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Oregon meteorites: the big, the small, the questionable

There is rock-solid evidence that half a dozen meteorites have been found in Oregon since statehood in 1859.

Of those verified finds, the largest by far is the Willamette meteorite, an iron-nickel whopper weighing some 15.5 tons.

Found in 1902 near West Linn, it is the biggest ever discovered in North America and the sixth largest found in the world.

Scientists believe the meteorite originally landed in what is now southern Canada or Montana, then got caught up in a glacier that inched its way southwest to end up in the Willamette Valley at the end of the last Ice Age some 13,000 years ago.

It is on display at New York's American Museum of Natural History, which acquired the meteorite in 1906.

The oldest find is the Sams Valley meteorite, with the first of several rocks discovered in 1894. That 15-pound rock was cut up and sold to museums around the world.

Other rocks associated with that meteorite were found well into the 20th century.

Other Oregon meteorites include:

  • Klamath Falls: Discovered in 1952. Estimated to weigh 30 pounds, it contains the same rare iron as the Fitzwater Pass meteorite.
  • Fitzwater Pass: Found about two dozen miles southwest of Lakeview in 1976, it was not officially identified as a meteorite until 2006. It is about the size of the end of your thumb.
  • Salem: Includes debris from a stony meteorite that hit a Salem home in 1981.
  • Morrow County: Found in 1999, when Washington resident Donald Wesson and his wife, Debbie, spotted it in a ditch while they were driving home. Weighing 40 pounds, it rested in their garden for nearly a decade before being identified as a meteorite.

In addition to the finds that have been verified, there have been numerous reports of meteorites whose location has never been quite nailed down.

The most famous of them all is the Port Orford meteorite, which was reputedly found by John Evans in 1856 in the mountains some 40 miles east of what is now Port Orford.

A medical doctor by training, Evans reported that he was helping survey the territory that would soon become a state when he happened on what he said was a huge meteorite on a bald mountain. He estimated the rock weighed some 22,000 pounds.

Evans chipped off a sample and took it back to Washington, D.C., where geologists determined it was from a meteorite. He died a few years later and the rock was never found.

However, in an article written last month for the Mail Tribune, Oregon State University professor Finn J.D. John noted there is evidence that the meteorite discovery may have been a hoax.

A 1990s analysis of the sample Evans supposedly brought out of the woods was nearly identical to the makeup of a meteorite found in Chile in 1820, he wrote, noting that samples of the Chilean meteorite were widely available back in Evans' day.

But John, who writes about unusual aspects of Oregon history, concluded the truth of the Port Orford meteorite remains unknown.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Museum visitors touch the Willamette meteorite during the opening of the Rose Center for Earth and Space on Feb. 19, 2000, at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Beth A. Keiser / The Associated Press - BETH A. KEISER/THE ASSOCIATED PR