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Celebrating our two-lane highways of yesteryear…And the joys of driving them today!

Ghost Auto In Cow Canyon

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It must have been a little disconcerting for the trucks and cars on US97 to see a small white sedan moving along on the cliff above them where there appeared to be no road. A ghost car, coming out of nowhere and disappearing into the mist...well maybe not the mist ...how about dust?


It happened this way.


I have traveled through Cow Canyon (20 miles north of Madras, Oregon on US97) perhaps 50 times in the past 35 years. I have noted small segments of both the stage / wagon road and old The Dalles - California Highway. Last winter my son and I even hiked a short section of the old alignment.


But I never dreamed I could travel the full length of the canyon on the old road, and certainly not in my family sedan! The modern road travels the 1400 foot bottom to top climb on a wide two lane, and sometimes three lane highway, with all the expected cuts and fills. The stage road followed the creek bed most of the way, when it could. The early auto road was mostly built along, and on, the stage road, which left it on the hillsides or small cliffs above the modern road.


Imagine my surprise and delight when I started at the bottom of the canyon to drive the old alignment and ended up an hour or so later at the top, with no more effort than it took to move a few fallen rooks out of my way. At every turn I expected a wash out, landslide, or rock fall to end my quest. But it didn’t! I was so pleased, I almost turned around and drove back down to catch the things I had missed.


I am going to tell this story in excruciating detail, complete with historic highlights...the stage stop inn, the lost fountain of my youth, the toll gate, the bent and destroyed fenders, the long forgotten service station...but I will do it in segments added to the thread. That way I can break up my time commitment a little.



Three Roads Up Cow Canyon


Let’s start with an orientation photo. I am standing on the stage road (Green Arrow). The juniper tree in the middle of the old roadbed suggests the road is long abandoned!!


The line of rocks (Red Arrow) is a wall built on the downhill side of the stage road to .....right, keep the wagons from rolling off the road down the hill!! More of that later.


The old The Dalles - California Highway is along the paved alignment below me (Yellow Arrow), and on the right, in the distance is the path of the modern highway (Blue Arrow).


The Virtual Earth image is looking up Cow Canyon roughly along the line of sight shown by the arrow.


Looking Up Cow Canyon in Virtual Earth. Arrow is Line of Sight for Earlier Photo.

Three roads, one canyon, mucho history.....lots of good roadie stuff to come.


Keep the Show on the Road!

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The early stage roads in Central Oregon carried the freight wagon and stage coach traffic from The Dalles.....the only real outpost on the Columbia River between Walla Walla and Portland.... to places like Prineville, and later, to Bend. One of the important early routes was down Cow Canyon, and down is correct because it was too steep for teams going up. They instead detoured for the return trip to the longer but more gradual assent to the east through Antelope and Shaniko. Today, Cow Canyon is the main arterial north and south between Central Oregon and the Columbia River. It is the busy US 97 highway.


Cow Canyon is a “natural” pathway from the higher plateau to the north, down to the meadows at Trout Creek and beyond to the towns of Central Oregon to the south, but is steep and narrow. The drop is about 1400 feet in about 5 miles. The earliest road stayed to the west, and then made a steep decent to Trout Creek, too steep for a practical freight wagon route. It was blazed by a famed lost wagon train in 1845....but that is another story.


In 1867 two men were given the license by Wasco County to build a toll road down the canyon. When you travel today on the modern highway, look about half way down the canyon as you go south for the stand of popular trees on the right. This was the location of a stage road era toll gate, blacksmith shop and inn. The toll station remained in operation until 1912. More of this site later.


The story of the first automobile down the canyon is the stuff of local legend. The Bend Bulletin published this story in 1907


H.C. Ellis is running around town these days with a new Holsman automobile that the Pioneer Telegraph & Telephone Co., has just purchased for use over its territory. The machine resembles very closely a common buggy only it is truly horseless. It carries a 1 horsepower gasoline engine and weighs 1,100 pounds. Mr. Ellis says the machine is giving perfect satisfaction. He went out to The Dalles and drove it into Bend, a distance of 135 miles, in 23 hours, with five hours out for one night’s stop.


(Note, my garden tractor has 20 HP!)


A 1955 Bulletin article furnished more details, and gives a better picture of auto travel in 1907!


In 1906, (1907) the Deschutes Telephone Co., of which H.C. Ellis was manager, found it difficult to obtain horses in the area and decided to buy a horseless carriage. The car was ordered from Chicago. It was a HOLSMAN, a two-cylinder affair with high wheels. This type was purchased because of high centers in roads in the Bend, Prineville, and La Pine areas served by the company. Some of the high centers were caused by lava rocks. Others were stumps of trees. The only use made of Central Oregon roads in those days was by freight wagons, stage coaches and hacks or buggies.


Ellis found it impossible to get fuel in The Dalles to bring the new car to Bend. Finally, after a wait of several days, a supply was obtained from Goldendale, across the Columbia River on the Washington side. Some of this supply was shipped up the line, where it could be picked up in transit. The fuel was in five-gallon cans, two to a case.


The brand new Holsman caused considerable excitement in The Dalles that day in 1906 (1907), when it chugged up the Columbia to a crossing of the Deschutes River at Freebridge. At that time, there was only one other car in The Dalles, a Reo owned by Dr. J.A. Reuter, a one cylinder vehicle. From Freebridge, the HOLSMAN headed for the little known village of Bend, moved up Rattlesnake Canyon to Moro at the pace of a buggy team. There was a temporary delay at Moro while more canned gas was taken aboard. Finally, the car reached Cow Canyon, at night.


The car moved slowly down the rugged canyon, with the driver picking the “trail” by the dim illumination of the primitive headlights. As the grade narrowed, fenders on one side of t he car was ripped, and in going through the narrow cut, fenders on the opposite side were torn. By the time the car reached the bottom of the grade, its fenders were in scraps, were taken off at the pioneer Heisler stage station, on Trout Creek, and remained there as relics for years. They were still in evidence at the site of the old station in the early 1920’s.


The road traveled in the 1906 Holsman was probably the stage road as The Dalles – California Highway was built later, around 1924.


On site it was easy to discern the stage road bed, juniper tree and all. Most important, there was an old rock retaining wall placed along the lower edge of the road. These are common in old road building because there were no graders to cut into the bank. The solution was to build out on a side hill, and use a retaining wall to hold the road from slipping downhill.


The wagon road is difficult to discern in a standard photograph, so I have added an image in 3D, cross eyed format. If you can’t make that work for you, the animated GIF HERE and HERE will give you at least some idea of the layout.







The dirt road was replaced by the Dalles California Highway about 1924. It, in turn, was replaced years later by the current highway. It is my conjecture that the old The Dalles- California roadbed remains open and relatively clear of debris because it carries either a gas line or fiber optic line, and provides access to it.


A bit further up the old alignment I came upon this old wooden guardrail. Someday I am going to get more interested in old road building and learn when certain kinds of guard rails were used.


Again if you want to see it in 3D, cross your eyes until the images merge. And again, there is an animated GIF HERE. (The animated GIF is inferior to true 3D, but it does help see the perspective if cross eyed viewing isn’t possible for you).




There are two hints as to its age. The first comes from the Historic Columbia River Highway, built in 1916-17. Along that historic route, also in Oregon, the state is installing similar wooden guardrails with hidden modern guardrails behind them. And an Arizona study identifies rails of this type as first being used in the 30’s. It is hard to date roads by safety features because they were updated over the years. But they weren’t retrofitted with older railings! So maybe these railings are old. They sure are weathered.


The road past the guardrail site ran along the face of a low cliff, placing the car about 20 feet above the modern highway which was directly below. Having driven the modern highway, I know the old roadbed is hidden by the angle of sight upward. However a white family sedan driving directly overhead would be visible, and appear to be driving on a “ghost road.”


The following photo looking north shows a car passing below on the modern road.




You will get a nice view south down the old and new roads in 3D or use the animated GIF HERE.



In the next section of this post we will explore the old stage stop inn and a vintage service station site.

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KTSOTR, these are fabulous articles, and so chock full of neat information that I can hardly take it all in. I am glad for your animated "3-D" gifs, by the way, because due to an eye injury at birth I can't see in 3-D. I live in a 2-D world!


Seeing these photos, I am itching to put my car on the old paved road. For the dirt road, maybe I'll bring my mountain bike.



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KTSOTR, these are fabulous articles, and so chock full of neat information that I can hardly take it all in. I am glad for your animated "3-D" gifs, by the way, because due to an eye injury at birth I can't see in 3-D. I live in a 2-D world!


Seeing these photos, I am itching to put my car on the old paved road. For the dirt road, maybe I'll bring my mountain bike.





First, I’m pleased that the animated Gif’s add a measure of 3D. They switch quickly between left and right eye views, thus helping display the depth in the image. I’ll include them in the future whenever I do 3D.


This little three or four miles was a real surprise and treat. I have to admit that had I not been juiced up with your alignment reports, I would have passed this opportunity by for the 25th time. It turned out to be a terrific “discovery.”


But I kept saying to myself, “You are going to get yourself into a tight spot if you don’t watch out.” There was no danger because the highway was just a short distance away, but it was hitch hike ville if I got stuck because there is no town for many miles, and no cell phone coverage. As it turned out, other than pushing a few rocks out of the way, it was clear sailing.


I’d kick around getting another 4 wheel drive with high clearance for these trips, but my experience is that they just get you into real trouble. Been there, done that. You take a high clearance vehicle further in, and when the bottom drops out, you have more miles to hike out. Or you lose the vehicle, as I almost did a couple of times. For a 40 year old with a mountain bike, that just adds to the adventure. As you approach your 7th decade, it starts to take on a whole different perspective!


As a digression, I remember biking in Wales and Scotland at 37. I thought, the worst thing that will happen is I’ll have to sleep out in the rain beside the road in my poncho. No problem. Today, I think, if I have to sleep out here along the road, I’ll die! No complaints at all, just a little different perspective!


Thanks for the comments. I needed that!


Keep the show on the Road

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I am soooooo not into losing my vehicle. I'm such a wussbag when it comes to driving an abandoned road or in difficult terrain. I will creep along at 1/2 mph if I have to, feeling what each tire transmits to my butt as I go, my clutch foot hovering, my right heel ready to pivot to the brake, if the car feels even slightly not planted. I still explore, just with all the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.


I'll bet you're right about why the Dalles-California road is clear and driveable. Funny how governments will just let roads rot unless there's a good reason to keep them open. But I have to stop looking at the photos now because they're making me want to spend my whole day looking for old alignments, when I have to go see my kids play soccer in 30 minutes and then spend the rest of the day at chores. I'm going out to Terre Haute tomorrow to see a friend; maybe I'll revisit the old alignments along US 40 as I go. Goooooodness, sometimes this feels a little like the alcoholic who hasn't had a drink in a few days.



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