Oregon’s Tallest Town is Sinking

Lakeview: Where you'll find all the peace and quiet you can handle.

Seeing double in Lakeview: The author, dwarfed by a really tall dude.

By Jason R. Cox

Every couple has their sacred place. Although these places are often beautiful, or interesting, or bustling, these locales aren’t special because of these, well, special characteristics. Any place can resonate within an individual. It’s special when it strikes a chord and stirs something deeper for two people who also happen to love one another.

They could be anywhere in the world. Ours is a little town that can’t compete with Sisters or Seaside in terms of beauty and amenities. You won’t find the culture that abounds in Portland, Eugene, Ashland or even Salem.

What you will find in Lakeview, Oregon, is a fantastic steak and all the peace and quiet you can handle. For us, that’s pretty close to paradise. A co-worker lived there for years and regularly wished he could return. His enthusiasm made us curious, and what we found turned us into converts.

In the heart of Oregon’s Outback, Lakeview’s elevation (4,798) is more than double its population (2,294). It is in the middle of unforgiving high desert terrain, alternately baking and freezing those within it.

Lakeview is an old city and has a rich history: Researchers discovered some of the earliest evidence of human life in Oregon north of town. Oregon’s only “continuously erupting” geyser is within a five-minute drive, but much like the freshwater bodies that give Lakeview its name, “Old Perpetual” has mostly dried up.

Fort Rock

Fort Rock, north of town, presents a stark landscape north of Lakeview.

The upside? It never rains during our ritual nighttime stroll through downtown, after a meal at Mario’s Dinner House and a few drinks at The Eagle’s Nest. The downtown grid was laid down before cars were dominant, and is as walkable as any neighborhood in America. We park our car at the hotel and find no need for four-wheeled transportation until it’s time to go home.

Last time, we caught the tail end of sunset as it cast a glowing ring on the horizon. After that comes a starry night that usually is reserved for the hinterlands. As the desert air cools, the smell of sagebrush fills the cool night air. We walk among and enjoy modern conveniences, and at the same time feel like we’re miles away from everything and everyone.

If only Lakeview could bottle and sell such serenity. The town is past its economic prime in every measurable way. It has lost a third of its residents since 1960, when 3,260 people lived there. Ranching is following the agricultural trend of “get big or get out,” meaning less well-heeled property owners living, spending money in and contributing to the community. Like many Oregon towns, restrictions on timber harvesting have taken a toll. The Interstate system long ago picked de facto winners and losers — where the road goes, we go.

The resulting lack of opportunity — not to mention the distance from the nearest university — leads many, especially but not exclusively the best and brightest, to leave town. Even if they want to come back, how do you build a life on sinking sand?

Jason Cox

Jason R.  Cox

A few years ago, pipeline construction filled every hotel room and even prompted construction of a new campground. The local bars were filled with workers from Texas, drinking and two-stepping their Saturday night away. But the pipeline is done, and the workers have moved on.

Our last visit brought reminders that economic recovery hasn’t reached Lake County. The most visible sign was a shuttered movie theater, closed thanks to the major studios converting to digital only  —  a transition that the Alger Theater’s owners simply couldn’t afford.

The plight of the Alger is much like Lakeview itself: Trying, and mostly failing, to find its place in the modern world. But as long as there’s good people, a decent drink and a great steak to be had in Lakeview, it will always be our sacred place.

 Jason R. Cox is a communications specialist and occasional journalist residing in Salem and tweeting at @jasonrcox.

*****

Editor’s note: Jason is the son-in-law of our longtime friends, Tom and Elsa Guiney.

Tomorrow: “Know when to fold ’em” by Lillian Mongeau

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14 thoughts on “Oregon’s Tallest Town is Sinking

  1. I haven’t found mine yet, though my husband and I spent our honeymoon last summer in Hocking Hills, an area in Southeast Ohio with beautiful waterfalls and areas for hiking. Perhaps returning there for subsequent anniversaries will make it sacred to us.

  2. Having moved all over this great land of ours since I was wee, I’ve found myself a sacred spot in every port we hunkered down in for more than a few weeks. The places I’m longing for these days are Bozeman, MT, Brooklyn, NY and upcountry Maui, HI. I have lists of all the places I like to eat during visits and sights I like to see that no one else would care about like that corner by the thing where we went that time. Ah, memories.

  3. Jason – You had me at steak and now I need to go to Lakeview not just for the steak, but to walk your memories. My sacred place? When I lived in New Mexico it was Taos, a place I went to for every birthday and, whenever I find myself back in New Mexico, an obligatory stopping place on the trail. Here in Oregon, the coast. There is something about plopping my butt in the sand and realizing how little I really do matter, in the scheme of things. You leave there a bit more grounded than when you arrived.

  4. I was raised in Lakeview and I must agree with the hometown feel, I would move back in a second if my husband could find work there. My dad was a police officer in Lakeview for years and then worked at Fremont sawmill for over 13 years pulling the green chain. I remember growing up there and going to movies when Mr. Alger himself ran the theatre, every night he would stop the movie and threaten us all with calling our parents if we didn’t settle down. He would do it if we didn’t and being such a small town he knew all of us personally. Anonymity did not exist, all summer was spent at the local pool or at the lakes, fishing and hunting was a way of life and every kid knew about guns. We would go to the clothing store every year before school and buy that years clothes, when you got shoes they actually measured your feet and brought you the shoes, nothing like shoe shopping today. Walking to school was normal and walking as a family after dinner in the evening just talking about our days and being a real family. Even to this day when you go to Lakeview people wave and say hello and ask how you are doing and really care about others. The whole town was thriving and people made an honest living and knew what a hard days work was. People call me a redneck or a small town girl and that makes me smile because that small town made me who I am today. Now when I go to visit my mom there I see the theatre closed, the Indian Village closed and the grocery store Stewarts closed up and most of the sawmills are all gone.
    I miss my hometown and all that went with it, the quiet and comfort in Lakeview, to me, is an experience that stays with you forever.
    Anyways I just wanted to put in my two cents worth about this beautiful and endangered town that I once called home. Thank you for reading and sharing this memory with me.
    Sincerely
    A small town homesick girl

  5. Thanks for commenting, Candy. It’s a different kind of life for sure. I spent a little bit of time living in a tiny isolated town in Appalachia. Some of the same aspects apply, namely the complete lack of anonymity and willingness to lend a hand to anyone. Everyone was a friend. (Well, not EVERYONE.) I never met Mr. Alger, but I love the idea of a theater owner stopping the movie to tell kids to calm down.

    • Yes it was a one of a kind experience and I love every memory I have there. Thank you for writing this it really took me down memory lane and brought a smile to the face of someone that needed it desperately.

  6. Hi, Jason. Thanks for the nice, sobering tribute to the town I was born and raised in. Though I was eager to get out of town when I was old enough (I left in 1977 for Eugene and the University of Oregon), I have a lot of very warm memories about growing up there when it was a much more economically vital place to live. And I can confirm Candy’s observations (Hi, Candy! Do I know you?) about Mr. Alger and the theater, though I can say, as one of Lakeview’s more consistent and enthusiastic moviegoers in the ’70s that the claim of him shutting the projectors down “every night” is a slight exaggeration. But he did it on occasion, that’s for sure. I documented one such occasion on my own blog when I wrote a tribute to my memories of the theater upon its closing in 2014. I thought, after reading your own wistful observations, you might be interested in reading this one too. Thanks!

    http://sergioleoneifr.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-smallest-show-on-earth-or-rip-alger.html

    • I too just saw this. Sorry for the delayed reaction. You definitely see how it was once fairly self-sustaining. Thanks for the link too. Will definitely read up on that. The Alger wasn’t open the nights we visited prior to 2014, and I’m sorry to see it closed. Hopefully someday we’ll get to see a movie there.

  7. Dennis,

    Thank you so much for your comment about Lakeview and the Alger. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. I must have been distracted by who-knows-what, but the “up” side is that I got another chance to read your well-written blog post, accompanied by lots of photos. Loved your description of the Alger:

    “For all its deficiencies—the inept projection, the frequently misspelled marquee (it was always “Pual” Newman in something or other, and I’ll never forget “Ward Bond 007” in The Man with the Golden Gun), the uncomfortable seats, the indifferent management—the Alger was where I really fell in love with the movies.”

    Has the theater reopened under new management? You mentioned the possibility in your blog post. If so, I imagine that would make lots of residents and visitors happy.

    George

  8. Thank you, Jason, for a well-written tribute. Hopefully, next time you come through town you’ll see that it’s starting to come back to life. The Alger, for example, has a non-profit group, Lakeview Community Partnership, that’s in the process of purchasing, restoring, and reopening it. They’re in the very early stages still, but are hoping to have the doors open by 2019 or 2020, and they have a ton of community support behind them. They’re also involved with a lot of other projects downtown, some of which have legs under them and some which will probably falter. But things are beginning to look up. Candy, you’ll be happy to learn the the Indian Village reopened under new management. It’s even got a video arcade in it now.

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