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Old Oregon Trail Highway


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#1 Keep the Show on the Road!

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Posted 04 August 2007 - 06:33 PM

The old Oregon Trail is known to just about every American as a pioneer route from Missouri to the Oregon country.; Fewer realize that one of the old auto trails took the name in the 1920’s;.and was known as the Old Oregon Trail Highway. It didn’t get the attention of great old auto trails such as the Lincoln, the Midland, the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean, National Old Trails, or the Yellowstone Trail. None the less, it was a well traveled route, and is one of the few examples where a modern freeway retains the auto trail name.

I followed the route in Oregon last week (July 24-26, 2007) from the Snake River on the Idaho border to the Columbia River along the Washington border, over the Blue Mountains. As my guides I used the 1926 Old Oregon Trail Highway Guide, a 1919 Automobile Blue Book, a 1935 Gousha Guide, and the 1939 WPA Oregon Trail Guide..



The 1925 PulVers Highway Map of the Old Oregon Trail below shows the route from Ontario to Umatilla, as I drove it.


PulVers 1925 Map of the Old Oregon Trail Highway


I spent Tuesday night in Ontario at the end of my Central Oregon Highway US20 trip across the High Desert of Eastern Oregon (See posts under US20 here). On Wednesday morning I wanted to see what might be left of downtown Ontario in comparison to the 1926 photo in the Guide. It is obvious they are the same streets, but alas the Moore Hotel is gone. The only stand out “then and now” is the two story building on the left.; I left the Rainbow Restaurant description in the image because I would later encounter the same ”All White Help” prejudice again.



Ontario, Oregon Then and Now


Leaving Ontario the road touches the Snake River along the pioneer trail, then heads north in the direction of Huntington. At 18.5 miles north of Ontario the 1926 guide states “This Point is Known as The Slides.” Was this an early water park for kids?“ I should have known! It was an area of rock slides. In fact as I stopped to take a picture, high on the cliff I saw the dust of a small slide in progress. I guess this part of the old road is aptly named!



The Slides, 18.5 Miles North of Ontario, on the Snake River


I pulled into the Farewell Bend State Park where the State of Oregon wanted $3.00 for Day Use. I wondered if I had to pay $3.00 to take a picture of where our pioneer families had left the Snake River, and concluded that 5 minutes wasn’t a day.


Farewell Bend where the wagons left the Snake River for the Last Time.


In my lifetime we have gone from free public parks to charges for stopping to take a picture. I would like someone to tell me why we are now so impoverished as a country that we have to close our public parks to all but the well to do. Frankly, I don’t blame the park people, nor the legislators. I blame us.

The old highway leads into Huntington, long bypassed by the I84 freeway. Huntington’s history as a railroad center is quite evident with a large rail switching yard and the town laid out facing the tracks. There were a couple of interesting buildings among those facing the railroad. I like Huntington. It has a big park with huge shade trees, and the people say “Hello” and smile when you pass them on the sidewalk.

I went into Howell’s Cafe about 11 AM and decided that this would be a good place for my combination breakfast/ lunch burger....and it was. The pretty waitress, Susan, wouldn’t let me take her photo, but I did get a shot of my burger!


Essential Road Food. When You Can No Longer Die Young, Enjoy It!.


This was the old General Mercantile. The painted sign is still barely visible on the top of the building in the photo below. The building was built in 1890, and became the Oregon Commercial Company general mercantile in 1894. It retained the name through the 1920’s and thus was visited by many a traveler on the Old Oregon Trail Highway and US30/


The Oregon Commercial Company (OC) Store, built 1890. Visited by many on the Old Oregon Trail Highway.


Speaking of painted signs, the prejudices of the 1920’s show in the preserved Clark’s Restaurant sign. It repeats what was stated in the ad for the Rainbow Restaurant in Ontario in 1926 (see above). I suppose some might be offended by the preservation of such a sign, but I believe it serves as a reminder of what was so common an attitude not so long ago that it was advertised.


Old Sign Showing Prejudices of the 1920’s


Howell’s Restaurant was in the quiet stage between breakfast and launch when I went in. The current owner restored the building and the restaurant. Note the pressed tin ceiling from the 1800’s and the great counter stools and the red booths from the 1930’s or 40’s. Reminds me of my soda fountain days.


Restaurant Interior


The cheeseburger, with the mustard and ketchup running down my thumb, was as good as it looks in the picture above. As I look at it now, I get hungry. Leaving the restaurant I caught a shot of a big Union Pacific diesel locomotive working the yard. Those big boys always catch my attention.


Union Pacific Locomotives in the Switching Yard.


Several little settlements clung to life along the old alignment. At Pleasant Valley the main Cafe and Motel was boarded up and a few folks lived in the run down motel rooms. When you look at the building today, it speaks volumes about the effects of the freeway.

It is hard to see it, but once this was a small oasis, with green trees, lush lawn, and inviting restaurant. It was clean, modern, and busy. It was probably built in the 1930’s because the motel units have the characteristic covered garages between them. If there is anything I dislike in road travel, it is another night in a cookie cutter two story box. I wish the Pleasant Valley Cafe and Motel were thriving today.



Pleasant Valley, a Sad Reminder of Good Times in Other Days.


The next stop will be Baker City, with its Natatorium and Paul’s 1923 Radiator Shop. In the meantime, Keep the Show on the Road!

#2 mobilene

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Posted 05 August 2007 - 08:17 AM

I am amazed that the "All While Help" sign on the side of that building has not been removed under protest!

Howell's Restaurant looks remarkably clean and tidy. The chairs at the counter are really neat.

You are fortunate you have so much natural beauty to work with out there along your roads. It's mighty, mighty flat where I am. Out here, when a road jogs or curves, it's usually to go around a farmer's land! It does get more interesting in southern Indiana where the glaciers didn't flatten things out, but still without the scenic vistas.

jim

#3 Keep the Show on the Road!

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Posted 05 August 2007 - 11:31 AM

I feel really fortunate to live in the west, but I look at what the Midwest offers and I think it would be great to live there. This forum has really introduced me to the countryside in a way that the “popular media” can’t, that is through the eyes of real people. Movies and print media tend to catch the picturesque or unusual, where as I get to see the real places here. And frankly I like them better than the travel brochure images.

I have mixed feelings about the sign, but I’m glad it survived. Bigotry and prejudice are just a step away, and they weren’t the exclusive domain of just one part of the country. They permeated our society. My generation took those attitudes for granted, and because we did, we assumed they were OK. Had I read that sign when I was my youngest grand daughter's age, I probably would have thought nothing of it. Seeing it on the building as it really was is much much more effective than any history lesson in a book.

Eastern Oregon has long been one of my favorite places. It is wide open, largely “undiscovered,” and filled with history. When you talk about old roads there, they are wagon roads. And they survive. I have two or three books written by Lawrence E. Nielsen who documented the roads in the 1980’s. Because the land is open and not heavily populated, it is quite easy to walk or drive the original roads today.

In fact, maybe what I will do is take a little trip back down that way and do some wagon roads. I bet I could find the ruts of the old Barlow Trail branch of the Oregon Trail. I remember a few years ago going down to the John Day River crossing of the Oregon Trail on a dirt road.

The wife wants me to get out of here for three or four days while she and her daughter and grand daughter have a "girls time" here at the house. Oh, poor me...I’ll have to take another road trip even before I get the last one written up.

The choice was coming down to US101 along the coast, but now maybe the old wagon roads in Eastern and Central Oregon would be better. I could do a bit of the California Banff Bee Line (US97) as well....hummm. An embarrassment of riches!

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#4 cityboy1986

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Posted 05 August 2007 - 04:11 PM

Hi,

I feel as if I've taken the trip with you! I have been through that section of Oregon, but my dad chose to stick with the Interstate (it probably helped that we were in an eighteen-wheeler).

Thanks for providing a then and now picture of Ontario. I wonder if the citizens of Ontario in 1926 dreamed of buying radios in their town, much less televisions, computers, etc., at Radio Shack.

Sadly, there are probably some in this world who would still prefer to see signs reading "All white help." That burger brought up my spirits, however (not to mention my appetite).

Looking forward to more,
Tracy

#5 mobilene

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Posted 05 August 2007 - 09:46 PM

Wagon roads seem a little daunting to me -- such virginal and, for me anyway, uncharted territory. I think one of the things I like about the old but paved highways is that the history is more recent and I can get my hands around it. But by all means, make that wagon-road trip, and expand my horizons!

jim

#6 Keep the Show on the Road!

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Posted 06 August 2007 - 10:46 AM

QUOTE (mobilene @ Aug 5 2007, 07:46 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Wagon roads seem a little daunting to me -- such virginal and, for me anyway, uncharted territory. I think one of the things I like about the old but paved highways is that the history is more recent and I can get my hands around it. But by all means, make that wagon-road trip, and expand my horizons!

jim

There are wagon roads, and there are wagon roads. Obviously the National Road was a wagon road long before it was an auto road. In fact, when you go back to say 1911, or before, it may be described in auto books, but the traffic was still mostly wagons.

And it is probably self evident but most auto roads were first wagon roads. That goes for just about every two lane road we now cherish. The first transcontinentals (Lincoln, Yellowstone, etc) were basically made up by connecting short sections of wagon roads. They sure didn’t go out there with survey equipment and road graders!!! You can be misled by the National Road because it was purpose built, but that doesn’t apply to the vast majority of others.

My recent trip along US20 in Oregon between Burns and Vale was a constant tug of war whether to follow an old dirt section considerably north of the current road that was the old auto road, or stay on the pavement. So I chose to avoid the dust and do side trips to the pre 1920 or so sections. And when you read the 1917 description of the auto road, it turns out to be mainly the Burns to Vale Wagon Road.

In Eastern and Central Oregon much of the country is rangeland, which means it wasn’t plowed...which is good at least for roadies. The wagon roads are still evident and in a few places amazing. You marvel at the determination of the road builders of the day. And the guts of those who took the roads.

In my younger days I followed some of those old wagon roads along near cliff faces with washouts that tipped the 1970 Toyota Land Cruiser 10 degrees downslope to 500 foot drops....where I had no good sense being. In fact I came darn near losing the thing over the edge on a muddy road when I couldn’t move either way without slipping downslope into a canyon. Some logs dragged alongside the wheels to prevent going over the edge worked.

I’ll be driving the family sedan, so I doubt I’ll have any such stories to tell when I get back!!

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#7 mobilene

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Posted 06 August 2007 - 12:21 PM

I can even see here in Indiana how some of the less-traveled state roads got their starts in old trails, many for farm-to-market access. Indiana just joined joined these roads together to make state highways. I remember driving SR 39 in SE Indiana and seeing how it was just a series of paved farm road segments (with some delightful twists along the way). 39 is a very minor route and has very little in the way of improvements (except for paving) from when they initially made it a state route. SR 42 in west-central Indiana is another one of those.

While I think I most appreciate the highway system of the 20th century and its old alignments, I do have a certain appreciation for the roads used to make them. I'm not sure I'd ever go anywhere near that road with a 10-degree slope toward a 500-foot drop, though. Even in my 20s, I was too much a scaredycat. I am interested in following the road, but not at the risk of losing a Land Cruiser!

jim

#8 Keep the Show on the Road!

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Posted 06 August 2007 - 04:00 PM

QUOTE (mobilene @ Aug 6 2007, 10:21 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
I can even see here in Indiana how some of the less-traveled state roads got their starts in old trails, many for farm-to-market access. Indiana just joined joined these roads together to make state highways. I remember driving SR 39 in SE Indiana and seeing how it was just a series of paved farm road segments (with some delightful twists along the way). 39 is a very minor route and has very little in the way of improvements (except for paving) from when they initially made it a state route. SR 42 in west-central Indiana is another one of those.

While I think I most appreciate the highway system of the 20th century and its old alignments, I do have a certain appreciation for the roads used to make them. I'm not sure I'd ever go anywhere near that road with a 10-degree slope toward a 500-foot drop, though. Even in my 20s, I was too much a scaredycat. I am interested in following the road, but not at the risk of losing a Land Cruiser!

jim



I went to Google Earth and checked my elevations....OK it was only 150 - 200 foot drop to the water with the 10% slope and washouts, but 500 - 600 feet to the water from the cliff top (no washouts or 10% slopes on top!). Now I feel better. But then maybe the water was down and the drop greater when I made those trips!!! In any event, I should have known better. I was about 30 when I did those things. And most of them were with a 3 year old son and a wife. Not the brightest bulb in the fixture.

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#9 hutchman

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Posted 15 September 2008 - 11:26 AM

I don't know how I missed this one Dave. Good report.

It is interesting that your old OT guide book does not show the actual route, but the highways that then followed closely along the original. But then maybe that was the purpose. It is also interesting that the modern interstate seems to follow the actual trail more closely than the older 2 lane does, at least in east central Oregon.

I also missed the sign in Huntington.........my son told me about it, but I just missed it.

That was a great hamburger!

#10 hutchman

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Posted 07 June 2009 - 11:16 AM

Dave,

I was through Hunnington last weekend and I "discovered" the Meeker Marker that I could not find last year. If you are traveling west through town, there is a small public triangle of park land on the left as the road bends to the north and heads out of town. The Meeker Marker is located in that small triangle. Franzwa states it is located in a "public" park in Hunnington and if you search the main park across from the restaurant like I did, you will never find it!

FWIW........

#11 Keep the Show on the Road!

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Posted 07 June 2009 - 04:04 PM

QUOTE (hutchman @ Jun 7 2009, 08:16 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>
Dave,

I was through Hunnington last weekend and I "discovered" the Meeker Marker that I could not find last year. If you are traveling west through town, there is a small public triangle of park land on the left as the road bends to the north and heads out of town. The Meeker Marker is located in that small triangle. Franzwa states it is located in a "public" park in Hunnington and if you search the main park across from the restaurant like I did, you will never find it!

FWIW........


I know the place you are describing but I didn't realize that Meeker had convinced the people of Huntington to pony up a marker there. I'll be sure to stop next time!

The old promoter probably promised everlasting fame for the town. At least it had a legit claim to Oregon Trail standing.

Dave

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#12 Lanie

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Posted 02 April 2012 - 10:04 PM

I thought you might be interested in knowing about West to Oregon with Ollie Ox! It's a new children's E-book that tells the story of the Oregon Trail in a very unique way.
The story is narrated by the lovable ox pulling the wagon and is full of photos, paintings and fun illustrations that bring the Oregon Trail to life.
You can check it out at www.WestToOregon.com




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