This mystery has dominated the minds of Oregonians for over 100 years. The meteorite mystery has remained an object of speculation, not least because it has been missing since its introduction to the world in the 19th century.
It all stems from the US Department of the Interior’s decision to hire a man named John Evans to conduct a survey in Oregon. He was a medical doctor from New Hampshire who had little geological experience.
He was tasked to conduct a geological reconnaissance survey of Southwestern Oregon. It was here that he would make his fame and begin a myth that would continue well past his lifetime.
John Evans was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1812. He was the son of an Associate Justice of the Superior Court of New Hampshire, Richard Evans, and his wife Anne Wendell Evans. He attended St. Louis medical college and received his medical degree there.
In 1835, he married Sarah Zane Mills. Despite being a medical doctor, Dr. John Evans also had a keen interest in geology and had a professional career as a geologist at the Smithsonian Institution. He was honored several times, including in 1854 when he was selected as a member of the prestigious Academy of Natural Sciences.
John was selected as an assistant to eminent geologist Dr. David Dale Owen to help him with a project in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. He was expected to examine the boundaries of tertiary formations and cretaceous formations, West of the Missouri.
Whilst he did this, he was able to impress Owen by covering a larger area than expected. He discovered rich coal beds near Fort Berthold, a rich resource for the area. Evans continued to impress his colleagues and was appointed as Owen’s successor in the Oregon area. It was here that he would make his big discovery.
In one of Evan’s reports, he discussed a remarkable meteorite. He claimed that in the “Indian War”, he ascended a peak known as Bald Mountain within the Rogue River range around 35-40 miles (56-64 km) from Port Orford, where he had discovered it.
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He broke a part of it off and sent it back to the lab for testing. When the results returned, they revealed that this was indeed a meteor. This was a fascinating find for the science of the time, but Evans’s notes suggested was far too large to be retrieved from its location.
Evans estimated that the moving of the meteorite would cost around 3,000 dollars by the time that pack mules could get it down the mountain to the closest town, Port Orford. He left it there to be discovered by somebody else, leaving only his notes as evidence of its existence.
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Reports of this meteorite spread across the country rapidly, with some news articles even claiming that it weighed around 10 tons (9 tonnes). More expeditions were planned and many were meant to have Evans as the lead to them but unfortunately, he died in 1861 from pneumonia.
With the only witness to the meteor’s location dead and insufficient information in his surviving notes, any expedition to retrace his steps would almost certainly fail. Though many did try to find the lost meteor.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there was an upsurge in interest in this supposed meteor from the Smithsonian Institution and they searched across Evan’s route, piecing together what they could from his notes. However, nothing was ever found.
Evans’s field journal was still accessible from 1856 but no maps or landmarks were present within it to help guide the would-be treasure hunters. There was also no record of the specimens he took or the Bald Mountain upon which it was found.
Nevertheless, local Oregon residents continued in vain to search for the meteorite. This may have been due to the fact that in 1930, the meteor was estimated to be worth a fortune in the thousands of dollars.
The Boston Society, who had claimed Evans’ samples of the meteorite, donated the findings to the Smithsonian Institute in the 1920s. Specialists inspected them and put them through rigorous testing.
Edward Henderson, the curator of meteorites at the institution, concluded that whilst he could determine that the rocks did indeed spring from the meteoric origin, it was unlikely that they came from Oregon. Henderson spent many years searching for the meteorite to little avail.
He was part of the 1939 expeditions to Bald Mountain but found nothing. By 1964, Henderson, bereft and defeated, surmised that it was possible the that the Port Orford Meteor was a myth after all.
In the 1990s, Historian Howard Plotkin conducted vast amounts of research with an exhaustive examination of the historic record. He partnered with the metallurgists Vagn Buchwald and Roy Clarke, colleagues of Henderson at the Smithsonian Institute, to investigate the matter.
Clark and Buchwald were able to conclude that the samples that Evans had sent actually belonged to the meteorite field located in the Atacama Desert on Chile’s Coast. This had been discovered in the 1820s and so it is not impossible that Evans had already come across this meteorite before.
Evans had been in a financial maelstrom in the 1850s. It is possible that this was his motive to try and fool the world. He was perhaps hoping to receive fame and secure funding from the government as a famous geologist.
Plotkin thought that Evans had picked up the pieces while traveling across the Panamanian Isthmus when he visited there in 1858. At this time meteorite samples were sold as curiosities and tokens.
This has not been enough to turn people away from the legends though. The Port Orford Meteorite still has enthusiastic supporters and searchers today. Many claims that Ruby Hult’s Lost Mines and Treasures of the Pacific Northwest published in 1957 has concrete and documented proof of the meteorite’s existence. However, the author has yet to provide credible evidence that the meteorite exists.
That is where things stand as of today. No one is completely sure. Many people still search for the meteorite exists and hope that one day they will find it. Others claim that it did exist but have fallen through a landslide into the clay loam of the area. It may still exist in a forest waiting to be discovered, however, it seems unlikely it will be found, if it was even real at all.
Top Image: Nobody has been able to find the Port Orford meteorite to this day, and many believe it never existed. Source: Nickolay Khoroshkov / Adobe Stock.
By Kurt Readman