Pioneer Trails From Corvallis To The Oregon Coast (1982)

Horner Museum Tour Guide Series

Pioneer Trails from Corvallis to the Coast

By Kenneth Munford

(Originally published in Horner Museum Tour Guide Series, 1982)

On this tour we view three early routes of communication from Corvallis over the Coast Range to Yaquina Bay on the Oregon Coast.

  • First there was a wagon road to Kings Valley that connected with a pack trail from Fort Hoskins to Siletz and Toledo in the 1850s.
  • Then there was a toll road for wagons in the 1860s that went through Philomath, Wren, Blodgett's Valley, and Devitt to cross the Coast Range at Summit and follow the Yaquina River to Elk City.
  • Twenty years later a railroad somewhat followed the route of the wagon except that it made detours where the wagon road grade was too steep for iron horses. It went beyond Elk City and has its terminus at Yaquina between Toledo and Newport.

Kings Valley

One of the first settlements in Benton County was in the northwest corner of the county on a loop of the Luckiamute River. The beautiful little valley had been known to fur trappers but no white settlers moved into it until the Kings came in the spring of 1846. They came into it from the north, from the direction of present Dallas in Polk County.

The King family is somewhat typical of the hundreds of family groups that came pouring into the mid-Willamette Valley after the big immigration in the summer of 1845. They had hardships, privations, and tragedies; they also had pleasant surprises and triumphs. They took a chance that their sacrifices would lead to success.

The border between the United States and Canada in the Oregon Country was still in dispute when the pioneers of 1845 pushed westward, but they had confidence that the most desirable location, the Willamette Valley, would become U. S. territory. The proposals of Senators Linn and Benton that free land be granted to American settlers had been discussed in Congress. The emigrants had faith that the proposals would eventually become law. When they arrived they boldly staked out 640-acre land claims and started building homes with the expectation that some day they would receive clear title to the property.

The founders of the King clan who came to Benton County were Nahum, who had been born in Massachusetts, and his wife Serepta, a native of upstate New York. After they married and began raising a family they moved to Ohio and then to Missouri. By the spring of 1845, when they prepared covered wagons for the long trek to Oregon, they had thirteen children. The two eldest daughters had married and did not come with their parents, although one of them did bring her family to Benton County later.

In 1845, Nahum King was 62; Serepta was 54. Eleven of their children, some with families of their own, accompanied the parents from Missouri.

Eldest son John, 32, and his wife and two of their three children drowned when their raft overturned in the rapids of the Columbia Gorge.

Hopestill, 30, and her husband, Lucius C. Norton, 27, and their two children (they later had eight more) staked their land claim where the Kings Valley school now stands.

Stephen, 27, and his wife, Anna Maria Allen, 22, had no children. He was in poor health and died in 1852.

Isaac, 26, came west as a bachelor but soon married Almeda Van Bibbler, daughter of another Kings Valley settler. Isaac's land claim was south and east of where the road turns to Hoskins.

Amos Nahum, 23, married Melina Fuller, 19, who had been in the same wagon train with the Kings coming west. They did not stay long in Benton County, They moved to Portland, bought squatter's rights to a land claim and on the hillside developed King Heights, an area around the Civic Stadium, and donated land for the beginning of Washington Park.

Sarah, 22, and her husband, Rowland Chambers, 32, and their two children started west together. Sally died of "camp fever" in eastern Oregon.

Lovisa, 17, the next youngest daughter, took care of Sarah's children and later married her widower. Lovisa and Rowland had fourteen children of their own.

The younger daughters, Abigail, 16; Lydia, 14; and Rhoda Ann, 10, later married. Some settled nearby; others went elsewhere.

Solomon, 12, later married brother Stephen's widow, Anna Maria, and with her raised a family of six. Sol King stayed with his parents on their land claim at Wren until after their deaths. Then he and his family moved to Corvallis where he operated a livery stable on 2nd Street. Five times he was elected Sheriff of Benton County. Kings Boulevard in Corvallis is named for this branch of the family.

Son-in-law Rowland Chambers, who became the natural leader of the clan, started a grist mill using water power from the Luckiamute River. His and Lovisa's land claim was where the Kings Valley store still stands near the bridge over the river. The store is operated by King descendents. A few others of the 500 or so descendants still live in the valley but most have moved elsewhere.

Road to Corvallis

In the early 1850s the three C's-Caldwell, Carter, and Cardwell-staked claims in the area east of Wren. They built a road on to the southeast over the hills to connect their farms and Kings Valley with Corvallis.

In 1855, the Benton County Commissioners had this road surveyed and designated as a county road. From Wren to Oak Creek it was called Cardwell Hill Road. The middle part of this road is now closed, but either end is still called Cardwell Hill Road.

The route from Oak Creek over Oak Hills and Witham Hill into Corvallis was used for more than half a century but now has long been closed. It had hills to encounter, but it was the shortest distance between Kings Valley and Corvallis.

Indian Reservations and Army Forts

The white settlers and miners in southern and southwest Oregon did not get along well with the native inhabitants. Peace treaties were made and violated. The way to keep peace, the government agents believed, was to place the Indians on reservations. In 1856, the Rogue River Indians along with the remaining Kalapuyan natives of the Willamette Valley were herded onto a 60,000-acre reservation at Grand Ronde on the South Yamhill River. To keep order and assist the Indians, the U. S. Army built Fort Yamhill at the eastern edge of the reservation and stationed a company of infantry there.

A much larger reservation, more than a million acres originally, was set aside on the western slopes of the Coast Range. The area along the Coast from Tillamook County to Lane County and twenty miles inland was unsettled and believed to be worthless. Headquarters were established on the upper Siletz River adjacent to a flat area believed to be suitable for farming.

The U. S. Army built Fort Hoskins in Kings Valley 25 miles east of Siletz. The country in between was a trackless wilderness which had been devastated by the destructive Yaquina Burn of 1848-52.

No one has been able to explain why Fort Hoskins was so located. The local commander resisted attempts of the commanding general in San Francisco to have it moved closer to the reservation. A special agent of the Department of the Interior after a visit called the location "ill-advised and unfortunate." He said the settlers thought that as far as protection was concerned, "such an idea simply preposterous." The agent went on to "beg most earnestly, in behalf of common sense, that this unnecessary expense may be discontinued." A blockhouse was built at Siletz, but the main post continued at Hoskins.

From 1856 to 1861 a company of regular Army troops manned it. When they were withdrawn for Civil War duty in the east, a company of volunteers arrived from California. When their three-year enlistments expired, a company of Oregon Infantry Volunteers took their place and closed the post in 1865.

The buildings burned or were otherwise destroyed. The area was turned into a barn yard, and the memory of the location dimmed. Official reports had it at various locations-"40 miles west of Corvallis," etc. It was not until 1922 that Professor John B. Horner of Oregon Agricultural College and his students, using clues furnished by local residents, determined the exact site. In recent years, Oregon State University archaeologist, Dr. David Brauner, and his students have made excavation. Through analysis of thousands of artifacts they have determined the original layout of the fort and confirmed its occupation by the different troop groups. The fort site is on private property and is not open to the public. Several officers who served at Fort Hoskins later became prominent. Capt. C. C. Augur, who opened the post in 1856, became a major general in the Civil War. The brother of Mrs. U. S. Grant, Capt. F. T. Dent, was the post commander for a short time. Lt. Philip H. Sheridan, the famous major general in the Civil War, was stationed both at Fort Yamhill and Fort Hoskins at various times between 1856 and 1861.

Sheridan's Trail

Being the junior lieutenant at Fort Hoskins in 1856, Sheridan was given the dirty, miserable task of opening what was optimistically called a "road" from the Fort to Siletz. With a dozen enlisted men and 23 hired civilian laborers, he set out to grade a roadbed through brush, among snags and stumps in the burned-over area, and through dense patches of unburned timber. They started in August but the rainy season was well advanced before they succeeded in getting one wagon pulled by three or four oxen teams up and over the mountains. The road was so terrible they did not attempt to bring the wagon back to the fort. The trail served pack trains of mules taking supplies to the reservation. When mules were not available or too expensive, contractors sometimes hired Indian women as beasts of burden.

To the extent possible, on this tour we will follow Sheridan's Trail. It leaves Hoskins by crossing the Luckiamute and following up Bonner Creek and crossing Bonner Mountain. Beyond is the West Fork of the Marys River. How best to get over the top of the range was Sheridan's problem. He chose to go north along the West Fork and make the crossing about five miles north of where a wagon road and railroad later passed the summit. He went down into the valley of Little Rock Creek, a tributary of the Siletz, and had easier going from there on.

From the headquarters at Siletz there was a pack trail that became a road down Depot Creek to the Army depot (warehouse) on Yaquina Bay at present Toledo. (One of the popular Indians was known as Depot Charlie. He moved to an inlet on the coast which has ever afterwards been known as Depoe Bay.)

So . . . the transportation route between Corvallis and the coast in the 1850s consisted of several bits and pieces:

  • The wagon road over Witham Hill to Oak Creek
  • The Cardwell Hill Road to Wren
  • The Wren-Kings Valley road
  • Sheridan's Trails to Siletz
  • The Depot Creek trail to Yaquina Bay

Reservation Sorrows

At Siletz, the Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to alleviate the suffering, starvation, lack of sanitation, illness, and desperation of the thousands of demoralized refugees. They brought in food and supplies both overland from the Willamette Valley and by water into Yaquina Bay, but there was never enough of either. They tried to teach carpentry, blacksmithing, agriculture, and other crafts with limited success. The farm lands we drive through today look productive, but opening up for the reservation in the 1850s and 1860s seemed an almost impossible task-a crazy way to make a living-for native skilled in hunting and food gathering in higher and drier southern Oregon. They could clear and plow the fields and plant crops as they had been instructed, but overnight the braken fern would shoot up higher than any planted crop could grow in a week.

On Government Hill east of the town of Siletz, the headquarters complex was expanded with classrooms, shops, dormitories, infirmary, offices, and the Paul Washington Cemetery on the crest of the hill. We visit these sites on this tour.

In the early 1860s it became evident that the huge lands set aside for the Indians was much more valuable than originally supposed. Oysters of fine quality were discovered in Yaquina Bay and poachers from California began harvesting them. Arrests were made by the Army troops, but the poachers had friends in high places and were soon released. White visitors saw the Bay as a potential port for ocean-going ships. Lumber was in demand in California and elsewhere and the reservation had a great supply of standing timber. Agitation began to break up the million-acre reservation.

Before Senator James Nesmith left Congress in 1866, he persuaded Washington officials to open up the Yaquina Bay area for homesteading. Later the Alsea farms of the Indians were taken away and opened to homesteaders. Among the first settlers were volunteers who had got acquainted with the areas while stationed at Fort Yamhill and Fort Hoskins.

Opening of the Yaquina area for homesteading and the Bay for commerce was a spur for Corvallisites to build a wagon road to the coast. Congress was making land grants to assist road builders. They made five military road land grants in Oregon. Three of them ran through eastern Oregon. One went from Roseburg to Coos Bay. The one we are concerned with was from Corvallis to Yaquina Bay.

The Corvallis to Yaquina Bay Toll Road

The Corvallis and Yaquina Bay Wagon Road Company was organized by citizens of Benton County. If they succeeded in building a road to the coast, they would be granted alternate sections of public land along the right-of-way.

Building a wagon road over the Coast Range in the 1860s took some doing-through dense forest, along burned-over mountainsides, around slick, oozy mudslides. The wagon road company found little or no market for public lands granted to help support the road. They had to depend largely for financing upon the businessmen and donors who supported the venture. But they persevered and by the late 1860s had a passable wagon road to Elk City, on the upper reaches of Yaquina Bay where barges could transport freight and passengers to the mouth of the river and oceangoing ships. It was a toll road; a fee was charged to support maintenance.

The new wagon road did not follow the old route over Witham Hill and Cardwell Hill to Kings Valley. This new route went west from Corvallis, somewhat following a trail used by fur traders and trappers for several decades. It passed the location where members of the United Brethren church were building a college, which they called Philomath, "lover of learning." The College trustees were selling off part of their 40-acre property as town lots and acreages to raise funds to support the building program. This is how the town of Philomath got its start.

Beyond Philomath, the wagon road crossed the Marys River at a place later called Noon. It climbed Wren hill and descended into Wren, where it again crossed the Marys. A bit north on the road toward Kings Valley, the wagon road veered westward on La Bare road to Blodgett's Valley.

This valley and the settlement called Blodgett at its western end are name for William and Aseneth Blodgett, who staked their land claim in this pretty little valley in 1847. They had not yet become fully settled in their new home when the lure of gold attracted them to California. There their son James was born. They returned to their land claim in their little valley in 1850 and found that during their absence the forested Coast Range from their place to the coast had been devastated by what we now call the Yaquina Burn.

Four more children came into the Blodgett family; two of them, along with James born in California, lived to adulthood, married, and became parents. James had nine children. Mary had six. Rufus Bar, the only one of his generation to live out his life in Blodgett's Valley, had eleven. Many of these are interred in the Blodgett cemetery.

The wagon road of the 1860s skirted the north side of Blodgett's Valley and climbed up through Devitt to Summit, 729 feet above sea level. This pass over the Coast Range was about five miles south of the route Sheridan took in 1856. The descent into the valley of the Yaquina River was steep-just as it is today. But once it had reached the site of Nashville at its 239-foot elevation the grade was fairly gradual downstream through Nortons (named for on of the King sons-in-law), Eddyville, and Chitwood to Elk City which was close to sea level.

Elk City, said to be the first settlement in what is now Lincoln County, prospered for a time. This was the transfer point for freight and passengers between the ocean port at the mouth of the river.

Newport developed on a mile-square site established by the government at the mouth of the Yaquina River soon after the settlement at Elk City. Between Elk City and Newport, the town of Toledo grew out of the depot the Army had to supply the Siletz Reservation. It had grown sufficiently by 1868 to have a post office established there.

The Railroad to Yaquina

In the last quarter of the 19th century, railroads were replacing wagon roads all over the civilized world as a swifter, more economical, and more dependable means of transportation. Benton County residents, aware of this trend, dreamed of iron horses instead of mud-splattered mules hauling freight and passengers between Corvallis and the Bay. They incorporated the Willamette Valley & Coast Railroad Company in 1871, reorganized it in 1872 and again in 1874. They even went so far as having an occasion when volunteers could come out with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows to start grading the right-of-way toward Philomath.

The basic aim of the Coast railroad was to connect the ocean port on the Bay with the head of steamboat navigation on the Willamette. Shipping distance between the Willamette Valley and markets in California and Hawaii would be reduced by hundreds of miles by such a line. To make connection between the Coast railroad and the main line of the Oregon and California Railroad, an extension on to Albany was planned.

One of the backers of the Coast railroad was Francis A. Chenoweth, who had experience in railroads. He had helped build the first railroad in the Oregon Country, a portage road around the rapids in the Columbia Gorge. Later he opened a law office in Corvallis and was often referred to as Judge Chenoweth. Other supporters included newspaper editor Ben Simpson, Dr. J. R. Bayley, and Sheriff Sol King. They all wanted a railroad to the Bay.

T. Egenton Hogg joined the railroad builders in 1872. He had been in the Confederate Army in the Civil War and called himself "Colonel." He had been wounded and taken prisoner and was released from Alcatraz Island at the end of the war. He had a brother in San Francisco, a Union sympathizer who had changed his family name. He called himself William Hoag.

When Col. Hogg came to Corvallis he saw the efforts that were being made to build a railroad. He also saw that the local people needed help-financial backing and technical expertise in building a railroad. He set out to find financial backers. He went to the money markets in eastern United States, then to France and England. In London he found sympathetic listeners. By that time the railroad idea had expanded to include and extension that would run across Linn County, over the Cascade Range, and across eastern Oregon to a transcontinental connection in Idaho.

English investors decided to investigate. They sent Wallis Nash, a London lawyer who had some experience in international investment, and two others of Nash's selection to accompany Hogg back to Oregon. Nash consulted Charles Darwin, one of his neighbors, and selected Henry Mosely, a naturalist of renown, and a retired army captain to be his companion. In 18 days they crossed the Atlantic and the American continent on the recently completed railroad to California. They could go as far north as Redding by rail. From there they spent three night and two days on a stage coach that took them to Roseburg, where they could travel by rail to Albany. Nash recorded this journey and his trip over the Coast Range in Oregon: There and Back in 1877, published by Macmillan in 1878 and reprinted by the Oregon State University Press in 1976.

The Wallis Nash Trail

On this tour we follow parts of Nash's 1877 trip over the Coast Range. His party included not only Col. Hogg and the three Englishmen, but also George Mercer, the Benton County Surveyor; E. A. "Kit" Abbey, a hotel operator at Newport; and Hogg's brother, William Hoag. They rented horses in Corvallis and hired a college boy to drive their chuck wagon over the wagon road.

Most of the party followed the wagon road, evaluating the lands which the government had granted to the wagon road company and which the railroad had an option to buy. Nash and Kit Abbey, however, did a bit of exploring. They appear to have followed Sheridan's old trail from Hoskins. Nash was enamored of the valley of the Little Rock Creek, a delightful haven in the wilderness. He later also visited the Siletz Reservation.

When Nash published his book about the glories of Oregon in London in 1878, people began to say, "if you think Oregon is such a wonderful place why don't you go there yourself?" In 1879 he decided to do just that. His wife Louisa, disconsolate over the loss of three small children in a scarlet fever epidemic, was ready to leave England. With the remaining children, a tiny daughter Dorothea, a nurse to care for the baby, a cook, and various others, the Nash party numbering 26 in all emigrated, arriving in Corvallis in May 1879.

The Nashes at first lived in a house Colonel Hogg had prepared for them on the site of present Waldo Hall on the Oregon State University campus. Very soon Nash and other members of his party filed for homestead claims in the Little Rock Creek valley. They established residences there and are listed in the Census of 1880 in what was then called the Summit District.

The company to build the railroad from Yaquina Bay to Corvallis was incorporated as the Oregon Central Railroad in 1880. Hogg was president, William Hoag vice-president, and Nash second vice-president and legal counsel. The Oregon Pacific build sawmills to make cross ties for the railroad (the Englishmen called them sleepers) and bridge and tunnel timbers. They hired Chinese laborers to grade the right-of-way. They had many difficulties beset with mudslides and grading problems through the rain forest and burned-over hillsides. One year of heavy snows the Chinese laborers nearly starved before supplies could be brought in them. Rains, mudslides, and dense undergrowth slowed construction, but one day in 1885 a train ran all the way between Yaquina and Corvallis.

In accordance with early plans, the Oregon Pacific continued eastward. They built a bridge into Albany in 1887 and continued on across Linn County and up the valley of the North Santiam to Detroit. To keep their franchise over the Cascades, they started grading at the summit of the Santiam Pass. Parts of this grade are still visible. Before their ambitious plan was completed their financial resources were exhausted and they went bankrupt. The property eventually fell into the hands of A. B. Hammond, lumber and railroad tycoon. He renamed the line the Corvallis & Eastern Railroad, which for many years operated between Yaquina and Detroit.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Southern Pacific became owners of this line. They still operate parts of the line in Linn County and have a prosperous branch line between Albany and Toledo on Yaquina Bay.

On this tour we have many glimpses of the old Oregon Pacific rail line as it runs from Corvallis westward behind old Philomath College, through Noon, Wren, Blodgett, Summit, Nashville, Nortons, Eddyville, Chitwood, and Elk City to Toledo.

The Nashes in Benton County

Wallis Nash took an active part in the development of Benton County. He helped organize Episcopalians to raise money, design, and build the Church of the Good Samaritan, the building that now houses the Corvallis Arts Center on Madison Avenue. Having some musical training in his school days in London, Nash played the organ and conducted the choir in the Good Samaritan church. He was a lay reader and in absence of a regular pastor sometimes conducted services.

Nash was interested in Corvallis State Agricultural College from the time of his first visit in 1877. When the state took over control of the college and responsibility for maintenance from the Southern Methodists, Nash became Secretary of the Board of Regents. He helped plan, raise funds, and build the first building on the new campus, now called Benton Hall. He stimulated development of the Agricultural Experiment Station. He and Mrs. Nash found Dr. Margaret Snell in California and persuaded her to come to Corvallis as the first professor of Household Economy and Hygiene. Daughter Dorothea was an early graduate of Dr. Snell's home economics courses and became an assistant in the department.

Two Nash sons born in Oregon, Darwin and Roderick, attended Oregon Agricultural College. They made their homes and raised their families in Little Rock Creek valley. After some years as an editorial writer for Portland newspapers, Nash returned to his country home in Little Rock Creek Valley. As an octogenarian, he wrote his autobiography, A Lawyer's Life on Two Continents (Boston: Gorham Press, 1919). Nash Hall on the Oregon State University campus is a memorial in his honor.

The two Nash homesteads in Little Rock Creek valley are now being turned into a perpetual tree farm by the Publishers' Paper Company.

Itinerary

On this tour we get glimpses of three pioneer trails and roads over the Coast Ranged from Corvallis to Yaquina Bay.

We see the Witham Hill Road that was part of the old country road that went over Oak Hills to Oak Creek and over Cardwell Hill to Wren. Between Corvallis and Philomath we follow a very old pack trail.

We travel along the old road from Wren to Kings Valley, where we view one of the earliest settlements in Benton County.

We follow parts of Lt. Sheridan's 1856 trail from Fort Hoskins to the Indian reservation at Siletz and continue down Depot Creek trail to Toledo.

On the way home we see remnants of he Oregon Pacific Railroad from Yaquina to Toledo and often parallel the modern branch line of the Southern Pacific built on the right-of-way of the 1885 line.

In Blodgett's Valley we get acquainted with the pioneers of this area.

Additional Readings

Wallis Nash, Oregon: There and Back in 1877. London: Macmillan, 1878. Reprinted Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1976.

Stephen Dow Beckham, The Indians of Western Oregon. Coos Bay: Arago Books, 1977.

Philip H. Sheridan, Personal Memoirs. New York: Webster, 1888.

William M. Hilleary, A Webfoot Volunteer. Edited by H. B. Nelson and Preston Onstad. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1965.

Royal A. Bensell, All Quiet on the Yamhill. Edited by Gunter Barth. Eugene: University of Oregon Books, 1959.

Edwin D. Culp, Stations West. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1970. Reprinted New York: Bonanza Books, 1978.

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