Echoes From the Past
From the October 18, 2007 Echoes From the Past edition of McKenzie River Reflections
November 3, 2022 | View PDF
Opening up the Santiam Pass
By M.J. Nye
In the fall of 1880, a Company was organized to build a wagon road over the Cascade Mountains via what is now known as the Santiam Pass. Little or nothing was known about the country at the headwaters of the south Santiam, along which the road was later built; for it is supposed that no white man had ever crossed the Cascade Mountains at this point until 1859 when Andrew Wiley led a company of men across.
Wiley had previously led a band of emigrants from Missouri to Oregon and seemed well-fitted for this job. He was a man who was very courageous and very reticent. He had settled on a homestead east of Foster, on Wiley Creek, which stream was named for him. At this time there were Indians in both the Santiam and Callapooia Valleys, who at times got troublesome, at other times they would disappear to the east and be gone for a period of time.
Wiley supposing that the Indians had a trail across the Cascades, and were desirous of exploring the mountains and the country to the east of them, formed a company and struck out one bright spring morning. They found no trail, however, but undaunted, literally hewed their way to a point, now called Lost Prairie, because of the fact that it was here that the party decided that they were lost. Here Wiley showed the pioneer spirit and also that he was a leader of men - for after having climbed a high peak of the mountains he got his bearings, returned to camp, and informed his companions that he could see his way out to the East and that if they would follow him, he would take them through safely. This they agreed to do and Wiley made good his word, for they later landed in Eastern Oregon where they found luxuriant waving grasses, a veritable stockman's Paradise.
The desire for a direct road from the Willamette Valley to this new-found stock Paradise and also the desire to have a more direct road, with lesser grades - for the migration that was now pouring in from the east, finally brought about the construction of the wagon road across the Santiam Pass.
Before leaving our exploring party - for we shall not again take them up further in our story - we want to tell of the route they traveled. These names, of course, were given these places since that brave party hewed the route for the Santiam Pass, and on each name hangs a story that cannot be told here - Whiskey Butte, Moss Butte, and Canyon Creek saw white men for the first time when these explorers passed their way. Hiatt and Gordon had not turned their herds of cattle out on the range, that bears their name, nor was there a place known as Boulder Ridge when Andrew Wiley herded his old white pack mule over and around these points. Then, too these travelers must have stirred up the first dust on old "Seven-Mile," and the old white mule carried the first white man's pack across Hackleman Creek and on out to Lost Prairie where our party lost their bearings.
At Lost Prairie we find the party discouraged until their leader tells them of the pass, to the east, he has seen. He leads them around the shores of Fish Lake and Clear Lake and on again to Big Lake. The headwaters of Cache Creek also mirror the forms of this exploring party. They continue eastward until they strike the waters of the Deschutes River, where they halt and drink.
After arriving back into the valley our exploring party tells of the country they have seen and do what they can to get a road constructed over the route they traveled. Here we have to part with our exploring party who did the initial work in bringing about the construction of the road across the Santiam Pass, which made this story possible.
It was nearly eight years before our explorer's dreams came, but they lived to enjoy the benefits of their exploration and took an active part in the construction or the road, (In order to get the historical data of the Santiam Pass in a compact form for those who wish to file it away for its historical value, we are repeating some of the foregoing in the following, and also telling something of the first wagon roads across the Cascade Mountains.)
The absolute necessity of having a wagon road across the Cascade Mountains developed as early as 1845. The emigration arriving at The Dalles in the fall of that year was so great, and the means of transportation down the Columbia was so limited, that many of the settlers did not arrive in the Willamette Valley until late in December. Quite a number of them became so impatient at the delay in getting down the river that they finally abandoned their wagons at The Dalles and crossed the mountains on foot and on horseback.
At the next session of the Provisional Legislature, which met in the latter part of December, a franchise was obtained by Mr. Barlow for constructing a toll road across the mountains just south of Mt. Hood. This road was opened up, but the grades were so heavy that it was very difficult for wagons to get over it - and a search was continued by the people for a pass through the mountains farther to the south.
One party from the valley located a route through the Klamath Lake country, connecting with the old emigrant trail from the east at Fort Rail, and while this was traveled to some extent from and after 1847, it never became a popular route, and the greater part of the early settlers either came down the Columbia on boats and rafts or crossed the mountains over the Barlow road.
In later years, when the settlements in the valley had increased to such an extent that outside range for stock became limited, the people again began to look for some pass through the mountains over which they could construct a road to the great bunchgrass country on the other side. In the opposite direction. They told McKee a hard luck story but he did not let them pass. As he turns them - as he supposes - back on their way, he tells them how sorry he feels for them. He is very much chagrined when he later finds that these young men pulled a good one on him.
In 1891, J. L. Nye was appointed gatekeeper; at this time there was heavy traffic over the road. Hundreds of heavily loaded wagons with four and six-horse teams were hauling wool from eastern Oregon ranches to the woolen mills at Waterloo and Brownsville. On their return trips, they would haul fruit and vegetables and other supplies not grown or easily available in eastern Oregon at that time. It was no uncommon thing to see a wagon train one-half mile long when this traffic was at its height.
Merchants at Albany, Lebanon, Brownsville, and Waterloo did a thriving business with these freighters. Thousands of head of cattle and horses were driven over this road. As high as 500 in a herd have been driven through. The cattle were sent out of the Willamette Valley to the grazing lands of eastern Oregon where they were fattened on buffalo grass and later sent to various markets. The horses were raised on this bunch grass and driven over the mountains to the Willamette Valley where they were sold to ranchers.
Even yet, every spring and summer brings its bands of eastern Oregon horses, over the Santiam Pass, which is disposed of to the valley ranchers. These horses are known as "bunch grass" horses, getting their name from the natural grass of the Eastern Oregon country. This grass is famed for its bone and muscle-building qualities.
In 1893 Frank Rumbaugh was appointed superintendent. He served for four years. In the spring of 1897 A.J. McClure took over the superintendency of the road. At this time there was considerable bridge repairing to do. After finishing up a job McClure brought a box of big spikes to the cabin of the gatekeeper and stored them overhead. Returning for the spikes he found them gone.
One night the keeper, Mr. Nye felt something fall on his head from overhead. An investigation showed that one of the large spikes had been returned. Strange to say that every spike was brought back and dropped on the bed by the robber or robbers that had taken them - pack rats. This solved the uncanny disappearance of the spikes and relieved the tension of both the superintendent and gatekeeper.
In 1898 George Geisendorfer established a post office at Cascadia on the north bank of the Santiam. A bridge was built across the river west of the tollgate. This let traffic around the gate so it was moved back to Lower Soda, and later established east of Canyon Crook at what is now known as White City.
To accommodate the travelers, there were roadhouses and campgrounds all along the route, where both man and animals could be supplied with food and water. Traveling east, the first stopping place was operated by Charles Mealey, father of the Mealey Brothers residing east of Foster. Mr. Mealey had moved to this place in 1872. He built his home from lumber purchased at the Wiley sawmill.
At the time of which we write, the hills were full of wild animals, deer, bears, coyotes, cougars, and wolves. Mealey kept a pack of dogs, and many times the wolves would attack the dogs right in the dooryard. The dogs would get away by crawling under the house. In the morning, after one of these attacks the yard fence would be badly torn down where the big brutes went through and over it. Mealey operated this place until 1905.
Six miles further east was the next roadhouse, operated by a man by the name of Finley. This was Lower Soda. Two miles on east was a stopping place operated by William McKeenon, on Canyon Creek. It was here the tollgate was operated for 1 year.
Seven miles further brought you to the old Walton Ranch where you could get good accommodations. Charles Foster ran the next place, which, besides accommodating the tired and hungry traveler, boasted of a post office, known as Garrison post office. A stage and mail line had been established, running from Sisters to Cascadia. Joe Claypoole operated this line.
Like many others of his time, Claypoole could drive his four-in-hand with a sweep and a dash that drew admiration from his patrons. He aimed to deliver his passengers safely and his mail on time. It is not known that he fell far short of his aim.
Four miles east of the Garrison post office was the Mountain House. This was owned by the wagon road company, and operated by Andrew Wiley. Sixteen miles on the east was the Company's roadhouse at Fish Lake, which was operated by Henry Burmister and Joe Claypoole. Fish Lake was the most popular stopping place along the route. Hundreds of wagons would pull in there for the night. Large sheds were erected for the accommodations of travelers. The lake was utterly alive with fish, which were easily caught.
Then too, there was the genial host, Henry Burmister, whose fine baritone voice started the day off just right, with his lively tunes. He was an early riser and the clear morning air would resound with his melodies. At this roadhouse, as at all others along the route, the prices were 25¢ for a meal, 25¢ for a bed, and 25¢ for hay for each horse. The meals were very good and were served at all hours.
The operators of the stopping places treated their patrons very courteously and looked to every detail to make them comfortable. In fact, they vied with one another in attaining the highest degree in the art of hospitality.
Sixteen miles east of Fish Lake the Road Company operated a roadhouse on Cache Creek. This was in charge of Robert Booth. It was a typical stopping place and differed little from any of the others.
Camp Poke was the next stopping place. It was 16 miles east of Cache Creek. Hinemans owned and operated this place. From Camp Poke trails and roads spread out fan-like to the northeast, east, and southeast. To this point, travelers came and made final preparations for the trip across the mountains.
In 1889 the Santiam Pass was teeming with traffic, due to the activities of T. Edgerson Hogg, who started to build the Corvallis & Eastern Railroad, which was to connect Yaquina Bay with Ontario. In order to hold the only practical pass over the mountains he began building a section of this road over Sand Mountain.
A section of roadbed was graded; steel was laid, and a boxcar was placed on it. It required considerable labor and money to accomplish this. The long steel rails were cut in two in the middle and the car was made in sections so that they could be hauled up the mountain.
A long story in itself could be written about the construction of this bit of railroad. Let it suffice to say that the railroad was never completed, but that as a lone sentinel the boxcar has guarded the Santiam Pass for nearly a half-century, although there is little left of it but rusty plates and bolts.
On June 20th, 1905, as gatekeeper, J.L. Nye looked up the road and saw a strange sight. There was a contraption of iron and tin approaching, which came swiftly and had an ugly snort to it. What was it?
The gatekeeper had never been called upon before to let an animal like this through the gate. When the thing came to a stop, the driver approached and offered to pay the toll. The keeper looked the thing over and then consulted his toll sheet. He also noticed that horses and other animals had given this rig all over the road. After pondering for a few minutes he told the driver that he would have to class his outfit as a "road hog," and since such animals were not mentioned, on his toll sheet, he would have to pass him through the same as other hogs at the 3 cent rate.
It was here that Dwight B. Huss introduced himself and his Oldsmobile, "Old Scout." This was the first automobile to cross the continent and the Santiam Pass has to have the distinction of furnishing a means to bring the first automobile across the Cascade Mountains. After visiting several Willamette Valley towns, "Old Scout" attended the Lewis & Clerk Exposition in Portland.
On September 15, 1931, Mr. Russ again piloted "Old Scout" across the continent and down the Santiam Pass. He found the gate and its keeper was gone. He was informed that the keeper quietly rests on a knoll, which slants toward the rising sun, while the old gate has been preserved to bear witness to a departed enterprise.
M.J. Nye met Mr. Huss at the end of the highway, by prearrangement. They rolled quietly down the pavement to Sweet Home where "Old Scout" and its driver attracted considerable attention. At Union High School Mr. Huss gave an interesting talk to the students. After this he started out in the valley, going over the same route and visiting the same towns he had visited 26 years before.
In 1905 M.J. Nye was appointed agent for the Company. In 1906 his father, J.L. Nye, who had charge of the gate and road, was forced to retire on account of ill health and his son M.J. Nye took charge of the gate, road, and fire patrol.
The gate was operated up to 1914. For a period of seven years, no toll was charged. In 1921 the gate was operated but this was the last time tolls were charged. In 1925 the road was sold to Linn County for the use of the present Santiam Highway and the Company relinquished all rights to the original roadbed.