Before the first American settlers of Eugene, Oregon called the vibrant and flourishing land home, ancestors of the Chifin Kalapuyans Native American tribe have called this part of the Earth home for as long as 10,000 years. Back then, the Eugene area was known as “Chifin” and was the name of their village at the junction of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. They made “seasonal rounds” in the area, moving around the countryside to collect and preserve local foods and then storing them in their permanent winter village that they would return to later to hunt, fish, and trade when the crops began to wane.

History of Eugene
Eugene Skinner is considered the founder of modern-day Eugene. Photo courtesy: Oregon Historical Society Research Library

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century that the tribe encountered its first set of newcomers, as French fur traders settled seasonally in the Willamette Valley. They had already developed relationships with the Native Kalapuyan community via intermarriage and trade and thus were able to negotiate for land from the tribe. By 1828 they had already begun to occupy the land on a year-round basis, but disaster struck in July of 1830 when an “intermittent fever” struck the lower Columbia region and made its way to the Willamette Valley a year later.

Present-day researchers believe this “intermittent fever” was, in fact, malaria. It had a devastating effect on the village and is considered the most important epidemiological event in the recorded history of what would later become the State of Oregon. Evidence suggests there was a 92% population loss for the Kalapuyans between 1830 and 1841.

Besides the malaria outbreak altering the demographics in the Valley area, the balance was further altered during this time with the arrival of Anglo-American settlers. What started as 13 settlers placing down roots in 1840 grew exponentially over the next 20 years and turned into 11,000 American colonists by 1860, including the legendary Eugene Skinner himself, for who the city is named after.

History of Eugene
A replica of the first cabin inhabited by Eugene Skinner during the founding of Eugene. Photo credit: Douglass Halvorsen

Skinner arrived in the area in 1846 after joining the party of Elijah Bristow that included 1,200 other settlers new to the wild west. He was taken aback by the beauty of the land’s lush green fern forests and riverfront scenery and immediately filed a land claim for a spot downriver from Bristow’s claim that July. The local Kalapuya Tribe advised him to build his future cabin high up due to floods, so he heeded that advice and returned in October to construct a cabin pathway up the butte closest to the river. The Kalapuya knew this area as Ya-Po-Ah, meaning “high place,” but once Skinner’s cabin went up, the land became known as Skinner Butte. This cabin would go on to be used as a trading posting while Skinner farmed and ran a ferry across the Willamette, and then later as a post office when Skinner would change professions to city postmaster and name the post office Skinner’s.

History of Eugene
Busy Willamette Road in Eugene’s early history around the 1910s. Photo courtesy: Oregon Historical Society Research Library

In 1851, Skinner met with local judge David Matteson Risdon and began to lay out a blueprint for a town on the land that would come to be known as Eugene City, with the name being suggested by his wife. It was a welcomed change as, by this point, most settlers were referring to the area as Skinner’s Mudhole due to the frequent flooding from October to April. The town was platted the following year and went on to be fully incorporated into a city in 1862. Later, in 1864, the Eugene City name was changed to City of Eugene, which was shortened to the name Eugene in 1889 as it is still known today.

By the time the city was renamed to its official title, it was already thriving. A millrace had begun after settlers connected two sloughs off the Willamette River that ran through town to power grist mills and sawmills. Other businesses followed suit, including a furniture factory and a cold storage plant. A distillery was added in 1856, along with other mills and wood-related industries. It resulted in the city growing into a center for processing and transporting lumber from mills in other towns such as Springfield, Saginaw, and Cottage Grove.

History of Eugene
Gerlinger Hall at the University of Oregon was built in 1921. This photo was taken in 1974. Photo courtesy: University of Oregon Libraries

The Oregon and California Railroad later arrived in 1871, officially connecting Eugene to Portland and points beyond. As a result, wheat and oats became a regular exported crop, while fruit and vegetable packing became a vital industry for the growing city. The University of Oregon became the next significant addition to the area in 1876, with the school growing into the bedrock of the community, so much so that it survived a consolidation attempt during the Great Depression with Oregon State College in Corvallis, what is now known as Oregon State University.

Time would continue to do right by the city of Eugene as it continued to grow. What started out as Skinner’s Mudhole would go on to become a booming and sought-after spot for the great state of Oregon and has continued to adopt other names along its journey, with each one representing a community that is passionate in all their pursuits. It’s since been known as “Silicon Shire” for leaders in the tech industry, “A Great City for the Arts and Outdoors” for its local residents, and “Home of the Ducks” for collegiate sports fans. Furthermore, for elite athletes worldwide, it has become known as “TrackTown USA” as it has produced many great Olympic runners, fostered the creation of Nike, and is home to landmark sports venues for major events. But to the rest of the world, it will always be known as “Emerald City” thanks to its lush green fern forests that Eugene Skinner fell in love with all those years ago.

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