What’s the story behind the flag on the smokestack in the Old Mill District?
September 11, 20232 minute read
Wondering about the history of Bend? Wherever you turn around town, you’ll see parks, businesses, and historical landmarks with their own unique stories to tell. Bend lays claim to a colorful, rich heritage with our stunning outdoor landscape at the core. If you’re yearning to learn more about Bend, Oregon history, there’s no shortage of inspiration here.
Take Drake Park, for instance. The crown jewel of Bend’s park system clocks in at 13 acres of meandering riverfront pathways, open lawns, restrooms, a stage, and small picnic tables. With ducks waddling everywhere, you might conclude the name comes from its quackiest residents, but nope! Drake Park was named for frontier developer Alexander M. Drake. He came via covered wagon in 1900 to what was then known as “Farewell Bend” and eventually laid out the town’s street grid, opened the first sawmill, developed the first canal system, and built the infrastructure to bring electricity to town. Not a bad way to get a park named after you!
If you want to get technical, Drake Park’s famous Mirror Pond isn’t a pond at all, but a gently flowing section of river that springs from the Cascade Mountains. On a clear day, you’ll see those same mountains reflected on the river’s glassy surface.
Frontier settlers were far from the first to arrive in Bend. The indigenous tribes of this region fished, hunted, and recreated on these lands for generations before Bend became a widely popular destination for outdoor recreation. Before white settlers arrived, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Wascoes, and Paiutes considered this region their tribal homeland. These residents relied on game, roots, berries and salmon that were plentiful in the area, and their presence here was unencumbered until the early nineteenth century. In 1855, the superintendent for the Oregon Territory was ordered to clear these native residents from their lands. He negotiated a series of treaties including the one that established the Warm Springs Reservation where tribal members reside. On that land today, you’ll find the Museum of Warm Springs where guests can experience firsthand the sounds of ancient songs and languages, traditional crafts, and one of the largest artifact collections of any Native American museum.
Fur trappers filtered into the Central Oregon region in the 1820s, followed by Army survey parties in the following years. Early pioneers heading west eventually forded a section of the twisty, turny Deschutes River. If you’re wondering how Bend, Oregon got its name, it’s derived from “Farewell Bend”––the designation used by early pioneers to refer to that spot along the Deschutes River where the town was eventually platted. Shortly after residents voted to become a city in 1904, they shortened “Farewell Bend” to be the Bend we know today.
Not long after Bend became a city, the race was on between two railroad barons, James J. Hill and E.H. Harriman, laying tracks that would later open the doors to logging commerce and tourism. The Brooks-Scanlon and the Shevlin-Hixon mills were the largest timber mills of their day, making Bend a very prosperous place to live, work, and play.
Though the mills have long been closed, the lifestyle and the vibrant culture of a booming town remains. Today, the old Brooks-Scanlon mill buzzes not with sawmills, but with the sounds of people enjoying shopping, dining, and entertainment in the renovated Old Mill District. This is also home to the Hayden Homes Amphitheater, which hosts countless concerts and other outdoor entertainment throughout Bend’s warmer months.
Meanwhile, Bend’s bustling and historic downtown area teams with art galleries, restaurants, and unique shops. The area hosts a wide variety of festivals and special events throughout the year, and offers easy access to a stroll through Drake Park. You’ll spot plenty of signs of Bend’s heritage throughout historic Downtown Bend, including the Tower Theatre. Originally built in 1940 to host movie screenings and community events, the theater fell into disrepair by the early 1990s. In 1997, the Tower Theatre Foundation began raising money to restore the facility to its original glory and expand the theater’s usable space. The Tower reopened its doors in 2004, and now hosts a variety of live acts, film screenings, and presentations.
A stroll around Downtown Bend also give you glimpses of landmarks like Pine Tavern, one of Bend’s oldest. Built in 1936 by two enterprising and courageous women, Maren Gribskov and Eleanor Bechen, the restaurant thrives today. Stop by for their famous sourdough scones and a chance to see two ponderosa pine trees (one living, one not so much) stretching through the dining room’s ceiling.
Skiing at Mt. Bachelor is another Bend tradition rich in history. In the early 1950s, Bill Healy (who had skied in the Cascades prior to his service with the 10th Mountain Division) moved his furniture business from Portland to Bend. He became active in The Skyliners, an elite outing club, and began dreaming with another Skyliners member, Gene Gillis, about transforming Bachelor Butte into a ski resort. In 1958, they made the dream a reality with a rope tow and a single lift. Since then, Mt. Bachelor has grown to be one of the largest ski resorts in the U.S. with more than 4,300 acres of lift-accessible terrain and one of the longest seasons in North America.
Hoping to learn more about the history of Bend? A trip to the High Desert Museum makes a great adventure for families, couples, or solo travelers. Inspiring guests since 1982, this unique attraction features 100,000 square feet of exhibit space on more than 135 acres. Get a close-up view of native wildlife including river otters, porcupines, and otters. You can even interact with historic characters sharing tales of early homesteaders and see the inner workings of a sawmill from 1904.
The Deschutes Historical Museum makes another great stop for Bend history buffs. This vibrant local museum features exhibits allowing you to explore Deschutes County pre-history, Native American tribal history, early exploration and fur trapping, homesteading the High Desert, logging and Forest Service history, and life throughout Deschutes County over the years. If you visit in the days surrounding Halloween, don’t miss their annual Historical Haunts of Downtown Bend walking tour, filled with local history and spooky tales of paranormal activity.
If you’re curious about famous people who’ve lived in Bend, the Deschutes Historical Museum has ample info on characters like Klondike Kate, one of Bend’s most legendary residents. Born Kate Rockwell, she was a former vaudeville performer and showgirl who came to Central Oregon in 1910 and settled on 40 acres east of Bend, which she homesteaded to earn the title to the land. She eventually moved to Downtown Bend on Franklin Avenue to be closer to the general populace, who found her intriguing, scandalous, or beloved (depending on who you asked). She earned accolades for tending the sick during the flu pandemic of 1918 and the Bend Fire Department made her an honorary member for her tireless efforts bringing food to firefighters who fought blazes on cold nights.
While Klondike Kate passed away in 1957, you might still get a chance to meet her. Hear tales of Bend residents from decades past on an outing with Bend Ghost Tours. As you stroll through Downtown Bend, they’ll share spooky stories of hauntings and history. Prowl tucked-away alleys and buildings you might otherwise not notice as you learn about paranormal sightings in Bend restaurants, shops, and hotels. It’s a fun outing for ghost lovers, history buffs, and anyone curious about the quirkier side of Bend’s history.
If recent history is more your jam, prowl countless Bend antique shops and consignment stores around Bend. Iron Horse is a locals’ fave that’s been around for decades, filled with treasures from generations past. You’ll also find a funky-cool collection of vintage video games at Vector Volcano in Downtown Bend. Did you know Bend is home to the world’s last Blockbuster video store? It’s become an oddly-popular tourist attraction, so stop by for a dose of nostalgia, a Blockbuster t-shirt, and a chance to snap a pic in front of their eye-catching marquee.