The Molalla Trail (1979)

Horner Museum Tour Guide Series

The Molalla Trail

By Kenneth Munford

(Originally published in the Horner Museum Tour Guide Series, 1979)

THE GIBBS-STARLING 1851 sketch map of the Willamette Valley shows the "Supposed course of the Molalla trail to the Klamet" from "Foster's" on the Clackamas River to "MacKenzie's River."

"Foster's" was on Philip Foster's provisional land claim on Eagle Creek which he acquired in 1843. Foster had come to Oregon by sea that year, bringing with him a stock of merchandise. He started a store in Oregon City and a farm on Eagle Creek, a branch of the Clackamas.

In 1845 when Sam Barlow, his son William, and Joel Palmer pioneered a route for covered wagons from The Dalles to Oregon City around the south side of Mt. Hood, the Fosters gave the starving, weary overlanders assistance. The next year Foster helped build the Barlow Road, which most of the covered wagons coming into the Willamette Valley from the Oregon Trail used thereafter.

On the west side of the Cascades, the Barlow Road, like the present Mt. Hood Loop Highway, came down the canyon of the Sandy River to the present city of Sandy. The Barlow route then crossed over low hills to the Clackamas River to Foster's on Eagle Creek and followed the Clackamas to the Willamette. Travelers, especially those on foot or horseback, who did not want to go to the Falls of the Willamette at Oregon City but wanted to enter the Willamette Valley farther south, followed the old Molalla Indian trail from Eagle Creek, passing the present sites of Estacada, Colton, Molalla, Scotts Mills, and Silverton.

Graded, straightened, often relocated over shorter or more convenient routes, the trail eventually became a wagon road that linked the Barlow Road with the eastside road along the foothills of the Cascades. It went south from Silverton through Sublimity, Stayton, Scio, Griggs, Lebanon, and Brownsville and through "the big gap" to Spore's Ferry on the McKenzie (north of Springfield).

In 1851, the Territorial Legislature designated this route as a Territorial Road. Early observers had a hard time translating the name of the Indian tribe that inhabited eastern Clackamas and Marion counties into written English. Joel Palmer called it "Pole Alley." Governor Joseph Lane wrote it "Mole Alley." The spelling finally settled upon for the river, town, and trail is MOLALLA.

On this tour we follow the old Molalla Trail to the extent possible on modern roads, recognizing that there were many deviations in the original and subsequent tracks. We start at Lebanon and move northward, passing through settlements along the old trail that have grown into towns and cities in 135 years.

LEBANON. Thomas Morgan and William Hawk "squatted" here in 1847. Jeremiah Ralston, after bringing his wife and four children across the plains, arrived with three wagons and 12 yoke of oxen and a stock of merchandise. He bought the Morgan-Hawk cabin and squatters rights for $30 and a yoke of oxen and started a store across the South Santiam from the Molalla Trail.

The Gibbs map called the location "Ralston's." The area was also known as Pinhook and as Kees Precinct for the Kees brothers, also early settlers. Ralston filed a donation land claim and in 1851 platted the town he called Lebanon--for the cedars of Lebanon, for Lebanon, Tennessee, his birthplace, or for Lebanon, Ohio, from which he started west. Take your pick.

As Lebanon has grown to become Linn County's second largest city, it has been noted for:

  • Santiam Academy, founded by Methodists as a prep school for Willamette University in 1854 and continued until about 1905.
  • A flour mill started in 1875 (building still standing near Crown Zellerbach paper mill).
  • The County's first paper mill started in 1890, using the abundant wheat straw available as a base.
  • Pioneering in plywood manufacture, with the U. S. Plywood plant now one of the largest peeling plants in the nation.
  • And strawberries! The annual Strawberry Festival (started in 1909) prides itself in baking and serving the world's largest strawberry shortcakes. In 1969, the cake was 16 feet long, 12 feet wide, and 8 feet deep. It weighed 3 tons and served 14,000 people.

According to Gibbs' map, the Molalla Trail is east of the South Santiam, so we must cross from the business district to the east side.

GOLDEN VALLEY. Up this little valley is the proposed site of a nuclear power plant.

GRIGGS-Willamette Industries, Inc., an amalgamation of a number of smaller concerns, is one of Linn County's big land owners. Their principal crop is trees harvested on the western slopes of the Cascades. In an earlier time, the crop would have been hauled to market on a railroad built for that purpose. Today huge diesel trucks do the hauling--not on county roads, heaven forbid, but on many miles of private road. On Tour #8 we saw this road taking a beeline out of the mountains. Here is the terminus. Logs are dumped into a large mill pond here for storage and sorting before being loaded on railroad cars and shipped to a mill.

CRABTREE COUNTRY. It is curious to see locations picked by pioneers who had the whole valley to choose from. The John J. Crabtree family from Virginia arrived in 1846 and could have selected 640 acres almost anywhere in Linn County. One of the Crabtree granddaughters wrote in 1940 that the thing her grandfather "required above all others was good and convenient water and plenty of timber for fuel and fencing. When he came to the big spring on the hillside near here he said, 'Here I am going to stay the rest of my life.' He did just that." The Crabtree descendents who live on the south bank of Crabtree Creek still have their timber for fuel and fencing. The original cabin by the spring was north of the Creek on the side of Hungry Hill.

FRANKLIN BUTTE. Before Scio, the community center was on the pass used by Indians between Hungry Hill and Franklin Butte. It had a blacksmith shop, store, and post office, and a school that the youngest Crabtrees attended. The cemetery atop the hill received its first burial in 1859 and has remained the most enduring part of the settlement.

SCIO. The valley of Thomas Creek, with water power and flat land, was a better site for a town. This is how it evolved:

  • 1848 - First voting in the precinct of Scio (named for Scio, Ohio, whose name came from Chios, an island in ancient Greece)
  • 1856 - Grist mill built; town platted
  • 1858 - First hotel
  • 1860 - First School (Dist. #8) and post office
  • 1866 - Incorporated
  • 1878 - Addition to original town brings the total to 44 blocks. Climate advertised as 'salubrious'
  • 1886 - By then, 2 hotels, 2 saloons, 2 blacksmith shops, 2 stores, 4 churches
  • 1892 - A weekly newspaper, 2 planing mills, a sash and door factory, another church, a hall seating 200, water works, fire department, electric light plant, flax fiber plant

MT. PLEASANT CHURCH. Built by Cumberland Presbyterians in 1854, five miles east of our route in Kingston area, this sturdy structure is still in use after 125 years. Land was donated by Washington Crabtree. Lumber was hauled from Oregon City. Hand-hewn timbers and hand-wrought nails were used in the construction.

C & E RAILROAD. This branch of the Southern Pacific was first built by Corvallis & Eastern RR (Col. Hogg, Wallis Nash, and others) from Corvallis and Albany up the North Santiam in an attempt to cross the Cascades.

STAYTON. A newcomer as early towns go, this community did not get started until Drury S. Stayton built a sawmill in 1870. Town platted and post office in 1872. Incorporated 1891. Population now about 4,000. The Salem Ditch, which feeds Mill Creek running into Salem, taps the North Santiam here.

SUBLIMITY. In the midst of "sublime scenery" James M. Denny founded this town on his DLC on the crest of Waldo Hills and became the first postmaster in 1852. Sublimity College, opened in 1858 by the United Brethren and closed in the 1870s, is mostly notable because Milton Wright was the first teacher. He also taught at Philomath College, another UB institution. This was long before he returned east, married, and fathered sons Orville and Wilbur.

WALDO HILLS. These 50 square miles of rolling plateau are named for Daniel Waldo, a Virginian, who came west with the Applegate brothers in 1843 and took a claim 6 miles northwest of Sublimity. He was active in public affairs. His two sons became lawyers and politicians. William was president of the State Senate in the l880s. John was a supreme court justice. John's wife, Clara Humason Waldo, served from 1906 to 1919 on the Board of Regents of Oregon Agricultural College. An advocate for higher education for women, she was on the board when Home Economics was raised from departmental to school status and Waldo Hall for women was built and named for her. She also served as a special lecturer in home economics at OAC.

HOMER DAVENPORT. Don't expect friendly treatment in Silverton unless you have heard of Homer Davenport, who was born in the Waldo Hills. With only a 6th grade education but exceptional talent, Homer became world famous as a Hearst political cartoonist and popular lecturer. He never forgot Silverton as his home town. "A day never passes that I don't hurry over its streets ... hear the roar of Silver Creek as it pours like a sheet of silver over the Mill Dam ... " he wrote in 1910. You must read The Country Boy, now available in an excellent reprint edition.

SILVERTON. Tour will be conducted by members of the Silverton Country Historical Society. In addition to Davenport's The Country Boy, you may want to consult Down's A History of the Silverton Country. A sawmill was built two miles up Silver Creek in 1846. Present town settled in 1854, named Silverton the next year. Post office established in 1855. Much pioneer traffic, on the trail that became a Territorial Road, passed through the new town, encouraging the growth of stores and other services.

BATTLE OF ABIQUA. On March 5-6, 1848, one of the two recorded skirmishes between settlers and Indians in the Willamette Valley took place on Abiqua Creek, 10 miles east of Silverton. Most of the able-bodied men were then engaged in the Cayuse War following the Whitman Massacre in eastern Washington. The local Molallas, reinforced by visiting Klamaths, marauded unprotected settlers' homes. Two companies of elderly men and boys took the field, pursued the Indians, and forced their surrender along the upper Abiqua. Several Indians, no whites, were killed in the "battle."

MILLER CHURCH (1852). Used now only for burial ceremonies.

SCOTTS MILLS. Named for Robert and Thomas Scott, operators of flour and lumber mills in 1866. Post office: 1887. Pioneer church now a museum.

MOLALLA. After post office was established in 1850, this community, like others along the old trail, grew to its present dimensions. Population: 2,780.

CAMP ADAMS. Maintained as a weekend and summer camp for family, youth, and special interest groups by the United Church of Christ. Congregational Church in Corvallis uses it.

COLTON. Named about 1892. Residents Gorbett and Cole each wanted the community named after him. P. O. turned down Gorbett (too much like Corbett), so it became Coleton. Note impressive church on hilltop.

ESTACADA. Contrary to one legend, this town was not named for Esther Cady. About 1903, officers of the Oregon Water Power Townsite Company put into a hat proposed names for the town they were building on the Clackamas--Rochester, Lowell, Lynn, and Estacado, the latter picked off a map of Texas, Llano Estacado (a "staked plain" in Spanish). Estacado, misspelled Estacada, won.

EAGLE CREEK. This is the oldest settlement in these parts, but it is still unincorporated. The founder of the way station here at the terminus of the Barlow Road was Philip Foster (1805-1884), a native of Bangor or Augusta, Maine. He, his wife, Mary Charlotte Pettygrove, of Calais, Maine, and their four children, along with her brother, Francis W. Pettygrove (1812-1887), also from Maine, and his wife and one child, arrived in Oregon in 1843. Foster and Pettygrove were businessmen and brought with them from New England, by way of Sandwich Islands, a stock of merchandise suitable for the frontier.

Pettygrove bought William Overton's tenuous claim to land on the west bank of the Willamette and built Portland's first store at Front and Washington. He and Amos L. Lovejoy flipped a copper penny to determine whether to name the new settlement Boston or Portland. Pettygrove won.

Meanwhile, the Fosters set up a store in Oregon City and started a farm near where Eagle Creek runs into the Clackamas River. Here they were able to give the assistance desperately needed in late October 1845 by the party of immigrants led by Sam Barlow and Joel Palmer from The Dalles around the south side of Mt. Hood. The next year Barlow and Foster obtained a charter from the Provisional Government to build a toll road over this route. Foster started a hostelry of sorts for horses and cattle as well as people, on his Eagle Creek farm to serve the new arrivals in subsequent years. After strenuous months on the trail, with the last section the worst of all, the weary immigrants knew they were nearing their goal when they reached Foster's.

Pettygrove, Overton, and Lovejoy have Portland streets named for them, and Foster Road that runs this direction from Portland commemorates the Fosters.

BARLOW. By the time the 1845 overlanders reached this vicinity all land had been claimed. Samuel Barlow bought a large tract from Thomas McKay in 1848 and four years later sold it to his son William, 26. William married Martha Ann Allel in 1852 and began engaging in a variety of enterprises. He speculated in land, operated steamboats on the Willamette, and ran a store in Oregon City. In 1870 when Ben Holladay was building the Oregon & California Railroad (O&C) through his property, Barlow won a $100,000 construction contract.

In 1885, the Barlows completed the Italianate mansion situated between rows of black walnut trees William had planted to please Martha Ann many years before. In 1891 he platted the town of Barlow and sold lots, but it was on the "wrong side of the tracks" and never did prosper.

Barlow House is open to visitors on Sundays and holidays, 1-5 p.m. $2.00 admission.

AURORA. Most immigrants came to Oregon as individuals, as a family, or as a group of related families. This community was settled by a communal colony led by Dr. William Keil, a German preacher who combined shrewd practicality with a mesmerizing religious power. The colony of nearly 500 German-Dutch followers, removing from Bethel, Missouri, bought property on the banks of Pudding River and settled in 1857.

Aurora, named for Keil's daughter, became a stopping place where stage coaches changed horses and O&C passenger trains paused for meals that gained the German cooks a popular reputation. The Aurora band and the handmade furniture, other handcrafts, and German cuisine became famous throughout the valley. Following Keil's death in 1877, the communal system was replaced by private ownership, but Aurora retained much of its original character. Many of the early colony buildings are gone, but still to be seen are the Ox Barn Museum and several other original colony houses.

BELLE PASSI. Rev. Neill Johnson (1802-1890) came west by covered wagon with his wife and 10 children in 1851. On the Barlow Road near Zigzag, rains in early September marooned the train of 20 wagons the Johnsons were with. Neill went ahead on foot to Foster's where he had the finest meal and best rest he had known for some time, then borrowed a horse to go after additional help.

Safe in the valley at last, the Johnsons filed a DLC on a beautiful place they called Belpassi. As a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, Johnson started a church, a school, and the inevitable cemetery. To help support himself and his family he started a fruit-tree nursery. He rode the circuit, preaching at Abiqua (Silverton) 10 miles southeast, at Chehalem (near Newberg) 15 miles northwest, at Spring Valley across the Willamette 15 miles southwest, and elsewhere.

When the O&C Railroad selected a station site 2 miles southwest of Belle Passi, Johnson suggested it be named for Joseph Gervais, one of the first French-Canadian voyageurs to explore and later to settle on French Prairie. The towns on the new railroad grew--Gervais, Woodburn, and Hubbard. Belle Passi declined, except as a memorial garden, where Johnson and family members are interred.