The McKenzie River Trails (1981)

Horner Museum Tour Guide Series

The 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 in Canada.

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 LaBonté, 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 are named.

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 Carriers Association.

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 route.

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.

Lava, Lava

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 (7,810 feet).

"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, p. 455)

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 power.

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. Portland: Oregon 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.