Port Orford Meteorite: Is it a hoax? Is it still out there? Who knows?

    Somewhere in the thickly forested Coast Range, within a few dozen miles of the town of Port Orford, there's a chunk of intergalactic rock worth more than $300 million.

    Or "… maybe there isn't. Maybe it's all an epic hoax — a huge, audacious practical joke that had the sharpest scientific minds in the world bamboozled for more than a century.

    Nobody knows for sure which of these two things the Port Orford Meteorite is. But almost everybody agrees it's a great story.

    So, here it is:

    The story starts in 1856, when a U.S. government geologist named Dr. John Evans found himself on what would shortly become the south coast of Oregon doing some fieldwork, surveying the territory that would shortly become the newest state.

    That's "Doctor Evans," as in medical doctor. We're used to seeing the title of "Doctor" used for scientists, to acknowledge their possession of a Ph.D. in whatever they specialize in — in this case, geology. But Evans was not a trained geologist.

    How he got involved with geology was by earning international acclaim during an expedition to the Midwest in 1848, in the course of which he happened to be the guy to discover some very important dinosaur bones. This seems to have been enough to change his career plans. Chances are he welcomed the opportunity; medicine in the 1840s was not the prestige gig we think of today.

    This lack of academic preparation for his profession is surely why, when the good doctor encountered a strange-looking boulder buried up to its shoulders in a hillside somewhere between the Umpqua and Coquille rivers, he didn't recognize it as anything much more significant than a pretty rock.

    Evans chipped off a chunk and moved on ... leaving behind him a 22,000-pound meteorite made of an extraordinarily rare material called pallasite. Pallasite is the substance that forms right at the borderline between the nickel-iron core and the rocky mantle of a small planet or large asteroid. When that heavenly body is blown apart by a meteor strike or whatever, the chunks that result can be rock, metals or pallasite — and pallasite is by far the rarest of the three.

    Upon Evans' return to Washington, D.C., geological professionals with more formal training recognized the sample, and it started a sensation.

    Congress moved quickly to authorize another expedition to retrieve the rock ... but not quickly enough. Before anything could be done, the American Civil War broke out; the day after the war started, Evans died of pneumonia.

    By the time other geologists and explorers had made it out to the site again, dozens of years had passed, and no one could find a trace of the meteorite. Evans had said, before he died, that it was on a grassy slope of "Bald Mountain," a mountain about 40 miles away from what's now Port Orford that rises above the surrounding hills and is easily seen from the ocean. (How Evans would know this last bit is unclear.)

    Well ... no soap. It turns out there are a number of mountains that could have been temporarily deforested in 1856 and could have been perceived as higher than others. The area also is prone to landslides, and it's entirely possible that the whole grassy slope slid down into a creekbed with the meteorite at the bottom of tons of earth.

    And, well, there's another possibility, too.

    It turns out the sample Evans brought back with him was nearly identical to the material found in a meteorite in Chile in 1820. In fact, scientific examination of the sample in the 1990s has convinced the majority of scientists that it's from the Chilean strike.

    Samples of this pallasite meteorite were relatively easy to come by in the mid-1850s. And it turned out that Dr. Evans was in serious financial trouble at the time.

    Could it be that he had a sample of that rare material in his pocket when he left, then pretended to find it in the most remote and trackless part of the Oregon wilderness to generate some buzz and inspire financial backers to step forward and solve his problem by commissioning him to go back and spend unaccountable years looking for it, drawing a healthy salary the whole time and staying a continent away from his creditors?

    Could it be that the Port Orford meteorite was one of the greatest scientific hoaxes of all time?

    Perhaps. But there's another twist.

    After a 1937 article in the Portland Oregonian, a miner named Bob Harrison stepped forward and claimed the meteorite was on his nickel-mining claim, in the Salmon Mountains.

    He said the debris field from the meteorite's landing had effectively salted his mine with chunks of nickel, and he'd been making a living scrounging them up.

    Talk being cheap, a scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey asked him to send along a sample for testing. He did.

    It checked out: Bob Harrison's nickel chunks were indeed of extraterrestrial origin. But could they have been from a pallasite strike? Now very interested, the federal scientists asked him to send more.

    Instead, he dropped out of sight. Given the dollar value of the meteorite if it's found, this tends to argue against Harrison's claim to be in possession of it.

    After all, what miner has ever failed to cash in mineral wealth found on his claim?

    So that's where we stand. We have no real idea if the meteorite is real or not. If it is real, we don't really know if it's buried at the bottom of a landslide under eighty feet of silty clay loam, or parked in a forest someplace waiting for someone to stumble across it.

    Someone like you, perhaps. Or — let's be realistic here — maybe someone like the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny.

    Finn J.D. John, an instructor at Oregon State University, writes about unusual and little-known aspects of Oregon history. He can be reached at finn@offbeatoregon.com, twitter.com/OffbeatOregon, or 541-357-2222.

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