Backtracking the Oregon Trail #2
Day Two ~ The Blue Mountains
[The roads] were harder than before. Steeper. Rockier. Dustier. Rivers wilder. There was an occasional tree now, sometimes wooded areas even, with tall conifers and cottonwoods. . . . The trail here was littered with the bones of oxen and fresher dead beasts—along with discarded trunks and furniture—and another human grave. A chill raked Martha despite the heat. The smell of death assaulted her nose.
—A Place of Her Own: The Legacy of Oregon Pioneer Martha Poindexter Maupin, Janet Fisher. (Guilford, CT, Helena, MT: TwoDot/Globe Pequot Press, 2014), p. 119.
Sep 3d We came, I think, eleven miles; over the mountains; the scenery was delightful all day but the road was extremely hilly and rough . . .
September 4th We came, I think, fourteen miles this day over the principal range of the Blue mountains, traveling all day through a densely timbered region . . .
—The diary of Abigail Jane Scott, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), pp. 121-122.
3d Sunday . . . Traveled along the west side of the valley at foot of mount about 3 miles when we came to a small stream and then commenced ascending the mountain, very steep in many places and continues to ascend for about 6 miles. very hard drive but at the top found the grass burnt off and there was no water, so had to go on till we came to Grand Ronde [River], ten miles, worst hill to go down that we have found yet. long, steep and rocky. . . .
5th Tuesday . . . Hard times. many cattle are failing and all are very poor and a good many get lost among the thick timber. . . . Traveled on about 7 miles on a mountain ridge sometimes on one side sometimes on the other. pretty sidling in places . . . begin to hope we are getting out of the mounts.
—The diary of Cecelia Adams & Parthenia Blank, Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), pp. 302-303.
Tues Sept 21 Traveled 20 miles. . . . Here we commence climbing the Blue Mountains. . . . Had to camp without water. Found hard hills to day and very stony. Saw 5 graves and 5 dead cattle.
—The diary of Martha S. Read, Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 245.
A formidable barrier loomed in front of us as we drove southeast from Pendleton, following the Oregon Trail pretty closely. Rising suddenly from a wide, flat landscape, the ridge looked barren except for a few tree clumps in the hollows. The highway took a wide sweep to zigzag up the hill. You could feel it on the heavily loaded car. Ears popped. My breath caught, imagining wagons rolling down this grade from the other direction.
We soon climbed into rugged timbered mountains. Mostly pines. And worked our way across, with lots of ups and down. Ridge after ridge. These were the Blue Mountains, the worst mountains the emigrants had crossed so far on their entire journey.
You don’t give much thought to those rising and falling grades while driving a car on a smooth highway—although we saw a few cars stopped with raised hoods. But when you let your thoughts drift back to a time when every rise meant a long, hard pull for weary oxen and every drop meant the danger of a wagon rolling out of control—forward or sideways. And every stone on a gravelly track meant the risk of losing a wheel or even overturning the whole vessel. Then the ups and downs become a whole lot more serious.
And think of where they were on that incredible journey. They were nearing the end. They’ve been trudging across a seemingly endless track for almost 2,000 miles. How daunting for them to reach the roughest part now. The oxen are so weary, many are just giving it up. Not enough food. Sore feet. Loads feeling heavier by the day. Now this. They drop and die. And sometimes people do too. Still, in their weariness, some diarists remarked on the splendid beauty of it. The fine timber.
After a long haul across this range we came alongside a gravelly creek which tumbled into a large flat expanse surrounded by a ring of mountains. Out ahead we could see where we would have to climb another ridge. This was the Grande Ronde Valley, admired by many travelers. The name comes from the French grande ronde, meaning “fine large valley” or “big round valley,” so named by the early French-Canadian trappers. A respite before the next rise. The Grande Ronde River mentioned in the above diary flows out of the Blue Mountains.
Our next climb brought us into sparse pine woods, which offered scattered shade amid jutting rock bluffs and scanty tufts of dry grass. This ridge wasn’t nearly as rugged or deep as the last. Reverse the direction of travel and you realize this was only a hint of worse to come for those westbound pioneers. Could they even imagine what was awaiting them in the ridge ahead?
[The photo at the top was taken in the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City, Oregon]
NEXT: A stopover at the interpretive center just outside Baker City, a highlight on our journey