Eugene Rising: A History of Protest in the Emerald City

Part I: The Birth of the Emerald Empire

We’re doing something different with this story, because that’s what we’re all about – trying new things.

As you read through this story, you’ll notice a series of formatting choices that, at first, may appear really obnoxious. But don’t worry: this is intentional, and will help you understand the way we’re approaching it.

Here in the middle, where there’s no formatting at all, is where you’ll find the neutral narrative that we’re engaging with throughout the story. 

A savvy reader might consider this the closest approximation we, as journalists obsessed with historical documents and public records, could find to an objective truth.

When you see this toxic green color, you’ll be reading the thoughts, musings, and analysis by Editor-in-Chief MG Belka.

And when you see this pink color that happens to match his protest helmet and nails, you’ll have the thoughts, musings, and analysis by Editor-at-Large James Croxton.

We did this because we believe that it is important to engage with history as we uncover it, and that engaging with history means constantly critiquing it, challenging it, and–when deserved–making fun of it, too.

But we don’t want to make the mistake of passing off those critiques and analyses as objective, since so many people still seem to believe that such a thing exists, and we don’t want to mix our own biases and perspectives with the hard research that we used to put this story together.

We’ve got to make sure we’re clear about something, though. This work is in no way a complete history. This is not a chronological account of every single action and protest that has ever been undertaken in the city of Eugene, Oregon. That would be a maddening exercise that would take months, if not years, to complete. 

We had to use the information at our disposal: readily available newspaper archives, historical documents, and academic research as well as materials made accessible by local government and university officials. The COVID-19 shutdowns made it impossible for us to go through the extensive newspaper microfilm collections in local libraries, which surely would’ve revealed far more actions than we have documented here. That’s a project for a future time.

Instead, we hope that you understand this work as a sort of narrative history of the movements that have swept through the city of Eugene over the course of its history. Though these movements each have unique stories, each with their own heroes and villains and twists and turns, we were not there to witness them ourselves, and so we have to accept that this history is incomplete. 

But there are lessons in our past that are worth learning, and we hope you find them somewhere in this story.


MG Belka:
Eugene, Oregon is the most interesting place I’ve ever lived.

I don’t know what that says about me, the places I’ve lived, or the things I find interesting, but I am endlessly fascinated by this town. It is a place that cannot be easily explained to people who have never lived here. It’s not easily explained to people who currently live here. I’ve tried, several times and in several mediums, to put my own words to the test, but they never come out quite right. I’m not sure they ever will.

But there is love to be found here, and that cannot be dismissed.

Against all odds, I’ve grown a soft spot for Eugene and all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies. My instincts often tell me to turn tail and head for sunnier climates, but I’ve become quite fond of this weird little city – and defensive of it, too. For some reason, I like living here. It’s not perfect, but I like it.

And that’s why I’m worried about this town and what lies waiting for it in the coming years. Eugene’s bubble has been burst. It is no longer immune to the raucous and rapid changes sweeping through the country and the rest of the world.

As it turns out, it never really was.

It is strange that, despite its color and reputation, a town like Eugene’s history remains relatively hidden. Occasionally, one might get lucky and find a digital copy of a doctoral thesis or an essay in a collection about the city and its role in various what-have-yous. Other than that, learning the gritty details of the city’s history means digging through old anarchist blogs and grainy PDFs of ancient newspapers that may or may not still be hosted somewhere deep in the Internet. 

Except these snippets of old newspapers, the occasional alt-weekly feature, and a handful of grad student theses from the 20th century, Eugene’s history is a largely oral one, told by increasingly unreliable narrators. 

Like a star high school athlete that never went pro, Eugene has coasted on an aging reputation that it no longer embodies. It’s likely that this is intentional. As you may soon discover, Eugene has a checkered past that hasn’t always been so noble and progressive. The story that this city tells about itself does not always line up with the stories that others tell. 

This is unfair. Life should never be defined by a single story told from a single point of view. Places are far more than the sum of their parts. Towns and cities are built on the bones of infrastructure, pumped full of the blood of commerce, and held together by the crushing gravity of society, but they do not come alive without the stories that animate and color our shared existence. 

And we desperately need more stories in Eugene, because, quite frankly, the progressive monomyth that has dominated this town’s culture for the last 100 years is on the verge of destroying it for good.

So consider this another story–or rather, another perspective on a tragic and hilarious story that the people of Eugene all share–intended to help animate this city and its legacy. 

God only knows we’re going to need a lot more of them to get out of this mess.

James Croxton:
Similarly, I would also say that this is the most interesting place I’ve lived. Albeit I’ve lived in far less places than MG. 

When I moved here from Santa Clara, California nearly six years ago, I was told that Eugene was much like Sunnyvale, CA, where two of my schools were located. It turns out that Eugene’s wetter and colder in the winter, hotter in the summer, and full of white people — all things I am not accustomed to.

But I’ve really come to love it.

In being a journalist—especially one focused on conflicts and protests—and doing the research for this story, I learned a lot about this city, and its perseverance to “be better,” or whatever. But despite its perseverance, the city always seems to revert back to what it always was — a police state.  

James is the concise one, as you’ll notice.

This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land:
Eugene Skinner Steals a Hill

It is generally accepted that the area now known as the Willamette Valley was occupied by various Indigenous peoples for at least 10,000 years. When white colonists began to arrive on the Oregon trail in the 19th century, they made contact with the Kalapuyans, a loose confederation of tribes that claimed the valley as their homeland. The band that lived in and around what is now Eugene were known as Chifin Kalapuyans.

Prior to contact with whites, the indigenous Kalapuyans may have numbered as many as 15,000. But by the time Eugene Skinner arrived in 1846 and built his cabin on the side of a hill overlooking the Willamette River, their population had been reduced to somewhere between 60 and 600 people.

According to the few accounts of him that exist, Skinner was an archetypical American pioneer. He began his life in New York, but his family gradually made their way out West. He lived in Wisconsin as a boy before eventually becoming the Sheriff in Hennepin, Illinois. Then he got married and soon after took the overland route to California.

MG Belka:
Learning that Eugene Skinner was a former cop who made the move up from California really puts a lot of this city’s history into perspective, doesn’t it? 

Finally, in 1846, Skinner and some other settlers made the trek up to Oregon along the Applegate Trail, opening the door for the many millions of Californians that would follow in the centuries to come. After making his way up the Willamette River, he came upon a hill that the local Kalapuyans called Ya-Po-Ah – meaning “very high place.”

Skinner climbed to the top of the hill, looked around at the verdant green valley that surrounded him, and decided that this was his land now. So, he built a cabin on the side of Ya-Po-Ah and founded a town. The first settlers to join him nicknamed the place “Skinner’s Mudhole,” but by the time he began surveying and laying out the plans for the city, it had come to bear his first name.

Photograph of a headstone in the Eugene Masonic Cemetery. The carvings on the headstone read "Eugene F. Skinner, founder of Eugene, Oregon. Born in Essex, New York on September 15, 1809. Died in Eugene, Oregon December 15, 1864."
The grave of Eugene F. Skinner, founder and namesake of Eugene, is located in the old Masonic cemetery on 25th and University Streets. (Photo by Rick Obst, a Eugene-based photographer)

Skinner died in 1864, but the city he founded on the land he colonized would come to make an indelible mark on what would later become the State of Oregon. 

And almost from its inception, there were signs Eugene would soon develop a rebellious streak. 

“When incorporation as a city was being debated in the early 1860s,” writes Steve McQuiddy in an essay about the city. “The Eugene State Republican reported that some citizens suggested that money would be better spent on public education than on municipal government.” 

The University of Oregon was founded in 1876 and made the town a center of academia in the new state, while the fertile soil of the Willamette Valley also made Eugene a prosperous farming community. Plus, its location at the confluence of the McKenzie and Willamette Rivers made it a natural hub for what would soon become a booming timber industry.

Timber harvested and milled in nearby towns like Springfield, Saginaw, and Cottage Grove were transported to Eugene, processed, and then shipped all over the country via the Oregon-California Railroad, which first arrived in 1871. 

MG Belka:
And it was there at the intersection of knowledge, labor, and Manifest Destiny where Eugene would develop its identity.

Black and white photograph taken of Eugene, Oregon in 1888. In the foreground is the Shelton-McMurphy House, with downtown Eugene stretching out into the background. The city is considerably smaller than it is today and has yet to have any of the recognizable landmarks of today's Eugene.
Downtown Eugene cir. 1888, looking south from the top of Skinner Butte with Spencer Butte in the background. The house in the foreground is what’s now known as the Shelton-McMurphy House. (Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society)

Lady, What Do You Do All Day?
Suffragettes in the City and the Birth of EPD

With the arrival of white men came the white man’s law, and so followed people whose wanted jobs enforcing those laws.

A farmer and surveyor named Leonard Howe became Lane County’s first Sheriff in 1851, just five years after Skinner’s arrival. The first person that might be considered Eugene’s top cop was a man named C.H. Fox, who served as marshal in 1863, but the first official chief of the Eugene Police Department was Robert E. Eastland, who took the job in 1894.

EPD’s early history is spotty at best, but historical accounts suggest from its earliest days, the police force was focused on largely the same issues that they are today. 

“The role of the police with regard to vagrancy became more important as a moral panic arose concerning tramping during the [1893-1896] Depression,” wrote historian Dr. Neil Websdale in a 1994 doctoral thesis. “Moreover, the image of the tramp as a folk devil became a much more prominent cultural symbol. In 1892, Mayor John Henry McClung alerted the city of an ‘element arriving in all towns at the moment that cannot be checked by the limited police force.’”

MG Belka:
In 1892, Mayor McClung warned of the dangers posed by vagrants, transients, and migrant laborers fleeing from the ravages of another capitalist depression–and asked for more cops.

This would become a recurring theme.

But, despite the impacts of the depression that killed America’s Gilded Age, Eugene was booming by the beginning of the 20th century.

Massive profits from cash crops like wheat, oats, cherries, hops, and hazelnuts put the city on the agricultural map and spurred rapid growth. The population more than tripled —  growing from just over 3,000 people to almost 11,000 between 1900 and 1920. The first library came in 1906, and electric streetcars were operating by 1907. 

And though it was still a tiny town on the far-edge of the continent, Eugene’s early leaders worked to build a progressive image for the city in its early days. 

The city played a central role in Oregon’s fight for women’s suffrage at the turn of the century, affirming the right of women to vote in local school board elections after an 1898 lawsuit by Laura Harris. This, in turn, led to statewide voting rights for women in 1912–almost a decade before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.

“Lawmakers had granted the vote in school elections to ‘women who are widows, and have children and taxable property in the district,’” writes Dr. Kimberly Jensen, a history professor at Western Oregon University. “Women could vote because of their particular relationship to men and families, not because they had an individual right to cast a ballot.”

Black and white photograph of several dozen women gathering on a train platform to listen to a speech by Margaret Whittemore, an early woman's suffrage pioneer. Most of the women are well-dressed and are wearing an assortment of hats. There are virtually no men in the picture.
Margaret Whittemore, a famed suffragette and organizers of the Nation Woman’s Party, leads a gathering of suffragettes on a train platform in Oregon cir. 1914. Photo from Oregon Historical Society, via “Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party”

The booming commerce and the optimism of progressive politics at the turn of the century belied the dark realities of a rapidly growing pioneer town. Eugene’s role as an agricultural and timber hub meant great wealth for those that owned the farms and the mills, but workers around Lane County were paid as little as a penny per pound of produce harvested. 

A significant portion of those laborers were descendants of the original Kalapuyans and other Oregon natives, who would come off the Grande Ronde reservation into the valley during harvest seasons

MG Belka:
Here is where I begin to see the beginnings of Eugene’s liberalism – this is where the city’s leaders began to realize that they pretty easily get away with saying one thing while doing something completely different.

As early as 1898, Eugene was positioning itself as a leader in progressive politics while also doing as little as possible to actually take the lead on that progress. Throughout the early 1900s, Eugene’s mayors and most prominent citizens often stood alongside the suffragettes, voicing their support for their cause while doing little in the way of actually enacting the change that the suffragettes were demanding that they make.

Even the right to vote in local school board elections came with caveats – the women had to be taxpaying wives or widows with the deed to a property before they were allowed to vote. Asian women couldn’t vote because of laws barring them from becoming citizens. Indigenous women couldn’t vote–unless they were married to white men–until 1924.

Meanwhile, entire families of Indigenous and migrant laborers worked the sprawling farmlands around the city for pennies a day, pouring wealth into the city while living in squalor on its fringes.

But the dissonance grew too strong and came on too quickly. The blending of college students and working class citizens made for a formidable force in the growing city.

Eugene was ready for its first generation of radicals.

Thanks for reading–we wouldn’t have attempted such an expansive project if we didn’t believe that there was some merit to learning about the history of a place, both good and bad.

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