Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 56/Lewis Ankeny McArthur, 1883-1951

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Oregon Historical Quarterly, Volume 56
Lewis Ankeny McArthur, 1883-1951 by Omar C. Spencer
Lewis Ankeny Mcarthur from OHQ obituary.png
Lewis A. McArthur

Lewis Ankeny McArthur


Omar C. Spencer

Lewis Ankeny McArthur, or "Tam" as he was known to all his friends, was born at The Dalles, Oregon, on April 27, 1883. He died at Portland, Oregon, on November 8, 1951. He came by the name of Tam from his early youth because his older brother, Clifton, tried to call him Tom or Tommy, but instead said Tam or Tammy.

His father was Judge Lewis Linn McArthur, who served as a supreme court judge (1870–1878), as a circuit court judge (1878–1882), and as a Portland lawyer until his death in 1897. His mother's maiden name was Harriet Nesmith. She was one of the organizers of the Oregon Historical Society in 1898 and served on its board of directors from the beginning until 1924. His paternal grandfather was William P. McArthur, a naval lieutenant in command of the first survey of the Pacific Coast for United States Coast Survey during the years 1849 and 1850. His maternal grandfather was James W. Nesmith, a pioneer of 1843, who took an active part in the provisional, territorial and state governments of Oregon. He was United States senator from Oregon from 1861 to 1867, and served on the senate committee on the conduct of the Civil War. He served as a representative from Oregon from 1873 to 1875. Although a Democrat, he cast his vote in 1861 in favor of the Union. Harvey W. Scott, nationally-known editor of the Oregonian, said of Nesmith on the occasion of his death:

Among the notable men of Oregon, James W. Nesmith, since the earliest settlement of the state, has held a leading place. He was a man of intelligence, unusual force of character, large individualism and originality, an excellent friend and citizen, withal, a true type of those representative Americans who laid the foundations of the empire in the West.

Scott was not given much to praising Democrats. This editorial is all the more significant on that account.

When we consider the environment and background provided by parents and grandparents such as these, it is little wonder that Tam would be interested in appraising facts, in topography, in the history of Oregon. And Tam was not just interested in those subjects, he possessed an active desire to accomplish something toward those ends.

At an early age Tam moved with his family from The Dalles to a farm near Rickreall in Polk County and then to Portland. With a neighbor boy, Maxwell Wood, Tam published a little newspaper which they called, "The Bee." There is no record that this paper had any sting, but it is said that The Bee was sharp and alert and reflected the activity of two youthful minds. He attended the primary grades and preparatory department of Portland Academy. After graduation Tam worked on the Oregonian for Harvey W. Scott, an editor he admired. He entered the University of California in 1903 and graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Science in 1908. For two years he was employed as a ticket agent and telegraph operator of the Oregon Electric Railway Company at its Jefferson Street station in Portland. Following that he filled various executive positions with the Pacific Power and Light Company until his retirement in 1948.

From Tam's youngest days he had a passion for accuracy in each of the many fields of interest that engaged his active mind. One of his goals was the completion of the topographic map of Oregon, and he did much toward that end. He originated a new form of atlas sheet layout for the national forests in Oregon and Washington. This was adopted by the national government and is still in use.

He was instrumental in securing an annual state appropriation of $20,000 for topographic maps and stream measurements by writing the original bill and personally appearing be fore committees of the Oregon Legislative Assembly in 1911.

He secured the state cooperative fund for the completion of the Troutdale, the Bend, and the Hood River, Oregon, topographic maps when the states involved had decided to spend their funds elsewhere.

He persuaded the United States Geological Survey to incorporate the photographic topography of the United States Forest Service on the Columbia National Forest for the preparation of the Hood River and the Steamboat Mountain sheets. It is said this was the first time this method of topographic mapping had been used in the West and the first time the results were incorporated on the United States Geological Survey maps.

He obtained much new material and read proof on the general land office map of Oregon, issued in 1922, and he read proof on every map of the state issued by the Oregon State Highway Department.

In the field of history Tam was outstanding. He contributed ten articles to the Oregon Historical Quarterly, not including those on place names. Among these were "Pacific Coast Survey of 1849 and 1850" and "The Lakes of Oregon." He also wrote thirty-one book reviews for the Quarterly.

Upon the retirement of his mother, Harriet Nesmith McArthur, in 1924, after twenty-six years of service on the board of directors of the Oregon Historical Society, he succeeded her on the board and served until 1948, or a total period of twenty-four years, thus completing a period of fifty years as a board member for mother and son. Tam filled various offices in the society, and was its president from 1937 to 1945.

Tam McArthur's greatest work and the one that overshadowed all else in bringing him generous and widespread recognition was Oregon Geographic Names. This collection, presented first in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, appeared in two editions in his lifetime and after his death in a third.

This third revised and enlarged edition, prepared for the press by his wife, Nellie Pipes McArthur, included an introduction by Tam's friend, Robert W. Sawyer. What follows is largely quoted or paraphrased from that introduction.

Just when it was that Tam became interested in the geographic names of his native state seems not to be known. Perhaps an editorial by Harvey W. Scott in the Oregonian of December 18, 1904, gave the stimulus. This editorial, under the caption "A General Review of Local Titles," opened with these sentences: "An interesting subject is the study of Oregon's geographic nomenclatures. The subject is a large one and a volume would be required to exhaust it."

It is possible that the seed planted by the words of Scott germinated into reality. At any rate, in 1907 Governor George E. Chamberlain created the Oregon Geographic Board. According to ex-Governor Oswald West, who succeeded Chamberlain, the board "appears to have died but was given new life in 1914—no doubt," West says, "at the instance of Tam McArthur." Whether or not this surmise is correct, Tam McArthur's interest in the geographic names of Oregon must have been demonstrated, for Governor West named him a member of the resuscitated board.

The Oregon Geographic Board has no background in the statutes. It gained, however, official recognition of a listing in the Oregon Blue Book, biennial publication of the Secretary of State, and in its first appearance, in the 1915–1916 issue, McArthur is recorded as a member of the board. In 1916 he became its secretary and he continued in that office until 1949 when illness forced his retirement.

Proceeding thus from speculation to fact, we can record that McArthur's study of Oregon geographic names began some forty years ago. It is evident, too, that his undertaking to compile a record of the origin of those names began more than twenty-five years ago, for in December 1925, there appeared in the Oregon Historical Quarterly the first instalment of his collection of names and their background. There were instalments in the seven succeeding Quarterlies and then, all having been assembled, they were presented in February 1928, in book form under the title they had carried in the magazine, "Oregon Geographic Names."

In the preface to the first of the Quarterly sections, "the compiler" as McArthur called himself, interchangeably with "the writer," said that he had "for many years gathered notes on the origin of Oregon geographic names." David W. Hazen, reviewing the book, wrote that the collection was begun before McArthur "knew that he was going to write a book." "And when he became a member of the Oregon Geographic Board," Hazen continues, "he set out to learn the whys and the wherefores of every important 'place name' in the Beaver commonwealth."

Perhaps not at the beginning but certainly as the work of collecting names and their history proceeded, the idea of a book had become a hope of McArthur's for so he wrote in the preface to the opening instalment in that December Quarterly. Then, in the preface to the book itself he said, "It is the hope of the compiler that this book may be reprinted at some future date." Late in 1944 the hope was realized with a second edition containing hundreds of additional names; and in that volume the hope was again expressed in the same words.

Lewis A. McArthur was qualified as no other man could be "to learn the whys and the wherefores" of the place names of Oregon and to tell the story in the printed word. He came to the enterprise with more than abundant re sources. There were the interest and the curiosity that prompted and sustained it. There was an amazing retentive memory. There was a broad knowledge of Oregon and Pacific Northwest history, including an intimate acquaintance with the journals and the other writings of and about the explorers, the traders and the trappers, the naturalists, the officers of the army and the navy and the settlers of Oregon before, during and after the years of the covered wagon. There were his own family background and the record of its participation in local, state and national affairs. He had a capacity for making and keeping friends, and because there was fun, entertainment and satisfaction in being his friend he had eager responses from each to his calls for aid. There were associations with the federal agencies engaged in works relating to the geography of Oregon. There were his simple, but living and straightforward writing style, his passion for accuracy and the right word. All these he had in his progress through the years as he gathered and set down his record of Oregon names. The creative expression of these possessions is apparent on page after page of his books.

In spite of the research, the vast knowledge, and the deep wells of information that were drawn on in the formation of his volumes, there was a continuing realization of the danger of error, especially in taking, without verification, material compiled by others. And so from the first Quarterly instalment to the last and in each preface there was an appeal for corrections and suggestions. From the beginning the search was for the fact, the truth, the correct date, the right initials, the proper spelling. Once an error was demonstrated, a correction was cheerfully recorded for the next volume.

Following the Oregon Historical Quarterly instalments that went to the making of the first edition, there appeared five new groups of names in the issues of the Quarterly from December, 1943, and these, with the corrections, and other names and their stories made the new material in the second edition. The third and last assembly began in the Quarterly for December, 1945. In this group there were fifteen instalments altogether, continuing through the issue for June, 1949. After the first, the caption sub-head was the telephone phrase given wide currency by the popular radio program "Information Please," thus still expressing the wish for more facts. These fifteen instalments provide the new material in the third volume.

It was but natural that in the first edition of Oregon Geographic Names there would be included the more important and better known Oregon place names. The third edition contains 3,947 place names, many of which are post offices of but a temporary life. However, as a result of Tam McArthur's efforts, they are assured their place in Oregon local history.

With all his mental activity, no man ever suffered more from progressive physical impairment. But his patience knew no limits and to his last days he had a casual wit and a straight-faced humor. All in all, he was a most remarkable man. In his younger day he was often referred to as a "walking encyclopedia." His accomplishments in his older days proved this to be true.

Almost immediately after Tam's death it was urged throughout Oregon that in commemoration of him and his work some geographic feature in the state be given his name. In time there was chosen the then unnamed broken caldera above Three Creeks Lake in Central Oregon, and with the approval of the United States Board on Geographic Names it now bears the name "Tam McArthur Rim." Just east of Broken Top and the Three Sisters, the rim is a prominent feature of the Central Oregon landscape.

A most befitting finale was enacted on a warm, sunny day in August of 1954. Robert W. Sawyer, a close friend, and Lewis Linn McArthur, a son, together with other relatives and friends, journeyed westward from Bend, Oregon, toward Broken Top Mountain. There on Tam McArthur Rim they complied with his last request by scattering his ashes.

Thus was concluded a ceremony symbolic in several ways, chief of which was the comparison between the rugged Cascade Range and the rugged mentality of Tam McArthur—even to his dying day. And there amidst the eternal solitude of the Cascade Range may his great soul rest in peace forever!

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was legally published within the United States (or the United Nations Headquarters in New York subject to Section 7 of the United States Headquarters Agreement) before 1964, and copyright was not renewed.