Make the McKenzie Connection!



Reprinted from “McKenzie River Reflections and Recipes”

McKenzie High Booster Club 1971

By Prince Helfrich

The McKenzie River was first discovered by Donald McKenzie in 1811. Trails from Eastern Oregon following the north bank of the river had been used for years by Indians who made the trip in the fall to catch salmon and dry them and pick wild huckleberries for their winter food.

The McKenzie was first called the McKenzie Fork as it was thought this stream was a tributary of the Willamette River.

As late as 1935, parties of Eastern Oregon Indians came to the McKenzie in their light wagons, accompanied by extra horses and several mongrel dogs, who trotted beside the wagons or underneath at the horses’ heels. They would stop at Halfway, the resort owned by B. B. and Ruth Helfrich, parents of Prince Helfrich. They wanted to trade moccasins and gloves for deer hides and were always delighted to receive the apples which the Helfrich family raised in plentiful supply.

As they came on downriver after exchanging stories of hunting success they would camp at a clearing just above Clover Point. On one occasion an old Indian was questioned as to how he happened to be limping.

His reply, “Me kick ‘em horse!”


Mail delivery on the McKenzie was not always accomplished as easily as it is today. Due to rough roads in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s, the mail was delivered by horse stages. The stages not only carried the mail but also carried passengers and freight The livery stables were located in Eugene and mail was picked up in Springfield for delivery along the McKenzie River.

In 1872 transportation from Eugene to McKenzie Bridge was provided by a large hack seating six people. This hack was drawn by four to six horses according to road conditions. Horses were changed at Wycoff’s (Cook’s Ranch) and the entire distance was covered in ten to twelve hours when the roads were good.

The stages had a number of stops along the river, where horses were changed and meals were served to passengers. Four horses were used on the stages, except into Foley Springs, where a two-horse stage was used in summer, and in the winter mail was carried by horseback. Mail was also carried over the pass in winter on snowshoes.


The first school in Vida was built in 1872 west of the Goodpasture Bridge near the old wagon road. It was known as the Blazing Stump School and was located on property that is now the Angler’s Trailer Park.

Before the school was built, Mrs. Fayette Thomson held school in her home for the children of B. F. Finn, Regis Pepiot and her own, for two years.

Classes in the Blue River area date from 1891 and first were held in a building east of Elk Creek. Agnes Millican was the first teacher. She was 16 years old and an 8th-grade graduate.

At McKenzie Bridge, school in 1890 was held in a one-room building near Phil’s Phine Phoods today. In a booklet written by the class of 1958 at McKenzie High School is a description of the early school.

”There were all eight grades under one teacher. There were no report cards and they were not graded as we are now. The students were divided into four main groups. A pupil was placed in the class he was most capable of handling and advanced as fast as he could learn. The students bought their books in Eugene and used slates to do their work on in class.

They studied reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, civil government, physiology, and spelling. Roll call was taken every day. There were seldom any tests except in writing. All the students made a specimen of their handwriting at the first of each term and again at the last of the term. The pupil showing the best improvement received a prize.

Regular P.E. classes were not held. Instead, they had a 15-minute recess in mid-morning and another in mid-afternoon. The smaller ones played anti-over with a ball or played with the small wild animals like the blue belly lizards that would wander into the schoolyard.”

Getting to school was a problem for many of the students. The trails were often muddy and very slippery. The weather would be wet and cold. There were no big, yellow, warm buses. The older children were responsible for the safety of the younger students on their daily travel.

High school was started in Vida about 1900. The students used Menny Hall, now known as Gate Creek Ranch. Blue River built their high school in 1925. Students from McKenzie Bridge traveled downriver to attend in Blue River.

Mrs. Frances O’Brien shared a few comments on the development of the present school district. In January, 1916, all outside the Blue River school district were required to pay $1.00 per month tuition. In December 1919, the first meeting to attempt consolidating the three districts (McKenzie Bridge, Blue River and Vida) was held and opposed. It wasn’t until 1940 that a vote of consolidation was passed.

The present school was built in 1941 and used as the high school for the new district. All the grade school students attended in Blue River until January of 1943 when the building was destroyed by fire and all the students were then put into the present building.


By Vi Thomson

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, pregnant hinterland-dwelling women had no access to doctors or hospitals. Most areas were considered fortunate indeed if there was an older woman available to help one through the rigors of childbirth. Such a person was known as a midwife.

Mary Thomson was the midwife for this area for years. She used to tear strips of clean, old sheets, and cut pieces of ordinary store twine.

These were placed in a jar, sealed, and baked until light brown to make them sterile. The sheet strips became bandages; the twine was used to tie the umbilical.

About to be born babies have a way of asserting themselves at inconvenient times, like in the middle of the night or during a blizzard. Sometimes distances were great, and the midwife, with her sterile trappings, would take to horseback.

On arrival, the midwife might find that the baby had arrived, or that the mother was having a very hard time. Then “doctor midwife” would tie sheets on the lower end of the bed for the mother to pull on as she labored.

Today, with super-highways and ambulances, we get to hospitals in minutes and are home in a few days. We’ve “come a long way, baby” - and mothers.


The first guides on the river were the Thomsons, father, and four sons.

In 1905 they had a resort on the north bank of the river about a mile below Martin Rapids. This was called Thomson’s Lodge.

The Thomsons took parties and boats upriver on wagons and floated downstream several miles. The McKenzie was one of the finest trout streams in the world, due to the cold water and abundance of food. In the early 1900’s there was no limit on the number of fish one could save.

Later on, there was a limit of 60 a day. Then it was reduced to 30, then 20, 15 and finally 10, which is the daily catch at present. Heavy cane poles were used with wet flies and spinners and very heavy leaders.

The first boats were 18 feet long with low sides and were very heavy.

With the coming of plywood in the early thirties, much lighter boats were developed. By experimentation, the present McKenzie-type boat, which is light and high-sided and well suited to the running of the white water, came into being. A number of men helped in the design of this boat which is now used on many white water streams in the Northwest.

In the early twenties, Rube Montgomery and Al Cook joined the guiding of parties down the McKenzie River. Al’s place. which was located at the site which is presently called Sheppards’ Ranch Cottages, was called Cook’s McKenzie Inn.

Prince Heifrich used to catch grasshoppers for Al Cook’s fishermen and learned to row a soon as he was able to handle a pair of oars. He began taking fishermen out in 1922 when he was 15. He took parties out from his father’s resort, Halfway, so-called because this resort was halfway between the summit of the Cascade Mountains and Eugene, Oregon.

Halfway featured the first cabins on the river for fishermen and vacationers, other than those at Belknap Springs, about 30 miles upriver. Prince Helfrich boated for Thomson’s Lodge for several years, then began his own business in 1926. Since that time he has boated and fished many famous people, presidents, movie actors and actresses, and some of the greatest fishermen in the world. At the present time, his three sons are carrying on the guiding traditions on the McKenzie River and other whitewater streams.


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