Black Butte

The towering cinder cone of Black Butte rises 3,200 feet above the valley floor and in many ways frames the town of Sisters and Sisters Country. Mentioned by Peter Scene Ogden in 1825, he used the meadows at the base to graze his stock. Lt. Henry Abbot followed an Indian trail to the base and he and Lt. Williamson referred to it as “Pivot Mountain” although they later called it Black Butte. Once looked to as a sign of fair traveling over the mountain passes, Black Butte has become a popular destination for locals and visitors alike.

Estimated at about 1.5 million years old, Black Butte escaped many of the ravages of local geologic events. Because of its location, Black Butte escaped the glaciation that carved deep pockets and valleys in the nearby Cascades. Born of the Green Ridge fault, it escaped the violent movements of the earth’s crust which would have carried the eastern slopes downward and created a second summit. Rather, for several hundred years a succession of basaltic lava flows welling up from the Green Ridge fault, created layers of basalt, ash, and cinders, until the cone reached its present shape. A corpse of that violent beginning—it is now extinct.

The forces of weather, gravity, and visitors’ feet slowly erode its surface. Erosion caused canyons show the forces of weather and gravity. The largest, on the northwest slope, extends from below the summit to the base where the outwash, or alluvial fan, reaches to Highway 20.

Northern Paiute and Tenino peoples collected roots, berries, and nuts on the slopes of Black Butte, likely creating trails to the best gathering spots. Now roads encircle the butte to about 2/3rds of the way up and a well traveled trail above shows the forces of visitors—walking the trail to see the natural history and historic fire lookouts and experience the 360 degree vista of Central Oregon.

Black Butte continues to alert observant locals to changes in weather and seasons. Large enough and isolated from nearby peaks, the butte creates its own weather. It often shows the first dusting of snow in the fall and the first signs of impending storms when thick clouds envelope the peak. Summit trees and buildings show the wear of fierce winds that funnel over the butte, and the bolts of lightening that strike.

Because of the supreme view from the 6,500 foot top, Black Butte begs to be a fire lookout. The first, erected in 1910 by Harve Vincent, stood 18 feet off the ground, in two trees. The sentinel hiked the 3,400 elevation, 4-mile trial. After a succession of short-lived towers, in 1922 the existing small cabin with cupola was built. The first summer of operation Mrs. Hazel McKinney brought her 2 daughters and her dog with her when she became the lookout. The CCC built in1934 an 84 foot tower which provided a more complete view of the surrounding country. That tower was deemed unsafe in 1990. The Forest Service completed the newest tower, at 65 feet, in 1995.

Black Butte was a part of Camp Sherman. As Leslie Brown, long time resident, wrote (The Nugget, December 8, 1993):

“As we grew older, the Camp Sherman Community Hall came into being and hosted a Saturday night square dance. The big thing was to dance all evening at the community hall, go home, change clothes, pack a sandwich, a chocolate bar and a canteen of water and then gather, a large bunch of us, to await the witching hour of 2 a.m., when we would start up Black Butte (from near the Head of the Metolius) to catch the dawn from the top.”

Hatton, R.R.
1996 Oregon’s Sisters Country: A Portrait of Its Lands, Waters, and People. Maverick Publications: Bend, OR

Copyright © 2006 Sisters Country Historical Society