Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 4/Minto Pass: Its History, and an Indian Tradition

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Oregon Historical Quarterly Vol. 4
Minto Pass: Its History, and an Indian Tradition by John Minto


By John Minto.

There was a tradition among the Indians of the central portion of the Willamette Valley at the time when the missionaries of the Methodist Episcopal Church attempted christianization from 1834 to 1840, that a trail or thoroughfare through this natural pass had formerly been much used by their people and that its use was abandoned after, and as one of the results of, a bloody battle between the Mollalas (who claimed the western slopes of the Cascades from the Clackamas River south to the Calapooia Mountains,) and the Cayuses who were originally of the same tribe, but who had become alienated by family feuds, of which the battle or massacre of their tradition was the end. The superstitious belief of the Indians in the transmigration of the souls of dead warriors into the bodies of beasts of prey, like panthers, bears, and wolves, would of itself go far to cause the Indians to abandon the use of such a trail, but the formation of the gorge by which the river cuts its way through the roughest portion of the range is such as to give great numbers of opportunities for ambuscades—a common resort of Indian warfare. Certain is it that for some cause the Indians of Chemeketa, Chemawa, and Willamette spoke with dread of going up that river. They did, however, have trails on each side of this natural pass,—that to the south being first used by a pioneer settler named Wyley. It became known as the Wyley Trail, and subsequently was adopted as a general route over which the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Military Wagon Road was located. The other to the north comes into the Willamette Valley via the Table Rock and down the Abiqua. Both these trails were used exclusively by the Indians of the east side of the range as means of coming into the Willamette Valley with the exception of the Mollalas, who were intermarried with the Warm Springs Indians and the Klamaths when the settlement by the whites began. The free trappers and the retired Canadians, who had settled as farmers and trading parties of the Hudson Bay Company, continued to use the trail up the North Santiam Valley until 1844-45, when, in addition to the country reached by it being "trapped out," furs fell in price in the general market so that it temporarily ceased to be used by the engagees of the Hudson Bay Company. In the summer of 1845 Dr. E. White, then a sub-agent of the United States for the Indians of Oregon, examined, or claimed to have examined, the route as a means of getting immigration into western Oregon more easily than by way of the Columbia River Pass. Either the doctor did not examine closely or was very easily discouraged; at all events no beneficial results followed. At this same time Stephen L. Meek was leading a party of the immigration of that year with the purpose of entering the Willamette Valley by that way. Meek had trapped on the head waters of the John Day River a few seasons previous, and had here met Canadians from the Willamette, who had come over the trail and doubtless thought he could easily find it; and there is little reason to doubt that he would have done so had it not been that by reason of their much wandering in searching the way from the mouth of the Malheur to the waters of the Des Chutes, the people he led were in such desperate straits that he had to flee for his life. There was another reason: a ridge makes out on the east side of the main range, but parallel with it, which completely shuts the pass from being seen in outline from the east.

The failure of Meek to get his party through raised the question in the settlements as to whether there was so easy a means of passing the Cascade range at that point as the Hudson Bay Company trappers and traders represented, and in the spring of 1846 a public meeting was held at Salem and a committee of six citizens was selected to go and make an examination of the trail. Col. Cornelius Gilliam was the head of the committee of the American portion of the party, and Joseph Gervais, a Canadian trapper, preëminent for general intelligence among his class, went along to show the way. The Hon. T. C. Shaw, nephew of Gilliam, was of the party (the youngest). He is at present (1887) county judge of Marion County, and recently went over part of the ground they then passed. From him it is learned that the trail did not then pass through the narrow gorge which has been spoken of, but took over the tops of the most broken and rugged portion of the range. The party proceeded until they came to what they termed the "scaly rock mountain," which Colonel Gilliam pronounced impassable for wagons. The party returned and reported accordingly, and from that date till late in 1873 that pass way was unused and to a great extent forgotten.

In October, 1873, two hunters in search of good game range penetrated up the north bank of the river through the gorge before mentioned, and found that about twelve miles from the then settlement on King's Prairie that the valley widened out and the mountains seemed lower; narrow belts of bottom land lay between the mountains and the river, and appeared to continue up to near the base of Mount Jefferson, which, in fact, they do. One of these hunters (Henry States) sent for John Minto, being unable, on account of a sprained ankle, to go to the latter, and told him of their findings. This rediscovery or new discovery revived recollections of statements made by Joseph Gervais and others, and Minto took sufficient interest in the subject to go before the board of county commissioners of Marion County and repeat the statements of the hunters, volunteering the suggestion that it was important if such a natural pass existed as was thus indicated the county had an interest in making the fact known. One of the commissioners, Hon. Wm. M. Case, had long lived near neighbor to the famous Hudson Bay Company's leader, Tom McKay, and had often heard him speak of that as the shortest and best way across the Cascades. A short consultation resulted in the "order" that Mr. Minto take two comrades and proceed up the valley of the North Santiam until he was satisfied whether it made such a natural cut into the range or not. After an absence of twelve days the party returned and Minto reported a deep valley apparently almost dividing the range, and so sheltered that several varieties of wild flowers were found in bloom on the eighteenth of November. Upon this representation a petition for the survey of a road was presented to the board of county commissioners early in 1874, and the viewing out and survey of such a road ordered, Porter Jack, Geo. S. Downing, and John Minto to act as viewers, and T. W. Davenport as surveyor. The survey was made and the viewers' report in favor of an excellent roadway was made to the county commissioners of Marion County, August, 1874. The results were got by following up the north bank of the Santiam River, generally within sight or sound of its waters, from the point where it enters the Willamette Valley to its most eastern springs. Starting from the bank of the Willamette River at Salem, where its course is east of north parallel with the Cascade range, the survey leads up its Santiam branch eighty-three (83) miles, to the true summit of the Cascades, here found in a narrow cut or pass lying across the summit ridge, the general course of the survey being southeast by east. From the summit thus found it is an estimated distance of only five (5) miles down to the Matoles branch of the Des Chutes River, here running east of north parallel with the range, the same course as that of the Willamette on the west side; but taking down the eastern declivity with an easy grade for a wagon road, the plain of the Des Chutes would be reached in about seven miles and the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountains Road, where it skirts the base of Black Butte, three miles into the Des Chutes plain, in about ten miles. In making this view and survey an old and deeply worn trail was frequently crossed, and such a trail, less deep, was found leading over the pass eastward. The first observed trail gives some support to the Indian tradition of a former native thoroughfare down the valley.

The trail out of the pass is not so much worn, neither is the Strong trail leading off towards the west from a point about seven miles eastward, used by Lieutenant Fremont as he passed the locality in 1843. The trail so noted reaches first the immense springs of Matoles, where a full grown river rises from under the northeast base of Black Butte, into which the salmon ascend in July and August for spawning purposes, at that date and since making a valuable fishery for the Indians, and scarcely less valuable as fisheries where the numerous lakes to the westward, which, taken in connection with abundant game of the entire region, make it a hunter's paradise. At the date of Fremont's march, of which had Meek been informed in 1845, he would have almost certainly succeeded in getting the people he led into the Willamette Valley by that way easier than they reached The Dalles after he abandoned them.

After the viewing out and survey of the wagon road as before related, parties incorporated or filed articles of incorporation for a projected railroad through the pass to Winnemucca. It was a mere speculation on the part of persons who had neither money nor credit of any kind. It had the effect of weakening the public interest in having a common road constructed, so that after the lapse of the legal hold on the pass thus attained, there was little disposition to spend money on the opening of a common road which was liable to be destroyed at any time by a railroad interest. An association was formed, however, and a stock trail was opened at a cost of $1,800, in labor. As much more spent at that time would have enabled wagons to pass. For lack of this small sum the trail constructed did not attract the public use except in a small measure for horses. In 1880 Hon. John B. Waldo, while enjoying a summer recreation trip along the summit ridge, came to a point some seven or eight miles south of the point to which the survey had been made and over which a trail had been opened, which he felt confident was lower than it. He spoke of it to Mr. Minto, who, the next spring, had a small sum ($200) placed at his disposal by Marion County in order to remove obstructions which had fallen into the trail. After removing these obstructions that had fallen in during the previous four years, Mr. Minto had $111 of the money left which he asked permission of the board of commissioners to use in viewing out and surveying the most southern of the two main branches of the Upper North Santiam. The suggestion was made that this arm of the stream trended so far southward that it would probably be found to reach the summit by a greater meander and consequently afford a more gradual approach to this supposed lower point of the summit, and therefore be more favorable for railroad purposes. The order was made in accordance with the suggestion, and Capt. L. S. Scott, Geo. S. Downing, and John Minto were appointed viewers and T. W. Davenport surveyor. After some loss of time by efforts to locate a line of communication, Minto took one comrade and went eastward through the old pass, taking the altitude of it as he went and finding it, according to an ordinary barometer, such as is used by railroad surveyors, to be five thousand five hundred and thirty-six feet above the sea, and proceeding southward and then westward on the same day found the instrument to read at the point indicated by Judge Waldo, four thousand nine hundred and eleven feet above the sea. From this point a line was struck and surveyed, which by way of the southeast branch of the North Santiam, connects with the original survey by an easy grade for railroad purposes and of which the projectors of the Corvallis and Eastern railroad were immediately informed. An examination of the whole route from Gates to Summit via the last viewed section, was made by Colonel Eccleson, civil engineer, and Summit was reached by a fraction over a two per cent grade. Construction began at the Summit with the least possible delay and rails were hauled by wagon from Albany and laid in order to hold the pass. From the pass westward more than half of the right of way was cut and much of the grade made ready for the ties between this lowest pass and the junction with the original Marion County survey at what the party making it called Independence Valley, directly south of and as the bird flies about eight miles from the apex of Mount Jefferson. From Idanha, the terminal of railroad track laid, four miles east of Detroit, fully twelve miles of right of way and grade were constructed when work was suspended by the original railroad company. From Mill City eastward to the Summit, the company appropriated fully ninety per cent of the original surveys made at the cost of Marion County. This need not be objected to, but in addition to this these railroad promoters often exercised an assumed right to name points that will be of permanent interest which they did not discover. This seems hardly fair. From my point of view the Hon. John B. Waldo, who first observed the apparent lowness of the pass, and called my attention to it, is more entitled to have his name attached to it than Col. T. E. Hogg, whose name I understand was given to by J. I. Blair, the railroad magnate of New York, who was one of the chief supporters of Colonel Hogg's enterprise.

As a matter of some historical interest I will close this paper by inserting some of the original names given places and things by the first white explorers of the valley.

The stream named {{w:en:Breitenbush River|Breitenbush}} was named by Henry States, Frank Cooper, and John Minto on the first legal examination for the pass for John Breitenbush a hunter who had cut his way to it ahead of them. Detroit was named by the man from Michigan who first opened a house for entertainment there. Boulder Creek was named by T. W. Davenport on his survey notes in 1874. It makes in from the north at Idanha which was a Muskrat Camp of first surveying party, but renamed by the proprietor of the first summer resort house. Minto Mountain was named by some one unknown to the writer, after he had led to the opening of a trail to Black Butte, in Crook County, in 1879. It was the grass covered mountains seen by Minto from the top of a fir tree into which he pulled himself to get a view of their surroundings when first seeking the pass in November, 1873, and which grass land his associate, Frank Cooper, asserted was in eastern Oregon, to his, Cooper's, personal knowledge, though he would not risk climbing the tree to see it, being a very heavy man. This mountain will for all time be an attractive object to summer recreationists and the most easily reached from the center of the Willamette Valley when the railroad is extended twelve miles farther east. The first stream making in from the northeast of Boulder Creek was called, by the surveying party of 1874, the White, a first fork from Jefferson. In August the snow melts from the southwest slopes of Jefferson and runs through volcanic ash as fine as bolted flour and it enters the main Santiam like thickened milk, coloring it down to Mehama sometimes. Custom has adopted the name "Whitewater." In 1879 I gave the name Pamelia Creek to the next stream which flows off the south face of Mount Jefferson and the same name now attaches to the lake at its south base. The name was given for Pamelia Ann Berry, because of her cheerfulness as one of the girl cooks of the working party, of which her father and sister were valued members. Independence Valley was so named by the road viewing party in 1874. Our party rested there on the fourth of July. The first waterfall on the east branch was named Gatch's Falls for Prof. T. M. Gatch, by election of the party, the young members all having been his students. Marion Lake and Orla Falls at the head of it were named at the same time. The latter by the younger members of the company who had danced with Miss Orla Davenport, the oldest daughter of our surveyor. The most of the water of Marion Lake seems to come over these falls from the northern declivities, a rocky peak of many pinnacles, locally called "Three-fingered Jack," but to which the name of Mount Marion was given in the report of this survey. This peak rises from the summit ridge south of Mount Jefferson and north of Mount Washington about equal distance of seven miles from each and about fifteen miles from the most northern of the Three Sisters. There are inviting situations for delightful summer residences on or near the ridge, both north and south of Mount Marion, which will in the near future probably become sites of permanent homes. The climate, as indicated by plant life, is that of the Highlands of Scotland, as here the American congener of both purple and white heather is found on and near the summit ridge.

The writer, who was an active member of these first exploring, surveying, and road constructing parties, closes this with the statement that the rugged labor sometimes involved was the very best kind of summer recreation, where nature in all her varying phases was enjoyed and the sights of the day made themes of camp fire talks, intermingled with subjects connected with social, educational, business, and public interests. There was little difference in this respect between the camp fires of a party of professional men seeking rest and that of road makers constructing lines of development.