Oregon wagon route provides a path to history

By Paul Fattig
Medford, Oregon (AP) September 2012

Although eroded by the winds of time and encroached upon by dog-hair thickets, remnants of a wagon road that paved the way for pioneers from Jacksonville to Fort Klamath nearly 150 years ago still can be seen in Crater Lake National Park.

Opening at the end of August in 1865, the rustic road was an important route back when Oregon was young, observed park historian Steve Mark. It was used for about half a century.

“At one point, there were 90 wagons from the Rogue Valley heading over this wagon road,” Mark said of a late 1860s wagon train.

“They were filling an oat contract,” he added. “In those early days, agricultural commodities for the soldiers at the fort were brought over from the Rogue Valley. That was a valuable source of income for the residents around Jacksonville and Ashland.”

For 4 cents a pound, farmers could have agriculture products shipped by Teamsters from regional hub Jacksonville to the fort, he noted.

“That wasn’t so bad when considering every other route where the freight cost was 5 cents or more,” Mark said.

In a Sept. 2, 1865, article in the Oregon Sentinel in Jacksonville, Franklin B. Sprague reported the new wagon road would be completed late in August, creating a roughly 32-mile vital link in the nearly 100-mile trek from Jacksonville to the fort.

It would be about 6 miles longer than an established road around the base of Mount McLoughlin, but easier on wagon teams, he noted.

“The summit is reached by a grade not greater than the hill back of Jacksonville, on the Applegate road,” Sprague wrote, referring to the divide between the Rogue and Klamath watersheds.

“The decline on the Klamath side is so gentle that in the dark a man could scarcely tell whether he was going up or down,” he added.

To help wagon masters, he included a list of the camps where water and grass could be found en route.

Capt. Sprague knew of what he wrote, having commanded I Company, a unit of the 1st Oregon Volunteer Infantry Regiment that blazed the new wagon road over the Cascades in summer 1865.

Sprague, for whom the Sprague River in Klamath County was named, was instrumental during pioneer days in initiating scenic tourism of the lake he had dubbed “Lake Majesty,” Mark said.

Moreover, a spur wagon road he and his men built from the main road provided access to the lake for some 40 years, he added.

Previously a constable in Perkinsville, now known as Grants Pass, Sprague joined the I Company when it formed in March 1865. At the time, Sprague, then 39, ran a flour milling company in Gasburg, now called Phoenix.

He and 20 men from I Company, the lion’s share from the Rogue Valley, were ordered to blaze the road over the Cascades that summer. Before being deployed to Fort Klamath, the company was based at Camp Baker, a military encampment about one mile southwest of Phoenix.

Fort Klamath on the Wood River was established in summer 1863 under the command of Maj. C.S. Drew to provide a connecting point for supplies from the Rogue Valley. It was also near an anticipated Indian reservation and would serve as a base for military operations against the Paiutes in southeastern Oregon, Mark explained.

Sprague was directed to find an improved wagon road over the Cascades so the fort could be supplied.

“When Sprague and his Oregon Volunteers came over the mountains, they did part of their trek cross-country over what is now Dead Indian Memorial Road,” Mark said. “After they reached the fort, they almost immediately started looking for a new route over the mountains.”

In dispatches to the Sentinel that summer, Sprague kept Rogue Valley residents apprised of his unit’s progress. When he mentioned that their grub was running low, Rogue Valley farmer William Bybee brought over a load of potatoes and other vegetables, Mark said.

About 14 of the original 22 miles of wagon road inside the park still exist, said Mark, who hopes to place the segment on the National Register of Historic Places.

“This wagon road connected you with the existing Rogue River wagon road, which was the link to John Day and the northern mines,” Mark said, adding the two roads hooked up near present-day Union Creek.

Of course, the road was only open three or four months a year, depending on how much snow piled up the previous winter and how early the snow flew in the fall, he said.

“Snow was always a concern,” he said.

In July 1865, Sprague found what he called the “summit” over the mountains. As the raven flies, the divide is about four miles southwest of Crater Lake.

A huge mountain hemlock towering over the old road just shy of the divide would have been there when the wagon road was built, Mark said during a recent hike to the site.

“I’m sure the big trees on both sides here were there at the time,” he said. “They would avoid those, cutting out the little ones with axes.

“The road came up through the gully,” he said, pointing down the hill. “Remember, there were no drainage facilities back then. The road here filled in over time.”

But a practiced eye can pick it out, he said.

“You can often tell the wagon road today when you see stretches about eight feet wide – the width of a scraper back then,” he said.

He and volunteers have searched for artifacts along different segments of the road but have been stymied by the pumice ash in the soil created when Mount Mazama blew its top some 7,700 years ago, carving out the caldera that now holds Crater Lake.

“Artifacts can literally swim in this pumice soil,” he said. “You can look in year No. 1, year No. 2 and so on without finding anything. Then year seven, something pops up where you were looking.”

Among the items found along the wagon road include a link in a chain uncovered in August 1996. It may have been used in hauling goods over the rugged road, according to researchers.

Another relic is a heavy tin that had been sealed with lead.

“It probably contained sardines,” Mark said.

There is no mistaking a metal container whose thick metal bottom is partially rusted through.

“Coffee pot,” Mark said as he picked it up.

The handle is wired to the main stem, indicating those early-day travelers weren’t above making do when it came to preparing their cowboy coffee.

“We usually leave things like this in the field,” Mark said.

But it was found close to an area where visitors may have happened upon it, prompting its removal for safekeeping, he said.

Another item is a rusted ax head of a type and size that would have been used to make blazes in trees back in the 1860s. The head was found last fall about 100 feet east of Highway 62 and just north of the south entrance near the wagon road bed.

“Everything we’ve found related to the wagon road are all everyday items,” he said, noting it is conceivable they were connected to wagon road travelers.

“Parts of it, at least in what is now the park, were not changed significantly until about 1902,” the year the park was established, he said. “Other pieces of it were not changed or realigned until the teens.”

The Oregon State Highway Commission was not established until 1917.

“Oregon was pretty late getting itself out of the mud,” he said. “Washington and California were ahead of Oregon on that.”

Drivers speeding along Highway 62 today follow tracks of short segments of the wagon road, he said.

A spur wagon road was blazed up to the south rim of the lake in 1869 where blazes on mountain hemlocks still mark the way. The spur road ended at a camp site that is now a picnic area for today’s tourists.

Jacksonville pioneer Peter Britt and his son, Emil, used the spur road to access the lake.

“The two Britts had problems following it because it had just been blazed,” Mark said. “But this would have been a preemo camp spot for them.”

It was not far from that campsite at the end of the spur wagon road that Peter Britt took the first-ever photograph of the lake on Aug. 12, 1874.