In 1958, The Martin Family Suddenly Vanished — And Oregon Police Still Don’t Know What Happened To Them

Published April 10, 2023
Updated April 11, 2023

An Oregon family of five vanished days before Christmas. Was it an accident or murder?

On the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1958, five members of the Martin family piled into their Ford station wagon. With Christmas around the corner, the family had decided to drive to the Columbia River Gorge to collect greenery to decorate their Portland home.

Presumably planning to be back shortly, they left dishes in the sink and laundry in the washing machine. But the Martins never returned home. At some point on their drive that winter day, they disappeared, never to be seen alive again.

The Lost Martin Family

KOINFive members of the Martin family vanished on December 7, 1958. Only Donald Martin survived.

For years, detectives tried to crack the case of the missing family of five.

Did the Columbia River claim the lost Martin family? Or did the family’s oldest child and sole survivor, Donald Martin, have them murdered?

The Final Days Of The Martin Family

The night before he disappeared, 54-year-old Kenneth Martin put on a Santa suit and attended a Christmas party, where he handed out candy canes to his neighbors — a family tradition.

By the following day, Kenneth still hadn’t put the Santa suit away, so it still laid out by the time the Martin family left for their Sunday drive. His wife, 48-year-old Barbara Martin, had left a load of laundry in the machine, The Charley Project reports.

Barbara Virginia Susan Martin

Multnomah County SheriffThe three Martin sisters, who vanished in 1958.

Their oldest daughter, Barbie, was a 14-year-old freshman at the local high school. She and her younger sisters Virginia, 13, and Sue, 11, piled into the back of the cream and red-colored car for the afternoon trip.

The Martin family made at least two stops before they disappeared. They ate at a restaurant in Hood River, Oregon, about 60 miles from Portland. And they purchased gasoline at Cascade Locks, about 40 miles up the Columbia River from home.

But after filling up the tank, the family seemingly vanished. When they never returned to Portland, their friends called the police. But there were few clues in the case of the missing Martins.

Early Leads In The Lost Martin Family Case

The sudden disappearance of the family of five baffled the police. Despite multiple searches, investigators couldn’t find a single trace of the family — or even their station wagon.

The Medford Mail Tribune reported that the first clue arrived in the Martin family’s mailbox two weeks after they disappeared: a gas station receipt showing that Kenneth Martin had signed for five gallons of gas on the day of their disappearance. No money had been removed from the Martin family’s bank account since.

The receipt led authorities to Cascade Locks, the last place the family was seen. But when the discovery turned up no new helpful information, it seemed like another dead end.

Ford Country Squire

Wikimedia CommonsThe Martins drove a 1954 Ford Country Squire.

Hundreds of calls and letters poured in with tips, as alleged “sightings” of the family members popped up across the country. One woman even called in to say she’d had a vision the family was “in water by a totem pole.” But none of these tips brought police closer to the missing family.

The Bodies Of Two Martin Family Members Are Discovered

Authorities continued to scour the forests within a 50-mile radius of Portland. Then, in February 1959, they stumbled upon another clue: a set of tire tracks on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River that matched the family’s 1954 Ford station wagon.

Alarmingly, the tracks seemed to run off of the cliff. Did the lost Martin family tumble into the river while backing up?

Hoping to find the car, the Army Corps of Engineers lowered the water level behind Bonneville Dam. But the search proved unsuccessful.

Susan Martin

St. Louis Post-DispatchSue Martin was only 11 years old when her family went missing. Five months later, her body washed up in the Columbia River.

Months went by before the next break in the case. Finally, in May 1959, more than five months after the family went missing, authorities found the bodies of Virginia and Sue floating in the Columbia River.

Their cause of death was officially listed as drowning. However, Virginia Martin’s body was found with a mysterious hole in her skull — and because the girls’ bodies had been decomposing for so long, an autopsy could not definitively reveal what might have caused it.

Meanwhile, Kenneth, Barbara, and Barbie remained missing. Had they died, too? Or were they still out there somewhere?

Donald, The Sole Surviving Martin

Only one member of the Martin family survived: Donald Martin, the oldest child, who was 28 and in the Navy when his family went missing. He had been stationed in New York, across the country from Portland. And Donald did not return home for his sisters’ memorial service — though he did come home to settle his family’s estate.

“I know of no one who would murder my folks or no reason for it but I don’t see how it could have been an accident,” Donald told Detective Walter Graven at the time, according to KOIN 6.

Graven spent years trying to unravel the lost Martin family. And he came to an unsettling conclusion: Donald might have been involved in their disappearance.

In his notebook, Graven scrawled, “It had to be planned out by ––.” He scratched out the name of the suspect above the words, “no one else with a motive.” And according to one investigator’s computer enhancement, the scratched-out name was “Donald.”

Detective Note

KOINA note Detective Graven wrote about his suspicion that Donald Martin was involved in his family’s disappearance.

Another piece of evidence linked Donald to the disappearance: a bloody gun found near a stolen car that had been abandoned in Cascade Locks, where the Martins were last seen alive.

“It was completely coated with dried blood from whatever they had clubbed,” explained Bonnie Cox, whose husband found the gun. “They had clubbed something to death apparently.”

The Coxes turned the gun over to the local sheriff, but bafflingly, the sheriff never processed it for evidence.

Martin Family Reward Poster

Multnomah County SheriffFriends and family raised money to offer a reward for information about the missing Martin family.

Later, detectives realized that the gun had a surprising connection to Donald Martin. A few years earlier, Donald had worked at a local sporting goods store before he was fired for allegedly stealing goods — including the handgun found near where his family vanished.

The Lost Martin Family Decades Later

With the case turning cold, Detective Graven wrote in his notes, “Even though I can get no cooperation from anyone, there is no murder that can’t be solved.”

But Graven never solved the case of the lost Martin family. He died in 1988. And Donald Martin died in 2004. More than sixty years after the Martins vanished, their disappearance remains unsolved.

Martin Family Headline

St. Louis Post-DispatchThe disappearance of the Martin family made headlines across the country — even months later, as new clues emerged.

What happened to the Martin family? The evidence points to two leading possibilities. After putting five gallons of gas in his car, Kenneth Martin might have accidentally backed over a bluff, plunging the family’s station wagon into the Columbia River.

Then, there’s the more sinister possibility: that the Martin family might have been the victims of a crime. A stolen car and a bloody gun linked to the only surviving member of the family paint a dark picture. But was Donald Martin involved?

Without new evidence — and with three members of the family still missing — it’s unlikely that the Martin family disappearance will ever be solved.

A disturbing number of disappearances and murders remain unsolved. Next, read about cold cases that still baffle detectives to this day. Then, learn about the strange disappearance of Bobby Dunbar and the doppelganger who replaced him.

Genevieve Carlton
Genevieve Carlton earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University with a focus on early modern Europe and the history of science and medicine before becoming a history professor at the University of Louisville. In addition to scholarly publications with top presses, she has written for Atlas Obscura and Ranker.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Carlton, Genevieve. "In 1958, The Martin Family Suddenly Vanished — And Oregon Police Still Don’t Know What Happened To Them.", April 10, 2023, Accessed May 18, 2024.