Santiam Wagon Road
by Michele Morseth

Also known as: The Willamette Valley & Cascade Mountain Military Road

Meandering across the rolling terrain near Big Lake and Sand Mountain, at its apex the Santiam Wagon Road belied its treacherous journey over the Cascade Range. For travelers the path over Sand Mountain, in reality two cinder cones, could bog heavily laden wagons and later cars in the fine, volcanic sands. Mud, steep grades, rocks, and snow could slow a traveler’s journey on the west side. The Santiam Wagon Road went from Sweet Home to Cache Creek Toll Station. It was part of the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Military Road which went from Albany to Ontario, Oregon. For 70 years until the end of the depression, travelers struggled to get precious goods over the route. This was not however a new route for people occupying Central Oregon and the Willamette Valley. Prior to the road, Indians used the low pass between the Santiam drainage on the west and Central Oregon on the east as a route to high lakes and berry patches and to travel over the mountains.

The Santiam Wagon Road was conceived of in the fall of 1859 when a group of adventurers seeking gold and a route across the Cascades started out from Andrew Wiley’s home in Sweethome. The group followed an old Indian trail toward the mountains. They found Indians putting up supplies of meat and berries, named Lost Prairie and Lost Lake, and stopped at Fish Lake. At Big Lake they began their decent. After reaching the Metolius, they headed back home before winter struck. Writing about the trip John Gray advised in the Oregon Democrat:

“…to every invalid in Oregon, instead of converting your stomach into an apothecary shop, secure a pleasant companion or two, mount a good pony, and take to the mountains, scale their lofty heights; drink from their pure fountains, and breathe their balmy air and you will return restored and strong.”

Wiley also advised building a road and cattle trail across the mountains which would alleviate the Willamette Valley of overstocking of cattle and supply miners in the John Day area. By 1864 a new road company incorporated as the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Road Company. They were granted the odd numbered sections for six miles on either side of the road which they could sell to cover costs of construction. Colonel Hogg, director of the company, was able to use the collateral to finance his attempted railroad over the pass.

By the fall of 1868 the road reached the Deschutes River. Primitive and open only when the ground was free of snow, it opened up trade and travel between Central Oregon and the central Willamette Valley. The road, barely more than a path cut through trees, went north of Sand Mountain, between Big Lake and Hayrick, and down the Cascades south of Cache Mountain. It then went southeast, around Black Butte, followed Indian Ford Creek south to Camp Polk. From Camp Polk the road was extended to Holmes Ranch and Lower Bridge and toward Smith Rock where it turned south to Carmical Station.

In early years, toll stations near Sweet Home and later Cascadia collected payment. Tolls set by Linn Country in 1866 were 3-yolk ox team or 4-horse team, $6.00; one-horse team, $2.00; horse and rider, $1.00; cattle, 37 cents each; sheep and hogs 10 cents each. Settlers east of the toll gate paid $5 for a yearly pass. Later, tolls were lowered. Roadhouses sprang up along the route. The largest, at Fish Lake, had large sheds to accommodate travelers and grew to have a saloon, hotel, blacksmith, barn, and cabins. By the 1890s the road had become a major trade route, taking produce from the valley and bringing raw wool to valley woolen mills. The west side stations were followed in 1896 by an east side toll when the Cache Creek Toll Station was built. The father of Guy W. Jordon built the log station and then, finding it too late in the season to go over the pass, returned east, went 5 miles east of Sisters and filed on land in the area that became Cloverdale.

In 1905 the first automobile, a 1904 Buick Curved Dash Runabout named Scout and a member a transcontinental race, drove over Santiam Pass. In 1908 the road was purchased by the Oregon and Western Colonization Company.

Collection of tolls stopped in 1914. In the late 1920s, the US Forest Service laid planks on the road near Sand Mountain to keep cars out of the sand but the route continued to be difficult. It was abandoned when the new Santiam Pass road routed north of Hayrick and Hoodoo and past Blue and Suttle lakes was built in 1939.

Hatton, R.R.
1996 Oregon’s Sisters Country: A Portrait of Its Lands, Waters, and People. Maverick Publications: Bend, OR
Spray R.H.
2004 The Old Santiam Wagon Road 1868-1939: 70 years of Service. (published? Unpublished manuscript?)
2004 Willamette Valley to Central Oregon Significant Transportation Dates.



Copyright © 2006 Sisters Country Historical Society