Oregon: 150 Years of Statehood; 150 Million Years in the Making

The Three Sisters, John Yeon Lantern Slide Collection

  • Family-friendly
  • Teachers
  • Hearing-impaired Friendly

In 2009, Oregon celebrated 150 years as a state.  Oregon’s landscape has a much longer history — geological processes have been building the state's landscape for more than 150 million years!

The windows in this exhibit illustrate how geology crafted Oregon’s landscape and natural resources and continues to shape the land and lives of its citizens. The most iconic of Oregon’s landscapes — Crater Lake, Multnomah Falls, Newberry Crater, Steens Mountain, the Painted Hills, and so much more — display Oregon’s geologic splendor.

We invite you to explore these 16 windows into how Oregon's landscape was assembled during the past 150 million years — and to celebrate those who learned to read the landscape before and during Oregon’s 150 years of statehood.

The exhibit is available for rental and interested parties may choose to borrow all of the windows or a selection. The windows are free-standing or wall-mounted. Please contact Lori Erickson, OHS Curator, at 503.306.5233 or lori.erickson@ohs.org for rental inquiries.

Explore the Exhibit

The exhibit is divided into four main subjects: Assembling Oregon, Volcanoes of Oregon, Geological Resources, and Geology and People. Click on one of the four mini-exhibits below to learn more.

Assembling Oregon

Like its people, Oregon's landscape is diverse. It was built from many parts, each adding its own character to the state. Oregon grows and matures as islands and pieces of continents come crashing in, the Cascades erupt, lava covers the landscape, desert mountains grow, and huge floods sculpt the scenery. Oregon is indeed a masterpiece of geologic artistry! This assembly is traced through the first 4 windows of the exhibit.

Did you know that the coastline of North America used to run through Idaho? The land we now know as Oregon was assembled over more than 150 million years as small pieces of continents, manufactured elsewhere, "crashed" into North America. As shown in Window 1, North America then grew westward. The plate tectonics forces driving this process continue today!

The Assembly Continues: Cascadia Subduction Zone

Oregon has been building westward over the past 150 million years by a process known as subduction. As an oceanic plate dives beneath the continent, it adds material to the edge by faulting and volcanic activity. The current Cascadia Subduction Zone is just the most recent subduction zone - its landscape features and geologic activity profoundly influence Oregon's history, climate, safety - and beauty!

In this window learn how landscapes affect climate through the formation of the Cascade Range rain shadow. You can also learn how the Beauty and the Beast of the Cascadia Subduction Zone creates the beautiful parallel mountain ranges (Coast Range and Cascade Range) but creates beastly natural hazards such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

Flowing Rock and Water: Columbia Plateau – Columbia Gorge

The Columbia Gorge traces the paths of two monumental floods, one of flowing rock and one of flowing water. The now hardened basalt layers of the Columbia Plateau forms some of Oregon's most dramatic scenery, and comprise the most well-studied flood basalt deposit in the world. The Columbia Gorge owes much of its natural wonder to deluges of water that carved away at the basalt layers during the waning stages of the last great Ice Age.

In this window, learn about the unimaginable amounts of basalt that erupted from giant cracks in northeastern and southeast Oregon. Some flowed all the way to the coast starting 17 million years ago and ending about 6 million years ago. Much later, 15,000 years ago, tremendous ice age floods helped carve the gorge. Today, waterfalls and waves continue to sculpt the massive basalt flows.

Oregon Stretches Out: Basin and Range Province

Only ten million years ago, much of Oregon's landscape was a relatively flat, oak-studded grassland. Then, the crust of southeastern Oregon began to stretch westward. That process continues today. Consequences include breaks - faults - in the crust, as well as volcanic eruptions. Faults caused mountain ranges such as Steens Mountain and Abert Rim, to rise above basins, like the Alvord Desert and Klamath Basin. To accommodate the crust stretching out, the Brothers Fault Zone developed along the northern boundary of the Basin and Range Province. Earthquakes occur along many of these faults. The faulting created cracks in the crust, and lavas - some very explosive - rose and erupted. This process continues today. Newberry Volcano, south of Bend, is among the most recent.

In this window, you can see the different landscapes developing in eastern Oregon as the continent is being pulled apart, while western Oregon exemplifies the opposite process: plates converging together (Window 2). The High Lava Plains Project is one of many research initiatives aimed at better understanding the processes driving the earthquakes and volcanic activity of southern Oregon. The window also highlights some of these earthquakes, including the 1993 Klamath Falls quake.

Oregon’s Volcanic Wonderland

Rich volcanic soils, pristine environments, and beautiful vistas make Oregon one of the most desirable places to live. But we must be mindful of the primordial power residing within Oregon's volcanoes. It creates, but it also destroys. Many hazardous eruptions have occurred in the past 12,000 years. Understanding forces that underlie both the beauty and the potential hazards posed by volcanoes is important to all Oregonians.

In this window, you'll learn about Oregon's five sentinels: the volcanic centers considered to have the most potential to erupt again and are the most hazardous: Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, Three Sisters, Mt. Mazama and Newberry Volcano.

This window also summarizes the 50 million year history of volcanism in Oregon and shows why Portland and Bend are two cities truly built upon volcanoes!

Oregon’s Volcanic Heritage

Humans have lived alongside Oregon's volcanoes for more than 13,000 years. These volcanoes have provided raw materials for American Indian livelihoods, challenged explorers and emigrants, and today provide countless recreational, educational, and scientific opportunities. Oregon honors its volcanic heritage by protecting many of its volcanic wonderlands as parks such as Crater Lake National Park, Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Fort Rock State Park, and Portland's Mt. Tabor City Park.

In this window, you can learn about how American Indians told legends about Oregon's volcanoes and utilized volcanic rocks every day. You'll also see how Crater Lake, a unit of the National Park Service, serves as an icon of Oregon to the rest of the country. During the early 1800s, the formidable Cascade Range challenged early explorers and inspired emigrants along the Oregon trail.

Taking the Pulse of Oregon’s Volcanoes

Although they may appear to be slumbering peacefully, many of Oregon's volcanoes are almost certain to reawaken in the future. We cannot say exactly when eruptions will occur, but science does help us monitor these volcanoes. By listening to the rumblings in their interiors and taking other vital signs, volcanologists use a variety of techniques to keep an eye on Oregon's restless volcanoes.

In this window, learn how scientists use remote sensing, geophysics, petrology and geochemistry, and field work to take the pulse of Oregon's volcanoes. You can also learn about Oregon's various volcanic hazards and meet four of the dozens of scientists and students working with Oregon's diverse volcanoes.

Oregon’s Natural Volcanic Laboratory

Oregon's rich volcanic diversity is a wonderful natural laboratory in which to learn about volcanoes. This window contains a graph showing how different volcanoes in Oregon relate to each other based on magma of different temperature and chemistry and different eruption volumes. Their different magmas create different recipes for eruption!

You can also view a road map showing where 20 of Oregon's volcanic features are located. Learn how the different volcano types in Oregon have very different eruption sizes, from relatively small ones that blanket a few acres, to supervolcanic eruptions blanketing large parts of many counties!

Oregon’s Foundation: Rocks and Minerals

Minerals - the chemical building blocks of rocks - are important to Oregonians not only for their commercial and household uses, but also because of their beauty and spiritual significance. The rocks they comprise are both the natural and constructed foundation of Oregon's 150 years of statehood.

In Window 9, you can learn about Oregon's own gold rush in the 1850s and 1860s and how Oregon's mined minerals supported the World War II effort. Gold is no longer mined in Oregon, but the state produces an immense amount of aggregate and other geologic materials for use in everything from road construction to kitty litter. You can also be introduced to Oregon's official state rock, the Thunderegg, and official state gem, the Sunstone.

Thomas Condon: Establishing a Foundation for Oregon’s Geoscientists Today

Throughout this entire exhibit, you can see examples of some of the work of Oregon's geoscientists. Today's geoscientists work at institutions throughout the state, building on a foundation of exceptional research and education established by Oregon's founding father of geology, Thomas Condon.

Condon became the first State Geologist of Oregon in 1872 while a professor at Pacific University (Forest Grove). He served as the state geologist until the University of Oregon was established in 1876. He was appointed its first Professor of Geology and was chair of Natural Sciences until his death in 1907.

Learn how two DOGAMI scientists are helping uncover the largest volcano in Oregon while two other scientists follow in Condon's footsteps studying the record of ancient life in the John Day Basin. Some geologists, including those at the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center and OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences use boats not boots to reach their field areas!

Oregon’s Fossils: Citizens of the Past

Past citizens of Oregon can be found in rocks throughout the state ranging in age from 10 thousand to hundreds of millions of years old. Marine fossils can be found along today's coast or far inland, marking ancient coastlines. One of the world's greatest records of life after the dinosaurs and before the Ice Age is found in the John Day Basin. Arid eastern Oregon is home to Ice Age fossils, records of a colder, wetter time. Keep your eyes open as you explore Oregon, you may just meet one of its past citizens!

In this window, you can learn what is a fossil and how marine fossils are found not only along the coast, but also hundreds of miles inland! You can also see representations of the eight main communities of fossils from the John Day Fossil Beds-one of the best preserved and most complete records of life ranging from more than 44 to 7 million years ago. Learn about a "mammoth" discovery in one Oregon child's backyard and get to know Metasequoia, Oregon's state fossil, living examples of which were discovered in China in the 1940s!

Know Before You Go:

All fossils are irreplaceable past citizens of Oregon. Fossils cannot be collected within any National Park Service land or state parks. Fossil collection is restricted on US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land as well. It is your responsibility to check with the local land owner or land management agency for information and regulations. There are opportunities to legally collect fossils, visit the websites below for more information!

Oregon’s Energy Future

Geologists and other scientists study the Earth to help us understand the history of our planet. They can also help us understand climate change and how, by working together, we can continue to move toward a stable energy supply, improved energy efficiency, the creation of more clean, renewable energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions for Oregon's next 150 years.

In this window you can learn about sources of renewable energy in Oregon including wave and geothermal as well as other innovative Oregonian energy sources. You can also learn ways you can help meet Oregon's goals of greatly reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Oregon on Shaky Ground: Earthquakes and Landslides

Earthquakes and landslides can shake up Oregon - and Oregonians - at any time. The largest earthquakes in the world occur where one tectonic plate dives - or "subducts" - under another, and we're sitting right on top of the Cascadia Subduction Zone (See Window 2). Such devastating earthquakes occur about every 200 to 600 years in the Pacific Northwest. Our last major earthquake occurred in the year 1700 AD and generated a tsunami that struck Japan. Oregonians are at the forefront of studying and preparing for not only these mega-disasters, but also more moderate earthquakes and landslides that threaten our lives and livelihoods.

In this window, learn about the different types of earthquakes that occur in Oregon, including the 1993 Scotts Mills ("Spring Break Quake") that closed the Capitol building, forcing extensive repairs. You can also see the effects of landslides, annually Oregon's most expensive and dangerous natural hazard.

Oregon’s Tsunami Hazard Zone

The Pacific Ocean constantly presents challenges for marine geologists, including the monitoring of coastal processes and the study of giant sea waves known as tsunamis. The massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Indian Ocean region in 2004 has heightened awareness that the Oregon Coast is prone to tsunamis from local and distant sources. Geologists act as detectives, gathering information that help them figure out what has happened in the past, and perhaps what the future might hold.

In this window you can learn how geologists pieced together clues about the last major Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami in 1700 and about a tsunami that struck Oregon's coast in 1964 following an earthquake in Alaska.

How are tsunami's formed? And why are they called the "brass knuckles" of the ocean? Find out in here!

Changing Climate: Oregon’s 55 Million Year Record

Earth's climate changes over both long and short time scales. Increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, commonly due to large volcanic eruptions, tend to increase global air temperatures. Major plant and animal extinctions observed in the geological record have been linked to rapid climate shifts. The record of the past 55 million years is well-documented with many intriguing clues found in Oregon. Oregon is also a leader in modern climate change research.

In this window learn how long-term climate cooling (visible in the fossils and ancient soil layers of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument) over more than 50 million years led to the Earth being cold enough to go in and out of ice ages over the past 2 million years. While these changes were natural, and part of the Earth's climatic "pulse," humans are now unnaturally affecting climate. In the past 150 years, greenhouse gasses have risen sharply to their highest levels in millions of years and the planet has warmed significantly (1.5°F) with changes that will affect our planet and our lives.

The colorful layers of the Painted Hills near Mitchell are ancient soils that reveal a warm temperate environment 33 million years ago in what is now a much cooler north-central Oregon.

Pints and Pinots: A Toast to Oregon Geology!

No matter where you live in Oregon, more than 150 million years of ancient and ongoing geological processes impact our lives and help define us as Oregonians. So, raise a glass to the geology that brought Oregon's landscape together over the past 150 million years, defined the state for the past 150 years, and will influence Oregonians far beyond the next 150 years. Cheers! Please enjoy Oregon's geology responsibly!

European winemakers and brewers have long recognized that wines and beers from different regions naturally taste different. The term "terroir" (tare-WAHR) refers to the interplay between a region's geology, soils, and climate and their influence on the distinctive flavors of its wines. The final taste of a wine is a combination of the region's terroir and the techniques used by the grape grower and wine maker. The geology, soils, and climate of the state are not only good for wine growing, but are some of the best in the nation for growing hops, which provide beer's bitterness.

In this window learn how the Willamette Valley's geologic history and climate make it a perfect place for growing grapes and hops. The unique geologic history of different parts of the state contribute to different grapes and different wines throughout the state.

The exhibit was developed by the Oregon Historical Society, in collaboration with the Oregon State University Department of Geosciences, Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, Oregon Paleo Lands Institute, OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center, Portland State University, and the Oregon Department of Energy.

Exhibit Content

Robert J. Lillie, Jason Kenworthy, and Shan de Silva
Oregon State University Department of Geosciences

Ellen Morris Bishop
Oregon Paleo Lands Institute

James Roddey
Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries

Nancee Hunter
Oregon Sea Grant-OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center

Scott Burns
Portland State University Department of Geology