Highway 99E: Aurora & Oregon City

Highway 99E: Aurora & Oregon City

The white "paper" is the hand of this Dr. William Keil mockup says "Find out why 400 people followed me to Aurora!"

Aurora | 
Oregon City | 
Road Conditions

Driving up Highway 99E, it may be hard to believe that such vast farmland can be nestled so close to the I-5 corridor between the state’s capital and its commercial center.

99E runs parallel to its big sister, I-5, between Salem and Portland. But as you drive north, you will forget that you are anywhere near a major highway, much less a big city. Everywhere you look, you will see farmland, meadows, and back roads that seem to lead out into nowhere.

The main attraction on 99E is historic Aurora (population 614), Oregon’s first National Historic District. The city was founded in 1856 by Dr. William Keil as a religious colony. Keil and a group of Germans traveled the Oregon Trail and eventually settled in Aurora as a Christian commune.

In 1877, Keil died. The commune disbanded, but the community did not dissolve. The members had made names for themselves by becoming fine craftsmen and continued to attract tourists to the village. They were also located by a railroad stop, which made the village easily accessible to travelers.

Today, the antique industry keeps downtown Aurora alive. There are at least a dozen antique stores on Main Street and Highway 99E, which runs right through the middle of town. Most of the shops are located in original colony houses. The Mohler House, right off 99E, was built in 1865 and sells "authentic Amish and Juried handcrafts." During cold winter months customers are offered hot apple cider for while they shop.

The Richmonville Restaurant, also located on 99E, is both an antique store and a deli. Diners can shop while they wait for their sandwiches to arrive. In addition to antiques, the store also carries crafts made by local artists. The menu at Richmonville is simple and cheap: burgers and sandwiches, or breakfast at any hour. Depending on whom you identify with, choose between the Hunter, Rancher or Farmer sandwiches.

One of the 5 Old Aurora Colony Museum buildings.

After lunch (unless it’s Sunday), head over to the Old Aurora Colony Museum to get an idea of what life in the religious colony used to be like. The five-building museum is located in original colony buildings and displays crafts made by the colonists. The museum’s main entrance is in The Old Ox Barn, built in 1862. In 1966, the Aurora Colony Historical Society restored the building as a museum.

There is one saloon in town – The Colony Pub. I must say, the smoky interior and smell of day-old beer spills sent me on my way pretty fast. Although you can get three meals a day at the Pub, I’d head up the road to Richmonville for a cleaner, more rustic atmosphere.

This metallic sculpture of 2 eagles greets you at the Lorenzo Ghiglieri Gallery.

Right beside The Colony Pub is the tiny Lorenzo Ghiglieri gallery, which displays about a dozen of the American painter and sculptor’s works.

Before leaving Aurora (unless it’s Sunday), don’t forget to make a pit stop at the Pacific Hazelnut Candy Factory. The factory is located on Ottaway Avenue; follow signs from 99E. You may not know it, but the Willamette Valley produces 98% of all hazelnuts grown in the United States. Knowing that, you must not leave the region without sampling a few. The factory proudly offers tours and free samples of their hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, prunes and pretzels.

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Oregon City
About 10 miles north of Aurora is Oregon City (population approximately 26,000), the first incorporated city west of Missouri. Oregon City was founded in 1829 by Dr. John McLoughlin as a lumber mill.

The paper mill, viewed from the promenade.

Now the city, which sits beside the Willamette River, has been physically taken over by the Blue Heron Paper Company. The mill is also the site of Oregon’s first sawmill (1832), its first flour mill (1832), a woolen mill (1865), its first paper mill (1866) and a brick mill. By the end of the Great Depression, only the paper mill remained.

Although modern Oregon City may not be much more than a paper mill, high above the city streets, overlooking the Willamette, is the McLoughlin Conservation District. (The district is located a few blocks from 99E; follow signs from the highway after you reach downtown Oregon City.)

The Historic District, established in 1982, encompasses all 121 blocks of the original city. Once you reach the top of the hill, follow signs for the various attractions. One must-see is the "Promenade". This walkway runs along the western side of the district, overlooking the Willamette River, modern Oregon City and the immense paper mill. The opposite side of the walkway is lined with original old houses, built in the 1800s.

The "Elevator" will carry you from the historic district’s upper level to the ground level of the modern city. While waiting for the elevator, take in views of the river and, once again, the paper mill.

Throughout the streets of the historic district, old houses carry nameplates with the original names of the buildings. Take a walk up Washington Street, where nearly every house is an original.

McLoughlin House, which is signed from Highway 99E itself.

The most famous building in the district is The McLoughlin House. Dr. McLoughlin lived in the house from the time it was built, in 1846, until 1857. The house has been designated a National Historic Site.

Oregon City is located at the junction of 99E and I-205. If you’re heading back down south, you can take the faster route by jumping back on the interstate. But if you’re not ready to reconnect with the mainstream just yet, take leisurely 99E back. Enjoy the scenery before you’re forced to merge with I-5 and face the freeway once again.

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Road Conditions
During winter remember to check road conditions before you set out. Some areas of rural Oregon may be completely impassable due to snow; some areas require chains or snow tires – and believe me, you’ll want them. For current road conditions, call (800) 977 6368 (inside Oregon) or (503) 222 6721 (outside Oregon). Or click here for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Highways & Travel Information page.

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