, was on the British side of things; but when, in the mid-1840s, American emigrants began to pour into Fort Vancouver, sick, exhausted, and starving from the rigors of the Oregon Trail, he welcomed them and gave them shelter and food on credit. This made him increasingly unpopular with his eastern patrons, who would have preferred a more hardline attitude towards emigrants.

So, to get rid of him, they “promoted” McLoughlin to another position east of the Rockies.

It was a checkmate for McLoughlin. If he accepted the promotion, he would have to give up his land claim to Willamette Falls, which was already very valuable and only growing. But the only way to turn down the promotion was to withdraw from HBC. Which, as they expected, was the option he had taken. He settled in the falls and applied for American citizenship, which he obtained in 1851.

But now most of Oregon City’s residents were Protestant, and McLoughlin was Catholic. It wouldn’t matter today, and the employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company were also very open-minded about it – half of them being French travelers, after all – but a lot of American emigrants were not.

To make matters worse, there had been an unfortunate incident eight years earlier when McLoughlin publicly attacked and beat Fort Vancouver’s Anglican chaplain, Herbert Beaver, in the fort’s courtyard. Beaver had called McLoughlin’s wife, Marguerite, a “notoriously cowardly woman” and McLoughlin’s “guarded mistress” (their marriage ceremony had not been Anglican) in an official report, which had passed through by McLoughlin. is. But as deserved as this public beating was or not, it did little for McLoughlin’s reputation among Protestants.

So McLoughlin, although he was the most prominent citizen of Oregon City, had many enemies there, and some of them were busy challenging his land claims.

Some of those challenges were successful, but enough remained for McLoughlin to end his life in comfort — and to build the biggest and finest home in the state for his wife and family.

The house was a large, two-story, colonial-style residence with numerous guest rooms upstairs. These bed and breakfasts, of course, would be super useful decades later when the place became the Phoenix Hotel.

John McLoughlin died in 1857. Marguerite followed three years later, and after that for a time other family members lived in the house. But by 1867 they were all either dead or moved out, and the house was sold and began its transformation from the White House to a brothel.

In 1908, when Hawley Pulp and Paper purchased the house, John McLoughlin was universally recognized in Oregon City as one of the most important figures in state history. But he was not so universally loved. Many people in Oregon City wanted nothing to do with him or his old home.

Luckily for all of us, Eva Emery Dye wasn’t one of them.

Eva Dye was a famous author and the main power behind the Gladstone Chautauqua. Her most successful book had been a biography of McLoughlin, and when she learned what was planned for her home, she turned her considerable organizational skills into an attempt to save her.

At first, things seemed to be going smoothly. The state legislature passed a bill allocating funds to preserve the house. But Governor George Chamberlain vetoed it, putting everything back to square one.

So the Oregon City Council stepped up, offering to donate the building and provide a place to move it, if private donors would cover transportation and catering costs. The place they chose was in the city park at the top of Singer Hill.

Dye and his allies thought that sounded great and quickly formed the McLoughlin Memorial Association — one of the first historic preservation organizations in state history, if not the first — to raise the necessary funds.

This seems to have been the moment when the anti-McLoughlin forces in Oregon City realized this was really going to happen. It’s not entirely clear why they cared so deeply for the Old House; this was most likely a coalition of locals who considered any former brothel to be irreparably tainted with sin, as well as others who hated Catholics enough to oppose McLoughlin’s commemoration.

Whatever their motives, they immediately mounted fierce resistance to anything short of demolition. They first obtained an injunction prohibiting the movement of the building. The association appealed to the local court, the judge rejected it and the work continued.

During the house move, the opposition apparently bided their time. It probably seemed to them that the problem would resolve itself when the house reached the bottom of Singer Hill. Singer Hill, as you may know, isn’t really a hill itself, but rather a narrow platform carved into the side of the large rocky cliff that cuts through downtown Oregon City and towers over the river hundreds of meters away. It’s the same bluff that Oregon City’s famous municipal lift serves, a block and a half to the south. Looking back and forth from the small, narrow road to the large, ramshackle house, most viewers must have thought it wouldn’t work.

But he did. Old photographs show the process. The building was winched up the hill, inch by inch, using cables fed by a single horse-powered capstan wheel. The house was considerably wider than the road up the hill, and at one point overshot the edge of the cliff so much that it almost fell down the hill. Workers had to run to the river to collect sand and gravel from the floors on the inner side of the house, to keep the center of gravity above the earth rather than the air.

When the house was finally on top — at a cost of $600! – another injunction was served, seeking to prevent it being laid on the foundations they had built for it in the park. This was quickly rejected and the house was placed there. Then a guard had to be placed over it, as anonymous arson threats came from frustrated anti-McLoughlinites.

But eventually the drama died down, and on September 5, 1909, the house was officially dedicated for a memorial service for McLoughlin.

Today, the John McLoughlin House is something of a municipal treasure for Oregon City and regularly attracts visitors from across the country. If you have to go see it, which you absolutely should, then take a short detour to Singer’s Hill and try to visualize this enormous house being winched up that narrow, rock-lined road – by a single working horse. hard !

(Sources: “How McLoughlin House was Saved”, an article by Vara Caufield published in the September 1975 issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly; “Eva Emery Dye”, an article by Sheri Bartlett Browne published in The Oregon Encyclopedia on December 20 2021; McLoughlin Memorial Association website at; National Park Service)

Finn JD John can be reached at [email protected] or 541-357-2222.


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