Willamette Meteorite

The meteor explosion over Russia and the unrelated but equally awe-inspiring near miss of the earth by a huge asteroid remind us of the inevitability of space objects colliding with the earth. Disaster movies are a popular genre: one of the favorite video clips in my fifth grade science classroom is one animating the ancient collision between Earth and the planet Thea (but the throbbing, powerful new-age soundtrack clearly contributes to that popularity).

A journalist for the British newspaper The Guardian published a link to a Google map with data for every known meteor strike on Earth, from 2,300 BCE to the present. He erroneously credits the US Meteorological Society for the data…I’m sure it happens all the time. The link actually takes you to the US Meteoritical Society, where I wasn’t able to locate the same map, but there was a ton of information about meteors.

Ira Hughes and his son pose on the heavy cart they constructed to move the fifteen and a half ton meteorite three quarters of a mile to their own land.

Ellis Hughes and his son pose on the heavy cart they constructed to move the fifteen and a half ton meteorite three quarters of a mile to their own land.

My favorite meteor has got to be the legendary Willamette Meteorite. At 32,000 pounds and composed mostly of iron, with a little nickel, cobalt and phosphorus, this ten-foot long, six-and-a-half foot wide, and four-and-a-quarter foot deep glob of metal balances a heat-polished oval exterior with deeply eroded chambers. But its girth isn’t the big draw. If you program its dimensions into Purdue’s Impact Earth! calculator, this meteor doesn’t make for anything as profound an impact as the Russian meteor produced. It is the back story to this particular meteorite that impresses me.

Earth first made its acquaintance with the Willamette Meteorite sometime during the last Ice Age. The chunk of hot metal plummeted through the clouds to a comfortable landing on top of the Cordilleran continental ice sheet amidst clouds of steam and boiling water. Buried in the ice, the meteorite became one of the most peculiar glacial erratics this world has ever known. It’s host glacier shunted the meteorite somewhere close to the southern edge of the ice sheet, close enough to be swept up in the catastrophic floods of one of the last Missoula flood events.

The chunk of glacier the meteor rode on was tumbled downstream, across the Columbia Plateau, past Saddle Mountain (or perhaps over the Palouse River route) and into the temporary lake behind the Wallula Gap narrows. It was finally shouldered into the next downstream gallop the crumbling iceberg arrived at another temporary lake around Vancouver, Washington. It drifted south into the Willamette Valley where it grounded on a hilltop outside of the present town of West Linn, Oregon. It remained trapped on the hillside as the flood waters receded and as the ice melted, the meteorite lowered gently to the earth. Here it remained for thousands of years, surrounded by dense cedar woods and lush ferns. Rain water mixed with the meteorite’s own minerals, making a mild sulfuric solution that pitted and eroded the metal, leaving bowl-like cavities.

Native Americans discovered the boulder. Many Northwest tribes revered rocky structures, and this stone was clearly unique, and therefore possessed some sort of magic that was worth their attention. Their myths regarding the meteorite don’t survive.

The meteorite’s more recent history begins with its discovery by a local farmer in 1902. Recognizing what it was and how valuable it was likely to be, Ellis Hughes and his son spent 90 days shifting it three-quarters of a mile onto his own property. The owner of the land it originally sat on, William S. Ladd’s Oregon Iron and Steel Company, discovered the theft and hauled Hughes into court. Ladd’s company was the first company west of the Rocky Mountains to smelt iron, using hematite from the vicinity of Lake Oswego, Oregon, and lime from the kiln on San Juan Island near Bellingham.

The case was heard by the Supreme Court of Oregon on July 17, 1905. Judge C.J. Wolverton advised the jury that a meteorite of that size could be considered part of the real estate, and the jury agreed. A precedent was quoted, an Iowa case in which a man witnessed the impact of a meteor on a neighbor’s property and removed it to his own property, claiming ownership.

Hughes defended his actions by claiming that the meteor, because it had been used by Native Americans as a sort of shrine, could be considered an artifact, and therefore the property of the finder. Because it was situated at the peak of a hill, he maintained that Native Americans had physically placed it in position, which means that they were the ones who separated it from the real estate. No evidence for such a move was discovered.

Following judgment, the meteorite was sold for $26,000 to Mrs. William E. Dodge, who had it displayed at the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland for four months that summer. She then donated the meteorite to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City.

Two visitors recline in the eroded pits on the Willamette Meteorite. The present display at New York's American Museum of Natural History no longer allows such intimacy.

Two visitors recline in the eroded pits on the Willamette Meteorite. The present display at New York’s American Museum of Natural History no longer allows such intimacy.

The meteorite became a favorite display at AMNH. But litigation followed the meteorite to the museum’s door. In 1990 a petition with the signatures of 38,000 Oregon and Washington school children demanded that the museum return the meteorite to Oregon. Oregon’s Senator Bob Packwood introduced a bill in the US Senate to support the petition, and three years later Representative Les AuCoin mulled over introducing a bill to withhold further funding for AMNH until the meteorite was returned. The museum complained that major engineering would have to be done, that walls would have to be removed in order to get it out.

The students who initiated this effort organized a committee called Help End Willamette Meteorite Absence Committee (HEWMAC). The third graders ended up giving testimony before Congress, appearing on the Johnny Carson Show, and being interviewed by National Public Radio. They even persuaded the  Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to propose a swap of artifacts with AMNH. The New York museum demurred. By the time of AuCoin’s threat most of HEWMAC’s support had drained away because the campaign was becoming too political.

Not only did AMNH keep the meteorite, but in 1997 they amputated a hunk of the crown to trade to the Macovich Collection for a specimen of a martian meteorite. They claim that “Science was served” by defacing the meteorite. Observing odd bubbles at the site of the incision, the Macovich curator contacted an expert in iron meteorites, who announced, “These bubbles are fascinating. We cannot remember having seen angular FeS fragments entrained into a eutectic melt before.” It should be noted that the Macovich Collection is actually a high-end auction house specializing in what they call “aesthetic iron meteorites” collected all over the world. A chunk of Macovich’s Willamette Meteorite weighing twenty-nine and a half pounds was being offered for 1.1-1.3 million dollars.

In 1999 a coalition of Northwest Indians filed a claim under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). They asserted that the meteorite was sacred to their tribes. AMNH responded by filing a suit in federal court, contesting the Indian claims and asking that the museum’s ownership of the meteorite be confirmed. The parties settled out of court, agreeing that the Native Americans would be allowed one private ceremony at the stone each year, a sign designating the meteorite as sacred to the Grande Ronde tribe and forbidding any further cutting.

Private collectors continued to cut, though. Darryl Pitt, who ended up with most of the amputated crown, sold a 3.4 ounce slice of it at auction for $11,000 in 2002. Its buyer announced plans to chop the specimen up into several more pieces to recover his investment. Uproar ensued. It is common practice amongst meteorite collectors to sell or trade chunks of their specimens, but the claim of the Native American spiritualists casts a different light on this meteorite.

Pitt has attempted to sell his Willamette Meteor specimens several time, with smaller pieces failing to reach the prices he had hoped to achieve. The big chunk, which he tried to auction last year in New York, didn’t sell. He had hoped to get $85,000 for it. It failed to sell in a 2007 auction, too.

I would wager that the debate over the Willamette Meteorite isn’t over. The largest meteorite ever recovered in North America (sixth largest in the world) seems to magnetically attract litigation.

2 responses to “Willamette Meteorite

  1. Great post. This story would make a wonderful children’s picture book!

  2. Yes, I am impressed with all the research that you put into this article. Being Oregon born and bred I had, of course, heard about the Willamette Meteorite but didn’t know its history. Thanks.

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