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Thursday, 18 November 2010

A Visit to Springfield Museum

Springfield is Eugene's smaller neighbor, with about 1/3 the population. Nowadays Eugene-Springfield forms one big metropolis, and the two cities share some amenities, but there is a long-standing rivalry between the two, as I discovered during my visit.

Eugene's first settler was Eugene Skinner who built his cabin on the West side of the Willamette in 1846 near what became known as Skinner's Butte, while Elias Briggs built his cabin on the East side of the Willamette river in 1848, next to a natural spring in a field, and so the town that grew up round his plot became Springfield.

Eugene was founded in 1862, when the town plan was laid out and the roads paved (I think), with Skinner and several other landowners donating land to form the city center, which is now the Downtown area. Springfield was not paved until 1872, and incorporated in 1885 when their first Mayor, Albert Walker, a local blacksmith, was elected.

In 1871 the Oregon and California Railroad wanted to lay their tracks through the Willamette Valley, and a group of Eugene businessmen allegedly bribed the leading financier to put the rails on their side of the river. The increased connectivity caused Eugene to begin to grow faster, and Springfield to become a slight backwater.

Nevertheless Springfield continued to prosper in a slightly sleepy way, with lumber being the main industry, employing half the town's male population by 1911. Hazelnuts (known locally as Filberts) were another major industry, and 98% of the USA's homegrown hazelnuts are still grown here in the Willamette valley.

The main downtown streets in Springfield were paved in 1872, with Main street running East/West. Showing a shocking lack of imagination, the streets to the north were labelled A Street, B Street, C street etc, and to the south, South A Street, South B street etc. The road nearest the river were Water Street, Garden Street and Mill Street, and then once again imagination flagged and they went with  2nd Street, 3rd street etc numbering from West to East. etc.

A modern map of Downtown Springfield shows this mostly unchanged, with alleys running East-West across the blocks to serve the backdoors of businesses, just as they did in 1872. Looking at a Google Map, 2nd and 3rd Street have become Pioneer Parkway West and East for most of their length, while the street numbers to the East now reach 79th Street. South A Street and its companions are much diminished, with most development pushing to the North and East of Downtown. The Western edge of Springfield is fixed by the river and the I5 Interstate which separates it from Eugene.

Returning to our history lesson, by 1911 half the City was working for the Booth-Kelly lumber mill, so it was an unparalleled tragedy when it burned to the ground. This could have destroyed the City, but the company swiftly rebuilt the mill, and Springfield survived.  

Between 1908 and 1913 a major contribution to the city's coffers was sale of alcohol. Eugene went "dry" in 1908, so Eugenians travelled to Springfield, often on the trains that now ran there, to get their cheers. There were more bars in Springfield than churches for a few years, until in 1913 Springfield also went dry. I can only assume that the city was getting a bad reputation, or maybe too much property damage, to continue acting as Eugene's nightclub.

In the 1920s those sharp practising Eugenians pulled another fast one when they sold a plot of land to become a Southern Pacific train terminal for $1 - it had cost local businessmen $250,000. This pretty much killed Junction City to the North of Eugene, which had named iteself for the rail junction it never got, and Springfieldians were't too chipper about it either.

Sprignfield has retained a degree of that small town feel that Eugene has mostly lost, and during a walk along Main Street in the Fall sunshine I came across several Antique and Junk shops, remeniscent of Hungerford in Berkshire. Springfield has its own shopping Mall, the Gateway Mall, and several large bog box stores, all nestled against the I5 to grab passing trade, but it retains a certain charm that Eugene's Downtown area is currently struggling to regain.

Springfield has one great claim to fame - it is the (unofficial) home of The Simpsons.

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