MCKENZIE RIVER TRAILS
by Kenneth Munford
(Originally published in the Horner Museum Tour Guide Series, 1981)
DONALD McKENZIE weighed 300 pounds, but he
had so much agility and energy that his colleagues called him
"Perpetual Motion." Amiable and toIerant, he impressed the Indians
he dealt with by his abilitv to make quick, firm decisions and
by his fair treatment in trading. In Scotland, where he was born
in 1783, he began study for the ministry but soon gave it up.
As a teen-ager in 1800 he left the old country to seek adventure
He had ten years of experience in the fur
trade by the time John Jacob Astor offered him a partnership - along
with half a dozen other Canadians - in the newly formed Pacific
Fur Company. Astor sent out two parties to set up a trading post
at the mouth of the Columbia, one by land, one by sea. McKenzie
went with the overland party led by Astor's American
partner Wilson Price Hunt. They blazed new trails to the west
coast, suffered great hardships, and finally straggled into the
trading post that the water-borne party had established at Astoria.
McKenzie and several of his French-Canadian voyageurs arrived
on January 18, 1812, tired and worn by the year-long crossing
of the continent. By the first of April, however, Perpetual Motion
McKenzie was ready for new adventure. With the ubiquitous Joe
Gervais, Louis LaBontÃ©, and other canoemen, he set out to explore
the Willamette Valley.
Only the lower part of the valley around the
falls (Oregon City) had been explored by that time. Paddling
upstream, McKenzie's party kept going until they reached the
(Eugene-Springfield) area where the Willamette splits into three
forks: The first still bears McKenzie's name. The Middle Fork
leads to the Willamette Pass. The Coast Fork drains the
area southward toward Cottage Grove.
Although McKenzie had a good education, he
seems to have disliked putting pen to paper. What we know of
his explorations comes from what others heard him say: "His enthusiasm
for the region above the falls of the Willamette was unrestrained.
The country, he is reported to have said, was 'delightful beyond
expression.' The 'incredible' number of beaver which he found
along the river was believed to exceed anything yet found on
the entire continent; and he painted glowing pictures of rich
prairies covered with innumerable herds of elk and of uplands
teeming with deer and bear." (Hussey, p. 25)
Donald McKenzie went on to a prominent career
with the Hudson's Bay Company, made a fortune in the fur trade,
and retired to Mayville in the far western tip of New York State.
He died there in 1851, aged 68 years.
As the Astoria trading post passed from the
Pacific Fur Company into the hands of the North West Company
and the Hudson's Bay Company, trappers and traders probed other
sections of the Willamette Valley. They set up trading stations
at either end of French Prairie, one just north of Salem, the
other across the Willamette from Newberg. Dr. McLoughlin's step-son,
Thomas McKay, the bold man with the "vivacious eyes," explored
south beyond the forks of the Willamette in 1820-21. He built
some sort of structure at the mouth of the McKenzie which John
Work found in 1834 and referred to as "McKay's old house."
An old Indian trail, sometimes called the
Molalla Trail, skirted the eastern side of the Willamette Valley.
It came southward through present Lebanon, Brownsville, the Big
Gap, and Coburg. Packers and later wagoneers had difficulty getting
across the McKenzie until one of the early settlers, Jacob Spores,
started a ferry service at the point where the I-5 freeway bridge
spans the river.
Felix Scott, Junior
The four pioneers who first settled Lane County - Skinner,
Bristow, Dodson, and Scott - came west to California 1845. Finding
themselves unwelcome at Sutter's Fort, they moved north along
the old pack trail into the Willamette Valley early in 1846.
Eugene Skinner founded Eugene City. Elijah Bristow and William
Dodson settled at Pleasant Hill, ten miles southeast of Springfield.
The Felix Scott family, with about eight children,
tried several locations before staking a claim on the south bank
of the McKenzie River. Felix Scott was a man of substance. Born
in 1788 in what is now West Virginia, he moved westward to Missouri.
He had some legal training and served in several public offices
and the state legislature. In 1821, when he was 33, he married
Ellen Cansley, a 15-year-old native of Tennessee. They had quite
a few children. He may have had other children by previous marriages.
Daughter Ellen, the eldest of those who came
with their parents in 1846, apparently met John E. Lyle, the
pioneer school teacher, when the mother and children were staying
with settlers along the La Creole (Rickreall) Creek while the
father and older boys went hunting for a place to make their
home. Ellen Scott, 20, and John Lyle, 31, were married in the
fall of 1846. They eventually had seven children. He became the
first Clerk of Polk County and was a cofounder and trustee of
La Creole Academy.
The place where the Scott family settled is
on the McKenzie opposite the mouth of the Mohawk River, where
the McKenzie makes a long loop northward just west of Hayden
Bridge. The square mile of land they filed on under the Donation
Land Law of 1850 includes rich bottom land and the hill where
the city of Eugene now has a water filtration plant.
Felix Scott, Jr., was 16 when he arrived with
his parents from California. He appears to have been a restless,
ambitious, energetic sort of person - "perpetual motion" like old
Donald McKenzie. It is not hard to visualize him and his brother
Marion hunting, fishing, exploring farther and farther up the
verdant McKenzie valley. Felix, Jr., had been in Oregon only
a few months when he went down to Oregon City and filed a Provisional
Land Claim on 640 acres in the Pleasant Hill area "20 rods W.
of Elijah Bristow." In recording his claim he said that he intended
to hold it by personal occupancy, but he did not carry out that
intention. A year later, on May 21, 1847, six weeks before his
18th birthday, he filed a second Provisional Land Claim to 640
acres "on the west side of the Cascades fork of the Willamette
river about 2 miles below Felix Scotts claim." This would be
on the McKenzie north of present Springfield. Still not fully
satisfied, a year later on June 30, 1848, a few days before his
19th birthday, he finally found the place he liked. It adjoined his father's claim opposite the mouth
of the Mohawk. Again he filed a claim for 640 acres, abandoning
the claim farther down the river.
When Oregon became a U. S. Territory, claims
to free land had to be refiled under the federal Donation Land
Act of 1850. Felix, Jr., his father, and two brothers, Marion
and Presley, all went to Roseburg, where claims to land in this
part of Oregon were recorded. Marion's claim was north of the
present village of Santa Clara. Presley's claim was in the Mohawk
Valley near the present village of Mohawk. Felix, Jr., and Felix,
Sr., filed on the same land they had chosen before. Official
surveys and other paper work took a long time, but patents were
finally received on all four claims.
Each time Felix, Jr., filed a Provisional
Land Claim, he asked for 640 acres, but because he never married
he was entitled to no more than 320 acres under the federal law.
His patent issued in 1874 gave him 319.68 acres. By the time
the title was cleared on the home place, his father had been
slain by Indians. Felix, Sr., had organized the Independent Rifle
Rangers to guard wagon trains coming west on the South Road (Applegate
Trail) and to protect settlements in southern Oregon. He got
into a fracas with Indians in the Pitt River area in 1858 and
was killed by them. Patent on his DLC (638.59 acres) was granted
to his heirs in 1878. The claim of Presley Scott and his wife
in the Mohawk valley (319.57 acres) was patented in 1874. Marion's
claim (322.27 acres)
was not patented until 1890.
In the meantime, the Scotts had other activities.
When they heard the call of the California gold fields, the father
and sons Felix and Marion - like most of the able-bodied men of
the Willamette Valley - went off to the south to seek their fortunes.
Young Felix returned with considerable capital. He went back
to Missouri, bought cattle, and persuaded his older brother Presley
to help him herd them back to Oregon to stock the family farm.
When gold was discovered in Idaho and subsequently
in eastern Oregon, young Felix saw more clearly than ever before
the advantages of having a supply road over the Cascades from
the upper Willamette Valley. Miners needed supplies and would
pay high prices for them.
With the help of brother Marion and other
Lane County residents, Felix hired fifty or more men to build
a road up the McKenzie in 1862. Their route followed the floor
of the valley as far as what became known as Craig's or McKenzie
Bridge. The Scott road did not cross the river at this point
as the present one does but stayed on the north bank to Salt
(Belknap) Springs and crossed it there. The road builders followed
Scott Creek up to Fingerboard Prairie - which got its name because
someone later put up a direction marker on the trail in the shape
of a pointing finger. They climbed on up the side of the mountain
to Lake Melakwa - where the Boy Scouts have long had a summer camp - and
on to Scott Lake, two miles southeast of Scott Mountain.
A highway marker now points out where the
Scott Trail crosses the present highway to the McKenzie Pass.
From that point the road builders followed an old Indian trail
that skirted the lava flow as much as possible and reached Scott
Pass, which is about three miles southeast of the Dee Wright
Observatory on the crest of the McKenzie Pass. The Scott road
went down the eastern side of the mountains to Trout Creek, nearing
the Sisters plain.
Winter was closing in by the time the road
builders reached Trout Creek. They had the road in shape so that
900 head of cattle and nine freight wagons could be driven over
it, but they knew snow would soon close the route. Felix decided
to have the men build winter quarters near a cave on Trout Creek.
They became the first white men to spend a winter in central
Oregon. Felix himself went back to Eugene City to promote the
use of the road and to get ready for the coming year's work in
pushing the road on across central and eastern Oregon.
John Templeton Craig
One of the men Felix Scott hired to help cut
the road over the Cascades was John T. Craig, a 30-year-old native
of Ohio who had come west in 1852. He had settled first in the
lower McKenzie Valley, but after the road-building expedition
of 1862, he built a cabin on Craig's Pasture at what he considered
a logical place to cross the McKenzie for a different route over
the mountains. An eccentric loner, Craig seems to have been obsessed
with the idea of making a better road over the Cascades and spent
the rest of his life connected with it in some way.
Several different companies were formed to
build a wagon road over the mountains using a different route.
Felix Scott does not appear to have been connected with any of
them. He had other ideas in mind. He moved to Arizona and by
the time of his death in 1879 he was extensively engaged in stock
raising and freighting business.
Craig stayed with the McKenzie. He was one
of the owners and for a time president of the McKenzie Salt Springs
and Des Chutes Wagon Road Company. Another settler associated
with the road was J. H. Belknap, whose son, R. S. Belknap, developed
Salt Springs into the Belknap Hot Springs Resort, and for whom
Belknap and Little Belknap Craters north of the McKenzie Pass
The new route that Craig's company followed
went up Lost-Creek and White Branch (passing near Proxy Falls)
and zigzagged up Deadhorse Grade. After crossing the Scott road
it climbed on up into the lava beds. Instead of trying to avoid
the rough lava by circling around it, the new route went right
over some of it, thereby reaching a summit seven hundred feet
lower than Scott's Pass. This new route, essentially the same
as the present state Highway 242, was opened to travel about
1872. It provided the main transportation link between Eugene
City and central Oregon for the next seven decades.
Until 1891 tolls were collected at McKenzie
Bridge and for a few years thereafter at Blue River: $2 for a
wagon with two horses, $2.50 for a wagon with four horses, $1
for a horseman, 50¢ for a pack horse, 10¢ for loose horses and
cattle, and 5¢ for sheep. In 22 years the company took in nearly
$18,000 - but their disbursements exceeded $19,000!
Mail was carried by contract over this road
to Camp Polk (near present Sisters), to Prineville, and eventually
to Mitchell. John Craig was not a regular mail carrier, but in
late December 1877 he started for Camp Polk with a sack of Christmas
mail. He never arrived. Searchers found his frozen body in a
cabin near the summit lying in the ashes of the fireplace with
a quilt drawn over it. His grave and marker are close to Craig
Lake. The memorial there was erected by the Oregon Rural Letter
When the toll road company abandoned the McKenzie
as an unprofitable venture, the Lane County Court sent J. H.
Belknap and two others out to "view" the road. They found that
the road "is an important artery of travel" for Lane County.
The County Court accepted the recommendation of the viewers and
made the road a part of the county road system. The first automobile
chugged over the McKenzie Pass in 1910. Later the state took
"control and care" of the road and began promoting it as a scenic
To accommodate year-round travel over the
Cascades, an old Forest Service road from Belknap Springs north
past Clear Lake and Fish Lake to the Santiam Highway was regraded,
widened, and paved to connect the McKenzie Valley with the Santiam
Pass. The elevation at the Santiam Pass is only 4,817 feet compared
with 5,325 feet on the McKenzie Pass - and 6,000 feet on the Scott
Pass. Now the North Santiam Highway from Salem, the South Santiam
Highway from Albany, and the McKenzie Highway from Eugene all
funnel through the Santiam Pass.
At the crest of the Cascades, molten lava
poured out over the landscape in recent times, geologically speaking.
These flows provide a dramatic illustration of how these mountains
were formed by layer upon layer of lava. Phil F. Brogan, the
well-known Bend journalist and amateur geologist describes the
scene: "On the mile-high McKenzie Divide - geology crowds to the roadside.
At the summit, jagged flows of lava from Yapoah Crater, on the
southern skyline, and little Belknap Crater, to the north, merge
and interfinger near the Dee Wright Memorial, a rocky platform
which honors a pioneer of the region. The volcanic region visible
from the memorial is unsurpassed in America for its wealth of
recent lavas, its ice-dissected volcanoes, and its wild scenery.
Youthful cinder cones and rivers of blocky obsidian add variety
to the mountain landscape." (East of the Cascades, pp. 279-280)
Tourists at McKenzie Pass have a unique vista.
Off to the north are the once-belching Little Belknap Crater
(6,305 feet), Belknap Crater (6,872 feet), and Mt. Washington
(7,794 feet). To the south are Faith, Hope, and Charity, the
Three Sisters (all over 10,000 feet) and their Little Brother
"The great triumvirate of mountains rises
against a horizon broken by lesser peaks, tumbled foothills,
and swelling ridges of the Cascades. Incredibly white and vast,
the Three Sisters yield little in magnitude to more lofty Mount
Jefferson or Mount Hood. Pitted with glaciers, they are heaped
with moraines, and slashed with a thousand small ravines and
crevasses. Glacial ice clings to the higher levels of the great
battered cones. Crusted snows that melt in summer send torrents
down the slopes to water the forests and the broad, flower-grown
meadows about the mountain's base." (Oregon: End of the Trail,
Headwaters of the McKenzie
Not long ago, again geologically speaking,
lava flowed down into the canyon of the upper McKenzie, creating
a dam that formed a lake that flooded a forest. The black stumps
of the drowned trees can still be seen beneath the crystalline
waters of Clear Lake.
The McKenzie starts its turbulent downward
course at Clear Lake. It rushes through rapids, dashes through
cascades, and makes big leaps at Sahalie, Koosah, and Tamolitch
Falls. The sparkling waters of this delightful stream fall more
than 3,000 feet before joining the Willamette. At several places
along the way this perpetual motion has been harnessed for hydroelectric
Clear Lake is fed by underground springs and
by Fish Lake Creek. Fish Lake itself is dry in some seasons of
the year, despite the fact that it is fed by Hackleman Creek,
which rises in Tombstone Prairie and runs eastward into it. This
locality is of historic interest because Fish Lake was a favorite
stopping place on the old Santiam Wagon Road, which crossed the
summit of the Cascades near Big Lake, three miles south of the
present Santiam Pass. Fish Lake is mentioned as a stopping place
in many early accounts of cattle drives and wagon travel. One
old map shows a hotel there. When Col. Hogg was building the
section of the Oregon Pacific Railroad around Hogg Rock, he had
tools, ties, rails, and a box car brought up the old wagon road
to a camp on Fish Lake.
Westward from Fish Lake for about seven miles
to Tombstone Prairie both the present South Santiam Highway and
the old wagon road parallel Hackleman Creek. This stream is named
for Abram Hackleman, son of the Abner Hackleman who led a wagon
train west across the plains in 1845. Son Abram was a founder
of Albany and one of the organizers of the Willamette Valley
and Cascades Mountains Wagon Road Company.
Scott's McKenzie road and the Santiam road
over the Cascades were opened about the same time in the 1860s,
but the pioneering work of Scott, John Craig, and others resulted
in a better road on the McKenzie route. It was better kept as
a toll road. It was the one the state first developed into a
trans-Cascades automobile road. It kept its prominence until
the North and South Santiam Highways were completed over the
Santiam Pass after World War II. Today, the old McKenzie Pass
Highway, open only during the summer and early fall months, serves
mainly as a scenic route to let tourists like us have a glimpse
of a wonderland of Oregon's high Cascades.
Related Readings and Sources
John A. Hussey, Champoeg: Place of Transition.
Historical Society, 1967, chapter III.
Robert W. Sawyer, "Beginnings
of McKenzie Highway." Oregon Historical
Quarterly, Sept. 1930, XXXI:261.
Phil F. Brogan, East of the Cascades. Portland:
Binfords & Mort, 1964.
Oregon: End of the Trail. American Guide Series.
Portland: Binfords &
Mort, 1940, pp. 332, 336, 454, 457.
Leah Collins Menefee, Donald F. Menefee, and
Kenneth Munford, The
Free Emigrant Road over Willamette Pass. Tour Guide Series. Corvallis:
Horner Museum, 1979.
Kenneth Munford and Robert Lowry, Rails and
Roads in the Upper Santiam. Tour
Guide Series. Corvallis: Horner Museum, 1980.