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My Oregon Trail Odyssey

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My search for the Oregon Trail has started. This past weekend I was fortunate enough to spend some time with my youngest son on the Snake River in Hells Canyon. On the way back home I took the time for some trail searching. This post will be the first of many, I hope, documenting my search for visible evidence of the Oregon Trail and highways/roads located on or near the trail.


The first pictures were taken on the Sisley Creek Road just north of the Weatherby Rest area off of I-84. This road is located on top of the actual Trail. The emigrants used this route to get around Gold Mountain, which could not be climbed with the wagons and oxen.






The next images were taken in Birnie Park on the south edge of La Grande, Or. It is a City Park situated on the location of an emigrant campground along side the OT. This park contains some excellent education info for kids and adults which makes it a good stop if you are following the Trail. The actual trail ran just to the left of this picture.




This picture was taken looking south from Birnie Park and shows "B" Avenue in La Grande going up the hill from left to right. The actual Trail runs under "B" Avenue.




The next series of pictures was taken in the Deadman's Pass area along I-84. There are two rest areas at this exit, one for eastbound and one for westbound traffic. The first picture is of an Oregon Trail Marker located on the South side of the east bound rest area. Next to the marker there is a steel stairway over the fence leading to some visible Oregon Trail Swales. There are at least two sets and maybe more as it is hard to tell, but they are approximately 100 yards long.




These two images are of the actual swales, portions of which are visible without climbing over the fence.






From this spot in the eastbound rest area, you can sight diagonally across I-84 to the south side of the other rest area and visualize the actual route of the Trail through the interchange. Located just to the south of the westbound rest area you can find these swales leading up the hill towards the Pendleton area. There appear to be at least two swales here.......one I am standing in while taking this picture and one just to the other side of the large tree. The tree is growing on the hump between the trails.




This next image was taken just slightly to the right of the last one and may show a third set of tracks leading up the same hill......I'm just not for sure. It is really hard to tell when standing there and even harder in the pictures!




That was all for this trip, but I plan on taking my grandson on an Oregon Trail Discovery Trip this summer. We plan on doing a Power Point Presentation together so he can report on our trip for his history class next year. He is 9 years old and we are really looking forward to the trip. I also plan on updating this thread as time goes along with my "discoveries" of Oregon Trail history an actual swales. I just hope this is as enjoyable for some of you as it is for me.









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I love the photos!


And curse curse, I was within a stone’s throw of the Sisley Creek site not long ago, and didn’t even realize it! :angry: I was following the old (not new) Oregon Trail Highway and went through Lime. I even pulled off at Weatherby to see if I could pick up the old highway again.


Franzwa in his The Oregon Trail Revisited book says the Sisley Creek road is pretty hair raising. Is it? Of course I think he drives a Lincoln Town car!!


Gees I hate to miss anything as good as the Sisley Creek road….but thank goodness there is another day! Thanks for the heads up!!


Huntington, south of Lime, is one of my favorite hamburger stops, and just a couple of miles south of town is the marker for the ending site of the Utter massacre. Did you spot the site…or were you on the interstate?


Lets see some more goodies! :)


Keep the Show on the Road!




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  • 3 weeks later...

Nothing much new at this point. I just returned from a flying trip to the mid west and did not have the opportunity to do any Oregon Trail explorations either on the way there or back. I did have many hours to marvel at the country through which the early travelers came. They were a hardy bunch of people!


There will be more trail stuff coming in the next month. My grandson and I will be following the trail as closely as we can through Eastern Oregon.

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  • 2 months later...

As stated above, earlier this summer, my grandson and I decided that we would follow the Oregon Trail for a summer adventure. Due to some family issues and Johnathon’s visits with his aunt, we did not get to start until 8-25. We started from his house in La Grande, OR early that morning and headed to Nyssa, OR. The trail crossed the Snake River from Fort Boise a few miles south of Nyssa and came right through here.




This was our first stop on the Trail and there is one of the many OR info kiosks here.....




That is Johnathon ready for the adventure! There are also some barely visible ruts behind this marker heading up towards the southern OR desert.




We followed some county roads up into the hills from here and ended up on the South Alternate Route of the Trail which intersects with the main trail several miles from here. This road is right on top of the SA Route. My guess is the pavement, corn, building and horse trailer were not here then.....




We headed up towards Keeny Pass and started seeing markers like these...




and ......




The brown markers have been placed by the Oregon and California Trails Association while the concrete ones are by the BLM. They mark the trail and are usually located in actual swales.



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So you may ask yourself, what is a "swale?" I did .........


A swale is the rut made by the passage of wagons pulled by oxen. Today we think of an old country/dirt road as a couple of ruts the width of the average vehicle using the road. These "new" dirt roads have a raise center as there is nothing on that section - only under the wheels.


But in the old days, there were animals pulling the wagons. So not only did the trail wear under the wagon wheels, but also in the center where the animals walked. This resulted in "ruts" becoming a wide depression in the ground, slightly wider than the track of the wagon. Today they look like this.......




Johnathon is standing in a "swale" of the original trial at Keeney Pass. Just behind the one in which he is standing is another swale. One of the things you learn quickly is that these settlers did not like dust any better than we do and they spread out and go side-by-side when space permits.


Here is another picture from just up the hill showing the swales as they head up and over the hill towards what is now Vale, OR.




There is a pull off at Keeney Passs, which is where these pics were taken, where you can park and walk up to the top of the hill to get an idea of what a days travel was then. Looking east you can see back towards Fort Boise..




and west you look towards Vale......




Several miles down the road is a sobering reminder of the reality of life and death on the trail.......






This was Johnathon's favorite part of the trip!


The marker states that John D. Henderson died on August 9, 1852. The original inscription that was scratched in the rock by the settlers is shown in the first picture. A historical marker about 100 yards from the actual grave, stated that he died of black measles. This is believed to be historically accurate. However, the new marker at the grave site states he died of thirst.


This falsehood was started in the 1930s by a third grader from Vale who wrote a paper stating John Henderson died of thirst when they were only 1/2 mile from the Malheur River. This story was passed on as true and was given as the reason for the death when the new marker was erected. Historical research has shown however that he really died of measles.


ore to cNorth of Vale we turned into the desert and followed a primitive road called "The Old Oregon Trail Road." It is the OT and follows the trail as it goes through the desert heading towards Farewell Bend.





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We followed this road for a couple of miles and were just getting to where we could really experience the desolation they must have felt when we came upon this.......




This gate is across a public road and it has a no trespassing sign. I do not think this is legal and asked a farmer that I ran into back towards town about it. He stated the road is open and could not be posted. I decided that I was not in familiar country and would be looked on as an outsider. In addition, I had my grandson with me and I did not want to set any kind of a bad example for him. We did not go pat the sign. Instead we backtracked and headed to Farewell Bend on the highway.


There was some good came out of this however, as we stopped at the Ontario airport and saw these.......








Even though we were more interested in older history, these gave us the chance to talk about Vietnam. Kind of interesting to see these one time adversaries next to each other.


Before we headed for Huntington, via old Route 30 we found these marked swailes SW of Farewell Bend State Park. They are up on the hill on the west side of I-84.




This view is NE towards Farewell Bend.......


The next picture is of Farewell Bend State Park. We had planned to camp here, but it was way too early in the day to stop.....




So we headed towards Huntington.


This view is looking back down the hill towards Farewell Bend SP. The trail runs to the right of the highway. They were heading into one of the toughest sections of the Trail at this point.




The view down towards Huntington.......




We ate a late lunch in Huntington at the old Streamliner Restaurant......






Now apparently known as Howells Cafe.......




They have a killer hamburger, which I will review under a separate heading. Take my word........this place is worth a detour for a burger!


I am going to stop for now.....I am tired and it is late. More to come...

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Terrific report and photos! I have to go back and re read it so I can place each site.


The hamburger at Huntington is great, but you were beat to posting the photo here by yours truly B) .....but great minds and hamburger testers run in the same circles! ;)


Did you notice the tin ceiling?


Looking forward to further posts! Great stuff....and it is nice to see it done historically correct!


Keep the Show on thne Road!



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I wondered if this was the place you referenced? And yes, I did notice the ceiling.........




This was a very nice place with friendly people. I was suffering some heat issues when we were there and they rearranged an AC vent to blow on me! I'll stop there again.





That's the place! And you are right....great people. And a great burger. Here is my bit on it.




I'm really enjoying your trip! Keep it coming!


Keep the Show on te Road!



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It is fun to travel with you because you know and appreciate the history of the Oregon Trail…and have a good “nose” for a great burger! As I have joked before, all that fat can kill you, but when you’re too old to die young, you might as well enjoy it!


You mentioned in the other thread that the freeway follows the trail better than the Old Oregon Trail Highway. I wouldn’t be surprised! A lot of the commercial exploitation of the trail doesn’t, and didn’t, worry too much about historical accuracy. And for lots of travelers, one swale is as good as another!


For me, your kind of concern for the authentic is superior. I don’t think everyone “feels” the empty landscape and places the people, wagons, oxen, and dust….lots of dust….in the scene. It takes time to develop an understanding and appreciation of what it was like….and many don’t care. I don’t say that critically….I don’t like Disneyland, but that doesn’t make me wrong….and if someone prefers Disneyland over the Oregon Trail…I feel blessed they are at Disneyland! To each his own!


It looks like the new rig is coming in handy. And what a wonderful thing to be able to share it with your grandson. He may be a little young to appreciate the trail, but he won’t forget the time with his grandfather. He will treasure it. In fact, our time and attention is probably the biggest gift we can give.


Were there many (any?) locomotives at the big switchyard at Huntington? That usually pleases youngsters.


Looking forward to the “rest of the story!”


Keep the Show on the Road!




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After leaving Huntington, the Trail mostly follows along the Burnt River. I sometimes was actually in the river as it was the flattest place to run the wagons. As an interesting sidelight...........following the actual Trail, one thing you tend to notice is the way these people managed to find the "easiest" route to follow. They were not civil engineers, but the people mapping the trail managed to find the route with the least slope to follow.


One reason for this is obviously the lack of pulling power. With two oxen and a heavy load, there is only so much incline that could be climbed, but the other issue is one I would never have thought of. These wagons were both tall and narrow, and because of this they had to go either straight up or straight down a hill. Otherwise they took a huge risk of rolling sideways down the hill. There just weren't any switch backs on any sections of the Trail that I have seen.


For going down steep hills they would lock the rear wheels with something like these:






They would lock the rear wheel and slide down the hill to give themselves some control. These people were tough and found simple solutions to some tough problems.


Now back to the trip........


We are on Sisley Creek Road....I was on this one earlier in the summer. The first time, I missed a turn and did not get to follow it to the end, but this time we went all the way. Franzwa states in his booke that this is the worst part of the trip due to the road conditions, but it is easily doable in any family car. It is all gravel road.


At this point, we are on the OT. It runs under the modern road..






In this next image you can see the road below that we were on. You are looking back towards the Burnt River and the way they came from the Huntington area. It somewhere along here that they got their first view of the larger mountains to the West. They must have made a huge impression on the flatlanders.




This next image is up on top of the hill as we come over the top. This is not exactly on the trail, it runs off to the right of this picture, but gives you some idea of what they were seeing.






We are now down in the valley and back on the Trail again....






As you come down into the valley and rejoin the modern highway, you find an old log cabin.




This cabin was the house of the teacher who taught in the school house on the other side of the road. Of course, I did not get a picture of the school.


At this point we got back on Old Hwy 30 and mostly drove. We did stop to take a couple of pics, but for the most part we were done for the day.....I was exhausted.








Look familiar Dave?!


North of Durkee Hwy 30 climbs out of the valley and so does the trail. In this picture there is a good set of ruts to the right of the road.......




At this point, we decided to drive back to La Grande and stay at my son's house for the night. Sleeping on the ground in a rain storm just didn't seem to appealing. This was a great day and we saw a lot of history. More to come........



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Hurray! Hurray! Great job! Enjoyed every bit of it. I felt like I was there. And despite the fact that I have lived in Oregon and Washington for well over a quarter century, I have not taken the Sisley Creek road.


Yes, I do recognize the old motel! And the brick school.


And every time I think my years of old roads and trails interest makes me a semi “expert” I learn something I should have known. When I have seen mention of chains I figured that they locked the wheels and drug the chains under the rim.


Your observation about straight up or down the hill is also interesting. The ruts I saw in Nebraska were exactly that, straight up a hill, and the center of balance thing makes sense. But when I have followed freight wagon roads in Oregon, they definitely made some effort to reduce the grade, even to the extent of building rock walls on the downslope side. Perhaps the difference is that the pioneers expected to take the trail once, and the freighters many times…and there were no road departments!


You were apparently using Franzwa’s book. He is my old road and trail “hero.” He has done more solid road and trail documentation than anyone else in the world. You may also recognize the name Glen Adams (Ye Galleon Press). He was another guy who made “history,” in Glen’s case by publishing obscure but essential pieces of Northwest history…including some on the Mullen Road.


I have wandered….eagerly looking for the rest of the story!


Keep the Show on the Road!





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After an early morning stop at Mikey D's we headed for Baker City, OR, where we left off the previous day. We started east of Baker City on Hwy 86, just below the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. There is a stone obelisk erected in 1943 by the Baker City Kiwanis Club to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Trail.






From this point you can see the OT Interpretive Center High up on Flagstaff Hill over looking the Baker Valley. About 1/2 way in the picture, just behind the 1st hill, is the actual Oregon Trail.




This marker is several hundred feet east and on the other side of the highway. It talks about gold mining in the Virtue Flat area and doesn't say much about the Trail, but the inquisitive traveler will notice and gateway through the fence just to the right.....




40 or 50 feet from the fence is this marker......




Following the paved path from this leads to .......




Yep, you guessed it, ruts. Johnathon is standing next to one of the OCTA Markers which is in the middle of one of the swales running through here. If you weren't curious about the sign beyond the fence, you would not know these are here. My guess is most people go up to the Interpretive Center and then walk 1/2 mile back down to the Trail.


This next picture should give you some idea of how deep these swales are....maybe 18" deep. If I remember correctly there were about 3 of these side by side in this area.





It was from just about here that the emigrants got their first view of the Baker Valley and the Blue Mountains beyond......




From the Trail we went up to the Interpretive Center, but did not go in. We had been there earlier in the summer. I took this picture of Johnathon next to an original type wagon from the 1890s. They just did not have much space to bring their worldly goods and had to be very selective to bring necessities, but not too much.





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I have read that many of the emigrants tried to bring too much stuff and had to dump some of their heavier possessions along the trail. There were unscrupulous people in the St. Joeseph, MO area, at the start of the trail, who would go out along the trail and pick up the discarded junk. They would haul this back to St. Joe and sell it to the next group of travelers from the east, at which time the cycle would start again. Capitalism was a live and well in the early to mid 1800s.


From the top of Flagstaff Hill you can look over the Virtue Flat area and see where the trail came from the south.


The trail cannot be seen in this picture but it ran from about 60% up on the left side to almost the lower right hand corner.




Franswa's book indicates that there are several miles of ruts out in that area, but had no directions on how to find them. There is also the private property issue .........however, I thought why not see what we could find.......


The next two pictures were taken a couple of miles south of the Interpretive Center. The first is looking back towards Flagstaff Hill and is taken from the ruts we found out there. These are very clearly OT ruts,as they follow Franzwa's maps exactly, but they are not marked. It almost makes you feel like and explorer......or not!




This picture is taken from the same spot looking south over the gated property. The trail ran mostly straight south from here and went up the hill.




The next image was taken from the Interpretive Center and looks out over the Baker Valley. The trail runs from the left out into the valley. This is included as reference because our trip now heads north through this valley and towards the Grande Rhonde.




The next series of pictures are taken from the approximate location of the Trail as is crossed the Baker Valley. You can see the Interpretive Center on top of Flagstaff Hill to the left. The Trail comes down the hill in the center. Each subsequent image is taken as the trail crosses the valley.








From this point the trial turns slightly and goes towards modern North Powder.




It can't be seen from these images, but the trail ran more or less straight through the valley until here and it made a turn. The reason for this route.........just a little east of here is a hill and they usually went around hills to avoid the elevation change as much as possible.


And believe it or not, there are still original swales out in the middle of all this farm land............to the left of the pavement is the Oregon Trail. It runs off towards the house in the distance. Why in the heck these have survived is beyond me......





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The next image is of the Power River and the dugway that was cut for the crossing of the river. It is kind of hard to see, but the single tree is growing right in the middle of it.




To the east, more original ruts....




Not too far from here, Marie Dorian excused herself from the wagons and went into the bushes to give birth to the first native born, white Oregonian. She rejoined the wagons the next day on down the trail. I've said it before, but these people were tough.


Leaving North Powder and going west on I-84, the trail is never very far away. It runs along the highway on the northeast side for about 8 miles. At this point, the highway leaves the trail for a couple of miles.....it turns to the right but the trail runs straight up the hill. In the next picture, the trail came from the right side of the highway and ran up the hill where the interstate bends right. You can see the faint outline going up the hill in the distance on the left side of the photo.




The next picture is taken from the other side of the hill looking to where the trail came over the top. I believe it crested the hill in the center of the picture where there is a sudden change in elevation of the crest. It ran down the hill to the right of the highway and crossed just about where I was standing........




From here the trail ran straight up the hill in the distance and through the cut in the center of the picture where it ran down into what the settlers named the Grande Rhonde.




This hill is part of the southern rim of the Grande Rhonde or Big Round. It was named because the valley is in the shape of a large circle and is surrounded by tall mountains.


From here the highway departs the original route again and you have to ask why did they take what appears to be a harder route. The highway descends into the Grande Rhonde through Ladd Canyon, which appears to be an easer route today than the route they followed. My guess is that before the highway, the canyon was impassable to wagons. There probably wasn't enough flat ground to run one through it, so over the hill they went.


Time for bed tonight......I should finish up tomorrow.











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I know the Baker - North Powder area fairly well, and your photos and story did it credit.


One thing that might be interesting to add is that the movie notion of a long line of wagons crossing the flats as around North Powder and the Grand Ronde Valley is not real. One reason for parallel tracks is that they spread out to avoid the dust thrown up by the oxen and wheels of the wagon in front.


One of the comments you made was about tossing out belongings. Oregon Trail writers seldom reflect on what it was like to arrive in a new land with little more than the cloths on your back. Especially in the early years, what they didn’t lose on the trail, they lost at The Dalles, or in the Columbia. Imagine arriving in Oregon in the fall, just as six months of rain begins, with no shelter, no fences, no food, and not much other than the charity of strangers.


Looking forward to the next installment!


Keep the Show on the Road!

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One thing that might be interesting to add is that the movie notion of a long line of wagons crossing the flats as around North Powder and the Grand Ronde Valley is not real. One reason for parallel tracks is that they spread out to avoid the dust thrown up by the oxen and wheels of the wagon in front.

Actually Hutch did mention this back on the 14th. Your mind may have already been on that hamburger so you missed it. :lol:


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Actually Hutch did mention this back on the 14th. Your mind may have already been on that hamburger so you missed it. :lol:




The 14th.....Geeees, I don't remember what happened yesterday! :o You expect me to remember clear back to the 14th?! But maybe that is where I got the information to begin with....and who says it doesn't bear repeating!! :rolleyes:


Say, did I tell you about the chains they used to lock the wheels on steep slopes..... :lol:


Keep the Show on the Road!



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As far as multiple swales running next to each other..........




It is hard to capture these with a camera, but looking across this image you can see what is a kind of "wavy" appearance of the tumbleweed etc. The OCTA marker stands in the middle of the trail here and there appears to be at least 3 sets of ruts. There may have been more, but they have been erased under the paved road. These are located on the run up to Keeney Pass in southern OR.

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  • 3 years later...

Hi -


I thought you might be interested in knowing about a new children's e-book about the Oregon Trail entitled West to Oregon with Ollie Ox!


It's a great book for kids to read before or while experiencing the trail so they understand more about what they are seeing. It really pulls them into the whole trail experience.


You can check it out at: www.WestToOregon.com.



Quote from Jim Tompkins, President of the Northwest Chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association: "I opened my Nook and downloaded a copy, read it and was surprised how good it was. True to its topic."


Quote from Paula Thacker, Historic Interpreter at the End of the Trail Center in Oregon City: "I love this book! Authors seem to feel they need to sacrifice historical accuracy to get a good story or sacrifice a good story for the facts. You do a great job keeping both intact and fun."




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  • 6 years later...

Gee Hutchman, thanks a lot.

I mean seriously.

You had to bump it up.

I was all set for my usual Friday routine of paying my bills and editing a few photos but thanks to you I instead spent the last 3 hours doing google searches of the Oregon Trail, placing pins in Google Earth for every interesting location I can find,  planning a route there and back, estimating miles and expenses for 3 different route scenarios, and determining if this will be a solo trip or I if I will be able to convince a traveling companion to come along. Later I am going to have to figure out how much marital capital I am willing to expend to make it happen.

I hope your happy with yourself.

(/sarcasm) 😉

Sarcasm aside, this post inspired me. Oregon Trail has been on the back burner for a long time and its high time that I push it a litle higher on the destination list. I've traveled western sections of the Pony Express and Transcontinental Railroad and I think the Oregon Trail would complete the holy trinity of pre-automobile western migration routes that haven't been completely covered in asphalt.

While I've got you here, can you recommend a good, informative, and entertaining book on the topic? 

Also, I'm glad you took your grandson along. I'm certain it will be a time that he treasures later on in life.


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Great stories and photos! How did you manage the river crossings? Did you caulk your wagon or ford the river?

I haven't seen much of the Oregon Trail myself. Mostly bicycling over Barlow Pass, driving over South Pass and seeing the marker for the "three corners?", and the wagon ruts near Ft. Laramie, WY. I always find it interesting how trails like these, so important in the past, become relegated to side roads (if even that) in modern times.

Grande Ronde is also the site of a volcano from many millions of years ago, possibly a caldera. I'll have to look that up again.

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