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Annual Labor Day Hike from Salem to Portland

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Clipping from the Renska Swart Collection reveals a Labor Day Hike tradition from the late 1920s.

Labor Day First Officially Celebrated in Oregon

Through mere technicality, Oregon is celebrated as the first state in the union to pass a bill marking a Labor Day holiday.  The bill was passed in 1887, a full 7 years before the federal holiday designation. Technically, New York introduced a bill to their legislative body earlier, but Oregon’s passed first, giving us ultimate bragging rights.[1]

Labor Day celebrations have varied since the late 1880s.  Our local newspapers are full of announcements for Labor union-sponsored balls[2], picnics and other outings.  This past week I came across a newspaper clipping detailing a rather unique local Labor Day tradition dating to the late 1920s.   Advertised as a “Labor Day Hike,” the annual event was a slog from Salem to Portland that makes today’s ultimate sporting events look tame.

Clipping Reveals Grueling Labor Day Hike Tradition

As a rule, I hate collections of newspaper clippings.  Their content can be found in a much cleaner form on microfilm or online with context, something most historical clippers tended to neglect -- snipping their prizes without any hints as to when they were published or from which esteemed publication they originated.  Grudgingly, I will admit that despite its mysterious origins, the handwritten notes on this particular clipping sucked me right into streets of Portland, 1929.   The yellowing, uneven-edged scrap features an image of a throng of people crowding the intersection of Broadway and Yamhill in front of the Oregon Journal’s headquarters (now known as the Jackson Tower).[3]  A man, hands on his hips and slightly stooped, walks through the clearing made by the crowd towards a trio of uniformed officers on motorcycles.  His posture is not surprising considering this was the finish line for a 52-mile hike that had started at the Capitol building in Salem.[4]

Newspaper clipping. Originally published in the Oregon Journal 3 Sept 1929, page 11. Clipping from Renska Swart Collection, 0063.001.0059.007.03. Willamette Heritage Center Collections

Labor Day Hike an Extreme Competition

From 1926 – 1929,[5] the Portland-based Oregon Journal newspaper sponsored the annual hike between Salem and Portland on Labor Day weekend.  One rival paper disparagingly called the event a “publicity stunt,” [6] but it did draw crowds and became affectionately known as the “bunion derby.”[7]  The race consisted of 200 contestants who had to sign up in advance and have a doctor’s certificate showing good health.[8] [9]  After gathering at the Marion Hotel for registration,[10] the race started at the State Capitol, the starting gun firing at about 5 am and followed the Pacific Highway all the way to Portland.[11]  No participants could run at anytime during the hike, nor could they stray more than 6 feet from the highway’s pavement.[12] To keep things in line, the Oregon State Police provided escorts along the way.[13]  There was no dress code and one newspaper report stated: “Every kind of attire from track pants to khaki and every kind of headgear from a ‘tiger’ hat to nothing at all was seen on the group of hikers.”[14] At stake were cash prizes (as high as $125 dollars[15]), meal tickets[16] and an airplane ride back to Salem. [17]

The winning times for completion of the hike was just over 9 hours.[18]  Consider that for a moment.  In the days before Gatorade and even tennis shoes, these men were basically competing in a double marathon.  Not all participants were seasoned athletes.  Leon DuBois, a Salem barber, started training about two weeks before the race with hikes to Jefferson, Turner and Eola.[19]  He only made it as far as Aurora.[20]  Few apparently actually ever finished the race.  In 1928, only 44 of the 162 participants made it to the finish line.[21]

Only men could participate in the early years, an annoyance to one Oregon school teacher.  Miss Lucile Hubbard, fed up with not being allowed to compete decided she would show the organizers and determined to swim the route through the Willamette faster than the walkers.[22]  Organizers, responding either to the fairness of her request or perhaps the desire to squash the story before it overtook their own publicity, allowed her participate.  She does not appear in the official roster of contestants[23], however, and early reports from the sidelines said she was sixth from last place, “but plodded ahead determinedly.”[24]

End of Event and Revivals

In 1930, the route for the hike changed to become more Portland-centric, cutting Salem out of the festivities completely.  There was a brief revival in 1952, when three former champions, sponsored by a variety of businesses and unions, competed in a longer walk from Salem to Portland and back to Salem again.  Although no one actually finished the race, competitor Harry Roisum claimed victory as the last challenger gave up about 22 miles from Salem after the 20 hours of walking.[25]

What the news reports on microfilm and can’t quite convey was the excitement of spectators nor the pain of the competitors.  Our clipping supplies a few more details with meticulous hand written pencil marks detailing where one spectator stood down to the minute.  Just in front of the building is a slash mark which the unknown collector reported “Where I stood from 4:15 to 4:45 when Mr. Olson came in who was so spry.  I was standing here when one of the boys collapsed by me.”  The clipping was tucked in a small portrait of a John Olson from the same newspaper, its very survival an indication of the special memory it held for the clipper.

By Kylie Pine.  This article was written for and published by the Statesman Journal newspaper, September 3, 2017.  It is republished here with citations for reference purposes.

Sources

[1] "50 years of progress"  State of Oregon Bureau of Labor, 1952.  Accessed online through Bureau of Labor and Industries website: http://www.oregon.gov/boli/docs/BOLI%20History%2050%20Years%20of%20Progress.pdf.

[2] "Among the Unions."  Oregon Statesman.  24 August 1902, page 3.

[3] National Register Listing for the Oregon Journal/Jackson Tower Building.  National Parks Service. https://npgallery.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NRHP/Text/96000995.pdf

[4] “Throng Views Finish of Walking Classic” – likely the Oregon Journal, 1928.  Renska Swart Clipping Collection, Willamette Heritage Center Collections, 0063.001.059.0007.003.

[5] Dates based on compilation of newspaper article references.  "Locals"  Capital Journal. 8 Sept 1926, pg 7 – references a winner to the race; Capital Journal. 13 Aug 1927, page 5 states “The Salem district will be well-represented in the second annual Labor Day hike from Salem to Portland under the auspices of the Oregon Journal.” – confirming a start date of 1926;   “Stone Leading Hikers at Half Way Distance.” Capital Journal. 2 Sept 1929, pg 4. – references 4th annual;  Daily Capital Journal. 22 Aug 1929, pg 9 – registration announcements; “Sherwood Farmer Winner of Hike,” Capital Journal. 2 Sept 1930, pg 3 – This article suggests that the event is still happening, but the route has changed.  It is now an easterly loop going through Vancouver and Gresham.

[6] "An Affecting Scene" Capital Journal.  7 Sept 1927.

[7] Daily Capital Journal. 22 Aug 1929, pg 9.

[8] 1927 race had 200 sign ups.  Capital Journal.  20 Augst 1927, pg 7.

[9] “Twelve Salem Men signed up…Oregon Statesman 24 Aug 1927, pg 6

[10] “Ready for Hikers,” Oregon Statesman. 2 Sept 1928, pg 5.  Article mentions that ever hiker staying with them received a 4:30 am wake up call.

[11] “Twelve Salem Men signed up…Oregon Statesman 24 Aug 1927, pg 6

[12] “Twelve Salem Men signed up…Oregon Statesman 24 Aug 1927, pg 6

[13] “Anderson wins Labor Day Hike” Capital Journal 4 Sept 1928, page 8.

[14] “Stone Leading Hikers at Half Way Distance.” Capital Journal. 2 Sept 1928, page 4.

[15] “Twelve Salem Men signed up…Oregon Statesman 24 Aug 1927, pg 6

[16] “Twelve Salem Men signed up…Oregon Statesman 24 Aug 1927, pg 6

[17] “Twelve Salem Men signed up…Oregon Statesman 24 Aug 1927, pg 6

[18] “Twelve Salem Men signed up…Oregon Statesman 24 Aug 1927, pg 6; “Anderson wins Labor Day Hike” Capital Journal 4 Sept 1928, page 8.

[19] Capital Journal.  20 Aug 19247, pg 7.  Capital Journal. 30 Aug 1927, pg 5.

[20] “Training for Bunion Derby” Oregon Statesman. 31 July 1928, pg 7.

[21] “Anderson wins Labor Day Hike” Capital Journal 4 Sept 1928, page 8.

[22] “Seeks to Swim from Salem to Portland”.  Capital Journal. 27 August 1928, pg 1.

[23]“Anderson wins Race.” Oregon Journal 3 Sept 1928 pg 11 column 2-3

[24] “Charles Anderson Wins Salem-Portland Jaunt in Record Breaking Time.”

[25] "Rosium of Portland Gets Trophy in Walking Race." Capital Journal. 1 Sept 1952, pg 13

 

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