Pioneer Profiles – April 2015

With spring and summer vacations looming, some of you will be driving over the Siskiyous to visit family and friends in California; others may be looking forward to guests making the trip in reverse. Possible weather and traffic issues aside, drivers and passengers will be experiencing the luxury of riding on a four-to-six lane Interstate Highway in a comfortable automobile. Our pioneer forebears would have been amazed and envious!

When Cornelius Beekman came to Jacksonville in 1853 as an express rider for Cram Rogers & Company, he made the 65 mile trip to Yreka twice a week by horseback or mule. He followed the Siskiyou Trail blazed by Hudson Bay Company trappers in the 1820s that roughly followed an ancient network of Native American footpaths.

In 1837, Ewing Young, an enterprising Californian, drove a herd of 700 cattle over the trail to sell to the British and American settlers in Oregon. This three month effort, a monumental task, helped widen and establish the trail.

When gold was discovered in California in 1848, Oregonians dreaming of striking it rich poured over the Siskiyou Pass en route to the Mother Lode. With the 1851 discovery of gold in Southern Oregon, the migration reversed directions. The mountain crossing was a rough and difficult passage best made on foot or horseback. Few wagons tried it, and only in summer months. But soon enough, entrepreneurs stepped in to fill the demand for a “real road” brought on by the “population explosion.”

In the 19th Century, governments didn’t usually build roads; they granted permission for private investors to spend money and labor on such projects. Investors were then allowed to collect a toll for their enterprise. In 1857, the Oregon Territorial Legislature granted permission for a toll road over the Siskiyous. It was built by the Thomas brothers, and owned and operated for the next 10 years by Lindsay Applegate of Applegate Trail fame. The first toll was collected in August 1859.

Known as the Siskiyou Mountain Wagon Road, it was the first “engineered” road over the mountain crest that separates California and Oregon. Surveys were done to determine a routing that varied slightly from the Siskiyou Trail; a little excavation was done; a few culverts put in. Road construction, done largely by hand with the aid of slip scrapers, followed the circuitous route designed to avoid serious obstacles, soft soil, and Indian encampments.

A toll station was built just north of the pass. In a 1921 article for the Oregon Historical Society quarterly, Applegate’s daughter Alice described growing up in that toll station.

“Every day the road was thronged. There were immense freight wagons drawn by six yoke of oxen, towering Marietta wagons drawn by six span horses. The lead span had [bells] attached to their iron collars… to warn other teams [since] there were only occasional places on the narrow grade where these teams could pass one another. There were the long trains of 50, 60, 80 pack mules all following the bell mare in single file. Twice daily the great red and yellow stage coaches [came] swinging by, drawn by six splendid horses.”

There were peddlers, wagons piled high with apples, heading for the mining camps of the Sierra Nevada. And there were long trains of travel-stained immigrants with their weary ox teams crossing from California into Oregon.

“Think what the feelings of these people must have been when they crossed the Siskiyou mountains and beheld the promised land, the Rogue Valley, lying like a beautiful garden between the mountain ranges.”

But life in the toll house was not always easy or safe. Natural elements contributed to the difficulty and danger. The wagon road had to be maintained and the snow packed to keep the road open in winter.

“When winter came and the snow fell deep on the Siskiyous…father used several yoke of oxen and a big bob sled to keep the road open to travel. Sometimes the snow would fall steadily, filling the road behind them, and the weary oxen would have to travel back and forth over the long mountain grade.”

The human elements could be equally dangerous since not everyone traveling the toll road was a savory character. Alice recalled that all sorts of adventurers—men and women alike—came across the Siskiyous seeking their fortunes. Modoc and Piute Indians frequently made travel unsafe.

Profits hardly justified the danger and effort. At $1.50 per loaded wagon, and five cents for a horse, cow or pig, the venture was not a source of riches. There would have been little profit at all if not for the two daily stages which paid $40-$80 a month for passage. Of the $107 in tolls collected in December 1866, $80 was paid by the California Stage Co.

The stages ran from Sacramento, California, to Portland, Oregon. What made them profitable was a lucrative contract to carry the U.S. Mail. The contract required that the mail be carried from point to point in seven days in summer, twelve days in winter. This 710-mile route was the second longest stage run in the U.S.

With completion of the railroad, the last stagecoach traversed the pass on December 18, 1887, the day following the official Golden Spike ceremony in Ashland. However, the toll road continued to operate until 1915, when the Pacific Highway, a “national auto trail,” was constructed over essentially the same route. It was straighter and wider, but it was still a dirt road. Following a statewide “Get Out of the Mud” campaign, Jackson County voters approved a half million dollar bond issue to improve and grade the road. By 1921, the Jackson County portion of the Pacific Highway offered a paved surface from county line to county line.

In 1945, the Oregon Highway Commission designated the Pacific Highway the “official inter-regional north-south route through Oregon.” The federal government designated it U.S. Highway 99.

When the old highway was replaced by I-5 in 1967, bits and pieces of the Siskiyou Road were incorporated into the Interstate. So the next time you cross the Siskiyous, appreciate your ease of travel and give a salute to the road that historian George Kramer dubbed “Oregon’s Main Street!”

Pioneer Profiles is a project of Historic Jacksonville, Inc., a non-profit whose mission is helping to preserve Jacksonville’s Historic Landmark District by bringing its buildings to life through programs and activities. Visit us at www.historicjacksonville.org and follow us on Facebook/Historic Jacksonville for upcoming events and more Jacksonville history.