Background photo: A hand-tinted linen postcard view of Three Sisters from Scott Lake, circa 1920.
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Ryan was so incensed by Kincaid’s work that on the evening of June 22, 1860, he tried to kill People’s Press editor B.J. Pengra, whipping out a pistol and firing at him with it.
“The ball was not well aimed,” the Oregon Journal’s reporter recounts, “and missed Pengra, who sprung upon Ryan, bore him to the ground, and choked him till he was black in the face, when some bystanders interfered and separated them.”
Pengra immediately filed charges against Ryan for attempted murder, and Ryan had to post $1,500 bail. He then promptly jumped bail and skipped town.
After that, Columbia College was basically done. It straggled on for a few more months; but a combination of the brewing American Civil War and a hefty judgment stemming from a lawsuit filed by former president Henderson (whom the new pro-slavery college board had attempted to stiff for a semester’s pay) forced it to declare bankruptcy and dissolve.
But just before that happened, the students finally got to move into the new fireproof stone building — the permanent structure that had been under construction since the first building fire. It wasn’t quite finished and ready yet, but the students were, so some classes were moved into it. And although it didn’t catch fire, the college’s building jinx was apparently still going strong. According to ex-President Henderson’s niece Kate, “one stormy day there came a creaking and rattling overhead, and the timid ones among us were greatly frightened, supposing the whole building was about to fall upon us, but our fears were quieted as it was ascertained that it was only the tin roof loosened from its fastenings, and being rolled up in a scroll was literally thrown from the building and rolled off down the hill.”
Perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be.
Among those students, the most well known name nationwide was that of Cincinnatus “Joaquin” Miller, the future “Poet of the Sierras,” who attended classes there for several months. Miller would later claim Columbia College as his alma mater, writing in later years that he “graduated summa cum laude” from Columbia; but, as historian Perry Morrison delicately puts it, “It is very difficult to separate fact from poetic license when one deals with the career of the Poet of the Sierras.”
Other important names on the student roster include J.J. Walton and J.M. Thompson, two of the primary movers in the establishment of the University of Oregon 15 years later; and future U.S. Congressman J.D.H. Henderson, the college president’s brother, who came to Eugene specifically so his children could attend Columbia College, and later supplied the 20-acre parcel of land on which the U. of O. would be built.
But Columbia College’s influence goes beyond the names of its students. It basically gave the rough-cut backwater settlement that was pre-Civil-War Eugene City a taste of life as a Mecca of letters, and the citizens clearly liked it.
“The people here, many of whom had been its students, never forgot in the struggles of later years that this place had once been an important center of learning,” writes historian Joseph Shafer in his 1901 article. “To this fact I believe may be attributed much of the ardor shown a decade and more later in the pursuit of the university project.”
Fortunately, when the real university project got under way, it took care not to hire any prickly Southern gunslingers as university presidents. Speaking of which, ex-President Ryan was never caught, and never heard from again. A probably-true rumor claimed he’d fled back to old Dixie, and when hostilities broke out a few months later joined the Confederate army.
Incidentally, if you've ever wondered why the Eugene neighborhood named "College Hill" is some distance away from the actual college after which most people think it was named (the U. of O.), now you know: College Hill was the old site of Columbia College, way back before the Civil War.