History lives on wagon road near Sisters

The Bend Bulletin reports on the Land Trust's new Santiam Wagon Road interpretive trail.
By Beau Eastes
The Bend Bulletin

Fleeing the rat race of the Willamette Valley for a slower-paced Central Oregon lifestyle is not a new thing.

The Deschutes Land Trust last month launched an interpretive trail along a 1.1-mile portion of the old Santiam Wagon Road, itself part of an almost 400-mile trail designed to take early Oregon pioneers east over the Cascades and into Idaho.

Located primarily on the land trust’s Whychus Canyon Preserve east of Sisters, six signs tell the story of the first “road” to connect Central Oregon with the Willamette Valley.

Built in the early 1860s and finished in 1865, the Santiam Wagon Road was unique in that it was designed primarily for eastbound traffic.

According to Carol Wall, a retired University of California, Davis, anthropologist and linguist who researched the project, ranchers on the west side of the Cascades used the road to escape the increasing crowds — and fences — in the Valley. The bunch grass of Central Oregon was abundant, unclaimed and unfenced. Merchants also rode the wagon road east in the hopes of making money during Canyon City’s gold rush of 1862.

Traffic wasn’t completely one-way, though. Central Oregonians traveled west to purchase fruit to can during the winter months and wool wagons, some as long as half a mile, would head to the mills in and around Salem from Shaniko, at the time the self-proclaimed “wool capital of the world!”

“The impetus for the signs is that there’s been a lot of history written about the Santiam Wagon Road on the west side of the mountains,” said Sarah Mowry, the Deschutes Land Trust’s outreach coordinator. “But not so much on the east side.”

The Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Wagon Road, which the Santiam Wagon Road was a part of, purported to go from Albany to Ontario, Wall said, though the trail east of Burns was little more than stakes in the ground. As part of land grant laws enacted by Congress in the 1850s and 1860s, railroad and road companies were awarded large swaths of land for every mile of rail or road they created. According to Wall, The Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Wagon Road Company claimed more than 860,000 acres of land after the creation of its wagon road that mirrored much of today’s U.S. Highway 20.

“They didn’t do much in terms of a road beyond Burns, but they claimed the land anyway,” Wall said. “It’s mind-blowing! This played a major part in the settling of the West.”

Approximately 5,000 wagons used the trail during its peak between 1865 and 1880, said Wall, who wrote an annotated history on the wagon road for the land trust.

By 1900 though, according to Wall’s research, Shaniko was connected to Columbia Southern Railroad, negating the need for wool wagons to travel south and then west over the Santiam Pass. Eleven years later, in 1911, the Oregon Trunk Railroad famously made its way to Bend, making a trip over the Cascades by wagon even less likely an option for Central Oregonians. Ranchers in the Valley continued to use the trail to move cattle, but by the 1920s the McKenzie Highway was completed and the wagon road no longer served a real purpose. The Santiam Highway, which runs parallel to the old Santiam Wagon Road on several sections, signaled the wagon road’s death knell when it was finished in 1938.

“This portion of the trail gets you a pretty good idea of what the road looked like,” Wall said last week during a guided hike along the interpretive trail. “It’s not real smooth.”

While remnants of the wagon road are obvious in some sections within the Whychus Canyon Preserve, Wall and Mowry used a combination of historical and high-tech resources to confirm the trail was in fact the Santiam Wagon Road.

First, Wall researched original maps of the area, which included any and all local landmarks. The first known survey of the area — done in 1870 by J.H. McClung — near where the interpretive trail begins, “clearly indicate the route of the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Military Road,” Wall wrote in her research paper.

LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology erased any doubt about the trail. The technology, which uses lasers to map landform contours — it’s commonly used to find the original route of rivers that have been dammed — showed a definitive trail where the wagon road was, which matched up with the routes on the land trust’s property. “The LIDAR just reinforced what we’d learned from the earlier map,” Mowry said.

“I really like the old stuff,” added Wall in reference to the historic survey. “But I love the new stuff.”