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When studying Oregon names, McArthur reins.

Byline: Bob Welch The Register-Guard

PORTLAND - In the spring of 1974, our Reporting I class in the University of Oregon's School of Journalism presented a copy of "Oregon Geographic Names" to our teacher, Charles Duncan.

Since 1994, my wife and I have kept a tattered copy beneath the passenger seat of our car so we can immediately find out, say, how Deathball Rock near Blue River got its name. (A surveying party's biscuits gone bad.)

And, here at The Register-Guard, it's my "go-to" book, particularly for the Q&A column.

As a lover of Oregon and all things reference related, my recent meeting with the book's editor, Lewis L. McArthur, was like a baseball fan schmoozing with statistical guru Bill James.

Forget objectivity. Some people are enamored by politicians, movie stars and business czars. I'm not among them. Give me an afternoon talking Oregon with 91-year-old Lew McArthur any day.

"If there were a superstar in the geographic names world, Lew would be it," says Jim Meacham, a UO geography professor who joined me to interview Mc Arthur in his downtown apartment.

For more than 50 years, Mc Arthur has nurtured four editions of the book that his father, Lewis A., began 80 years ago, in 1928. The 1,073-page seventh edition, published in 2003, covers 6,252 place names, from A B Crossing in Coos County to Zwagg Island in Curry County. It includes a CD-ROM.

Understand, this is not standard fare for other states.

"Lew is arguably the patriarch of geographic names research in the country,and his knowledge on Oregon place names is ubiquitous and unsurpassed,"Meachamsays.

McArthur welcomes you to his roomy eighth-floor apartment that is next door to - no coincidence here - the Oregon Historical Society and the University Club, which his father joined in 1908 and where he still eats lots of his meals.

He is a lanky 6 feet tall, looks remarkably like former Gov. Tom McCall and has a memory as precise as the book itself. His health is good except for failing eyesight that forces him to use computer font sizes that are gigantic and a reading machine that enlarges type.

He is less a philosopher than a compiler, less likely to expound on the importance of names as a link to understanding a place than to laugh at something "father" once said about, say, Jennyopolis, a short-lived community near Corvallis.

"He said anyplace with a name like that doesn't deserve to survive."

There is something wonderfully old school about McArthur, the way he doesn't pine for the spotlight; his author's bio at the end of his 3-inch-thick book is less than five lines long.

The way he'll say someone "couldn't be happier than a clam at high tide" or "that building is the cat's pajamas."

The way his life is rooted like an oldgrowth fir in Oregon history; one moment he's showing you a picture on his wall painted by Maude Kerns herself, the next minute talking about the time "father" was chowing down with some British sea captain and Dee Wright, the forest service guide for whom the Dee Wright Observatory on the Old McKenzie Highway was named.

And yet this is a man who, while passionate about the past, spends much of his days sifting through computerized place-name data bases - at about 100-point type. The eighth edition is under way, the plan being for daughter Mary McArthur to take the baton from him.

"I get letters regularly about places daily," he says. "It never stops."

The book is getting so large it's possible the eighth edition will come in two volumes. There are always additions and corrections to make; the original edition had only 2,000 names, less than a third of the current list.

Sometimes, people want names changed. "Squaw"-related names are being phased out as offensive. And Bachelor Butte has become Mount Bachelor, the ski resort owners wanting more of a big-time label. (The book is spiced with a touch of editorial bias, reflected in McArthur's comment on the Oregon Geographic Names Boards' decision to make the Bachelor change: "Commercial interests succeeded in replacing a fine, old, euphonious name with a commonplace form.") Even the "why" behind the name "Oregon" itself is ever-changing.

"We're fortunate," Mc Arthur says. "Because we're such a young state, there are still links to the stories about how something got named. In places like Massachusetts and Connecticut, too many generations have passed."

Finally, what's so appealing about the guy is that he's just so darn Oregon. His grandmother, Harriet McArthur, was born in Rickreall, west of Salem, in 1851. As a teenager, he traipsed around the state with his father in the family Buick, whether it was fishing in Central Oregon or going to see some Eastern Oregon rancher about a name.

He first climbed Mount Hood in 1939 at age 22 and has climbed a number of Oregon's tallest peaks since.

Never mind that his degree is from California- Berkeley; McArthur and the state are linked like Lewis and Clark. He even has UO ties. Mc Arthur Court was named for his uncle, Clifton, a UO student-athlete and the first student body president. His grandfather - yep, he was a Lewis, too - was on the UO's first board of regents in the late 1870s. And his wife, Joyce, who died in 2000, was the daughter of Dan Clark, longtime chairman of the UO's history department.

Given McArthur's thirst for history and Oregon, I expected to find a larger library, but, then, he pared it down when moving from house to apartment a few years back. The walls feature old pen-and-ink drawings, 50-year-old photos from atop Oregon mountains and topography maps (Bend and The Dalles).

As always, the new edition of "Oregon Geographic Names" is pretty much a one-man operation. You look at the man, sifting through the data base on his computer, and marvel at his persistence.

His legacy is that he took something his father did, and did it even better. As with his father, the book has never been about fame or fortune. McArthur was vice-president of a steel construction firm and has done the book for the same reason people throw themselves into hobbies, which is just like his father, who paid for the first printing out of his own pocket.

No, for McArthur,"Oregon Geographic Names" has been about giving back to a state that has given him so much. And about a father and son - and, soon, a daughter - toiling in the shadows to help us understand not only who we are as a state, but where we are.

For some of McArthur's picks for oddly named Oregon places, see Welch's blog at
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Title Annotation:City/Region Columnist
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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