The area that would eventually become Alton Baker park was originally inhabited by the Kalapuya Indian Tribe. The Kalapuya were a relatively nomadic people, who moved about the Willamette Valley as various crops came into season and ripened. When Amero-European settlers arrived in the area during the 1840’s, Kalapuya territory became increasingly divided as settlers began to claim and live on their lands. The eastern area of Alton Baker Park is an example of the open space that existed prior to the arrival of Amero-European settlers, and is truly a look at what the Willamette valley looked like some 150 years ago. The viruses brought by the settlers and the loss of their land hit the Kalapuya people hard, and they were unable to recover; by the 1850’s the tribe had dwindled to probably under 1,000 people. Less than 1/10 of that at their peak. Though the tribe still exists in limited numbers today, the cultural and human toll of the Amero-European settling of the Willamette Valley was extreme. A concrete example of this is the near complete destruction of the Kalapuya language, which has been reduced to some 140 words; 11 of these remaining words have been inscribed at various places around the park, to pay homage to the lost tribe.
Until the flood control projects, starting during the Great Depression, the Willamette River flooded quite severely. These floods would submerse much of the land surrounding the river, including the area that would eventually be Alton Baker Park, as well as a great deal of Eugene. Prior millennia of flooding, did however, make the soils very fertile, and after flood control, the land was developed into farmland and orchards. By the 1930’s, around eight homesteads had popped up in the area. Shortly after this, quarries began operating on both sides of the river, which changed the appearance and terrain of the riverbanks. Though doing such a thing in Eugene would be unthinkable now, it was a matter of course back in the 1930’s.
The modern history of Alton Baker Park began in the 1950’s, when the Eugene city council decided that we needed a bigger public park for the growing city. Over the proceeding 100 years, Eugene had grown from a few hundred to around thirty five thousand people. Fortunately, there was a large amount of farmland and quarries available. The City decided to purchase and repurpose that land into a large public park and continued doing so until it grew from a small 20 acre parcel to its current size of around 400 acres, some 17 million square feet.
The park is named after Alton F. Baker, Sr, a local newspaper owner and philanthropist. In 1930 Mr. Baker. bought and merged the two largest newspapers in the Eugene area: the Eugene Guard and the Eugene Morning Register, forming The Register-Guard, our oldest surviving, and largest area-newspaper. The Eugene Register-Guard still delivers news to the Eugene Springfield area to this day. After his forays into the newspaper business, Mr. Baker developed an interest in improving the city around him, and was essential in the process of developing and building Alton Baker Park. Mr. Baker helped the city with the technical issues of acquiring land for the park, and ultimately received the honor of having the park named after him.
- 1950 population of Eugene