11/12/2010 County Records and Haunted Hotels

November 12, 2010

I had occasion to be in Baker City, Oregon last week on a research trip.  The city itself has made a concerted effort to preserve its historic architecture, and the small downtown is charming.  City Hall is a beautiful turn-of-the-century (20th) quintessential stone hall with a clock tower, and there are many National Register plaques gracing other buildings, as well. I even was treated to staying at the 100+ year old Geiser Grand Hotel, which is rumored to be haunted.  Fortunately I am not able to confirm that point one way or the other…

What really struck me during my time in Baker, however, was how incredibly well-preserved the Baker County records were.  My colleagues and I do a lot of historic research in County Courthouses across the West.  County records are vitally important to environmental research in the West.  An incredible amount of stuff happened at the county level in the 19th century.  Mining claims were filed at the county, water claims were filed at the county, roads were built with county money, and many, many other things.  But unfortunately, many states have done a poor job at preserving these records.  Oregon is an outstanding exception to the rule.

I originally discovered the wealth of county material through the Oregon State Archives web site, which does a fine job of making the records searchable.  I then discovered that much of the archival material was actually kept at the county courthouses around the state instead of at the State Archives in Salem.  That discouraged me because of my long experience in other courthouses which are disorganized, unkempt, and easily compromised.  That was until I actually arrived at the Baker County Courthouse.  The two vaults where the records were kept were immaculate and incredibly well-organized.  I had a finding aid from a few years back, but when I arrived I was told that the Oregon State Archives staff had just been there to do an audit, and that there was an updated finding aid.  What state spends money on these things anymore?  None I had been to recently, that’s for sure!  But Oregon has done its citizens a huge favor by keeping these records accessible and easily searchable.  Having these records so accessible to researchers like me and other SHRA historians will go a long way toward helping judges and lawyers sort out the difficult answers that lie in the past, and I firmly believe that it will save the state a great deal of money in the long run.  So hats off to Oregon for keeping a budget alive for archives in these difficult times!  I look forward to going back and examining in more detail the county surveyor books, court records, and water rights filings and knowing exactly where to find it all!