Photo: Wasim Muklashy.

The Santiam Wagon Road

Learn about the east Cascade history of the Santiam Wagon Road which passes through several modern Land Trust Preserves.

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Black Butte at Indian Ford Meadow Preserve. Photo: Greg Burke.
Black Butte at Indian Ford Meadow Preserve. Photo: Greg Burke.

Imagine that it is the late 1860s and that you are at the base of Black Butte, having recently spent the night along the banks of Cache Creek. You’ve managed to cross the Cascades on the Santiam Wagon Road and now must follow the ruts of a wagon road as it heads east into the high desert.

Ahead of you is a long meadow known as Indian Ford with water and tall grasses for your stock. Beyond the next hill is another meadow called Camp Polk with both springs and a creek running through it. It is a place to stop for the night … Camp Polk Station run by Samuel Hindman. A day or two later, you plan to continue east into the high desert country where water and grasses are rare.

You may recognize by now, that these early travelers were moving through what are now three Deschutes Land Trust Preserves:  Indian Ford Meadow Preserve, Camp Polk Meadow Preserve, and the high desert landscape of Whychus Canyon Preserve. In fact, you can still see remnants of the Santiam Wagon Road at Whychus Canyon Preserve.

What was it like to travel on the Santiam Wagon Road? Where did the road go? Learn more below or download our Santiam Wagon Road brochure:



Connecting Valley and Range

Team and Wagon on the Santiam Wagon Road. Photo: Bowman Museum.
Team and Wagon on the Santiam Wagon Road. Photo: Bowman Museum.

 The Santiam Wagon Road was built in the 1860s to connect the Willamette Valley, across the mid-Cascades and through Eastern Oregon, to the Idaho border. Its history is that of enterprising men, entrepreneurs, of the Willamette Valley who envisioned a crossing of the mid-Cascades that would create a link between the rich farmland in the Valley and the quite different riches of Central and Eastern Oregon. Unlike many historic wagon roads that were constructed for the purpose of traveling west, the Santiam Wagon Road was built to take travelers east. 

Central Oregon offered bunchgrass covered land, ideal for grazing the cattle that were beginning to overpopulate the Willamette Valley. For some, especially miners who had exploited the gold fields in California, the discovery of gold in Eastern Oregon in 1862 offered the lure of fortunes to be made. For others, the growing populations in these mining areas around John Day and Canyon City signaled a ready market for beef on the hoof, if only they could get the cattle there.

So it was that the theme “go east” took hold and routes over the Cascades were explored and then developed.



Eastward Travel

Central Oregon cattle drive. Photo: Bowman Museum.
Central Oregon cattle drive. Photo: Bowman Museum.
Why were settlers from the Willamette Valley, heading to the high desert to graze their cattle? By the 1860s the Willamette Valley was getting crowded. Population growth privatized land and open range was increasingly limited. With a route over the mountain, ranchers could reach the open range of Central Oregon.

When settlers first came to Central Oregon the landscape looked different. There were few trees, scattered sagebrush and tall native bunchgrasses. Unfortunately, these native bunchgrasses weren’t adapted to continuous grazing by livestock, but rather the occasional browsing by deer and elk. The promise of unlimited forage soon evaporated.

Valley merchants and freighters could also use the Wagon Road to reach the burgeoning gold mining populations in eastern Oregon and Idaho. The eastern Oregon towns of John Day and Canyon City saw populations topping 10,000. Canyon City's population in 2013 was 684.


Westward Travel

Hauling wool circa 1910. Photo: Bowman Museum.
Hauling wool circa 1910. Photo: Bowman Museum.
Sheep were big business in Central Oregon at the time of the Santiam Wagon Road. By 1900, 20,000 square miles of Central Oregon was devoted to wool, wheat, cattle and sheep production. Wool growers had to travel from Shaniko (near Madras) with wool for the many woolen mills in the Willamette Valley towns of Waterloo, Brownsville, and Jefferson. Shaniko was considered the “Wool Capital of the World” in 1900 because it was the gateway to the wool buying markets beyond Central Oregon.

Westward traffic on the Santiam Wagon Road consisted of wool wagons in “trains” often half a mile long. Ranchers in the eastern part of the state also traveled westward for as much as a week to get a load of fruit and vegetables to take home for the winter.


Reconstructing Routes

The Santiam Wagon Road as it looks today at Whychus Canyon Preserve. Photo: Jay Mather.
The Santiam Wagon Road as it looks today at Whychus Canyon Preserve. Photo: Jay Mather.
Historic surveys are helpful in reconstructing routes of historic wagon roads. Public land surveyors were required to record local landmarks such as, roads, streams, and buildings. J.H. McClung was responsible for the first known surveys of the area in 1870.  His maps indicate the route of the Santiam Wagon Road and include landmarks such as streams, canyons, and established trails like the Fremont Trail.

Today, modern LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology can be combined with historic maps and documents to reconstruct the path of the Wagon Road. LIDAR uses lasers to accurately map landform contours beneath any surface vegetation.

Finally, physical evidence, such as old tree blazes, wheel ruts, or piles of rocks (cleared to make a path for the wagons), can also help with reconstruction. For example, at Whychus Canyon Preserve, there is evidence of ruts left by wagons and piles of rock thrown off to the side of the road or used to fill in depressions.


The End of an Era

Old Scout, the first car that came to Central Oregon. Photo: Bowman Museum
Old Scout, the first car that came to Central Oregon. Photo: Bowman Museum
The Santiam Wagon Road served as a livestock trail and the only freight route over this section of the Cascades for most of the 74 years (1865-1939) it was in use. It spanned a distance of almost 400 miles on today’s roads and provided passage for around 5000 wagons during the first 15 years of its existence.

By 1900, the Columbia Southern Railroad connected to Shaniko (north of Madras), taking much of the freight traffic, especially the wool wagon trains, away from the wagon road.  By 1911, the Oregon Trunk Railroad reached Bend, further rerouting traffic. The road over McKenzie Pass opened in the 1920s and the Santiam Pass road opened in 1939 bringing automobiles, modern highways, and the end of an era.




See a list of sources the Land Trust and our volunteers used to create interpretive materials on the Santiam Wagon Road.


Thank you!

A thousand thanks to Carol Wall for her time and energy to research the Santiam Wagon Road and its connection to Deschutes Land Trust Preserves. Carol, you are the best!

Many thanks to Steve Lent at the Bowman Museum for his time reviewing these materials and for donating historical photos. Thanks as well to the Oregon Historical Society for help with historical photos and to the Bureau of Land Management for support of this project.

Finally, this project would not have been possible without the support of the Oregon Community Foundation's Oregon Historic Trails Fund. Thank you!