FREE EMIGRANT ROAD OVER WILLAMETTE PASS|
Donald F. Menefee
(Originally published in the Horner Museum Tour Guide Series, 1979)
SETTLERS coming over the Oregon Trail from Missouri by covered wagon suffered
many hardships on their long trek across half a continent,
but none of the mountains - not even the Rocky Mountains - gave
them as much difficulty as the Cascade Range. Standing in their
way like an unscalable rampart studded with snow-capped volcanic
peaks, this rugged range seemed to protect the verdant plains
of the Willamette from encroachment.
Only at the Columbia Gorge did the barrier give way to a water-level route. But
what a route! The "chutes" at Celilo, the river running on edge at The Dalles, miles of dashing, turbulent
rapids flowing between sheer walls of unyielding basalt discouraged
all but the most daring.
Lewis & Clark and fur traders
could pass this way in canoes and batteaux light enough to
be portaged around the falls and rapids, but the immigrants
with heavier equipment and stock did so only at great peril
and frequently with loss of supplies, equipment, and even lives.
To avoid the Gorge, Stephen Meek led a
large group of 1845 immigrants across central Oregon, expecting
to cross the Cascade Range. Because of dissention and disappointment,
they gave up this idea and returned to the established route
at The Dalles. Later that year Sam Barlow, his son William,
and Joel Palmer with difficulty took a small party over the
mountains south of Mt. Hood.
Pioneers who reached the Willamette Valley
became convinced that there must be a better way to reach this
destination without the terrible experiences of the Meek and
Barlow parties in 1845.
In 1846, Levi Scott and the Applegate
brothers - whose family members and colleagues had been drowned
and crippled or had narrowly escaped death coming down the
Columbia in 1843 - probed the Cascades from the west side to
find a pass. They tried an old Indian trail up the Middle Fork
of the Willamette but found it impassable and had to go as
far south as present Ashland before finding a pass for what
became known as the Applegate Trail.
The trail south from the Willamette through
the Umpqua and Rogue River valleys into California had been
used for decades by fur brigades and occasional travelers.
It was not an easy trail, but it was passable.
LANE COUNTY SETTLEMENT
The first settlers in what became Lane
County arrived from California on the old pack trail in the
spring of 1846. They had come west in 1845 and had met at Sutter's
Fort. They decided to go on to Oregon on horseback. They included:
Eugene F. Skinner (1809-1864) and his wife Mary (1816-1881) ;
Felix Scott, Sr. (1788-1858), his wife Ellen (1806-?), and several children,
including Ellen, Jr., 20, and Felix, Jr., 16;
Elijah Bristow (1788-1872), a Virginian who had left Susannah, his wife of
34 years, and their children in Illinois; and
William Dodson (1804-1887), a bachelor.
They explored the upper Willamette Valley
looking for home sites and left the Skinner and Scott women
and children at Rickreall. (Romance developed between Ellen
Scott and the Rickreall school teacher John E. Lyle. They were
married that fall and eventually had 7 children.)
The men went back up the valley to stake
out provisional land claims, Skinner on the butte that bears
his name in Eugene and Bristow ten miles southeast on a beautiful
knoll between the Coast and Middle Forks of the Willamette
that he called Pleasant Hill.
Scott first settled near Bristow but later
moved to the south bank of the McKenzie opposite the mouth
of the Mohawk River. From here teenager Felix, Jr., began exploring
a trail up the McKenzie valley which 15 years later he turned
into a toll road over the Cascades for wagons and cattle.
Dodson took a 322-acre DLC near Bristow
at Pleasant Hill and married Sarah Littrell of Linn County
in 1853. After bearing three children she died in 1858. William's
second marriage to Mary Kelly of Lane County ended in divorce.
Bristow and Skinner built cabins, the
first in what became Lane County. Skinner brought his wife
from Rickreall. Their daughter Lenora soon arrived to become
the first white child born in the county. Skinner operated
a ferry across the Willamette to Willamette Forks. "Skinner's" post office was established in 1850. With D. H. Risdon he laid out Eugene City
in 1852. He and Charnel Mulligan donated land for county buildings.
Bristow arranged for Susannah and their
children to come with a wagon train from Illinois in 1848.
He established a post office at Pleasant Hill in 1850 and donated
land for the first school and first church in Lane County and
for a cemetery.
Elijah Bristow's son, W. W. (William Wilshire),
had a prominent place in early Oregon politics. He was 22 when
he and his mother and other members of the family came west
in 1848 to join his father at Pleasant Hill. He taught the
first school in Lane County, served as justice of the peace
and postmaster. He was a member of the Constitutional Convention
in 1857 and one of the first state senators from Lane County.
After moving to Eugene City in 1865, he went into mercantile
business with his brother, Elijah L., and T. B. Hendricks.
He died in 1874, at age 46.
Elijah, Sr., had another son, Darwin,
who named one of his sons William Wilshire. This W. W. Bristow
was a member of the faculty of Corvallis College and the State
Agricultural College from 1882 to 1894, at first as a teacher
in the preparatory department and from 1883 as principal of
that department. He also served as Professor of Bookkeeping,
thus becoming the forerunner of the School of Commerce, now
the School of Business at Oregon State University. For a time
Bristow also taught courses in Bee Culture which were "designed to give the student a thorough knowledge of all those discoveries and
appliances necessary to the successful management of the apiary."
ROAD VIEWERS AND BUILDERS
More settlers came to the Willamette Forks - Mahlon
Harlow, William Tandy, George H. Armitage, and others. Isaac
and Elias Briggs started a ferry on the Middle Fork at present
Springfield. Residents of the area realized that if their part
of the valley was to attract settlers from the trains coming
west each year they should have a more direct route from the
Oregon Trail to the upper valley. They knew the Hudson's Bay
Company trappers had worked the Middle Fork and must have found
a pass over the mountains but settlers could not find it.
Linn and Lane County residents petitioned
for funds to support a more thorough search. They received
the blessing of the Territorial Legislature but no cash. Jacob
Spores, who operated the ferry over the McKenzie, John Diamond,
William M. Macy, Thomas Cady and John Louderback from the Coburg
area joined the Willamette Forks people in support of the project.
Those interested met in Elias Briggs'
yard on March 31, 1852, and decided to send out a party to
scout a trail over the mountains and across central Oregon
to the Snake River. They passed a hat to collect funds. Seven
volunteered to go: Macy, Tandy, Diamond, Joseph Meador, Alexander
King, J. Clark, and a man named Walker.
Before the whole party set out, some of
them did preliminary exploring. The first scouts found no pass,
but in July, Macy and Diamond worked their way up to the summit
of the Cascades, climbed a peak they named for Diamond, and
found a pass.
Under Macy's leadership, the party of
seven scouts left the Harlow cabin on August 20 or 21 to "view out" the new pass and continued on over an old Indian trail to the Deschutes River
and Bend area and on eastward.
Near the lake later called Harney, Snake
Indians attacked them. They lost their notes, Macy's mineral
specimens and their pack animals. Macy, Diamond and Clark were
wounded but they managed to reach the Oregon Trail near Burnt
River, where a passing doctor, Justin Millard of Keokuk, Iowa,
Despite the harrowing experience with
the Indians, the "road viewers", as they became known, were convinced that the middle route was feasible. Macy
came home by way of the Columbia Gorge, the others by the Barlow
In their report to the Legislature they
estimated that the road over the Cascades could be built for
$3,000. They apparently expected wagons to follow the 8-year-old
tracks of the 1845 Meek train from the Malheur to the Deschutes
without further improvement.
The Legislature passed a resolution calling
for its delegate in Congress to try to get help from the federal
government, but the road promoters placed no reliance on either
Salem or Washington for funds.
Interest developed in Douglas and Benton
counties as well as in Lane and Linn. Levi Scott of Scottsburg
and J. C. Avery of Marysville were among those lending support.
Elijah Bristow of Pleasant Hill donated $240. At a meeting
in Albany on March 1, 1853, Walter Montieth and others authorized "a draft for any reasonable proportion of the necessary expense."
On March 5, the promoters and supporters
met - in the rain - in Mahlon Harlow's cabin yard and appointed
an 8-man committee to draw up a plan for opening what then
became known as the Free Emigrant Road. Macy, Cady, and Asahel
Spencer became commissioners to manage the building of the
A contract was let to Dr. Robert Alexander
to build the road as far as the Deschutes. He applied to Joel
Palmer, Supt. of Indian Affairs, for appointment as sub-agent
to the Snake Indians who had attacked the road viewers the
Cady served as treasurer. Macy and Spencer
assisted the contractor in the field, buying supplies and pointing
out the proposed route. By July 4, little had been accomplished.
Alexander had trouble getting men to work on the road, but
the commissioners gave him a new contract.
Elijah Elliott, a brother-in-law of William
McCall of Pleasant Hill, now enters the story. He had recently
come to Oregon from Illinois by way of California and had taken
a donation land claim east of McCalls. He donated $30 to the
road builders. When the commissioners learned that he was going
to meet his wife and four children coming west on the Oregon
Trail, they persuaded him (and possibly paid him) to take the
new route back from the Malheur River and bring anyone else
who would follow him.
Elliott went east by way of the Barlow
Toll Road and met his family in Idaho. Although he had not
been over a foot of the Free Emigrant Road himself, more than
200 wagons followed him along Meek's 1845 tracks and they reached
the Bend area in September.
Seven young advanced scouts from Elliott's
train, mistaking the Three Sisters for Diamond Peak as the
landmark, made their way over the mountains and down the McKenzie
valley, bringing news of the approaching wagon train. Other
scouts from the Elliott wagons made no such mistake. They rode
up the Deschutes and found the end of the road that had been
hacked out during the summer.
While the Elliott train plodded through the sagebrush and juniper
of central Oregon, the road builders went through several
crises. Alexander failed in his second contract although
he had been paid $2,000. The commissioners filed suit to
recover the funds. Commissioner Spencer hired a crew of 10
and hurried up the Middle Fork to complete the road to the
Deschutes. They reached the vicinity of present La Pine at
about the same time the advance scouts from the wagon train
were only 30 miles (3 days) away. Without meeting the scouts,
the road builders went home, making some refinements in the
road bed as they went along.
When scouts brought word that the eastern
end of the new road had been found, the wagons started up the
Deschutes. Soon they were on the road, but such a disappointment
it was! Spencer's crew had not cut the road wide enough for
wagons to pass through the timber. They had left cut trees
lying in the right-of-way. The weary, often starving immigrants - who
had been promised when they left the Malheur that they would
be in the valley in 3 weeks - were left with a road to improve
themselves. It was early October and they had only now reached
the Free Emigrant Road.
As the wagons crossed the summit south
of Diamond Peak it was already snowing. The travelers shuddered
as they recalled the plight of the Donner Party in the Sierras.
Spencer and his men had not cut out the huge fir logs which
crossed the road on the west side of the summit. They had used
smaller logs to build ramps, over which the jaded oxen struggled
to pull the top-heavy wagons. Wagons often upset. The hard-working
men and their bone-tired families were doubtless sorry that
they had taken the Free Emigrant Road.
A young school master, Martin Blanding,
had ridden ahead from the Deschutes on an old grey mare. Where
Lowell is today, the mare had a colt, born dead. Blanding was
cooking meat from the colt when settlers saw his fire and,
fearing Indians, investigated. The news of the starving immigrants
started men riding
down the valley alerting the settlers. A tremendous rescue
effort followed, remarkable because so many of those sending
relief were newcomers themselves.
According to Bristow's son, W. W., who
kept the Statesman informed about the road building and immigration,
the relief consisted of 94 pack animals and 23 wagons loaded
with food and 290 work and beef oxen. These were gifts to the
immigrants from the counties below.
One man and several children had died
crossing eastern Oregon, but only one death occurred in the
mountains. In a crossing of the Middle Fork a trunk in a wagon
shifted and struck Mrs. Joseph Petty and killed her. The babe
in her arms lived until Nov. 8. Mrs. Hetty McClure Bond provided
a dry dress for Mrs. Petty's burial in a grave now covered
by the waters of Hills Creek Reservoir.
Many wagons were left at the Pine Openings
(10 miles above Hills Creek Dam) and the immigrants came out
on horseback. They camped and rested at Emigrant Spring between
Fall Creek and Lowell then spread out to search for vacant
land for new homes in Lane, Benton and Linn counties; some
went as far north as Salem.
ROAD USE CONTINUES
In 1854 Wm. Macy went east over the Free
Emigrant Road to the Oregon Trail and led back a train of wagons
safely in a little more than 3 weeks. In subsequent years immigration
to Oregon fell off because of the opening to settlement of
former Indian lands in Kansas and Nebraska.
In 1855 the U. S. government sent out
topographical engineers to survey a route for a transcontinental
railroad. One of these parties was led by Lts. R. S. Williamson
and H. L. Abbot, accompanied by recent West Point graduates
(who later became generals in the Civil War) Lts. Phil Sheridan,
George Crook, and H. G. Gibson. They came north from California
on the east side of the mountains looking for passes through
the Cascades. A group led by Williamson found the Free Emigrant
Road, which they may have already known about, and followed
it over the pass and down into the valley.
Miners looking for the Blue Bucket gold
said to have been found by members of Meek's 1845 train and
other bonanzas used the cut-off until the floods of 1860-61
washed out part of the road. Stephen Rigdon of Pleasant Hill
was sent out to repair it. Steve and his wife Zilphia, daughter
of Elijah Bristow, bought school lands and in summertime for
many years kept a store and resting place at Pine Openings
on what became known as the Rigdon Road.
Byron J. Pengra (1823-1903), an immigrant
of 1853 who, to the disappointment of his wife, had not chosen
to follow the cut-off, became convinced of the possibilities
of the new route. In 1862 he organized the Central Oregon Military
Wagon Road Company based in Eugene City. He applied for federal
land grants to subsidize a road to the Idaho line to supply
military posts in eastern Oregon. His company received more
than 800,000 acres of land. A. S. Patterson, J. L. Brumley,
and Martin Blanding, members of Elliott's 1853 train, were
among the incorporators of the $30,000 enterprise.
The military road as surveyed in 1864
by Pengra, then Surveyor-General of Oregon, and W. H. Odell,
crossed the Cascades a short distance south of the Free Emigrant
Road. It angled south to Klamath Marsh and Sprague River, passed
the Warner and Steens mountains, and went on through the Jordan
Valley to Idaho. As long as Fort Klamath remained active the
military road was used by soldiers traveling to and from the
Pengra also dreamed of a railroad to replace
the wagon road from Eugene City to Winnemucca, Nevada, where
it would join the Transcontinental Central Pacific. He fought
for this project for years but was never successful.
In the 1920s the Southern Pacific did
build a railroad over the Willamette Pass to Klamath Falls
and gradually shifted much of the rail traffic between Weed,
Calif., and Eugene from the old O & C route through the Siskiyous to the new grade over the Cascades. This Natron
Cut-Off, as it was called, still remains the main line for
Amtrak and rail freight between the Willamette Valley and California.
For a while, after the Willamette Pass
highway, U. S. 58, was improved, it became the principal route
for freight trucks and passenger travel between Eugene and
California. Now, however, with I-5 completed, the main artery
of highway traffic has shifted back to the west side of the
Points of Interest
SPORES' FERRY: Beneath the freeway bridge
across the McKenzie River is where Jacob C. Spores operated
his ferry (1847). It connected the east side wagon road from
Brownsville with the Willamette Forks - the area between the
McKenzie and Middle Forks of the Willamette. The Spores house,
well over 100 years old, stands in good repair west of the
freeway on the Coburg road.
SPRINGFIELD: On the DLC of Elias Briggs,
who settled here in 1849 and operated a ferry across the Willamette.
The "spring" of Springfield was near present Willamette bridge.
NATRON: When the SP started building a
new rail line up the Middle Fork it was called the Natron Cut-Off.
JASPER: On the DLC of Cornelius Hills,
1847 settler from New York; named for his son Jasper. Hills
crossed the plains three times, led a train safely over the
Applegate Trail in 1851. It included the Riddles and his wife's
parents, the Samuel Briggs, and Hills' younger brothers.
FALL CREEK: The John Stewart family from
Pittsburgh, who came with Elliott on the Cut-Off in 1853, settled
near the present Fall Creek School. Flood control dam on Little
Fall Creek 3 miles east.
UNITY BRIDGE: One of Lane County's many
EMIGRANT SPRING: The new arrivals in 1853
knew they had reached civilization at last when they saw John
Barkdull's fence and cabin. They rested in the surrounding
meadow. Some settled nearby.
LOWELL: Road viewers of 1852 reached the
Middle Fork here. Martin Blanding cooked colt meat here. Lt.
Williamson and his Army engineers camped here in 1855.
BUTTE DISAPPOINTMENT: Named by E. Bristow
of Pleasant Hill. Sketch of it appears in Williamson's 1859
report. Pengra and Odell passed this way in 1864.
Lookout Point: Dam built by Army engineers for flood control,
power, and recreation. Sudden storms on the lake make fishing
BLACK CANYON: Here the Free Emigrant Road
made one of its 27 crossings of the Middle Fork.
WESTFIR AND OAKRIDGE: Large Pope & Talbot
mill. Before automation and diesel locomotives, Oakridge was
important railroad division point where additional locomotives
were added to take trains up the long grade ahead.
HILLS CREEK DAM AND RESERVOIR: Up this
winding valley of the Middle Fork went the road viewers of
1852 and road builders of 1853. Down it came more than 1,000
men, women and children on the Free Emigrant Road. Reservoir
is about 7 miles long. Above it a bit is Little Pine Openings
where many of the 1853 immigrants left their wagons. Pengra's
wagon road in 1864-67 came this way. A road of sorts (but not
for busses) goes over the summit from here.
MCCREDIE SPRINGS: Hot water rising in
the middle of Salt Creek at one time made this a popular swimming
SALT CREEK FALLS: Discovered by Frank
Warner, a descendent of the 1853 wagon train, and Charlie Tufti,
an Indian friend, in 1887, these 286-foot falls are among the
finest in the state. Some viewers see the veiled figure of
a woman in the mists.
SOUTHERN-PACIFIC SNOWSHEDS: High on cliffs
south of highway.
DIAMOND PEAK: This 8,774-foot landmark,
which can be recognized from both sides of the Cascades, divides
the two principal passes. The Free Emigrant Road, Pengra's
military road, and the survey for his proposed railroad went
on the south side; U. S. 58 and the SP mainline go on the north
WILLAMETTE PASS SKI AREA.
ODELL LAKE: Water held in a deep canyon
by the terminal moraine of a glacier. Named for Pengra's partner,
W. D. Odell. Good fishing; crowded all summer.
CRESCENT LAKE: Named by Pengra/Odell for
its shape. Post office and station where railroad crews once
stayed overnight now abandoned. Settlement at the junction
now takes their place.
FOREST SERVICE ROAD 244: From here to
Menefee ranch, the Free Emigrant Road, military road, and present
Forest Service road are together or parallel.
MENEFEE/COLLINS RANCH: Rev. Dr. Henry
C. Collins homesteaded in 1912 on Big Marsh Creek (then known
as the West Deschutes and by the road viewers as the Deschutes).
The ranch, now owned by his son, John G. Collins of Missoula,
Mont., lies Â¼ mile downstream from the ford used by the road
viewers in 1852.
The ford on the Menefee ranch, where a
bridge now crosses the stream, is where the 1853 wagon train
last camped before starting over the mountains. The Macy train
of 1854 camped here and found the remains of a man who apparently
had been murdered the year before. Lt. Williamson's party camped
here in 1855.
At this ford Pengra's survey party camped
while exploring passes through the mountains. The Free Emigrant
Road went northeast down the Deschutes
from here. The Central Oregon Military Road turned south to
the Klamath country.
(Returning home on U. S. 58)
DEXTER AND DEXTER DAM.
ELIJAH ELLIOTT DLC: Leader of 1853 wagon
train, he settled beyond the present Bohemia Lumber Co. mill.
PLEASANT HILL: This and Eugene City were
the earliest settlements in Lane County. E. Bristow came in
1846; his family joined him in 1848. Bristows, Elliotts, Dodsons,
McCalls, and other pioneer families are interred in the well-kept
cemetery on the right of the highway just beyond the school
COAST FORK: The McKenzie, the Middle Fork,
and the Coast Fork are principal tributaries of the Willamette.
Mt. Pisgah rise between the Coast and Middle Forks, just south
of their confluence.
SKINNER BUTTE: Rising on the north side
of downtown Eugene, this hill marks the location of Eugene
Skinner's land claim and cabin of 1846.
Leah Collins and Lowell Tiller, "Cut-Off
Fever." Oregon Historical Quarterly (6 issues, December 1976
to Spring 1978)
Keith Clark and Lowell Tiller, Terrible
Trail, the Meek Cut-Off of 1845. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1967.
H. H. Bancroft, History of Oregon. San
Pacific Railroad Surveys. Washington,
D. C., 1857. Vol. VI.
B. J. Pengra, Report of Directors of Oregon
Central Military Road. Nov. 1864.