This week, a film crew from the Japanese TV show "Unbelievable" will be in Baker City, Oregon. The show, one of the most popular in Japan, has over 15 million viewers; and the Geiser Grand Hotel in the center of town will be featured in a special on the 10 most interesting spots on the planet. Huh?
A little over 100 years ago, Baker City was the third largest town in Oregon after Portland and Astoria. It had a larger population than Spokane, and was bigger than Boise. The town began as a watering hole and resting place for weary travelers on the Oregon Trail. West of here, were some of the most challenging parts of the transcontinental trek: the Blue Mountains, Cascades and Columbia Gorge. In 1861, gold was discovered in nearby Griffin Gulch and Baker City was transformed into a mining boomtown. A second gold rush in the late 1890s, led to more development and the town soon earned the moniker, “Queen City of Mines.” Home to 10,000 people, it was a raucous place with the usual collection of saloons, brothels, gambling houses, and dance halls, but it also served as a cultural oasis and center of social activity for Eastern Oregon. There was an opera house, several elegant hotels, fine restaurants, and many lovely homes.
Once the mines played out, Baker City settled quietly into its role as a commercial hub serving the agricultural, ranching, and timber communities of the region. In the late 1980s, the Bureau of Land Management chose a site on the top of Flagstaff Hill, about five miles east of Baker City, to build its National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. The new museum attracted over a half-million visitors in its first two years of operation and led to a renewed interest in Baker City’s historical heritage. Modern facades were removed from most of the downtown business buildings revealing the original brick and stone, and a restoration renaissance was underway. Today’s Historic District, one of the largest in Oregon, includes over 100 buildings.
Over time, the property fell into disrepair and after the cast of the movie, Paint Your Wagon, stayed here during filming in 1968, the hotel closed. Pigeons took over the third floor and, at one point, the building was dubbed The Great Pumpkin thanks to a coat of orange paint.
Preservationist and developer, Barbara Sidway, assumed the daunting task of restoring the 30-room, Italian Renaissance Revival hotel to its former glory. It reopened in 1997 after an $8 million renovation that has earned many awards and accolades for its authenticity.