Classic Video Game Oregon Trail Has Crystal Connection
Every day, cars zoom on past the Douglas Drive Terrace Apartments in Crystal. Little do they know that they’re passing a historic location.
“That’s where it started in Crystal, 3320 Douglas Drive,” said Bill Heinemann, who lived in that complex with several roommates back in 1971.
“My roommate was a history teacher, and he had a board on the floor there, and I looked at it,” Heinemann said.
What Heinemann saw was a board game on westward expansion that his roommate, Don Rawitsch, was developing for his history class.
However, Heinemann had other ideas.
“I said, ‘I think we can turn this into a computer game,’ and my roommate said, ‘Well that’s a fine idea, but I need this next Friday,’” Heinemann said.
Ten days later, Heinemann and his roommates programmed what would become one of the most iconic computer games in history: Oregon Trail.
“By the time we got the programming running, there was a long line of kids waiting to play the game every spare moment of the day,” Heinemann said.
The game clearly struck a chord, as kids would attempt to make the 2,000-mile journey from Missouri to Oregon while trying not to die of dysentery.
“And I thought at the time that we had something that would be successful, but I imagined it being successful for only a few years, and then it fading away as other things came up that were better,” Heinemann said.
Instead, the game endured. Now, nearly 50 years later, nostalgia-seekers can play the game multiple ways, whether it be online or by a recently-released card game.
“I’m surprised that it had such longevity,” Heinemann said.
Creators of Oregon Trail Never Profited from the Game
Despite that longevity, Heinemann says he never received a dime from the game he helped create.
Several years after developing the game, co-creator Don Rawitsch got a job with the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. While there, he uploaded Oregon Trail to the company’s network so that schools could access it — along with other educational computer games. By doing so, the game became the company’s property.
But in the end, it wasn’t about the money.
“I guess I’ve always tried to make school fun,” Heinemann said.
Instead, Oregon Trail was about educating kids, and it all started inside an apartment in Crystal.
“People have probably occupied that same apartment for years and didn’t know they were living in a historic place,” Heinemann said.
These days, Bill Heinemann lives in West St. Paul where he helps coach chess at several different schools.