Adventurers and prospectors still pursue legends lost in the trackless maze of Oregon's backcountry. The Port Orford Meteorite has remained stubbornly out of reach since 1860, like a Holy Grail of forbidden wealth. Reportedly a rare type of meteorite composed of iron, nickel, and gemstone, its value has been estimated at millions of dollars.
The story of the Port Orford Meteorite is inextricably tied to events in the life of its alleged discoverer, Dr. John Evans. He was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the son of a state supreme court judge, and he received a medical degree in St. Louis before taking part in a survey of the Midwest in 1848. Dr. Evans's discovery of fossil remains on this expedition earned him international acclaim. He came to the Northwest as part of an expedition surveying a route for a railroad to Puget Sound from the east. He eventually became a geologist for the U.S. Department of the Interior, and traveled to the Port Orford area in 1856 as part of his job surveying Oregon.
Dr. Evans spent two weeks in the area of the Coquille and Umpqua Rivers on the southern Oregon Coast, although his exact route during this time has been the subject of endless controversy. Somewhere along the way he collected a rock specimen that created a furor in the scientific community. Subsequent analysis of the piece by Boston chemist Dr. Charles Jackson revealed that it was in fact an exceptional variety of meteorite known as a pallasite. Meteors are formed from catastrophic events such as the breakup of comets or planetary collisions, and become meteorites upon striking the Earth. The stony-iron composition of pallasite meteorites indicates an origin in large celestial bodies that contain core material of iron and nickel with a stony mantle on the exterior. Unlike the more common iron or stone meteorites, pallasites come from the core-mantle boundary area where both stony and metallic constituents are present. Pallasite meteorites usually contain the silicate olivine, a yellow-green gemstone material, and are therefore valued for their exotic beauty as well as for research.
According to Dr. Evans, the meteorite was buried deeply in the ground, with approximately five feet projecting. He estimated the weight of the meteorite as being around 22,000 pounds. This would make the Port Orford Meteorite easily the largest pallasite ever found. Pallasites make up less than 3% of all recovered meteorites, with the largest pallasite on record weighing 2,800 pounds. Because of this, reports of the incredible find provoked curiosity and debate amongst astronomers and geologists. Before Congress could appropriate the funds for a second trip to the site, the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, and Dr. Evans died of pneumonia on the very next day. Interest in retrieving the meteorite dwindled because of these developments, and due to the fact that no map was ever found that detailed the location of the meteorite.
A journal of Dr. Evans' explorations in the Pacific Northwest is in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution. The relevant entries are under the title "Route from Port Orford Across the Rogue River Mountains," a location that is generalized and misleading. According to his journal entries, Dr. Evans passed northward and never crossed the divide into the Rogue River watershed. Various parties have secured copies of the journal in an attempt to retrace his route. These include The Society for the Recovery of the Lost Port Orford Meteorite from Lakeside, Oregon, led by Myron Kilgore in 1940, and another party led by James Karle, an astronomy teacher at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, in 1950.
Dr. Evans set out from Port Orford on July 18, 1856 and ended up on the coast fork of the Willamette River on July 31. In his journal he makes no specific mention of a meteorite because he was unaware of the nature of his find. He does, however, make a passing reference to a "Bald Mountain." After being contacted by Mr. Jackson about the significance of the sample, he recalled the location as being approximately forty miles from Port Orford on the top of Bald Mountain. The sample in question is removed from a partially buried rock on a western-facing grassy slope otherwise free from any other protrusions. Bald Mountain, as Dr. Evans described it, is higher than the surrounding mountains and easily seen from the ocean.
The acquisition of the journal rekindled an interest in the Port Orford Meteorite, and in 1929 the Smithsonian Institution sent the curator of mineralogy, W.E. Foshag, on an exploratory expedition. E. P. Henderson, the associate curator of the Division of Meteorites, mounted another trip in 1939 but neither search yielded any clues. That there are several bald mountains in the area has confounded generations of searchers; there is one southeast of Port Orford, a Bald Knob in Coos County, and a Brushy Bald Mountain in the Rogue River area. There could also be other bald mountains, one of which Dr. Evans named descriptively. There are those who say it may be Iron Mountain, Barklow Mountain, Bray Mountain, or Granite Peak. With the numerous possibilities, the Port Orford Meteorite may have easily eluded all who have attempted to find it. Meteorite experts and field geologists working for the Smithsonian Institution have concluded that shifting patterns of forest growth have made the designation of a "bald mountain" essentially meaningless.
In general, the Oregon Coast Range Mountains are also prone to erosion and landslides caused by heavy rains that may have concealed the location of the meteorite. I am reminded of a trip I made with my wife into the Coast Range to locate a waterfall. Her family had frequented the location when she was a child. To her amazement, the entire area had changed. The hillside had washed away; the waterfall was gone, and only a small stream remained. Oregon's coastal mountains are in a constant state of flux; the degree of this phenomenon is invariably underestimated. It is likely that sensitive metal detection equipment will be necessary to locate the iron and nickel present in the Port Orford Meteorite.
The story remains a perplexing enigma to this day. One of the many who have attempted to find the meteorite is Canadian professor Howard Plotkin. Frustrated by the elusive nature of his quest, he decided to turn his investigation to Dr. Evans himself. The evidence he uncovered gave rise to a theory that because Dr. Evans was in debt at the time of his discovery, he may have planted the meteorite sample for his own financial gain. Plotkin maintained that Dr. Evans was poorly trained as a geologist and dependent on government contracts for his livelihood. This is debatable, given his background as a medical doctor and his fine reputation, although Dr. Evans did consistently overspend his budget for fieldwork, so the allegation is not entirely without substance. However, the fact that he wasn't professionally trained as a geologist works in his favor, for that would explain why he was unaware of the extraterrestrial origin and unique value of the Port Orford sample, and why he never mentioned it in his journal. In defense of Dr. Evans is this passage from an article written by Erwin F. Lange, from the American Philosophical Society, Volume 103, Number 3:
In 1847 Dr. David Dale Owen who was appointed United States Geologist to conduct a geological survey of Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and part of Nebraska chose as sub-agents Dr. John Evans and Dr. B.F. Shumard. The work of Evans soon attracted the attention of Owen so that great confidence was placed in his ability.
In addition to his scientific duties, Dr. Evans had almost exclusive control of the business department of Dr. Owen's survey, which of itself involved an immense deal of labor. The satisfactory manner in which he discharged these onerous duties, often in the midst of disheartening privations and even danger, commanded the highest esteem and confidence of Dr. Owen and his associates, while his goodness of heart, uniform courtesy, and self-sacrificing disposition, secured to him their warmest friendship.
The extensive debris field of the pallasite meteorite Imilac was discovered in 1820 in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Many samples of Imilac were in circulation at the time of the Port Orford Meteorite discovery, as they still are today. As proposed by Plotkin, Dr. Evans may have obtained a fragment while passing through Panama on his way to Washington. Tests were also performed to compare the Port Orford sample with a known sample of Imilac, and the two samples were found to be very similar to each other. Howard Plotkin rested his case for the Port Orford Meteorite being one of the greatest hoaxes of all time.
As compelling as these findings may appear to be, the story doesn't end there. There is evidence to refute Plotkin's version of the Port Orford Meteorite story. In "Lost Mines and Treasures of the Pacific Northwest" (1957), Ruby El Hult discusses an incident that adds credibility to the existence of the Port Orford Meteorite. The fervor concerning the meteorite, which extends to the present day, had its beginnings in a Sunday feature story titled "Treasure for the Finding" that appeared November 21, 1937, in the Portland Oregonian. The author was an astronomer at the University of Oregon, Dr. J. Hugh Pruett. His article related the story of the Port Orford Meteorite, including speculation that it would sell for up to $100 a pound. With the weight of the meteorite estimated at 22,000 pounds, the article touched off a firestorm of public fascination. Dr. Pruett was inundated with messages and rock samples. In the midst of this raging mania, a miner named Bob Harrison divulged that the meteorite was on a nickel claim he held in the Salmon Mountains. Harrison found that large amounts of nickel had come off the meteorite when it fell into a mountain he described as "Bald Knob." The metal lay strewn about and was responsible for the high nickel content on his claim. Dr. J. F. Diller of the U.S. Geological Survey tested a fragment of the rock on Harrison's claim and pronounced it to be a meteorite. Harrison was prompted to send additional samples out for testing but never did so; his mysterious behavior was a reason for some to question his story. This facet of the Port Orford Meteorite story was highly publicized at the time, but faded into obscurity.
What may have occurred is that in Dr. Evans's explorations of the area, he may have simply picked up a fragment lying in close proximity to the main mass of the meteorite. This would explain the similarity to the Imilac meteorite that broke up in the atmosphere and scattered over a wide area in the Atacama Desert. A main point of contention in the comparison of the Port Orford and Imilac samples was the formation of a dark fusion crust on the surface caused by the heat of entry. If there were a similar pattern of entry and breakup in the atmosphere, the same characteristics of the fusion crust would be present on both samples.
Furthermore, the Port Orford and Imilac Meteorites both lie in a roughly north-south line on the Earth's surface. It is conceivable that they are twin meteorites, falling at the same time and from the same place of origin. The similarities of breakup as supported by Harrison's description of his mining claim make this a possibility. It is also true that many of the Imilac fragments don't have a dark exterior, making the two meteorites apparently dissimilar and clouding the issue of the comparative analysis.
At the center of the mystery is Dr. Evans. In his professional career prior to coming to the Pacific Northwest, he is highly regarded as capable and trustworthy by his peers. The evidence against him is circumstantial and easily distorted, and the random, unpredictable nature of falling celestial bodies may also have worked against the good name of Dr. Evans. Somewhere in the rugged mountains of Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest, a conundrum from beyond this world may lie buried, shrouded in controversy and the mists of time.
References / Further Reading:
Hult, Ruby. Lost Mines and Treasures of the Pacific Northwest. Portland, Oregon: Binford and Mort, 1957.
Roy S. Clarke, Jr., ed. The Port Orford, Oregon, Meteorite Mystery (Smithsonian Contributions to the Earth Sciences, SCES-31). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973.
Plotkin, Howard. "The Port Orford Meteorite Hoax." Sky & Telescope, Sept. 1993: pp. 35-37.
"American Scientific Exploration, 1803-1860." American Philosophical Society Publications. Internet. http://www.amphilsoc.org/library/guides/stanton/5055.htm
Lange, Erwin F. Dr. John Evans, U. S. geologist to the Oregon and Washington territories. v 103, no. 3. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1959.
Additional information on meteorites may be found at: http://www.nineplanets.org/meteorites.html