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Oregon Trails: House of Mystery

By Ron Brown

NEAR GOLD HILL, Ore. — The Memorial Day holiday is just a couple weeks away, and with it, the unofficial start to the summer vacation season. That means families all across the country will be hitting the highways for summer vacation.

For nearly a hundred years, Southern Oregon has been a destination point for those looking for different vacation destinations, from Crater Lake and the Oregon caves, to Shakespeare, Britt Festival and the Oregon Vortex, and Uncanny Canyon.

For longer than anyone can remember, people say they have felt something strange when they’re at what is known as the “Oregon Vortex”, near Gold Hill. Legend says Indians and miners first puzzled over strange distortions and irregularities in measurements, and the environment in an area near the headwaters of Sardine Creek. But it took Scottish mining engineer John Litster to develop experiments to demonstrate what many see as the area’s quirks and anomalies.

“Two theories that we use throughout. The one of John Litster’s, who did all the experiments here, and Einstein’s theory. The two are the best theories so far that anyone has come up with. They explain most of what happens here, but not fully,” says House of Mystery’s Maria Cooper.

At the site of the Old Grey Eagle Mine, the House of Mystery, as it’s called, is said to be an old assay office that slid down off it’s foundation more than 90 years ago. Litster named it the ‘’House of Mystery”, although the ”Vortex” is what puzzles visitors.

“Years ago I remember John Litster saying himself that he wished he hadn’t coined it ‘the House of Mystery’, because it’s the ‘Vortex,’ the area creating the phenomena. The ‘house’ really has nothing to do with it. It simply enhances what occurs here,” says Cooper.

Here, anyone facing south appears appreciably shorter than a person facing north. And standing straight actually appears some 7-1/2 degrees out of plumb. Litster used his engineering knowledge to try to explain the phenomena to visitors, however others still try to debunk his theories.

One of those who took Lister on was John Dunlap, who created his own version of the House of Mystery up Highway 62, near Trail. Opening shortly after World War Two, he called his tourist attraction “Uncanny Canyon.” it had all the same illusions and distortions as the house of mystery. And that really riled up John Litster, who filed suit in 1952 to shut Dunlap down. In 1955, legendary Jackson County Judge Hannah dismissed the injunction against Dunlap and Uncanny Canyon, which continued to operate for about ten more years.

One of the most unusual tourist attractions, though, had to be this large log structure in Sutherlin, just north of Roseburg. Built by Loring A. Wood at his family’s auto camp in 1932, it stood for many years along the Pacific Highway. He says he conceived the project following five nights of vivid dreams where the details were revealed to him. Made of 3,200 logs and poles from 464 trees he hand-cut himself, it was a hundred feet long and 40 feet high at the center, and was lighted at night. He also made several other structures of logs, also claiming the shape and sizes were revealed in dreams.

You’d probably have to agree that Southern Oregon is certainly home to a number of well-known worldwide tourist-type attractions. Not only the Shakespeare Festival, but the Oregon Caves and Crater Lake National Park. But clearly one of the most unusual and enduring would have to be, the House of Mystery.

Lister owned and operated the Oregon Vortex, or House of Mystery, from 1930 to his death in 1959. The House of Mystery is on Sardine Creek Road, west of Gold Hill, and is open from March through October. The first imitation of the House of Mystery was built at Santa Cruz, California in 1941. Knott’s Berry Farm also operated a similar attraction for many years.