Shaniko and Rajneeshpuram-- desert secrets

East of the Oregon Cascades is Shaniko, a tiny oasis of habitation dating from the days of big sheep ranching. Its unusual name derives from a mispronunciation by the local Indians of the last name of one of the pioneer settlers..The town was founded in 1900, when the Columbia Southern Railroad line reached the area. During the town's brief, ten-year boom, it was alleged that it became "The Wool Capital of the World," shipping five million dollars worth in 1904. But events conspired against Shaniko; in 1911 an alternate railroad line snaked up the Deschutes River canyon all the way to Bend; that same year much of Shaniko's downtown burned down, and internationally, Australian wool was taking over the market. The town nearly went to extinction by 1942, when the remanants of the railroad were torn up and Shaniko sunk even further into economic and physical isolation.

Nowadays, Shaniko lies right on Hwy 97, the major north-south highway that runs along the east fringe of the Cascade Range, all the way from the Canadian border through Oregon, and ending at I-5 (Interstate 5) near Mt. Shasta, California......From Shaniko's high plains at 3,400 feet, one spies in the remote distance, like the memory of a cloud, the 11,245 foot high ice spire of Mt. Hood. Since the railroad pulled out many years ago, the town has not thrived. Ancient weathered wooden homes mix in a jumble with more modern additions, many of them appearing run-down as well; the wind blows and the sun beats down. Water is scarce and only scattered juniper trees grow without the help of irrigation. In pioneer days the springs in nearby Big Pine Hollow were what allowed settlement to begin and even a school to be built for the region's children:

In 2008, when these pictures were taken, there were some signs of progress and renewal. The Shaniko Hotel was an interestingly restored Bed and Breakfast, and the central street, all two blocks of it, sported new-looking paint and well-done storefronts. At the north end of town was a General Store that was truly fun to browse through, out of the summer heat. But as of January 2013, the news is again more sober. The Shaniko Hotel is up for sale, I am told, as are the Cafe and the RV park. The Hotel is not taking reservations and there is no date ahead when they'll be open.

See Shaniko during mid-winter snowstorm; see inside Shaniko Hotel (new, January 2013)


Rajneeshpuram and Baghwan Shree Rajneesh

At the south end of town, one looks out over infinite dry hills and valleys. Seven miles to the south of Shaniko lies the tiny village of Antelope, in its fertile valley along Antelope Creek. A major story in Oregon's recent history took place at Antelope. It's a drama presaging Homeland Security and 911 terrorism.

In 1981, the Baghwan, a religious leader from India, bought a 62,000 acre ranch right next to Antelope and the story of Rajneeshpuram began. America, of course, has a considerable history of religious communes, but those were most well-known in the fertile areas of the East Coast, and back in the 1800s. But this was backwater Oregon in the 1980s! Religous Freedom sometimes swirls in controversy, and the sudden eruption of a major religious commune in the midst of remote Oregon backcountry was indeed high in controversy--- even the name and cuisine of the town's new restaurant seemed calculated to raise the locals' ire-- "Zorba the Buddha." And all this was even before allegations of such things as attempting to poison the water supply of the region's largest town (The Dalles) crashed down and the Baghwan's chief assistant got sentenced and spent over four years in prison. The Baghwan was deported in 1985 and died back in India in 1990 at the age of only 58. His former Oregon ranch languished in debt for several years, and his fleet of (some say) as many as 85 Rolls Royces was sold off. The town of Antelope was able to shake off its name of "Rajneesh" and revert to its historic name. These days, there is little evidence of the Baghwan's town. It's hard even to imagine that at its high point there was a 160 room hotel, a shopping mall, and a 2.2 acre meeting hall to assemble the thousands of followers. An interesting read if one is curious about the Baghwan's teachings is "The Mustard Seed, " subtitled "A Living Explanation of the sayings of Jesus from the Gospel According to Thomas." copyright 1975, by Harper and Row (508 pages).

A note to those unfamilar with Oregon-- Rajneeshpuram was located far to the east and south of Portland, Oregon.. It was a long day's drive to get there---about 180 miles. You'll have to pass over or around the mighty Cascade Mountains, which during the winter months can be difficult due to blizzards and icy roads. Rajneeshpuram was REMOTE, with a Capital "R."

Final note: nowadays, a Christian camp has taken over what was left of the Baghwan's holdings and all is quiet once more. If you want to see Antelope, take the detour off Hwy 97, and be sure to appreciate Antelope's main tourist attraction-- in a fine twist of irony, it has gone back to being the town's classic 1897 Methodist church building. (Click here for a link to the "Oregon Encylcodedia Project," and their more in-depth article on this subject).

 

See Wheeler County Ghost Town

Visit the Spectacular Colors of Oregon's Painted Hills to the southeast of Shaniko

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Page Last Revised 11/06/2017