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Man found meteorite ... on his neighbor’s land

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By Finn J.D. John
July 1, 2023

IT WAS GETTING toward the end of the summer of 1902, and West Linn resident Ellis Hughes was getting worried.

His neighbor, William Dale, had traveled back to Eastern Oregon to sell some land he owned there. With the proceeds, Dale and Hughes planned to buy a piece of property next to the Hughes farm.

The property belonged to the Oregon Iron and Steel Co., which wasn’t really doing anything with it and which Hughes was pretty sure would be happy to sell … unless, of course, they found out why he wanted to buy it.

Because earlier in the summer, while trespassing on it, Hughes had stumbled across the biggest meteorite that has ever been found on American soil, before or since, lying half-buried in a remote and thickly forested part of it.

Ellis Hughes and his stepson pose with the Willamette Meteorite in 1902. The meteorite has been loaded onto a crude wooden cart so that it could be hauled through the woods onto Hughes’s property. (Image: Arcadia Publishing)

One imagines him gnawing at his fingernails, waiting to hear back from Dale, hoping it would happen before the property owner got wise or someone else found the meteorite. He’d piled brush over it, but there was only so much you could do to hide a 16-ton hunk of extraterrestrial nickel-iron. Sooner or later someone would spot it, and his chance to grab it would be lost.

Finally, realizing that Dale was not coming back, Hughes decided on another solution:


He would simply load the 31,000-pound meteorite onto a wagon in the middle of the night and drag it three-quarters of a mile onto his property, where he would “discover” it later.

And believe it or not, this hairbrained scheme probably would have worked, if Hughes had kept his mouth shut a little longer….


THE METEORITE IS KNOWN today as the Willamette Meteorite, named after the nearest town to the Hughes farm, the little town of Willamette, which has since become a neighborhood of West Linn.

When the Willamette Meteorite struck the Earth, millions of years ago, it almost certainly did not land where Hughes found it. A rock that big hitting anywhere around West Linn would have buried itself to bedrock in the deep Willamette Valley topsoil, never to be seen again. Scientists believe it came down somewhere in Montana or northern Idaho during the last ice age and embedded itself in a glacier. Then, at the end of the ice age, the glacier melted, calving off icebergs into the massive inland sea that was Glacial Lake Missoula — which, of course, torrentially drained, icebergs and all, down the Columbia River during the Missoula Floods. The theory is that an iceberg containing the meteorite floated to what’s now West Linn before melting and depositing its load gently on the ground there.

And for the next few hundred centuries, there it sat.

Native Americans, when they found it, recognized it as special. They gave it a name, Tomonowos (translated as “Visitor from the Moon”), and dipped their arrowheads in the rainwater that collected in its pockets.

Hughes was out cutting firewood when he noticed it: an oddly-shaped boulder, oddly colored, like rusty iron. Could it be, he wondered, a piece of iron ore?

Two small boys clown around in the holes of the 16-ton Willamette Meteorite, where it sits on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1911. (Image: AMNH)

He consulted his neighbor, William Dale, who came over with a rock hammer and tapped on the strange rock.

Instead of the expected rocky “chup,” the hammer rang with a bell-like “ting” on impact. Dale and Hughes looked at each other. This wasn’t iron ore, they realized; this was straight-up iron. And the only way iron appears naturally on the surface of the Earth in pure form … is when it falls from the sky.

(To be precise, the meteorite is 91.65 percent iron, 7.88 percent nickel, 0.21 percent cobalt, and 0.09 percent phosphorous.)

So, that’s how Ellis Hughes learned that there was a massive, priceless visitor from outer space parked on his neighbor’s land.


THE PLAN TO steal the meteorite kicked off with Hughes and his wife and stepson cutting a wagon road through the woods to the site, from their home.

Next, Hughes built a super heavy-duty wheeled platform to put the meteorite on, and a super heavy-duty capstan winch for his horse to drive. Using the winch, with the help of his wife and stepson (and the horse), he managed to roll the massive thing onto the platform; then, anchoring the winch to a big tree in the general direction of home, he started using it to slowly drag the loaded wagon through the woods.

Progress was excruciatingly slow. For days on end the horse walked in circles around the capstan, winding a cable around a spindle and dragging the platform inch by inch along the road. The best day’s progress was 150 feet. Later in the summer, unseasonal heavy rains turned the wagon road into a mud bog, and progress slowed to just a few feet per day; finally they had to stop and put down planks for the cart to run on.

But finally, three months after they started, the Hughes family had their stolen meteorite safe and sound on their own land.


THIS WAS THE point at which a wiser man would have spent the winter carefully and painstakingly repairing the damage to the neighboring land, filling in the crater out of which the meteor had been dug, and maybe even planting some small trees and shrubs in the wagon path. A year’s wait, with some careful cultivation, would have gone a long way toward making the casual observer think nothing had happened there.

But, of course, that’s not what Ellis Hughes did.

Instead, he built a gazebo over the meteorite and started charging people 25 cents a head — worth about $9 in modern money — to come see it.

The meteorite was a big sensation, and for a few weeks it was the talk of the town. It was, as Hughes rightly asserted, the biggest meteorite ever found in the U.S., and at the time the third biggest in the world.

Very soon, though, rumors started to circulate that Hughes had not found the meteorite on his own land. When these rumors reached the ears of the Oregon Iron and Steel Co. people, they apparently went into the woods to look for evidence — and found it.

They started off by offering to buy it from Hughes for $50, basically reimbursing him for the expense of dragging it out of the woods. But Hughes said no, so the company sued him, demanding its return.

In court, Hughes argued that the meteorite was not real estate, belonging to the land — it was personal property, belonging to the Native Americans. Presumably he was working with the Indians at this point, and probably had made some sort of deal with them, because two tribal leaders from the Clackamas Indians testified on his behalf. The meteorite, they told the judge, was theirs, a holy object belonging to the Clackamas people.

It was a surprisingly plausible argument, and in a modern court of law it would probably be a no-brainer; after all, if the president of Oregon Iron and Steel left his briefcase behind after a visit to a Clackamas village, they wouldn’t be allowed to keep it based on a claim to have found it on their land.

But, not in 1903. The court promptly awarded the disputed meteorite to Oregon Iron and Steel, and when Hughes and the tribe appealed to the state supreme court, the decision was affirmed.

The victorious company, possibly feeling some pressure from the tribe, announced that the meteorite would remain in Oregon forever, and prominently featured the big space rock at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. But when, after the Exposition ended, wealthy philanthropist Sarah Dodge offered to buy it for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for $20,600 (a sum worth roughly $690,000 in modern currency), they apparently changed their mind and took the money.

The Willamette Meteorite has remained on display in the museum ever since. There are two replicas of it — one at the United Methodist Church in West Linn, near where it was found, and the other outside the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene — but Oregonians who want to see the real thing will have to travel to New York to do it.

In 1990, local Indian tribes sued for the return of the meteorite; but ten years later they came to an agreement with the museum that lets them come and visit the meteorite and hold private ceremonies around it. The agreement also stipulates that if the museum ever takes it off permanent display, the tribes will get it back.

Everyone seems to have been happy with this compromise, and when, in 2007, a bill got introduced in the Oregon House of Representatives demanding its return, the tribes released a statement saying they were happy with the existing arrangement and did not support the bill, and that nobody had even bothered to talk to them about it before demanding the space rock's return. So, as Willamette Week put it in an editorial that year, “neither the bill nor the 16-ton meteorite went anywhere.”


Other Oregon meteorites:

The Willamette Meteorite is the most famous heavenly body to end up in Oregon, but it’s far from the only one. Here are some of the others:

Sams Valley Meteorite: Jackson County, 1880s and 1890s: The area of Sams Valley, about 10 miles north of Medford, apparently was the target of a meteorite that broke up on entry into the atmosphere. There have been roughly half a dozen pieces of it found over the years, including three found in the 1880s by a gold panner, a 15-pound metallic lunker found in 1894, and a 2.6-pound piece acquired by the American Museum of Natural History in 1938.

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The Willamette Meteorite as it appears today, on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. (Image: Dante Alighieri/Wikimedia)

The big Sams Valley chunk, the 15-pounder, got sold to a commercial dealer, which cut it into bits to sell to museums and private collectors. The piece found in 1938 got forwarded to University of Oregon astronomer J.H. Pruett, who agreed to slice the thing up in exchange for a one-pound piece. He did this (or, rather, his friend C.A. Coulter and Coulter’s teenage son Donald did — by hand! It took them 11 hours and 18 hacksaw blades) and his one-pound piece is now on display at the Oregon Museum of Natural History in Eugene.

Klamath Falls Meteorite: Klamath County, 1952: This meteorite was found somewhere in Klamath County, and it was a very large one — 38 pounds. The person who found it brought it to a meteorite expert and dropped it off for testing, but never returned to pick it up — so its origins are shrouded in mystery. It was acquired by the University of New Mexico, and subsequently cut up so that pieces could be sold to private collectors and other museums.

Salem Meteorite: Marion County; 1981: A little after 1 a.m. on May 13, 1981, Marion County Deputy Sheriff James Price was sitting on the curb in front of his residence talking with another deputy when both men heard what sounded like a shower of gravel hitting the roof. They investigated, using their flashlights, and eventually found a still-warm piece of stony meteorite that had hit the ground within 10 feet of them.

The meteorite fragments were tested to confirm that they were of extraterrestrial origin and not just rocks from some neighbor kid’s slingshot. They turned out to be the real deal, and Deputy Price was no doubt happy to add them to his rock collection.

Morrow County Meteorite, 1999: Washington residents Donald and Debbie Wesson were driving home from a visit in north central Oregon when they saw a particularly interesting rock lying in the ditch. It was about 40 pounds, uniquely shaped, as if it had been partly melted. On one side a piece had been torn away, probably by a farmer’s plow.

The Morrow County Meteorite as seen from the side apparently broken off by a plow. (Image: Julian Gray/RiceNW Museum)

Donald picked it up and took it home to add to his rock garden, where it remained for the next eight years. Then one day Donald watched a TV program about meteorites and it started him wondering if that weird rock he’d picked up in Oregon might be one. Asking around, he was directed to Dr. Dick Pugh at Portland State University, who, with the help of his colleagues at PSU’s Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory, was able to confirm it was a meteorite.

As meteorites go, the rock is a pretty common type; but there are a few things about it that are unusual, according to Dr. Melida Hutson, curator of the Meteorite Lab. “It has beautiful shock veins and glass, caused by a major collision in space,” she said, in a 2010 press release. “And the cone shape of the meteorite is very nice for such a large specimen.”

Fitzwater Pass Meteorite: Lake County; 1976: In the summer of 1976, Lakeview rockhound Paul Albertson was out hunting for agate and jasper with his high-school teacher, James Bleakney, when he found a strangely heavy teardrop-shaped piece of metal the size of his thumb.

Albertson took the 2.3-ounce chunk to his local rock shop, where the staff members were stumped, but told him it was probably a piece of nickel ore. Albertson took it home and stashed it in a coffee can with some other interesting rocks, and there it remained until one day Dr. Pugh of the Cascadia Meteorite Lab came to the Lakeview Public Library to give a lecture about meteorites. Albertson, remembering the weird bit of nickel ore he’d found when he was in high school, dug it out of the can and brought it with him.

Dr. Pugh sent it in for analysis, which revealed that it was a very rare IIIF Iron meteorite.

South Slough Meteorite story: Coos County; 1890: This meteorite, if it existed, has been lost. This would be very difficult to do, because the description that has come down to us is of a piece of space rock roughly 40 times bigger than Namibia’s Hoba Meteorite, the world’s largest authenticated meteorite.

The story comes to us from Pioneer History of Coos and Curry Counties, a book by O. Dodge published in 1898 by the Capital Press in Salem. It’s probably best, as one of Raymond Chandler’s hard-drinking detective protagonists once put it, to take this shot straight from the bottle:

One of the largest meteors on record fell on the head of South Slough, Coos County, Jan. 17, 1890, at 11 o’clock at night, knocking a hole in the hill 30 feet across. It came from the northwest and lighted up the heavens in fine style. A report, as of thunder, awoke people for many miles around. It was plainly heard at Coquille City. Excavations reveal a chunk of lava 22 feet across that resembles slag from an iron furnace.

In the absence of any other information about this enormous meteorite, and in consideration of the fact that a meteorite that big would be very unlikely to survive the thermal shock of entering Earth’s atmosphere without shattering into a shower of smaller fragments, scientists generally consider the South Slough Meteorite to be either wildly exaggerated or simply fictional.

Mulino Meteorite: Clackamas County, 1927: In the story of the South Slough meteorite there is a story, but no meteorite. With the Mulino Meteorite, the situation is the exact opposite. It’s an existing very small chondrite (that is, stony, not metallic) meteorite in the U.S. National Museum which the label says fell on May 24, 1927, near Mulino, a tiny community about halfway between Oregon City and Molalla on Highway 213. The problem is, according to geologist George Mustoe, there’s just no evidence in contemporary newspaper reports or other correspondence of any meteorite falling there.

So, what’s the story? Did the meteorite actually fall in Mulino, and did someone box it up and ship it to the museum with a note saying they might like to have it in their collection, without a word to the local media or neighbors? This does seem the most likely explanation; but we’ll probably never really know.

Port Orford Meteorite story: Coos or Curry County, 1856: As the kids say nowadays on their YouTube channels, this is the one that’s going to really set off the flame wars “in the comments below.” But the scientific consensus is pretty clear: The Port Orford Meteorite was a hoax, a desperate play by a desperate explorer facing financial ruin and a total loss of reputation.

The story, or rather the most likely story, is this: It’s 1858 and explorer John Evans is on a sailing ship or steamer, on his way home from an expedition to Oregon for a government-funded geological survey. He’s coming home to face some serious music, as he’s overspent his budget and will be expected to make up the shortfall from his personal resources. And he doesn’t have enough personal resources to cover the bill.

The trip home for Evans isn’t “around the horn”; his ship stops at the isthmus of Panama, and the passengers disembark and take a short overland journey to the other side for the second leg of their voyage. Along the route, Evans comes across a vendor selling pieces of a pallasite meteorite, the Imilac Meteorite, discovered about 30 years earlier in the Atacama desert in Chile.

This chunk of pallasite comes from Imilac Meteorite found in Chile in 1820 — the same meteorite that most scientists today believe was the real source of the piece from the “Port Orford Meteorite” produced by John Evans on his return from Oregon. (Image: Christopher Ebel/American Museum of Natural History)

Pallasite is the most valuable kind of meteorite. Pallasite is the substance that forms right at the borderline between the nickel-iron core and the rocky mantle of a small planet or large asteroid. When that heavenly body is blown apart by a meteor strike or whatever, the chunks that result can be rock, metals or pallasite — and pallasite is by far the rarest of the three. A very large pallasite meteorite would be worth huge money, Evans knows.

So he buys this little three-quarter-ounce chunk of Imilac Meteorite and spends the rest of his journey concocting a story about it: how he found a huge 11-ton meteorite half buried in the side of a hill he calls “Bald Mountain” about 40 miles inland from Port Orford; how he cut the specimen off because it looked interesting, and only later learned it was a million-dollar visitor from space; and how he would really like the government to finance a return trip so that he could go and find it and retrieve it for posterity.

All of which is well on its way to working when the Civil War breaks out, and suddenly the government is no longer very interested in rock collecting.

So, is that what happened? Yeah, probably. But we’ll never know, because Evans died of pneumonia the day after the war started.

Also, there are some weird stories out there that hint at the possibility that the Port Orford Meteorite may have been a real item. Most notably, a nickel miner named Bob Harrison in 1937 claimed the meteorite was on his claim, and that the nickel he’d been mining was from the strike — chunks that had broken off the pallasite in an airburst. Harrison, though, disappeared from view after making this claim, and nobody knows what happened to him.

So, yeah. The Port Orford Meteorite is a magnificent antebellum hoax … or maybe that’s just what whoever found it wants you to think! Either way, it’s a deliciously fun South Coast legend.

By the way, an earlier Offbeat Oregon History column went into more details on the Port Orford Meteorite several years ago. Here is a link to that story.

(Sources: “Meteorites from the Pacific Northwest,” an article by George E. Mustoe published in the March 1999 issue of Oregon Geology; Images of America: West Linn, a book by Cordelia Backer Seigneur published in 2009 by Arcadia Publishing; “Oregon Meteorites,” an information hub page maintained by Portland State University’s Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory,

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