Saturday
Aug162014

Hidden History - Chapter 1

In the early years of Willamette Valley settlement---when a few miles to the nearest store might mean a day long journey over bad roads, when each creek or river meant a ford or fetty---modest crossroad villages were often found every few miles.

In time travel became easier, spurring new growth for some of those country hamlets, while dooming others. That was the sort of change that faced the places we visit in this volume. Yet even when their commercial hearts stopped beating, many remained viable residential centers, home to new generations of commuters.

 

 

HIDDEN HISTORY

 

The Oregon story is a saga of legendary proportions. On one hand, it tells the tale of romantic journeys to the Promised Land. On the other, it depicts in harsh reality the forbidding trek through the inhospitable heartland of the continent. In that fabled wagon-train era of western migration the rich promise of the Oregon Country could not be contemplated without considering the intimidating ordeal of getting there. The two were inseparable parts of a single dream.

Unless one opted for an onerous ocean voyage around the southern reaches of South America, getting to Oregon in the 1840s meant a four or five month overland adventure on the Oregon Trail. At the end of that trail was the free land they were seeking, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In a very real way the valley was the reason for, and in time would become the product of, the Oregon Trail. 

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s thousands of intrepid travelers wagered their futures on the promise of a new life in the magic land of Oregon. In the best of times the journey toward that promise was long and brutal. Many walked the entire two thousand miles from the Mississippi to the Willamette. Hundreds did not live to complete the trip. Still they came, wave after wave, drawn by the seductive promise of free land and a fresh start in this new Eden.

Once there, their seeking had likely not ended. Each spring eager homesteaders headed south from their winter camps around Oregon City, their eyes peeled for that special piece of land they had seen so often in their dreams. With luck it would offer just the right combination of good water, fertile grassland, and tall timber. For many it would be less than that---simply the best they could find. Each spring new ground was cleared, new crops were planted, and the march of new farmsteads continued southward down the Willamette Valley.

Each influx of hopeful migrants left it’s particular imprint on the pattern of valley settlement. River crossings became ferry landings. Ferry crossings became villages. Isolated crossroads gave birth to country stores. Schools and churches brought a civilizing touch to the new frontier hamlets.

It was wheat farming that fueled the first stages of pioneer homesteading. The rich valley soil and moist, temperate climate combined to create a natural grainery. In turn the annual harvest provided the raw materials for the valley’s first industry. Flour mills sprang up along rushing valley streams, milling grain for local consumption and shipment downriver to Oregon City, Portland, and beyond. 

By 1849 the Willamette Valley was home to hundreds of new and hopeful farming ventures. But cash markets for their produce, mainly in Oregon City and Portland, were extremely limited. Then, overnight the newly discovered goldfields of California not only drew away a substantial portion of the valley’s male population, they also created a prime market for the region’s agricultural output. 

The demand for wheat and meat exploded. Heavily-laden pack trains crowded the primitive trails through Southern Oregon to the Mother Lode country. Wheat prices went as high as $6.00 a bushel. While the boom lasted it provided an unexpected bonanza for Willamette Valley growers with extra crops and livestock to sell. Many of the earliest homestead improvements were financed by the lucrative California trade.

The 1850s were a time of rapid transition for the fledgling Oregon Territory. The continuing stream of newcomers pushed deeper into the foothills on either side of the valley. Although the road system had expanded and improved, winter rains could still bring travel to an effective standstill.

As the need for better year-round transportation grew the Willamette River was being transformed into the valley’s lifeline. By 1855 a growing fleet of paddle-wheel steamboats plied the upper river from Oregon City to Harrisburg, reshaping the trade and settlement patterns of the entire valley. Primitive landings blossomed into regional shipping centers, linking isolated pioneer farms and mills to the growing Portland market and beyond. For twenty years the riverboat trade would dominate the valley’s commerce. During those years the primary port cities of Salem, Albany, and Corvallis would cement their claims as major trade centers.

The 1870s brought another transportation revolution to the young state. Twin railroads pushed south from Portland, one on each side of the Willamette River. In a matter of months remote trackside stations spawned a new corp of vigorous, young towns. Thriving river ports faded overnight as the faster, better located rail lines syphoned freight and passenger trade from the riverboats. Not all the railroad town survived. But many did, taking their place in the maturing shape of valley settlement.

The patterns of settlement would evolve more slowly during the last decades of the nineteenth century. The state’s population continued to grow. Major trade centers built on earlier successes, creating vital and dynamic cities. As the pioneer era drew to a close yet another revolutionizing influence began to impact life in the Willamette Valley.

The automobile, and the vastly improved network of roads it spawned, became the last great molder of valley settlement. Distances, as measured in time, were greatly reduced. It was no longer necessary to locate shopping and social centers only a few miles apart. The smaller, less viable crossroad communities had lost their reason to exist.

Dozens of hamlets and villages had been born during the formative years of valley settlement. If fortune smiled on them they became prosperous, perhaps destined for greatness. However, at each step of the valley’s long evolution some communities could not survive the surviving patterns of transportation and trade. For every vision fulfilled, there were many others that saw exuberant boom turn to disappointing bust.

Today those “dream” towns are largely forgotten. Every evening we flee our towns and cities, scattering across the valley and foothills to suburban and rural homes. We trace the the asphalt web of high speed highways and twisting backroads with little thought of the hidden history represented by the road names and crossroads we pass.

One hundred and sixty years ago, a few short seconds in the Willamette’s Valley natural history, our ancestors struggled mightily to create that now-hidden history. For most of them there was little thought of posterity. They were not interested in creating history. Their’s was a higher cause---to create a more secure home for their growing families, a better future for their children.

There is a certain sadness in knowing that a stop sign, a bridge, or a road name is all the remains to remind us of decades of hopeful town building. It seems so little to show for the investment of time, effort, and dreams it represents. And what of the once busy townsites where even the most modest of tributes are absent? What of  the open cropland and lush pasture that was once home a country store, saloon, stables, and other stuff of pioneer society?

The pages that follow recount bits of those times---stories of extravagant history recalled by little more than a country school or roadside church---of history so well hidden it defies precise detection. In some cases an imaginative appreciation of a site’s history must serve in absence of tangible evidence.

These are thumbnail sketches, some more detailed than others, as limited sources dictate. We have made no attempt to reconstruct the in-depth story of each town or village. If a particular site excites your curiosity local libraries, historical societies, and the internet are prime sources of greater detail.

And finally, if these sketches stir an interest in some often neglected corner of Willamette Valley history by all means translate that interest into a leisurely tour or two, following the directions included with each story. Perhaps you'll find that in this day of freeway frenzy there is a certain therapy in backroad exploration, even when the destination is now an empty field.

As you drive, try to “feel” that time when six or eight miles to the nearest store might mean a day-long trip, when each creek or river meant a ford, a ferry, or if the water was too high, an impassible obstacle. Your respect for the resourceful settlers of the Willamette Valley, and their hidden history, is bound to increase.