[meteorite-list] Campaign Defends The Man Who Found The Willamette Meteorite
From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Mon Jul 12 19:25:34 2004
A meteoric campaign Fran Soder defends the man who found the
July 12, 2004
WEST LINN F ran Soder's stroll through town turned her into an unlikely
At 88, she finds herself fueled by equal parts indignation and disbelief
-- enough to tackle a task of heavenly proportions: Soder is preparing
to hoist both a 15.5-ton meteorite and the man who found it more than a
century ago onto her shoulders for the slow walk back toward recognition
Not literally, of course, but by the time Soder is done, she hopes to
revive the memories of one of the most famous scientific discoveries
made in the United States and, equally important to her, the man
responsible for its discovery.
The objects of Soder's fiery affections are the Willamette Meteorite and
Ellis Hughes, the Welsh miner who found the space rock on a forested
hillside near West Linn in 1902, and recognized its significance.
The meteorite, it should be noted, has done all right in the years
since. It has been reclaimed as a sacred object by the Confederated
Tribes of the Grand Ronde and, in a landmark agreement between the tribe
and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, is a
featured exhibit in the museum's Rose Center for Earth and Space. Upward
of 5 million visitors a year see and touch its rough, deeply pitted
Hughes, on the other hand, is remembered -- if he's remembered at all --
as the man who stole the meteorite from an adjacent landowner and tried,
unsuccessfully, to profit from its theft.
Two courts ruled against him. He died, broke and bitter, in 1942. It
would be 20 years before his hometown so much as put up a plaque
mentioning the discoverer of the largest meteorite ever found in the
Soder first learned of Hughes and his amazing find two years ago during
a walking tour of West Linn's historic Willamette District. In that
instant, her cause was born.
"I feel terrible he's been maligned for so many years," said Soder,
sitting on a couch in her comfortable West Linn living room and cradling
a thick sheaf of papers and news articles she's accumulated on the
subject. "He was viewed as nothing more than a thief."
In the past two years, she's read everything she could lay her hands on
about Hughes and the meteorite, which museum curators in New York call
one of the most important ever found. She's traipsed the area's wooded
hillsides, braced only by her walker and a passionate sense of justice,
searching for the precise spot where immense prehistoric floods
deposited the rock.
And now, she's taking things a step further. In recent weeks, she has
mailed letters to friends asking for help raising enough money to
commission a New York artist to create a full-size replica of the
meteorite for display in West Linn. The replica would replace a smaller,
far less exact faux-stone facsimile that sits largely unnoticed near a
cigarette-strewn bus stop in the city's Willamette neighborhood.
"It just stuns me that there have been five or six generations of kids
who have grown up thinking this stone is just something to climb on,"
Soder said. "And they'll never learn anything different unless they're
The speed and splendor
When Soder speaks of the meteorite and its ancient journey to Earth, her
eyes widen and her words quicken. The speed and splendor of its arc
through space do nothing but confirm her belief in God.
"Imagine it," she said, leaning forward. "Thrust out of an exploding
planet, traveling at 60 miles per second at 9,000 degrees, spewing
molten iron as it flies. It's something I just get thrilled about."
The West Linn Chamber of Commerce has taken up Soder's cause. Mark
Buser, the chamber's president-elect, hopes that a larger,
chamber-backed campaign will generate $25,000, enough money to qualify
for a matching grant from the Clackamas County Tourism Development Council.
"The Willamette Meteorite is one of the most amazing scientific
discoveries ever made in this country," Buser said. "The fact it was
found in West Linn is a story we need to tell."
Rock tells stories
There's little doubt about the meteorite's importance to science. Denton
Ebel, an assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History,
says its size, unique shape -- its pointed nose cone, for instance,
indicates that even extremely large meteorites can become oriented on
their descent through the atmosphere -- and public visibility make it
"perhaps the most important of all meteorites."
Richard Pugh, of Portland State University's Cascadia Meteorite
"It's the sixth-largest meteorite in the world," said Pugh, who co-wrote
the first academic paper on how the space rock reached Oregon. "There
was one hell of a sonic boom when this thing came down."
The meteorite is an iron-nickel remnant of an ancient planet. Pugh says
it actually crashed to Earth elsewhere, probably in Canada, thousands of
As the last ice age drew to a close, between 12,000 and 15,000 years
ago, a massive ice sheet covering much of Canada and the western United
States began to melt. A series of cataclysmic floods sent huge chunks of
ice containing rocks and boulders, such as the Willamette Meteorite,
hurtling westward toward the Pacific Ocean.
What happened after Hughes discovered the meteorite on land owned by the
long-defunct Oregon Iron & Steel Co., however, remains in dispute.
According to Pugh, the popular lore surrounding the Willamette Meteorite
is rife with "meteor-wrongs."
Hughes didn't, for instance, move the meteorite assisted only by his
15-year-old son, their horse and a sturdy wooden cart Hughes fashioned
"That's a bunch of baloney," Pugh said. "He rounded up a bunch of his
buddies to help. And that was the problem. Someone shot their mouth off
in a saloon one evening and the word got out."
Oregon Iron & Steel promptly sent its attorney to investigate. He easily
traced the path Hughes had cut from the company's land to his own parcel
less than a mile away. The company sued and won, first in Clackamas
County Circuit Court and later before the Oregon Supreme Court.
Company officials hustled the meteorite to the 1905 Lewis and Clark
Exposition in Portland, where a wealthy New York socialite purchased it
for $26,000. It was moved to the American Museum of Natural History the
following year, and it's been there since.
Controversy of a different type buffeted the meteorite four years ago,
when the Grand Ronde tested a new federal law, which returned important
artifacts to Native Americans. The tribes produced evidence, including
testimony taken during Hughes' second trial, indicating that Clackamas
Indians knew the meteorite, dipped their hunting arrows in water
collected in its crevices for good luck, and revered it as "Tomanowos,"
or "Heavenly Visitor."
The two sides eventually reached a settlement recognizing the museum's
right to ownership of the meteorite while allowing tribe members an
annual ceremonial visit. In a separate agreement, the museum agreed to
establish an internship program for Native American young people, with
tribal members of the Grand Ronde as its first participants.
Tribe members, while not altogether pleased with the outcome, say they
can live with it.
"I'm never going to be comfortable with the idea that something as
sacred as this was placed in a glass and steel structure in a city,"
said Grand Ronde spokesman Brent Merrill. "But the arrangement we came
to with the museum was something both parties could live with. It's
something we can be proud of."
Now, with both the meteorite and the tribes having gotten their due,
Fran Soder figures it's time for the reputation of Ellis Hughes to be
restored, as well.
"We have a hero who did something for us and was totally ignored and
reviled for it," she said. "And since no one else was doing it, I just
decided I might as well do it myself."
Received on Mon 12 Jul 2004 07:25:30 PM PDT