Church Rock Hill
The tardiness of the groom inspires a pair of wedding guests to pass the time with tales of yore.
The wedding party of Ogden-Johnson murmured in their church voices, restlessly mingling in small groups as rain continued to streak down the high windows of Dunn Chapel. They lingered almost exclusively to the left, apart from a solitary guest, who remained seated at his pew toward the back of the groom’s side. Strings of pale daylilies wilted in the arbor, beneath which an elderly minister sat dozing, both hands clutching the bible in his lap.
A young man broke from his clique and meandered toward the massive double doors. He fished through his jacket pocket for his cigarettes, dislodging the droopy, pink carnation pinned to his lapel. Pausing, he extracted the pack and matches before stooping to retrieve his boutonniere.
“I’ve got it,” said the lone guest on the groom’s side. The flower rested in the palm of his wrinkled hand, fingers carefully encroaching like a bony cage.
“Thank you,” he said, plucking it from the old man’s hand and sliding the pin into the lapel of his black jacket. “Name’s Oren, I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Betty’s brother.”
“Call me Charles,” said the old man, his voice a labored wheeze. At one time it might have boomed from his broad chest, but now his lungs exhaled with the resonance of stone. Every angle of the man bent with time, like a tree twisting through his suit. When the light caught his eyes, they were found to be almost colorless, reflecting a bleached facsimile of blue. A thin and dissipating cloud of hair drifted over his scalp, where liver spots peaked out like smooth stones through snow.
“Are you here for Teddy? I didn’t think he had any living family,” asked Oren. “No offense!” He added hastily.
“It’s all right, Teddy is an old friend of mine.”
“I don’t suppose you have any idea where he is?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well, if he thinks he can leave my sister at the altar, he’ll have another thing coming!”
“I’m confident that not even death could keep him away,” said Charles.
A bright crack of daylight spread over the pews and crept down the aisle, drawing the expectant faces of every member of the wedding party. A woman occupied the threshold. She wore a pressed grey skirt and matching jacket, the name “Shirly” displayed on her name tag. Silhouetted behind her were the lurking shapes of a tour group. Charles turned, seemingly acknowledged by Shirly, who stepped back into the light and let the doors close.
“How rude!” Said Oren. “I know we are several hours over our time, but already trying to hook the next group?”
“No, that was a tour group, not prospective clients.”
“A tour? Of what?”
“Ah, you’re not from here?”
“No, Council Bluffs Iowa,” said Oren. “Most of us are, just here for the wedding.”
“This chapel is a historical heritage site. Have a seat, I’ll tell you about it, kill a little time.”
“All right,” Oren tucked his cigarettes back into his jacket and took a seat on the pew next to Charles. “Cancer can wait a while longer.”
“The Dunn Chapel was christened in 1867, the first nondenominational church in the Willamette Valley, a fairly controversial idea at the time. Its origins, however, stretch back a bit further to the 1850’s with its architect and namesake, Castor Dunn.
Dunn was an Irish immigrant; he came west on the Oregon Trail and took on with the Hudson Bay Company. Rumor has it he lived in Newport for a while before staking a homestead at Deadhorse Lake, not far from Lebanon. There he got along for years, well regarded by the community. Sometime in 1850 an event occurred that would permanently change the trajectory of his life.
As Dunn told it, he got caught in a sudden and violent thunderstorm while traveling home. As lightning streaked the sky, he found himself precariously located near the peak of a tall grassy hill. Before he could act, the sky exploded in white light and a bolt struck the earth very near him just over the crest of the hill. Then as quickly as it arrived, the storm departed, leaving clear blue sky in its wake.
Upon investigating the smoldering site of the lightning strike, he made a remarkable discovery, a massive and peculiar stone protruding from the hill.
It leaned at a slight angle, oblong in shape and pocked with hollow spaces, seeming more iron than rock. Dunn was convinced that the stone came down with the lightning. To him it resembled a pulpit and considering its perceived heavenly origins, he named it Church Rock.
Dunn had no Theological training, nor did he believe that he required any. He began holding sermons on the hill, preaching his simple doctrine from behind the rock.”
“Was it a meteorite?” Asked Oren.
“In fact, it was, very astute of you! However, more modern researchers have pointed out that a meteor of that size would likely make a crater as large as Linn county. Which begs the question, how did it get there?”
“Maybe a case for divine intervention,” Oren smiled. “What did he preach about anyway?”
“His message, consistent and direct; love your fellow man. Never accused of being a particularly eloquent speaker, he didn’t robe his message in metaphor or parables. His sole directive; be good to each other, regardless of human circumstance. Naturally, folks considered him a lunatic.
No one is certain when he began construction of the chapel, as his congregation was short lived and he was subsequently shunned by the people of Lebanon and surrounding communities. However, by 1852 there were reports of a structure taking shape on the hill overlooking Deadhorse Lake. Soon after, his wagon was frequently witnessed heading east from Albany, laden with building supplies. It became a common spectacle of curiosity among the locals to picnic by the lake and watch Dunn work.
Overcoming the hardships of the Civil War, advancing age, and failing health, Castor Dunn completed construction in June of 1867. He called it the Rock Church, after the stone he built around, at that time still standing where he found it, right about there,” Charles pointed to where the minister slumbered.
“Where is the rock now?”
A curtain parted to the side of the dais, from which the bride leaned out to surveil the happenings of the church. Charles leaned forward; his eyes filled with white lace. With no trace of the groom in site, she melted back into the antechamber.
“Beautiful,” he said.
“Yes, the meteorite,” Charles continued. “Whether by the magnificence of his creation, or perhaps time softening the public opinion, Dunn found some acceptance and developed a small congregation. In December of the same year, he married Sara, who bore him two sons.
Not everyone was pleased with his success. In fact, most of the god-fearing folk of Linn county considered him a heretic, an opinion eagerly shared by Sheriff Frank Carson and his father old Cotton Carson, an alderman in Lebanon. Generally confined to public mockery; children represented the worst of it. They would often pelt him with small stones declaring them ‘messages from God’. Then came the first of the three fires, in 1871.
Suspicions were rampant and there was no shortage of suspects, but in the end, the arsonist would never be known. It was almost a total loss, reduced to the stone façade, bell tower, and foundation. A few brave members of his congregation lent their labor and resources to rebuild, but the damage had been done; his congregation dissolved. Disheartened by the ordeal, Dunn rebuilt the chapel in the style you see now, concealing the Church Rock beneath the dais.
Sara died in 1879, taken by the great influenza epidemic that year, leaving him with two young boys. She’s buried in the little church yard on the west side of the hill.”
“I saw three graves there,” said Oren.
“True, there are three bodies resting in that yard,” Charles nodded. “After Sara died, his two boys, Seamus and Sean had opposing views on how to carry on. Seamus pinned a note on the chapel door, ‘gone to Portland’, never to be seen in Linn County again. Sean Dunn stayed on with his father and continued to refurbish the chapel.
The second of the three fires happened in 1885. This time Dunn was present, working in the bell tower when the arsonist struck. He had no choice but to leap from the bell tower, to the grass below. For three days he lingered, but on July 29, 1885, Castor Dunn died. It is commonly believed that Dunn saw who set the fire, though he chose not to reveal it. Instead, he placed a curse on this land and all the people in it. His last words, you can read on his headstone out back, ‘May they know love’.
“Doesn’t sound like much of a curse,” said Oren.
“I suppose that’s a matter of interpretation. Whenever old Sean was asked about it, he’d just chuckle and smile, the same smile he gave us kids when we asked him if the chapel was haunted. Still don’t know if that meant yes, or no; but plenty enough kids have come racing down Church Rock Hill raving about the ghost of Castor Dunn.”
“Cursed and haunted? What luck!”
“I suppose if some walls stand long enough, they’re bound to collect a few ghosts.”
“What do you think, is Dunn’s curse real?”
“It was for me, I knew love; in fact, I was betrothed.”
“I got arrested, brought up on false charges,” his eyes drifted to the curtain on the dais, then the sleeping minister. “I don’t like to talk about that.”
“I’m sorry,” said Oren. “What happened after the second fire? Someone must have rebuilt the chapel?”
“Sean rebuilt it. The damage wasn’t nearly as bad as the first fire, though he had to sell the family home at Deadhorse Lake to finance the repairs. He built a cottage on the Hill, not far from the chapel. Stayed there the rest of his days; they buried him next to his parents in 1941.”
“Did they ever find the arsonist?”
“There was no investigation, though some folks had ideas on the subject. After his father’s death, Sean paid a visit to Sheriff Carson. What’s known, is that Sean spent a week in the Linn County Jail. Frank Carson took a leave of absence around the same time, probably on account of his broken nose and blackened eyes. Carson was known to be crooked, as were his son and grandson after him; seemed like the whole family grew up to be law.”
“Do you think he did it?”
“I’m a bit biased on the subject of the Carson family, but I can tell you that there was not another fire set in that chapel while Sean Dunn lived.”
“What an amazing history,” he said, looking up the stone walls to the high pine rafters.
“This place was built with love and meant to last, I’m sure that’s why Teddy chose it.”
“Where is that man? I don’t know how long Betty can wait!”
On cue, Betty peaked out of the curtains, traces of mascara streaked down her cheek. She caught sight of her brother, raising her eyebrows in a silent question. Oren shrugged and she ducked back into the antechamber, the curtain waving in her wake.
“I suppose I’ll grab that smoke now,” he said retrieving his pack and matches.
“Seems we have the time,” Charles smiled.
Oren took a few steps toward the double doors, then turned back, “You mentioned three fires, what about the third?”
“Go ahead, smoke, I’ll tell you when you come back.”
Oren nodded and continued down the aisle. The other guests murmured among themselves and the rain continued to fall. Charles watched the curtain, waiting for her sad, pale face. The curtain remained still.
Grey light stabbed down the aisle and over the pews as the double doors creaked open. The wind followed, and the daylilies trembled on the arbor.
“There you can see Church Rock, one of the largest meteors ever found on the North American Continent, or in the world for that matter,” Shirly explained to her tour group. “It lay hidden for almost a hundred years until 19…”
“AGHHH! I see him! It’s Castor Dunn!” A girl of about twelve years shouted, pointing at Charles.
“Easy, Rachel, he’s not a ghost!” She held her hands up, shaking her head. “That’s Charles Theodore Ogden, chair of the Linn County Preservation Society.
“Hi, Shirly,” he waved.
“Teddy, I was just telling the group about the third fire and the discovery of the Church Rock Meteor. Would you like to take over?”
“No, thank you, Shirly. Carry on with your tour.”
“As I was saying, the Meteor was concealed beneath the dais and almost forgotten, until the tragic events of 1954,” Shirley gestured to the monolithic rock, surrounded by velvet ropes. “For yet a third time, the chapel was victimized by arson. Twenty-three souls were lost that June day.”
Charles “Teddy” Ogden stood from the pew; this was the hardest part of the story. He made his way to the aisle and the big double doors.
“Before an investigation could begin, Sheriff Eli Carson, grandson of Frank Carson, was found hanging in his own jail, an apparent suicide. In a note found at the scene, Carson confessed to barring the doors and setting the fire, blaming his crimes on a sickness of heart. The Sheriff, apparently infatuated with the bride to be, could not bear to see her with another. Some claim the Sheriff was murdered, possibly by one of his inmates, though no prisoners were found to be incarcerated at the time, nor was there record of any.
The Chapel stood in ruins until 1971, when Teddy Ogden was elected chair of the LCPS and raised over two-hundred-thousand dollars to restore the site. At that time the meteor was only a legend, believed to be missing since the first fire. Imagine their surprise when they dug it out of the ashes, right where the pulpit would have been!”
Teddy paused at the bronze plaque and ran his fingers over the twenty-three embossed names, lingering on Betty Johnson. He turned his back to the great stone façade and took the winding, cairn marked path, down Church Rock Hill.