Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Dalles Military Road

by Shanna Hatfield

I've been doing a lot of research for my current work in progress, set in northern central Oregon. 

Grass Valley is the specific town I've been researching, although the history of the region has become an fascinating side study. The town was located on both the Barlow Road and The Dalles Military Road.

The Dalles Military Road has an interesting history.

Around the time prospectors struck gold in Canyon Creek in Oregon, the U.S. Congress toyed with the idea of stimulating private enterprise in the American West. They granted millions of acres of public domain to private companies as an incentive for them to borrow money, hire surveyors, and construct / operate railroads and wagon roads across the West. Through this "give away" of public lands, they hoped to encourage the private sector to create a transportation infrastructure to meet the needs of miners, settlers, and developers of town sites. 

Oregon was the target of a series of land grant wagon roads. These were supposed to get individuals to build roads that could be used for military purposes and were designated as "military wagon roads." 

One such road was The Dalles Military Road. It qualified for a government land grant and was supposed to create a wagon road from The Dalles, Oregon, to Fort Boise, Idaho. 

Investors in The Dalles-Fort Boise Military Road studied a route into the John Day region that followed the stream east to the Blue Mountains. A trace, established by mule teams and wagons, the existing Dalles to Canyon City Road would become part of the military road.

In October, 1868, legislature approved the franchise of The Dalles Military Wagon Road Company to construct the route. The terms of the grant provided that as soon as the company had constructed ten contiguous miles, it could seek up to thirty sections of land (more than 19,000 acres). In June 1869, Governor George L. Woods claimed he made a "careful examination" of the road and the certification process began. 

The road the company supposedly built (and spent about $6,000 on construction) consisted largely of existing trails and roads (some Indian trails). They took credit for building the well-traveled, pre-existing road between The Dalles and Canyon City.

The company also took credit for building a road from Canyon City to the Oregon-Idaho border near Vale, Oregon. The claims of a good wagon road were reportedly exaggerated.

The road was used to haul food and other supplies in wagons pulled by oxen and mules with forts and stations spaced every thirty miles or so along the route. 

In June 1874, Congress authorized the transfer of lands to the State of Oregon, and in December, the Commission of the General Land Office withdrew from public entry all odd-numbered sections within three miles of either side of The Dalles Military Road.  The road company selected its grant, then sold it for $125,000 to Edward Martin of San Francisco, California.

That single transaction made Edward Martin one of the largest landowners in the Pacific Northwest. At his death, Martin's Eastern Oregon and Company held a reported 450,000 acres of land in Oregon. 

Public outcry over the wagon roads grew. At best, they road companies had built rudimentary traces through rugged terrain, leaving travelers to deal with mud holes, washouts, fords rather than bridges, landslides, and multiple delays. 

The Grant County Express in March, 1876, printed a view of the road:

There are places on the Dalles Military Road where the bottom has dropped out. If the Road Company should follow their road to where it ought to go they would find a warmer climate than Grant County. Like a great serpent it has dragged itself through the John Day valley, poisoning the whole country. The road is an illegitimate child of one ex-Governor Woods — after a carpetbagger in Utah. It was and is a great swindle.

Public discontent eventually led to a lawsuit. The U.S. Attorney General argued the land had been privatized through fraud and should become public domain. The suit was dismissed in 1893 under the argument that the governor at the time had certified the road as complete and therefore the grants were valid and would not be reversed. 

Today, parts of the original road have merged with Highway 97 and Highway 26. There are still areas, though, where there are visible traces of the original road. Much of the road is used by ranchers, fishermen, and hunters.  

Find out more about Grass Valley and the fictional residents that live there in my September release Grass Valley Brides.

USA Today bestselling author Shanna Hatfield is a farm girl who loves to write. Her sweet historical and contemporary romances are filled with sarcasm, humor, hope, and hunky heroes. When Shanna isn’t dreaming up unforgettable characters, twisting plots, or covertly seeking dark, decadent chocolate, she hangs out with her beloved husband, Captain Cavedweller.

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