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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

A pioneer scientist's autograph set in stone, deep in the Oregon Caves

Prof. Thomas Condon and his students signed a stalagmite in Oregon Caves in 1883; their autographs are now protected by a thin layer of translucent calcite and will remain legible for millennia.

A photo of the 125-year-old autographs of Prof. Condon's class
The signatures of Prof. Thomas Condon and his students, put there in
pencil in 1883, are still visible beneath a protective coating of calcite in
the Oregon Caves. (Image: F.J.D. John)

Deep underground in southwestern Oregon, there are a series of autographs dating back 125 years that are actually part of Oregon’s geology.

Fittingly enough, the autographs are those of the state’s most famous pioneer geologist and a group of his students.

A building's namesake

If you’ve spent any time on the University of Oregon campus, you’re undoubtedly familiar with Condon Hall. It’s a big, dignified-looking building that went up on campus in 1925 to house the science department; today, it’s home to the anthropology department.

Born in Ireland

The building’s namesake, Thomas Condon, was born in 1822 in County Cork, Ireland. His family emigrated to America, and he came to Oregon on a clipper ship from New York as a missionary in 1852. In 1872, he became Oregon’s first state geologist while teaching at Pacific University in Forest Grove, and in 1876 was appointed the U of O’s first professor of geology, in the year that college was founded. He was there until he died, in 1907.

Touring the newly discovered caves

What we’re interested in today, though, is 1883. That’s the year Condon and one of his classes traveled to southern Oregon to look at the newly discovered Oregon Caves.

This view of the University of Oregon campus in the 1960s comes from a postcard. Condon Hall is the building on the right.
This view of the University of Oregon campus comes from a postcard,
and dates from the 1960s. Condon Hall is the building on the left. For a
larger version of this image, click here.

Condon and his students toured the caves — which are still one of the state’s top geological wonders. While they were there, they took a pencil and actually autographed one of the translucent cream-colored calcite stalagmites in one of the passages.

Autographing the stone

Today, of course, this would be considered an outrage, and would likely be paid for with the professor’s position, tenured or no. But in 1883, things were quite different. First, no one yet knew that those stalagmites had built up through the steady dripping of calcium-laden water over millions of years. People were actually chipping them off and taking them home as souvenirs. Condon and his students, most likely, were among them. In fact, many people thought the stalagmites were built up over a period of years measured in the hundreds or even dozens, not millions.

It would be decades before scientists realized that the Oregon Caves were a geologic treasure and should be protected. It would be a half century or more before someone realized that, wonderful as Professor Condon was, his class’s signatures didn’t belong on that stalagmite. Someone took a Pink Pearl down there — or some other device or chemical designed to remove pencil marks — and set to work removing the signatures from the stalagmite.

Marks can't be erased

They would not come off. In the intervening years, millions of gallons of water falling drip by drip on the stalagmite had covered the pencil marks with a thin veneer of calcite. Translucent, the calcite allowed the pencil marks to be seen perfectly. Scientists realized they would have to destroy the stalagmite in order to save it from Prof. Condon’s early version of “Kilroy Was Here.”

Today, if you take an Oregon State Parks tour of the caves, the guide will point out the signatures. The personal markings of these genteel and unwitting vandals are sealed there for all time. It’s interesting to look at them and realize they will be there, clearly visible, for several hundred thousand years before the calcite over them becomes too thick to read through, an artifact of early state history. The archaeologists of some future civilization may, thousands of generations hence, find themselves puzzling over the cryptic marks made in graphite on that stalagmite and covered over with a few millimeters of calcite — marks put there by one Thomas Condon.

Fitting, isn’t it, that the archaeology department is now in the hall named after him?

(Sources: Bishop, Ellen & al. Hiking Oregon’s Geology. Portland: Mountaineers, 2004; tour of Oregon Caves, Cave Junction, OR, August 2007; www.nps.gov)