Who Owns a Meteorite?


 By Geneva Cobb Iijima, Oregon City

From Odyssey, February 1995 (Vol.4, No.2), Peterborough, NH

Excerpt courtesy of the Hayden Planetarium, all rights reserved


  Who owns a meteorite? Annie Campbell, Stephanie Corey, and their third grader classmates in Lake Oswego, Oregon, puzzled over that question in 1990 when they learned that the largest meteorite ever discovered in the United States was found in the hills a few kilometers from their home town. So why was it now thousands of kilometers away, in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City?

While studying Oregon history, the third graders learned that the meteorite, which measures 3.1 meters long, 2.1 meters wide, and 1.3 meters tall, and resembles a Volkswagen bug in shape, was found by Ellis Hughes while walking in the woods in 1902.

Hughes spent many months logging a 1.2-kilometer path through the forest between the meteorite and his farm. He built a cart and moved the 15.5-ton meteorite with the help of only his wife, his 15-year-old son, a horse, a capstan, and a block and tackle, down a hill and across a canyon to his property. But a court battle over the ownership of the meteorite followed. The Oregon Iron and Steel Company, on whose land the meteorite was found, claimed legal ownership. Oregon Iron and Steel won the battle, and company officials then sold the meteorite to Elizabeth E. Dodge II. She in turn donated it to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

(Actually, the history of the meteorite goes back to a time even before Hughes' discovery, when the Clackamas Indians named it "tomonowos,"" or '"visitor from the moon."' They believed the meteorite was sacred, and before going to war, Indian braves dipped their spears in rain- water that had collected in its craters.)

The students decided to try to return this ancient part of Oregon's history to the people of their area. They organized the Help End Willamette Meteorite Absence committee (HEWMAC). Class members wrote letters to senators, representatives, radio and television stations, and state officials, asking for their help. They contacted the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) and got the museum to promise to make a suitable home for it.

Thirty-eight thousand children in Oregon and Washington signed petitions requesting that the meteorite be returned. Third-grade students Charlie Watts, Kelly Brown, Graham Rasmussen, Stephanie Corey, and Annie Campbell gave testimony in 1991 regarding the Willamette meteorite. Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon introduced a bill supporting the students' efforts. OMSI offered to make some kind of trade with the American Museum of Natural History-- possibly offering Oregon trees to be planted in parks across New York as a-symbol of friendship between the children of New York and Oregon.

On September 17, 1990, however, William A. Gutsch Jr., chairman of the American Museum of Natural History, wrote that walls would have to be removed in order to take the meteorite out of Hayden Planetarium, where it was on display at the museum. There was also a concern as to whether it could be safely transported across the country.

Writing about the importance of not removing the Willamette Meteorite from the collection, Gutsch said, "Major concern rests on the unique scientific importance of this meteorite, and the scientific research that has and will be done on it as part of one of the most important collections of meteorites in the world.... Scientists here believe that shipping it away would cause irreparable harm to the meteorite itself, and the ability of scientists to study it in context of the related collection."

Undaunted, HEWMAC continued its campaign. An engineering firm offered technical assistance in getting the meteorite out of Hayden Planetarium, and two van lines offered to transport it. Annie and Stephanie appeared on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," and Annie was interviewed on National Public Radio.

When the children were in sixth grade, Oregon Representative Les AuCoin considered introducing a bill that would require withholding of federal funding from the American Museum of Natural History until the Willamette Meteorite was returned. By this time, however, officials at OMSI felt that instead of fostering friendship between the children of Oregon and New York, the issue had become too political. So Annie, Stephanie, and all the children of HEWMAC backed down.

"I'm sad that we didn't succeed in bringing back the Willamette Meteorite,'' says Annie Campbell, now in eighth grade. "But it was a positive experience. We learned so much about science, history, writing, talking to the media, and how our government works."

Who owns a meteorite? Many Oregon students still believe it is part of the local history in the area where it is found, and thus should remain in that area. What do you think?

Geneva Cobb lijima is a science lover who writes for many different publications. She lives in Oregon City, Oregon.  

Go to The Amazing Heavenly and Earthly Journey of The Willamette Meteorite

Go to Strange Journey: Further Travels of the Willamette Meteorite

Go to Clackamas County's History Page

Go to Clackamas County's Main Page



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