Along the Way: Cottage Grove
One of the stories immigrants of yesteryear were told that enticed them to come to America was that it was such a land of opportunity and wealth that the streets were paved with gold. And in the case of Cottage Grove, Oregon, that was actually true – attested to by no less an authority than Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Current Cottage Grove city manager Richard Meyers tells the tale. “When gold was discovered in the hills above town, it really kicked off growth,” he explains. “And when they paved the streets, they used tailings from the mines for the base under the road surface. There were, of course, traces of gold in there. Now, at the time it was scientific belief that gold actually spread and grew, so folks thought that eventually the roads would turn into gold, literally.”
That certainly made for a good piece of lore for the Ripley’s folks, although sadly it was quite a stretch of the truth. But this story is emblematic – just one fascinating quirk of a storied town that will host Cycle Oregon this fall.
Cottage Grove was originally a farming community, situated where the Coast Fork of the Willamette River and the Row River (“row” rhymes with “cow” in this case, just so you know) converge. The gold rush boomed the town, and then timber became the basis of the economy.
There are still places you can pan (and find) gold, which Richard describes as “very relaxing” – as long as you stay off private claims, which are taken very seriously in these days of high gold prices. Not to worry – there will be opportunities set up for people to pan right in downtown CG during Cycle Oregon’s visit. A number of mines are still in operation, producing gold, mercury, silver and copper.
Fittingly, one of the main cultural celebrations locally is Bohemia Mining Days, held the third weekend of July, which celebrates both mining and timber heritage in the area. The festival includes “breakfast on the mountain,” where local prospectors and miners serve a full breakfast at the site of several historic mines; more than 800 people trekked up for it last year.
Timber has been a huge part of the local identity, too. There were five major mills in the area at one time, including one at the site where Cycle O will be setting up. Today only one remains open, but their legacy is benefitting cyclists and pedestrians in the form of the Row River Trail, a rails-to-trails conversion that follows the bed of the railroad that brought down timber from the hills. The trail, which starts in the heart of downtown Cottage Grove, rises gradually and skirts the shores of Dorena Lake, reaching the turnaround point at Culp Creek at 15.6 miles.
Another legacy that defines Cottage Grove is covered bridges – there are seven in the area, including the only covered railroad bridge west of the Mississippi, which is being completely restored – more like rebuilt, actually. Construction will be active in September, providing a chance to see how these bridges were built. The city celebrates these graceful artifacts with an Oregon Covered Bridge Festival (October 7-9 this year), which includes a bike ride you can sign up for when you pass through town.
Another thing Cottage Grove is proud of is its two-time designation as an All-America City. Only 10 cities are chosen each year, and Cottage Grove (1968 and 2004) is one of only two Oregon towns to win twice.
While you’re in town, you can’t fail to notice the collection of murals in the downtown area, which is a National Historic District. Twenty-one different murals are scattered through town, depicting scenes from the town’s history.
Included in the murals is one dedicated to the Buster Keaton movie “The General,” which was filmed in Cottage Grove in 1926 (“because it looked like Georgia,” Richard notes wryly). It featured what was at the time the most expensive movie stunt in history, a one-take-is-all-you-get train crash from a bridge to the river below followed by the train exploding.
The town’s cinematic history also includes parts of “Stand By Me” (the railroad the boys walk along was the Row River line) and “Animal House” (the entire climactic parade scene was filmed in CG).
For a fairly small town, Cottage Grove offers a cornucopia of culture. Besides the events already noted, there’s the Western Oregon Family Fair in August, an old-time country fair; the fastest quarter-mile dirt track in the West, which will host a World of Outlaws event the week before Cycle O; the Gathering of the Gardeners on the Village Green in late September, featuring tasting of natural-grown tomatoes; The high-end car show, Concours d’Elegance, with more than 100 classic vehicles; and the community theater, which will be performing “Lobby Hero” during CO’s stay.
“There’s so much to do here,” Richard says. “Always something for anyone to do. If you want a peaceful, quaint, historic town, a natural setting of trees and waterfalls, modern motor sports at the track or the lakes – it’s all within five minutes. Cottage Grove offers a wonderful variety of things to do.”