The Free Emigrant Road Over Willamette Pass (1979)

Horner Museum Tour Guide Series

The Free Emigrant Road Over Willamette Pass

By Leah Collins Menefee, Donald F. Menefee, and Kenneth Munford

(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
  • 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, treated them.

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 Toll Road.

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 road.

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 previous year.

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 Willamette Valley.

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 Cascades.

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 covered bridges.

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 dangerous.

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 resort.

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 side.


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 ¼ 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)


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 house.

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.

Additional Reading

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 Francisco, 1886.

Pacific Railroad Surveys. Washington, D. C., 1857. Vol. VI.

B. J. Pengra, Report of Directors of Oregon Central Military Road. Nov. 1864.