Originally created 03/15/04

For $2 million, roadside attraction's all yours



GOLD HILL, Ore. -- Looking for a career change? Interested in 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, a venerable roadside attraction off the beaten track where ... Brooms stand on end! Balls roll uphill! And walking from one spot to another makes you shrink or grow!!

Despite its remote location in the wooded hills behind this old Gold Rush town and little advertising, the Oregon Vortex has become so well known that Mulder mentioned it on "The X Files," and it is widely considered the inspiration for a dozen similar attractions around the country.

Scottish mining engineer John Lister opened the Oregon Vortex as a tourist attraction in 1930 on the site of the Old Grey Eagle Gold Mine. He claimed the property was on the confluence of mysterious forces he called terralines. The story goes that he was so frightened by what he discovered, he burned his notes before his death.

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

Cooper, 60, now wants to retire. Her son is more interested in computers, so she is looking for someone - a family perhaps - to carry on.

"There is so much potential here," said Cooper. "There could be an espresso bar here. People are always asking about food. There could be a hotdog stand. There is nothing to the overhead. It's all natural 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 a three-bedroom house. Within the vortex is a gift shop, the twisted remains of an old mining assay office dubbed the House of Mystery, two sites for demonstrating the growing and shrinking effect, and the willingness of visitors to believe in something they don't understand.

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

The primary demonstration puts a person between two posts about 8 feet apart in the shade of a madrone tree. The posts have rulers on facing sides. A certificate from a surveyor says they are both level. Anyone can grab the carpenter's level hanging from the tree to see that the posts are vertical and the plank on the ground between them is level.

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

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

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

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

He concluded the shrinking and growing effect was an optical illusion known as the Ponzo Illusion, and can be duplicated on any sloping ground with trees to obscure the horizon.

Described by Mario Ponzo in 1913, the effect is caused by distorting perspective with a background of converging lines. When visual references are skewed enough, people can actually feel dizzy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's the classic," said Kirby.

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

Kirby, who works on Web sites for a telephone company, loves visiting roadside attractions, and was once tempted to buy a Santa's Village in Vermont, but finds it hard enough to persuade his 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 in Weeki Wachee, Fla., had to be given away to keep it alive.

Whatever it takes, Jennica Chudek of Bellingham, Wash., hopes the Oregon Vortex lives on. Based on a friend's rave review, she demanded her mother bring her here for a side trip while attending the 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 for seniors. Call (541) 855-1543 or visit www.oregonvortex.com.

NORTHWEST SKEPTICS CORNER: www.o4r.org/vortex/