Albany officially became a city on October 14, 1864, following nearly 20 years of growth and development that started with the Hackleman family and Monteith brothers’ settlement in this part of the Willamette Valley in the 1840s. This year, we will celebrate Albany’s 150th birthday, and I thought it might be appropriate to look back and see what issues concerned citizens in the early days of the city.
The Civil War was almost certainly on the mind of most Oregonians, and they began receiving updated reports via a telegraph connection that was completed between Portland and San Francisco in March 1864. Prior to that date, news from the east traveled to San Francisco by telegraph beginning in 1861 and was then sent north to Oregon by couriers and stage coaches. Oregon learned of the October 21, 1861, death in the Battle of Balls Bluff of one of its senators, Edward Baker, on November 3. Most Oregonians were first generation immigrants to the state and must have been concerned about family and friends more directly involved in Civil War battles.
People may have had cause to regret the routine arrival of bad news that included a major expansion of the income tax and tariffs in June 1864. They may have also been saddened to learn that a group of Confederate raiders that included Jesse James attacked a train on September 27, 1864, in Centralia, Missouri and 150 people were killed.
According to U.S. Census data, it is likely that most Oregonians could read in 1864, as the illiteracy rate for white Americans in 1870 was only 11.5 percent. Reading material was limited, and the demands of daily living almost certainly left little time for reading much more than the Albany Democrat, which was published weekly, and the family Bible. By 1870, 1,292 people lived in Albany and the city has consistently ranked among the larger cities in the state since that time.
Albany’s status was important to early settlers, as evidenced by the Monteith family’s donation of land to build the county courthouse to insure that the city would remain the county seat. The current courthouse stands on that donated land and represents an important part of the community’s government and commerce. Early Albany residents also raised $50,000 to insure that when rail service came to the Willamette Valley it would go through the city. Well before Albany became a city, education was a priority and the community’s first school was built in 1851.
Wars are still being fought, communication seems to move faster every day, taxes are imposed, disasters strike, and, fortunately, people are still investing their time, talents, and money to make Albany a better place to live in the future. We enjoy the fruits of what was planted by our predecessors, and I believe we have an obligation to pass the same opportunity along to succeeding generations. I think appreciation of the legacy of and opportunity to give a gift to the future should be the most important part of our 150th birthday celebration.