The Mysterious Meteorite
by J.D. Adams
In Oregon's coast range mystery awaits in many forms. The Port Orford Meteorite has remained stubbornly out of reach since 1860, like a Holy Grail of forbidden wealth. Reportedly a rare type of meteorite composed of iron, nickel, and gemstone, its value has been estimated at millions of dollars.
The story of the Port Orford Meteorite is inextricably tied to events in the life of its alleged discoverer, Dr. John Evans. He was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the son of a state supreme court judge, and he received a medical degree in St. Louis before taking part in a survey of the Midwest in 1848. Dr. Evans's discovery of fossil remains on this expedition earned him international acclaim. He came to the Northwest as part of an expedition surveying a route for a railroad to Puget Sound from the east. He eventually became a geologist for the U.S. Department of the Interior, and traveled to the Port Orford area in 1856 as part of his job surveying Oregon.
|Dr. Evans spent two weeks in the area of the Coquille and Umpqua Rivers on the southern Oregon Coast, although his exact route during this time has been the subject of endless controversy. Somewhere along the way he collected a rock specimen that created a furor in the scientific community. Subsequent analysis of the piece by Boston chemist Dr. Charles Jackson revealed that it was in fact an exceptional variety of meteorite known as a pallasite.
Meteors are formed from catastrophic events such as the breakup of comets or planetary collisions, and become meteorites upon striking the Earth. The stony-iron composition of pallasite meteorites indicates an origin in large celestial bodies that contain core material of iron and nickel with a stony mantle on the exterior. Unlike the more common iron or stone meteorites, pallasites come from the core-mantle boundary area where both stony and metallic constituents are present. Pallasite meteorites usually contain the silicate olivine, a yellow-green gemstone material, and are therefore valued for their exotic beauty as well as for research.
According to Dr. Evans, the meteorite was buried deeply in the ground, with approximately five feet projecting. He estimated the weight of the meteorite as being around 22,000 pounds. This would make the Port Orford Meteorite easily the largest pallasite ever found. Pallasites make up less than 3% of all recovered meteorites, with the largest pallasite on record weighing 2,800 pounds. Because of this, reports of the incredible find provoked curiosity and debate amongst astronomers and geologists. Before Congress could appropriate the funds for a second trip to the site, the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, and Dr. Evans died of pneumonia on the very next day. Interest in retrieving the meteorite dwindled because of these developments, and due to the fact that no map was ever found that detailed the location of the meteorite.
A journal of Dr. Evans' explorations in the Pacific Northwest is in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution. The relevant entries are under the title "Route from Port Orford Across the Rogue River Mountains," a location that is generalized and misleading. According to his journal entries, Dr. Evans passed northward and never crossed the divide into the Rogue River watershed. Various parties have secured copies of the journal in an attempt to retrace his route. These include The Society for the Recovery of the Lost Port Orford Meteorite from Lakeside, Oregon, led by Myron Kilgore in 1940, and another party led by James Karle, an astronomy teacher at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, in 1950.
Dr. Evans set out from Port Orford on July 18, 1856 and ended up on the coast fork of the Willamette River on July 31. In his journal he makes no specific mention of a meteorite because he was unaware of the nature of his find. He does, however, make a passing reference to a "Bald Mountain." After being contacted by Mr. Jackson about the significance of the sample, he recalled the location as being approximately forty miles from Port Orford on the top of Bald Mountain. The sample in question is removed from a partially buried rock on a western-facing grassy slope otherwise free from any other protrusions. Bald Mountain, as Dr. Evans described it, is higher than the surrounding mountains and easily seen from the ocean.
The acquisition of the journal rekindled an interest in the Port Orford Meteorite, and in 1929 the Smithsonian Institution sent the curator of mineralogy, W.E. Foshag, on an exploratory expedition. E. P. Henderson, the associate curator of the Division of Meteorites, mounted another trip in 1939 but neither search yielded any clues. That there are several bald mountains in the area has confounded generations of searchers; there is one southeast of Port Orford, a Bald Knob in Coos County, and a Brushy Bald Mountain in the Rogue River area. There could also be other bald mountains, one of which Dr. Evans named descriptively. There are those who say it may be Iron Mountain, Barklow Mountain, Bray Mountain, or Granite Peak. With the numerous possibilities, the Port Orford Meteorite may have easily eluded all who have attempted to find it. Meteorite experts and field geologists working for the Smithsonian Institution have concluded that shifting patterns of forest growth have made the designation of a "bald mountain" essentially meaningless.
In "Lost Mines and Treasures of the Pacific Northwest" (1957), Ruby El Hult discusses an incident that adds credibility to the existence of the Port Orford Meteorite. The fervor concerning the meteorite, which extends to the present day, had its beginnings in a Sunday feature story titled "Treasure for the Finding" that appeared November 21, 1937, in the Portland Oregonian. The author was an astronomer at the University of Oregon, Dr. J. Hugh Pruett. His article related the story of the Port Orford Meteorite, including speculation that it would sell for up to $100 a pound. With the weight of the meteorite estimated at 22,000 pounds, the article touched off a firestorm of public fascination. Dr. Pruett was inundated with messages and rock samples. In the midst of this raging mania, a miner named Bob Harrison divulged that the meteorite was on a nickel claim he held in the Salmon Mountains. Harrison found that large amounts of nickel had come off the meteorite when it fell into a mountain he described as "Bald Knob." The metal lay strewn about and was responsible for the high nickel content on his claim. Dr. J. F. Diller of the U.S. Geological Survey tested a fragment of the rock on Harrison's claim and pronounced it to be a meteorite. Harrison was prompted to send additional samples out for testing but never did so; his mysterious behavior was a reason for some to question his story. This facet of the Port Orford Meteorite story was highly publicized at the time, but faded into obscurity.
At the center of the mystery is Dr. Evans. In his professional career prior to coming to the Pacific Northwest, he is highly regarded as capable and trustworthy by his peers. Some say his meteorite is a myth, while others find the evidence compelling. On one of the countless mountains of Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest, a fallen jewel of the cosmos may lie hidden, and lost in the folds of time.
Hult, Ruby. Lost Mines and Treasures of the Pacific Northwest. Portland, Oregon: Binford and Mort, 1957.
|Thanks to JD Adams for allowing us to reprint his article. For more information about Oregon's most mysterious and legendary places, check out his book, Mysterious Oregon.