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Oregon History: Uncle Sam's Handiwork

The Oregon Central Military Road meandered through remote areas of southeastern Oregon. Shown above are the "Pillars of Rome" rock formations. (Oregon State Archives Photo No. malD0098)

The Oregon Central Military Road meandered through remote areas of southeastern Oregon. Shown above are the "Pillars of Rome" rock formations. (Oregon State Archives Photo No. malD0098)

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Statehood meant that Oregonians had two senators and a representative to make their case in Congress. The congressional delegation delivered. Some argued it was critical to open communications across the new state. The Republican Party was not of a mind to continue projects wholly in the control and labor of federal employees. Its philosophy was to throw as much action as possible into the private sector. Thus between 1865 and 1869 Congress liberally awarded land grants to the State of Oregon to pass on to companies constructing "military wagon roads." Theoretically the routes were to link strategic locations suitable for use by troops during emergencies.

 

The new roads were the Oregon Central, Corvallis-Yaquina Bay, Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain, The Dalles-Boise, and the Coos Bay. Two provided routes from Willamette Valley points in Albany and Springfield eastward to Boise. A third connected The Dalles via the John Day watershed to Boise. Two ran toward the coast: one from Albany to Yaquina City and another from Roseburg to Coos Bay. Under the terms of the grants, as soon as a company had completed a stretch of road, it could apply to the governor for certification of its success. The governor or his designated official would visit the route. If the road was deemed suitable for wagon use, the company then received three square miles of land for every mile of road. The tally for the five roads ran into millions of acres.

 

Land-grant wagon roads were founded on speculation and fraud. None of the companies had the experience, capital, or leadership to build satisfactory routes through such challenging terrain. They cleared and carved out traces, leaving many streams unbridged and routes subject to slides and frequent closures. The Oregon Central Military Wagon Road Company was unblushing in its scam. When its surveyors reached the Cascade summit, rather than heading east toward Boise, they swept south through the upper Deschutes and into the Klamath Reservation, cutting a swath of checkerboard lands out of the lush meadows along the Williamson and Sprague Rivers. They moved on toward Goose Lake into Guano Valley, then over the southern slopes of Steens Mountain into the Pueblo Valley before turning northeasterly toward Boise. Their meandering route captured tens of thousands of acres of prime grazing land, dismembered the Klamath Reservation, and ensured a much larger grant than if they had surveyed a route directly toward Idaho.

 

The Cape Blanco Lighthouse was built in 1870. (Oregon State Archives Photo No. curD0185)

The Cape Blanco Lighthouse was built in 1870. (Oregon State Archives Photo No. curD0185)

Wagon road companies locked up land for years. The General Land Office held hundreds of thousands of acres of unclaimed grants. As long as the company or its successor purchasers did not take title, they did not have to pay taxes. The longer they waited, the greater the appreciation of value in timber, minerals, or grazing. By avoiding paying taxes and letting land values increase, the companies--or those who bought them to speculate in the grants--calculated a better return. Further, the companies did not maintain the roads yet dared to demand tolls from travelers. Lamentations of local residents who lived in the alternate sections along the routes finally compelled Congress to investigate and the courts to take back the remaining portions of the grants.

 

Among the loudest critics of the wagon road companies were land seekers. In the Homestead Act (1862), Congress gave the land-hungry an unparalleled opportunity. For a modest filing fee, five years of residency, and claim improvements, homesteaders could receive as much as 160 acres of the public domain for free. Congress became increasingly generous in giving away federal lands. It passed bounty land acts for veterans of wars, the Desert Land Act (1877), Enlarged Homestead Act (1909), and Stock Raising Homestead Act (1916). Shrewd speculators might accumulate hundreds of acres by working the system. Between 1850 and 1940, millions of acres in Oregon passed from public to private ownership through the land distribution acts promoted by developers of the American West.

 

Congressional action shaped Oregon in other areas. The coast was a dangerous place where strong winds buffeted the shore. Narrow channels led over fluctuating bars into the estuaries. The headlands were remote, hulking forms on the eastern landscape. Mariners desperately needed services. The bar of the Columbia gained a reputation as the "graveyard of the Pacific." Boats foundered, grounded, and smashed on rocky headlands, taking hundreds of lives. The U.S. Coast Survey continued to chart the estuaries and compile information in the Coast Pilot, an annual publication with data on landmarks, rocks, buoys, and anchorages. The U.S. Light-House Board was called upon to provide more assistance.

 

A Life-Saving Service crew on Coos Bay circa 1890s. (Coos County Historical Museum)

A Life-Saving Service crew on Coos Bay circa 1890s. (Coos County Historical Museum)

On a case-by-case basis Congress appropriated funds for design and construction of important facilities. These included lighthouses: Cape Arago (1866), Cape Blanco (1870), Yaquina Bay (1872), Cape Foulweather (1873), Point Adams (1875), Tillamook Rock (1881), Warrior Rock (1888) at the mouth of the Willamette River, Cape Meares (1890), Umpqua River, Heceta Head, Coquille River (all 1894), and Desdemona Sands (1905). The goal was to create a system of stations with interlocking lights. On a clear night at sea, a mariner might expect to sight at any point a distinctive beacon on shore to pinpoint the location. Fog signals powered by steam engines blasted warnings from a number of the stations to tell captains to drop anchor or beat a retreat until the mists cleared.

 

In 1892 an appropriation of $60,000 funded construction of Columbia River Lightship No. 50. Anchored off the treacherous bar of the Columbia, the lightship had a lonely crew of eight who, for decades, kept watch, maintained kerosene lights, and fed coal into boilers to power a massive fog signal. Their wave-tossed perch with booming horn drew hardy men who, like those at remote lighthouses, endured modest pay and isolation.

 

Congress also funded construction of stations and staffing for the U.S. Life-Saving Service. The first station opened in 1878 at the Cape Arago Lighthouse near the entrance to Coos Bay. Numerous shipwrecks and loss of life associated with the export of coal and lumber from the harbor brought federal action. The small building had a surfboat and one oarsman. Launching the craft and rowing to a vessel in distress depended upon volunteers. By the end of the 19th century the U.S. Life-Saving Service had stations at Warrenton, Tillamook Bay, Yaquina Bay, Coos Bay, and the Umpqua and Coquille Rivers. Each had crew quarters, a boat house, and a practice mast for breeches-buoy drill. In the early 20th century the USLSS erected stations at Port Orford and Siuslaw River.

 

Chief Joseph led his people on an epic retreat before surrendering near the Canadian border.

Chief Joseph led his people on an epic retreat before surrendering near the Canadian border. Learn more about Chief Joseph.

In the 1870s the U.S. Geological Survey began work in Oregon. John Evans, U.S. Geologist for Oregon Territory, had mounted initial surveys of mining areas in 1855-56. In the final three decades of the 19th century the agency inaugurated studies of mining districts to assess coal and gold deposits. Its skilled cartographers also commenced topographic mapping in conjunction with the U.S. Geodetic Survey. These maps, revised at 20-to-30 year intervals in the 20th century, gave form to the land. They provided vital information on roads, settlements, and terrain. In the 1890s the USGS performed a remarkable service. Its employees mounted the first comprehensive assessment of forests in the state. They estimated standing volumes of hardwoods and softwoods, mapped areas ravaged by forest fires, photographed the terrain, and published technical reports on forest conditions and grazing impacts.

 

The Bureau of Indian Affairs by 1856 had embarked on its mission to attempt to transform Indian tribes into the mainstream culture in one generation. It founded its work upon an agrarian economy regardless of the terrain, elevation, or traditional subsistence patterns of the tribes. Oregon's reservations were Siletz, Grand Ronde, Warm Springs, Umatilla, Klamath, and Malheur. The tribes retained but a fraction of their aboriginal lands. The Nez Perce, whose 1855 treaty reserved their aboriginal lands in northeastern Oregon, were beset by trespassers who, in 1877, provoked the Nez Perce War and the exodus of Chief Joseph's band. These Indians orchestrated a brilliant retreat through the Pacific Northwest, for months eluding the U.S. Army. When they finally surrendered, the government confined them first in Oklahoma and after 1885 on the Colville Reservation in Washington.

 

Indian agents, subagents, farmers, teachers, and doctors--all in the employ of the federal government--mounted the programs. They created farms and insisted, in spite of the weather, that Indians raise wheat in the boggy soil along the Oregon coast. Hundreds died in this ill-fated experiment. They also attempted to compel the Klamath and Warm Springs tribes to become farmers. The setting for their farms was amenable to gathering root crops or berries but not to cereal or vegetable crop production. Terrible hardship ensued.

 

In 1879, Lt. Melville C. Wilkinson of the U.S. Army opened the Indian Training School in Forest Grove, on four acres of land rented from Pacific University. $5,000 was provided to start the school. Wilkinson, with the help of eight Puyallup Indian boys began construction on the buildings in 1880. The initial class of students consisted of fourteen boys and four girls. All the students came from the State of Washington, seventeen of them from the Puyallup Reservation on the Puget Sound and one boy from the Nisqually Reservation. These students were taught blacksmithing, shoemaking, carpentering, wagon making, girl’s industries and advancement in studies. The local community did not support expansion of the campus. So Henry J. Minthorn, the second superintendent of the school, considered three sites for a new school. Newberg offered 100 acres of heavily timbered land, Forest Grove offered 23 acres with a pasture parcel of 75 acres approximately four miles away from the main site, and Salem offered 171 partially cleared, sparsely timbered land north of town. He chose the Salem site since it was close to the State Capital and had the most acreage, and in 1885, moved the school, changing its name to Chemawa Indian School.

 

The Army Corps of Engineers started jetty projects on several Oregon rivers in the late 1800s. Shown above is the view from the base of the south jetty on the Columbia River. (Oregon State Archives Photo No. claD0146)

The Army Corps of Engineers started jetty projects on several Oregon rivers in the late 1800s. Shown above is the view from the base of the south jetty on the Columbia River. (Oregon State Archives Photo No. claD0146)

In 1887 the General Allotment Act launched a major assault on tribalism. The law, extended over the next few years to Oregon reservations, provided for dividing up the tribal estate into individual allotments of 80 to 160 acres. The plan was for each Indian to receive a tract, farm it, transform in lifeways, master English and, after the passage of 25 years, gain certification as "competent." The Indian then became a citizen of the United States, received title to the allotment, and could pay taxes on the land! The program fostered a dramatic loss in Indian lands and created a nightmare of checkerboard ownerships within reservations.

 

The Army Corps of Engineers was also on duty in 19th century Oregon. Its employees mounted river navigability studies on the Columbia, Umpqua, and Willamette and planned dredging and jetty projects at several estuaries. These men charted the rivers, designed improvements and, with federal appropriations, oversaw blasting of rocks and reefs. Between 1878 and 1896 the Corps of Engineers supervised the region's most expensive "pork barrel" project--construction of the massive bypass canal and locks at the Cascades of the Columbia. The Corps also constructed the Yamhill River Locks (1900) and, starting in 1888, initiated jetty projects at Coquille River, Coos Bay, Siuslaw River, Yaquina Bay, and Columbia River. By 1920 the Corps of Engineers had spent $4.7 million on river and harbor projects; local contributions added nearly a fifth more when required by legislation. The flow of federal dollars was an immense benefit to Oregonians, for the state did not have the resources to fund such large-scale projects.

 

Uncle Sam delivered. Federal projects included land grants for wagon roads, homesteads, and war veterans. Congress paid for soldiers to fight Indians, personnel to manage reservations, funds to build and staff lighthouses and lifesaving stations, operation of postal routes, post offices, the federal court system, customs houses, the General Land Office, mapping and mineral assessments by the U.S. Geological Survey, and updating of navigational information by the U.S. Coast Survey. Uncle Sam was a key player in a state populated by farmers, stockraisers, fishers, miners, loggers and sawmill workers, and small-town business people.

 

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