A good place to get oriented in Eugene, visually as well as historically, is Skinner Butte. If you look north from almost anywhere downtown, you’ll see this landmark. A beautiful park fronting the Willamette River is located at the butte’s northern base. This riverfront site served as a dock for pioneer sternwheelers and was where founding father Eugene Skinner ran a ferry service for farmers living north of the river.
The town tried to become a major shipping port, but the upper Willamette was uncharted as well as too shallow and meandering. In addition, sunken logs, gravel bars, and submerged trees and rocks made steamboat navigation difficult. As a result, Ben Holladay’s Oregon and California Railroad became Eugene’s most effective mode of transport in 1871.
Eugene Skinner, like so many Oregon Trail–era migrants, wanted to take advantage of the federal government’s 320-acre land giveaway offer to pioneers, so he staked a claim from the banks of the Willamette to present-day 8th Avenue and from Monroe Street to the river on Hilyard Street. He built his shelter at 2nd Avenue and Lincoln Street and later opened up Lane County’s first trading post.
From the top of the butte, enjoy the vantage point from which Eugene Skinner surveyed the landscape in June 1846. Kalapuyas called this promontory Yapoah, meaning “high place,” and used it for ceremonial dances. Despite the state’s second most concentrated population, which has grown in the once-pristine southern Willamette Valley below, on a clear day you can still see the Cascade and Coast Ranges as well as pockets of greenery throughout the city. You can also spot another good reference point in your orientation, Spencer’s Butte, looming above the southern hills four miles away.
In the Skinner Butte area don’t miss the 1888 Shelton McMurphey–Johnson House (303 Willamette St., 541/484-0808, www.smjhouse.org, 10 a.m.–1 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 1–4 p.m. Sat.–Sun., tours weekends and occasional weekdays, $5 adults, $2 children 12 and under) on the lower south slope of the butte. The aqua-colored Victorian is the most eye-catching of some 2,000 designated historic properties in the city.
Getting to Skinner Butte
From downtown Eugene, head north on High Street, which becomes Cheshire Avenue as it curves to the left. Take a left onto Skinner Butte Loop and follow it to the top. You can also get here by traveling north on Lincoln Street to Skinner Butte Loop or by walking up from the south side, which takes about 15 minutes.
by Judy Jewell and W. C. McRae from Moon Oregon, 8th Edition, © Elizabeth & Mark Morris and Avalon Travel