Oregon Tourist Trap Holds Weird Twist

G O L D  H I L L, Ore., March 11, 2004 -- Looking for a career change? Interestedin the paranormal? Always admired P.T. Barnum?

Step right up, because Maria Cooper has a deal for you.

For just $2 million, she'll sell you the Oregon Vortex, avenerable roadside attraction off the beaten track where … Broomsstand on end! Balls roll uphill! And walking from one spot toanother makes you shrink or grow!!

Despite its remote location in the wooded hills behind this oldGold Rush town and little advertising, the Oregon Vortex has becomeso well known that Mulder mentioned it on The X Files, and itis widely considered the inspiration for a dozen similarattractions around the country.

Scottish mining engineer John Lister opened the Oregon Vortex asa tourist attraction in 1930 on the site of the Old Grey Eagle GoldMine. He claimed the property was on the confluence of mysteriousforces he called terralines. The story goes that he was sofrightened by what he discovered, he burned his notes before hisdeath.

After Lister died, Cooper's family left a service station andmotel in town and bought the property in 1961, when Cooper wasstill in high school. When her father had heart trouble, she quither job as a psychiatric social worker at a prison and took overthe vortex in 1980.

Cooper, 60, now wants to retire. Her son is more interested incomputers, so she is looking for someone — a family perhaps — tocarry on.

House of Mystery

"There is so much potential here," said Cooper. "There couldbe an espresso bar here. People are always asking about food. Therecould be a hotdog stand. There is nothing to the overhead. It's allnatural setting."

She won't say how many visitors each year pay the $8 admission,beyond "thousands." The deal includes 22 acres of wooded hillsides, and athree-bedroom house. Within the vortex is a gift shop, the twistedremains of an old mining assay office dubbed the House of Mystery,two sites for demonstrating the growing and shrinking effect, andthe willingness of visitors to believe in something they don'tunderstand.

"John Lister's definition was, it's an anti-gravitationalelectromagnetic field," of which there are many around the world,Cooper explained. "This is a repelling one. The Bermuda Triangleis an attracting one."

The primary demonstration puts a person between two posts about8 feet apart in the shade of a madrone tree. The posts have rulerson facing sides. A certificate from a surveyor says they are bothlevel. Anyone can grab the carpenter's level hanging from the treeto see that the posts are vertical and the plank on the groundbetween them is level.

Beyond Science

A guide instructs a person standing at the north post to lookstraight across and find his or her eye level on the south post.Then walk to the post. There is an overwhelming feeling, verifiedby onlookers, that the walker is shrinking as he or she approachesthe south. Turn around and head north, and it feels like the personis growing.

"You can't even measure the measures you measure with, becauseeverything is affected," said Cooper. "It sounds likedouble-talk, but it's not.

"I'm no scientist, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist tosee what happens here."

Ray Hyman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University ofOregon, spent three days here and presented his findings to theCommittee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of theParanormal in 1997.

He concluded the shrinking and growing effect was an opticalillusion known as the Ponzo Illusion, and can be duplicated on anysloping ground with trees to obscure the horizon. Described by Mario Ponzo in 1913, the effect is caused bydistorting perspective with a background of converging lines. Whenvisual references are skewed enough, people can actually feeldizzy.

A Doubting Professor

Russ Donnelly, a professor emeritus of physics at the Universityof Oregon, visited the Oregon Vortex in 1966, and came away"underwhelmed." "I work on vortices for a living," saidDonnelly. "That's the name of my cat. I work on smoke-ringvortices, but in water. I work in quantum vortices in superheatedhelium. Vortices are definitely my trade."

A vortex is a fluid or gas circulating around a core, where thepressure is lower inside than out, explained Donnelly. A vortexforms when water swirls down the bathtub drain. Tornadoes arevortices. Vortices form when big airplanes pass through the air.

What is happening at the Oregon Vortex is not a vortex, saidDonnelly.

"I thought it was just a sort of optical illusion," he said."That stuff on the Web about a circular magnetic web is justnonsense."

Cooper agrees that what people see in the House of Mystery —balls appearing to roll uphill and a pendulum hanging askew — isoptical illusion distorted by the wacky angles of the twistedbuilding. But she insists something else is going on outside thehouse to make people appear to grow and shrink, though what it isremains a mystery.

Doug Kirby, one of the editors of RoadsideAmerica.com, hasvisited a dozen mystery spots around the country, and likes theOregon Vortex best.

"It's the classic," said Kirby.

Old-Timers Tell Tales

Typically, these sites are in remote locations, adding to thesense that something strange is happening, said Kirby. There's thetwisted house where balls appear to roll uphill, legends thatIndians and animals shunned the places, trees growing in weirdshapes. The effect is enhanced by having a grizzled old-timertelling the story, rather than a gum-snapping teenager.

Kirby, who works on Web sites for a telephone company, lovesvisiting roadside attractions, and was once tempted to buy aSanta's Village in Vermont, but finds it hard enough to persuadehis wife to visit these places, let alone buy one for $2 million. "That's a little bit rich for us," he said.

He noted that Mermaid Springs, a famous roadside attraction inWeeki Wachee, Fla., had to be given away to keep it alive.

Whatever it takes, Jennica Chudek of Bellingham, Wash., hopesthe Oregon Vortex lives on. Based on a friend's rave review, shedemanded her mother bring her here for a side trip while attendingthe nearby Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"It's crazy, but I believe," she said after taking the tour."I hope someone buys it so I can bring my kids someday."

If You Go…

OREGON VORTEX: 4303 Sardine Creek Left Fork Road, Gold Hill,Ore. Open daily 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. in March, April, May,September, October and November, and 9 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. in June,July and August. Admission $8 adults, $6 for ages 6 to 11, $7 forseniors. Call (541) 855-1543 or visit www.oregonvortex.com. NORTHWEST SKEPTICS CORNER: www.o4r.org/vortex/