Unlike the pioneer wagon roads that were developed to bring emigrants into the Willamette Valley, the Santiam Wagon Road was built from west to east to move livestock over the Cascade Mountains to central Oregon’s grass lands and to provide access to markets in eastern Oregon and Idaho. Operating as a toll road until 1914, the Santiam Wagon Road was a maintained route that included bridges, road houses, and toll gates. In 1905, the first automobiles to cross the North American continent passed over the Santiam Wagon Road in a transcontinental auto race from New York City to the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland. Remnants of the Santiam Wagon Road have been preserved in the Willamette National Forest and provide the longest stretches (with very high integrity) of any historic wagon road in western Oregon.
In 1859, a group of Willamette Valley settlers explored a course following the South Santiam River to the Santiam Pass. When they returned, they reported they had found a splendid route to central Oregon and called for the development of a road. By 1864, the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Road Company was formed and submitted plans to the United States government for a road from the Willamette River to Ontario. The company was granted sections of land that totaled 861,512 acres. By 1867, the road was completed as far as Fish Lake and, in 1868, was extended to Camp Polk, about two miles northeast of present day Sisters.
Known as the Santiam Wagon Road between Sweet Home and Camp Polk, it served as a livestock, freight and stage route. Superintendent’s records for 1871 show that 3,128 head of cattle and 2,310 head of sheep were driven through the toll gate three miles east of Sweet Home. Westbound wagon trains, often a half-mile long, carried wool to the mills in Waterloo, Brownsville, and Jefferson. A stage and mail line operated between Sisters and Cascadia. It is estimated that about 5,000 wagons used the road from the time it opened until 1880. Covered wagons still used the route after 1905.
In 1905, the first transcontinental auto race was held pitting two Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabouts against each other in a race from New York City to the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland. On June 20, Dwight B. Huss driving “Old Scout” was the first to cross the continent and Santiam Pass. At the Cache Creek toll station on the east side of the pass, the gatekeeper was puzzled as to what to charge for a toll. An eight-horse team cost $4; a six-horse team, $3; saddle horses were 50 cents; sheep and hogs, 3 cents a head. The car had a seven horsepower engine, but some of the freighters classed the cars as road-hogs. When descending the Cascade Mountains both cars faced disasters. “Old Scout” used a tree as a drag just as the covered wagons did. The other car “Old Steady” went into a skid and came to rest hanging over a precipice. The driver of a passing covered wagon hauled the car back to safety.
Railroads considerably reduced the wagon road’s freight traffic. The Columbia Southern Railway to Shaniko was built in 1900. Then came the Oregon Trunk Railroad to Bend in 1911. Use of the wagon road declined and almost ceased in the 1920’s when the McKenzie Highway was completed to Sisters. The Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Road company ws dissolved in 1925 and the rights to the wagon road were sold to Linn County. In 1939, the Santiam Highway was completed, supplanting the route of the old Santiam Wagon Road.
Today, the Santiam Wagon Road exists as a driving tour route and recreational trail. The Linn County Tourism Coalition and the Willamette National Forest (Sweet Home Ranger District) have partnered to preserve the Santiam Wagon Road on the west side of the Cascades. A Santiam Wagon Road logo depicting a freight wagon and team is used for the directional signing of an auto tour route that stretches from Albany to Fish Lake. In west Linn County, the driving tour follows the old county road system along the wagon road route from Albany to near Cascadia. As the tour route enters the national forest, the logo signs indicate where portions of the wagon road continue to exist as a recreational trail. Near Upper Soda, the route of the Santiam Wagon Road lies south of the US 20 corridor and provides about 21 miles of recreational trail. Portions of the old road that received road bed improvements may still be used by wagons or pre-1939 vehicles through a special permit system. Unimproved segments of the road are open only to hikers, horse riders and mountain bikes.
Amundson, Carroll John. “History of the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Wagon Road Company,” unpublished masters’ thesis, University of Oregon, June 1928.
“Explore the Santiam Wagon Road,” self-guided tour brochure, Linn County Tourism Coalition and Willamette National Forest, nd.
“From Hellgate to Portland: The Story of the Race Across the American Continent in Oldsmobile Runabouts, Told by the Men Who Road and the Man Who Looked On,” Oldsmobile Motor Works, Lansing MI, nd.
Martinis, Cheryl. “A Race to Remember.” The Oregonian, July 6, 1995.
Nielsen, Lawrence E., Doug Newman, and George McCart. Pioneer Roads in Central Oregon. “Willamette Valley & Cascade Mountain Military Road (Old Santiam Wagon Road).” Bend, OR: Maverick Publications, 1985.
“Santiam Wagon Road,” tabloid brochure, Linn County Tourism Coalition, July 1995.
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Stern, Theodore. The Klamath Tribe: A People and Their Reservation. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966.e and McKenzie Ranger Districts, Willamette National Forest,” unpublished draft, January 1994.
Stutesman, John K. “Santiam Wagon Road Evaluation Report.” Cultural Resource Management Report No. 1. Part 1: Environmental Setting, History, and Evaluation; Part 2: Physical Description. Willamette National Forest, Eugene OR, November 1983.