Dud dot-com city Halfway yearns for a little prosperity


After worldwide celebrity as Half.com, the world's first Internet city, life has returned to normal in the sleepy eastern Oregon town of Halfway.

"We had a dog die a couple days ago, and the snow is melting," Pine Valley Fire Chief Gail Bergman jokes about the slow pace under the snowcapped Wallowa Mountains.

All the Half.com signs have been removed or painted over, and it's almost as if the Internet uproar never happened.

But now, the future of Halfway, population 345, could be at a crossroads again. Gold prices stood at $927 an ounce last week, which means there's a chance the nearby frontier-era gold mines might one day reopen. And the town is fast becoming a winter sports destination.

On the downside, $4-plus-per-gallon gas prices have hurt tourism this summer, and logging remains at a near standstill.

Halfway is tucked into Pine Valley 55 miles east of Baker City, not far from Hells Canyon and the Eagle Cap Wilderness. The shafts and tunnels of one of Oregon's richest gold mines, the Cornucopia, still honeycomb a mountain high above city streets.

Halfway sports a bank, a motel, an RV park, two bed-and-breakfasts, three restaurants and a grocery.

The town briefly became famous in 2000 when city officials accepted $73,000 from an Internet bazaar called Half.com to change the town's name. The Half.com moniker caught on, and the telephones at City Hall rang almost constantly for a year as news organizations worldwide wanted the latest buzz about life in the Internet city.

Tourists changed itineraries and drove the winding mountain roads to get a firsthand look. Shipments to Halfway's liquor store were addressed to "Half.com."

Meanwhile, Half.com, the Philadelphia-based online bazaar that sold CDs, movies, books and the like at half price, prospered. Then eBay, the Internet auction powerhouse, bought Half.com for $300 million, and the party ended. Half.com once again became Halfway.

"Nothing's happened in about six years," says Sheila Farwell, proprietor of the town's liquor store-antique shop. Her deliveries of Wild Turkey, Bushmills and oak-barrel-aged Pendleton whiskey once again are addressed to Halfway.

This is a place where half the homes are heated with firewood and have vegetable gardens, and where it's possible to drive 15 minutes outside town and pick bags of morel mushrooms and huckleberries, residents say.

Politically and economically, however, times are a bit rocky. The Halfway City Council has been down to two council members and a mayor pro-tem since June 18, meaning there's no quorum when important decisions are needed, says City Recorder Trina Duncan, 45.

And school enrollment has fallen 30 percent over the past 15 years, says Mike Corley, 60, superintendent of the 180-student K-12 school.

Folks are still recovering from continuous winter snowfalls that measured a whopping 178 inches &

almost 15 feet. The snow settled down to 5 or 6 feet in town and then hung around until mid-March, says Page Frederickson, the town's public works director, who was left with almost no place to pile the pesky stuff.

Halfway, elevation 2,651 feet, is in a "snow catch" beneath Bear Wallow Ridge at the base of the Wallowa Mountains. The town often finds itself buried when streets in Richland, 12 miles away, are bare.

So what keeps folks here? "It's a beautiful mountain community, and we love it," says Ron Godwin, 60, a schoolteacher who taught here 34 years before retiring in 2005. "It's a wonderful place to raise a family."

Godwin arrived from California as a movie extra in summer 1968, when the musical "Paint Your Wagon," starring Clint Eastwood and the late Lee Marvin, was being filmed nearby. Godwin was a junior in college and earned $25 a day. He fell in love with the area.

These days, Halfway needs jobs more than anything else, says proprietor Farwell.

When Farwell arrived in 1982, loggers and a few miners still toiled nearby.

"I just think if we could have a little mining and a little logging, a little work," she says. "A little growth."

Economic deliverance could come from the spectacular alpine country 11 miles north of town, some old-timers say. Geologists have maintained for years that it might become profitable to reopen the old Cornucopia Mine if gold prices once again hit $1,000 an ounce, says Bill Barnett, 56, president of the Hells Canyon Chamber of Commerce.

Gold worth close to $120 million in today's dollars was extracted from Cornucopia's 36-mile maze of tunnels, shafts, crosscuts and stopes. Geologists for owner United Nuclear Corp. of Church Rock, N.M., didn't return phone inquiries about company plans.

But the region is becoming recognized as a winter sports destination. More than 1,000 snowmobile enthusiasts and cross-country skiers flocked here last winter, drawn by 168 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, some nudging the southern boundary of the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

"You can ride the wilderness boundary for miles, and some of the other country is just as breathtaking," Barnett says.

He and his wife, Peggy, own the Cornucopia Lodge, 11 miles north of Halfway. At 4,940 feet elevation, the 4-year-old lodge has accommodations for 34 guests and is growing in popularity with snowmobile enthusiasts and skiers from Portland and Seattle, Barnett says.

Farwell said motorcycle riders are helping buoy the economy. On summer afternoons, motorcycles sometimes fill the streets, she says.

"These groups spend money," Farwell says, "and that money goes around and around."

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