There have been fires, floods, earthquakes and drought, economic booms and busts, and through it all Klamath Falls has survived.
March marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the founding of Linkville, establishing a community in Southern Oregon that has proven quite resilient in the transition from early ferries to modern freeways.
It has gone under several names in its 150 years; Linkville, Lakeport, Klamath Falls, and in the 1920s a newspaper poll overwhelmingly voiced the opinion for yet another name change that never came to fruition – dropping the "falls" portion to end confusion. A Chamber of Commerce committee argued the change, yet the Klamath Falls moniker remains.
A spot on the river
While Fort Klamath was established in 1863 to provide security to settlers traversing the Applegate Trail, Linkville’s humble beginnings officially started when George Nurse decided to call the Klamath Falls area home. The Klamath Basin had remained largely a wilderness despite Oregon already being well established as a state thanks to steady settlement of the Willamette Valley.
At the time there actually was a falls on the river, not large in height, but noticeable nonetheless. The combination of dams, water diversions, canals and power plants have drastically reduced its stature, but the Klamath Falls do still exist.
“The falls were never high or spectacular, but it was once an impressive water feature,” said Todd Kepple, Klamath County Museums manager. “They changed the name because they felt Linkville wasn’t proper for a town of such promise, so the name switch came about to attract more people to the area.”
Linkville grew slowly in the 1800s. According to Kepple, it was local resident Ira Leskeard who suggested the name change to Klamath Falls in 1891, the community officially becoming incorporated two years later.
While the centennial celebration of Klamath Falls in 1967 was a grand community-wide celebration complete with commemorative coins printed, a parade and even a beard-growing contest, the 150th birthday will be a tad more subdued. Kepple will lead a special presentation at the Klamath County Museum at 7 p.m. Thursday, focusing on the community’s early days and notable events in its history. There will also be a special birthday cake created honoring Linkville’s foundation.
When Nurse established Linkville, the fledgling town was neither unpopulated, nor isolated. In addition to the numerous Native American bands of Modoc, Klamath and Paiute tribes that had populated the region for centuries, Wendolyn Nus had founded the nearby town of Merganser — on the Klamath River southeast of Lake Ewauna — several months prior to Nurse’s arrival. The two settlements might have grown side-by-side had Nus not left to fight, and subsequently quickly die, in the Modoc War of 1872.
With Nus gone, Merganser faded into obscurity while Linkville thrived, thanks in part to Nurse’s generosity in providing property for others to cultivate, earning him the nickname “Uncle George.” Nurse would eventually move away to Yreka, but settlers remained in the community after the founder’s departure.
Later the idea of possible twin-cities would emerge with Altomont’s growth, but its incorporation never materialized. As a result Klamath Falls today encompasses the city area and a vast hodgepodge of subdivisions within a massive urban growth boundary.
“There have been probably a dozen attempts to consolidate over the years, but it is always met with stiff, determined resistance from the suburbs,” said Kepple. “Many consider it a real hindrance to the community’s development, with a listed population of 20,000 compared to a realistic number of around 40,000. That arguably causes Klamath Falls to miss out on certain economic opportunities — how we fix that at this point nobody has any idea.”
Klamath Falls nearly didn’t survive the early years when a fire in 1889 virtually wiped out the entire town. The Klamath Reclamation Project, authorized by Congress in 1905 to build dams and canals to provide irrigation to surrounding farmlands, provided an avenue for new construction and agricultural development, offering a potentially very bright future for Klamath Falls and the surrounding communities. The first project to come to fruition from the Reclamation Project was the A Canal, built in 1906. More dams and canals would follow over the next several decades.
Klamath Falls’ great boom truly began in 1909 with construction of railroad lines, allowing the region’s vast timber resources to be tapped. Mills sprung up drawing many to the area for work, and the region quickly became an epicenter of the pine industry. The decline would come much slower, the result of mills consolidating, cardboard’s development destroying the wooden box industry, and the recession of 1987 and spotted owl-related forest management initiatives in the 1990s causing a collapse of the regional timber industry. While the timber industry remains today, it is a mere shell of its former glory as the former primary economic driving force in Southern Oregon.
A missed chance for further growth as a crossroads of industry came with the development of Interstate-5. A railroad line had been established through Siskiyou Pass in the 1880s, but civil engineers demanded its relocation due to safety risks. Similar arguments were made during the planning of I-5, but political influence decided the route to continue through the Siskiyou Pass rather than divert through the flatter grounds of the Klamath Basin.
“If engineers ruled the world then I-5 would have been built through Klamath Falls, but politicians ended up influencing that decision for Yreka and Medford,” explained Kepple. “I’m sure today most truckers would say they prefer 97 and 58 as a much easier route. Klamath missed out on a big opportunity not getting I-5.”
From its early founding and precarious up-and-down path to today, this March is a time to celebrate Klamath Falls' future while reflecting on those who have led the community to its present state.
“Any time we celebrate the founding of communities we need to take time to reflect on the courage and vision of early settlers, who probably looked at a map and just saw a big blank empty space,” added Kepple. “George Nurse had the vision to look at the landscape and see its potential; he had the vision to file a claim for the land along the Link River. We are indebted to him to getting the town off to a good start.”