Jacksonville — shacks to showcase
There was a Jacksonville long before Oregon became a state. True, not much more than a cluster of tents and shacks that gold-struck miners called Table Rock City; but a town.
Once the center of Southern Oregon commerce and civilization, by the end of the 19th century Jacksonville fell into a prolonged decline. The population dwindled, businesses moved out, and with little threat from a developer’s hammer, the town simply aged away.
Had one man in the 1960s not seen the value in what remained, pioneer buildings would have crumbled or been buried under asphalt.
Robertson “Robby” Collins arrived in Jackson County in 1948.
“By the time I moved to Jacksonville,” Collins said, “there was a proposal to put a big highway diagonally across about eight city blocks in the city. That stirred me. At first, not out of a sense of history, but just because I really didn’t want a four-lane road that close to my new home.”
Collins went to the media, organized a group that fought the highway department, and got the project stopped.
His adversaries issued a challenge. “You’ve saved the town. Now what are you going to do with it?”
It was then that Collins realized what was at stake.
“The people of Jacksonville didn’t have any pride,” he said. “They thought they were living in a bad town. A town that wasn’t important, but it was.”
Traditionally, the town began with the discovery of gold in about February 1852. That’s when James Cluggage, or probably one of his workers, stumbled across a rich deposit of gold.
Already in 1850, with California crawling with gold miners, greedy prospectors were beginning to move north, searching for a new bonanza. That summer, eastern newspapers reported gold being pulled out of the Rogue River.
“By late February 1852,” said 1884 historian A.G. Walling, “every foot of the gulch was staked out and claimed.” “The gulch,” those rolling hills west of Jacksonville, made more than a few dozen men very rich.
Though Cluggage and his partner, Pool, probably didn’t make the first gold strike in the area, they did file land claims that would eventually become Jacksonville, and they promoted the town in newspapers. They were truly the town’s founding fathers.
Jacksonville changed from hard digging bachelor miners in tents, to wooden shacks, and then brick stores. Married men arrived, and soon were followed by families and marriageable daughters. The town grew and continued to prosper— at least until 1884.
That’s when the Oregon and California Railroad came south from Roseburg and bypassed the town. Officials said a rail route near Jacksonville would cost more than a route on the flat prairie along Bear Creek.
When the railroad finally crossed over the Siskiyou Mountains in 1887 and connected Portland with Sacramento, Jacksonville’s fate was sealed. Between 1910 and 1920 Jacksonville’s population declined over 40%, and calls for moving the county seat from Jacksonville to Medford finally succeeded in 1926. Jacksonville was becoming a living ghost town.
Not until the 1950s and ‘60s did anyone appreciate the fact that Jacksonville still had some of the oldest surviving buildings in Oregon. The town played up its authentic western town image to tourists and, when that 1963 plan for a four-lane highway right through the middle of town threatened tourism, Robby Collins went to work.
“Old buildings are a resource,” he said. “The brick, the building — those things are valuable.”
In August 1967, Jacksonville was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Few have done so much to save the town they love. Robby Collins died May 23, 2003.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.