Local History

Lying in the northern foothills of Central Oregon’s Ochoco Mountains is the small town of Mitchell. Mitchell is known as the gateway to the Painted Hills. The location for Mitchell was chosen for three natural advantages: it was in the heart of good stock country; it was on a direct route; and there was plenty of water ( sometimes more of a liability then an asset). A blacksmith shop established by William W. (Bradie) Johnston was the beginning of Mitchell in April of 1873. Johnston also is credited with naming the town in honor of Senator John Hipple Mitchell. Mitchell came to Oregon in 1860 from Pennsylvania and represented Oregon for four terms in the U.S. Senate.

Legend has that the City of Mitchell’s founding had a totallydifferent beginning. A freight wagon loaded with mountain dew that had one of been brewed to quench the thirst of Canyon City’s miners supposedly broke a wheel at the very spot where Mitchell is located. When the wagon didn’t arrive at Canyon City those miners of course had the cold, clear water from Canyon Creek. But that was best used for their placer work; and of course they found other elixirs to their liking. The teamster was in a quandary: no way to repair the wheel, couldn’t go back and couldn’t continue on. He couldn’t leave his payload for it would have quickly evaporated in the arid high desert. Ever resourceful, he piled up some rocks, pulled some boards from the bottom of the wagon, placed them on the rocks, and nailed the side boards that identified the wagon across the front. Next he cut some cottonwood poles from the creek bank and stretched the canvas cover from the wagon for an awning. Presto! He was in business, and the first thing his customers saw after the whiskey barrels was the sign board identifying that Old Mitchell Wagon! So the story goes. The town of Mitchell was platted in March of 1885 by I.N. Sergeant, who began homesteading in 1867.

Throughout Mitchell’s history it has had share of calamities:Its first flash flood came in 1884; a fire in 1896 reduced nine buildings to charcoal in only two hours and twenty minutes. Fire again revisited in 1899 and one-half of the town was destroyed.

On July 11, 1904 another major flash flood hit Mitchell.It came down Bridge Creek first, followed by another wave down Keys Creek. A wall of brown water thirty feet high crashed into the city, diminishing 28 buildings to nothing but a widened creek bed. Fortunately the awesome roar of the turbulent water gave some warning and only two lives were lost. Another flood hit Mitchell on July 13, 1956 whenmore than one-half of the downtown area was lost. Early in the 1950s Mitchell’s population peaked at 415, most of whom were employedby the five mills situated in the area. But soon the advent of larger, more powerful logging trucks made it possible to consolidate mill operations closer to railroads for cheaper freight. Mitchell’s milling lumber era was a faded memory and the population dwindled to 160.

Today agriculture plays an important part of the community, primarily cattle ranching.Tourism and retirement are also contributors to the economy, and today the population is 185. The fossil-rich and colorful rock formations of the Painted Hills National Monument are situated just north of town.

(Thanks to Dan Cannon for contributing information for this post.)

To read more about the Mitchell community’s colorful history and points of interest, explore these sites:

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Mitchell, Oregon tourism information

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