A Town Is Born
Destined to become the region’s largest city and a major economic hub, Medford began in 1883 when the railroad came to Southern Oregon. In the fall of 1883, four property owners deeded part of their land to the Oregon and California Railroad for a depot and surrounding town. Before the year was over the unbroken prairie had been surveyed and a town site platted. Houses and commercial buildings rose as quickly as the short supply of lumber and brick allowed, and by early spring two hotels, a few saloons, a livery stable, and a dozen businesses already dotted the muddy streets of this rapidly growing railroad town. By mid-1884, a business district clustered on Front Street facing the depot and spread down 7th Street, known today as Main. Families settled into their newly built homes, women planted flowers in their gardens, and the fledgling town quickly became a community.
During that first year several babies were born, a fatal shoot-out took place, the first of many churches organized, a schoolhouse was built, and trains began shuttling freight and passengers to Portland. As if to say “we have arrived,” Medford’s citizens brashly hosted a Fourth of July gala for the whole Rogue Valley.
Medford incorporated in 1885. As the small town grew into a city, the board of trustees tackled the challenges of providing water and sewer systems, electric streetlights, and police and fire protection. With its central location and railroad connections to national and world markets, young Medford attracted forward-thinking individuals from other parts of the country. They swiftly joined local entrepreneurs in shaping the city’s future as it eagerly embraced the modern world of the 20th century.
Medford Boomed As Orchards Bloomed
With railroad access to distant markets, the orchard industry flourished. Hundreds of thousands of apple and pear trees were planted in the early 1900s, and commercial fruit became the Rogue Valley's major export.
Promoters widely advertised the Rogue Valley as an agricultural Mecca, and Medford became one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. By 1910, there was such a housing shortage that a tent city grew up on the edge of town.
Medford’s burgeoning population and an infusion of capital from wealthy easterners transformed the modest town into a sophisticated metropolis. Between 1909 and 1911, many of Medford’s most impressive buildings, including Sacred Heart Hospital on the city’s developing east side, were erected. By 1912, Medford supported a high school, three elementary schools, a city park, a new passenger depot, and a Carnegie library. A roller-skating rink, indoor swimming pool, several movie theaters, and an opera house provided entertainment. Over 21 miles of wooden pipe brought mountain water to the city. Residents had electricity and telephone service. Hundreds of automobiles rumbled over 18 miles of paved streets. Fruit warehouses and packing sheds were built near the train yard, and Medford became the shipping and commercial center of the county. The economy was strong, Medford’s four banks prospered, and life was good until the Orchard Boom went bust.
Inflated real estate prices and lack of water helped burst the orchard bubble. Many novice orchardists took heavy losses, gave up their dreams and left. By the mid-teens, Medford’s population sharply declined as a local recession engulfed the area. Down but not out, the resourceful community maintained a progressive spirit and rescued its shattered economy.
Despite the economic setbacks that came with the end of the Orchard Boom, Medfordites found ways to move ahead. Slow and steady growth revived Medford’s economy, and in 1927 the community celebrated its recovery with a “Jubilee of Visions Realized.” By then several irrigation districts provided water which, along with the formation of cooperatives, helped stabilize the orchard industry. In 1922 a fairgrounds with five exhibition buildings and tracks for auto, motorcycle, and horse racing opened on Medford’s south side. A dirt landing strip inside the racetrack was part of the first public airport in Oregon. In 1926, this airport became the first and only airmail stop in Oregon, ranking Medford as an early commercial aviation leader. The next year, Medford became the county seat, making it a governmental as well as an economic and transportation center.
Medford slid into the Great Depression along with the rest of the country in the 1930s. Unemployment rose, renewed growth halted, and one of its four banks failed. During this desperate time, a heated political revolt resulted in stolen ballots from the new county courthouse and a constable’s murder. Yet Medford kept its face to the future. In 1930, the city dedicated a new state-of-the art airport designed for larger passenger aircraft, and beginning in 1936 building owners used “New Deal” money to modernize. As smooth stucco and tile covered outmoded brick and stone ornamentation, progressive Medford enthusiastically adopted the streamline architectural style of the era.
The War Brings Change
When the nation entered World War II, Medford transformed into a military town. Construction of Camp White, a nearby Army training post, began about six weeks after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The Army also took over the city airport, and Medford buzzed with wartime activity.
As construction began on Camp White, around 10,000 workers, followed by nearly 40,000 soldiers, flooded the area, bringing prosperity back to the city.
Increased demand for lumber during and after the war sparked a boom for Medford’s timber industry. With railroad access and several expanding mills, the city became the regional focus for wood products processing and shipping. From the 1940s until the mid-’70s, timber production drove Medford’s economy and became a way of life for many residents. Following earlier patterns of boom and bust, economic and environmental issues in the 1970s and ’80s eventually ended Medford’s timber reign.
As the lumber industry lagged, the health industry grew. The construction of two major hospitals, Rogue Valley Memorial in 1958 and Providence in 1966, set Medford well on its way to becoming the major regional medical center that it is today.
New neighborhoods built to meet the growing demand for post-war housing expanded Medford’s boundaries. Over the next several decades, shopping malls and suburban living pulled day-to-day activity away from the city center.
Today, support from the Medford Urban Renewal Agency, in cooperation with business and property owners, is rejuvenating the downtown historic district, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Restoration projects, infrastructure improvements, and community events are helping to build a downtown Medford grounded in its forward-looking and diverse past.