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Two Years in Oregon By Wallis Nash Characters: 19447

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Eastern Oregon-?Going "east of the mountains"-?Its attractions-? Encroaching sheep-?First experiments in agriculture and planting -?General description of Eastern Oregon-?Boundaries-?Alkaline plains-?Their productions-?The valleys-?Powder River Valley-? Description-?The Snake River and its tributaries-?The Malheur Valley-?Harney Lake Valley-?Its size-?Productions-?Wild grasses -?Hay-making-?The winters in Eastern Oregon-?Wagon-roads-?Prineville -?Silver Creek-?Grindstone Creek Valley-?Crooked River-?Settlers' descriptions and experiences-?Ascent of the Cascades going west-? Eastern Oregon towns-?Baker City-?Prineville-?Warnings to settlers -?Growing wheat for the railroads to carry.

While Western Oregon and the Willamette Valley in particular have been settled up, the valleys, plains, and hill-sides of Eastern Oregon are only just now beginning to attract population.

But the reports of that country have spread far and wide through the valley, and half the young men are burning to try their fortunes "east of the mountains." When a youngster has been brought up in a wide valley, the eastern sky-line of which has been marked out, from his very infancy, by a line of rugged hills, over which the snow-peaks tower; when he has been used to see the mountains stand out clear and majestic, rosy in the glow of the setting sun, and then putting on their winter garments of purity, and shining cold in the clear moonlight of the winter nights; when he has watched them disappear as the mists of the autumn rains filled the valley, to be hidden for weeks from his gaze, and then suddenly revealed as the drying and vigorous west wind dispelled the veil which the warm south wind had only served to thicken-I can sympathize with the longing felt, even if unexpressed, to climb this barrier and find if there be in verity a Canaan beyond.

And then, until lately at all events, to the young and bold there was a strong attraction in the life on horseback, in the gallop after the straggling cattle over those rolling plains; in the bachelor life of freedom, where home was just where night found him, and where his comrades had made their fire and picketed their horses; and, though last not least, where the wealthy stockmen had started from the exact point where he stood, their capital good health, readiness to rough it, and a determination to get on.

But a few years ago this was what life east of the mountains meant. Then men found that sheep paid better than cattle; and the sheep-herder, with his band of merinos, took possession of the rocky hill-sides, on which the thick bunch-grass was already beginning to fail to hold its first vigor and abundance, and his peaceful but not unresisted invasion pushed the cattle-men farther into the wilderness.

The loathing and contempt of the stockmen for these encroaching sheep! Some of them actually encouraged, and refused to permit the slaughter of, the prairie-wolves, which did not molest the cattle, but waged war on the flocks. But the tide would not be turned back, and mile after mile the sheep pushed on.

The bunch-grass which the cattle lived on, and which only overstocking injured, gave way before the sheep; for these eat out the hearts of the young grass, and their range grew wider as the feed became more sparse.

And then the farmer followed the sheep-herder, and the eaten pastures were turned up by the plow. True, the soil was alkaline in many places, and rocky and stony to an extent strange to the eyes of the valley farmer, who hardly ever sees a stone. But there were streams on many a hill-side which only needed a little work to be turned on to and to irrigate the soil below; and many a valley was explored, whose level land gave promise of numberless farms.

Even if the land were bare and desolate-looking to a degree, and the farmhouse stood naked and unattractive, yet it was found that apples and pears would grow, and even that peaches would ripen well in a hotter and drier summer climate than is found elsewhere in Oregon.

And when the results of the first experiments were disclosed, and it was found that wheat yielded thirty, forty, and even fifty bushels to the acre on these very lands, the tide turned.

EASTERN OREGON.Men who had decried Eastern Oregon as a desert, fit only to pasture a few cattle and scattering bands of sheep, suddenly changed their tone, and nothing was heard from them but advice to leave the worn-out lands of the Willamette Valley, and go to this, which was the coming country.

And advantage was at once taken of this state of things to prepare the public mind for, and then to take up vast sums of money to provide, railroad and increased steamboat accommodation to bring the products of these eastern plains within reach of Portland and the seaboard.

What is this country like? The Columbia bounds the north, the Snake River the east of Oregon-the one running east and west, the other north and south. Nearly midway between the Cascade Mountains and the Snake River, the Blue Mountains run, roughly speaking, north and south. This range is much less elevated than the Cascades, but very wide, and rises gradually from far-reaching foot-hills about the center of the State.

Between the Blue Mountains and the Cascades lies a great stretch of open, rolling country-bare, rocky hills, not a tree and hardly a bush to be seen; until lately covered with bunch-grass and some sage-brush. This is some of the country to which the change of purpose applies which I have just described.

The prevailing color of the country is a reddish-brown, except when in spring a tinge of living green spreads with the growing grass.

Near the Cascade Mountains are wide tracts covered with fine volcanic lava-dust. Where there is moisture to be found, this soil supports a good growth of grass, and the pine timber stretches to its edge. But joining it come the bare alkaline plains. Their natural vegetation is the bunch-grass and the sage-brush (Artemisia).

The chief constituents in the alkaline formation are chlorides of sodium and potassium-demanding irrigation as the remedy for the excess of alkali, while beet-root is recommended as a first crop to absorb the surplus salt. Excellent crops are raised in the Ochico Valley, on this land; and there is no doubt that a very large portion of the tracts now being abandoned by the cattle- and sheep-herder will prove of enormous productiveness in wheat.

East of the Blue Mountains is found, among others, the Powder River Valley. This is in the western part of Baker County and partly in Union County. On the north and east a steep hill-side separates it from the Grand Ronde Valley; on the south and west rises the spur of the Blue Mountain range. The valley is about twenty-four miles long by twelve wide, thus covering two hundred and ninety square miles.

The lands in this valley may be taken as a type of similar valleys in Eastern Oregon. They may be divided into three classes. First, the bottom-lands pure and simple. These consist of alluvial soil of abundant depth and richness; the only question an intending settler need ask is whether they are subject to inundation from the overflow of the river, which invariably is found running through the whole length. Above the bottom-lands, and far exceeding them in extent, are the foothills, yielding in this instance fully one hundred and eighty square miles of excellent grain-producing lands, and adapted in all respects to farming purposes. And above these again rise the hills for pasturage, and only useful for grain-growing where facilities for irrigation can be found. The character of bareness does not apply to these hill-sides; the alkaline soil does not extend to them, and a richer vegetation, in which other native grasses and spreading plants come to the aid of the predominating bunch-grass, affords food to sheep and cattle all the summer through.

SNAKE RIVER AND ITS TRIBUTARIES.All the tributaries of the Snake River from the Oregon side run through a country of a somewhat similar character, and each of these streams is the source of life and vegetation. Among these other valleys may be named the Lower Powder River, Eagle Creek, Pine Creek, Upper Burnt River, Upper and Lower Willow Creek, and the Malheur. This last requires separate mention. It runs through the boundaries of the Malheur Indian reservation, now shortly to be thrown open to settlement, and offering about three million acres of fertile and desirable land.

The Malheur River runs from the Harney Lake Valley to the Snake. This last-named valley is about sixty miles long by twenty wide; and this area of twelve hundred square miles is mainly covered with a growth of grass so tall that a man riding through it on horseback in August can tie the heads of the wild-rye together over his head, or, to use another illustration, sufficiently high and dense to hide completely a horseman who diverges from the road or track. With the wild-rye are mixed bunch-grass, blue-joint, and quantities of the wild-pea vine. And the country north and south of it, though bare, is not barren and mountainous; but in the spring and summer, before the grass is up to its full height, a man can ride and even drive his wagon, day in and day out, until he gets out of the boundaries of Oregon.

The preparations which the settlers make for the winter consist mainly in cutting and storing for hay the natural grasses of the country. Fort Harney, which has been until lately a post held by two companies, has stabling for four hundred horses. Five years ago the troops got cut and stacked from the surrounding country nine hundred tons of choice hay.

Neither in this valley are t

he winters very severe. Until railroad communications are provided, the sparse settlers have to abandon themselves to isolation from the outside world, because the snow lies deep on the plateaus and ridges which extend between them and the haunts of civilized man. But within the limits of the valleys the inhabitants enjoy life in winter. The snow does not lie long or deep; and from so many sources that I am forced to credit it comes the information that no one accustomed to American winter in any of the Middle States need have any apprehension in coming to live in any of the valleys I have named.

Turning westward from the Snake River and traversing the Malheur Valley and the Harney Lake Valley, the traveler may follow one of the military wagon-roads-that one whose fortunes in the violent and scandalous attempts on the title to its granted lands I have before referred to.

From Camp Harney to Prineville, the principal town in the southern portion of Wasco County, the distance is about one hundred and forty-five miles. For between thirty and forty miles the road runs through Silver Creek Valley, or along land watered by its affluent streams. The description I have given of valleys in Eastern Oregon applies to this. The country on either side of the road consists of rolling hills, covered with bunch-grass and sage-brush, and occasionally sparse juniper. Settlement in this valley is very recent. But thirteen families had taken up their residence there previous to and during the fall of 1880, and several more are going in this spring.

GRINDSTONE CREEK VALLEY.Then Grindstone Creek Valley is reached. This is one of the head-waters of Crooked River. A perfect network of creeks and streams is passed before the main Crooked River is reached, and each stream and creek brings fertility to the land on either side of it and through which it runs.

A farmer named Moppin has the credit of growing the first grain on Grindstone Creek; and there, in the harvest of 1880, he raised six hundred bushels of fine oats on nine acres of land, and grew one hundred and fifty bushels of potatoes on less than two thirds of an acre; several of the potatoes weighed two pounds and upward.

Then, following down the course of the Crooked River Valley, we pass through a country which is described in the following terms by a settler of eleven years' experience:

"This Crooked River Valley is about seventy-five miles long, and extends almost due east and west. It is a beautiful valley, with little or no timber in it, with the exception of willows along the river. The average width of the river is about one hundred feet. Now comes the stock country on the south of this river, and along its entire length is one line of hills and plateaus, thickly covered with bunch-grass of the best quality. Every few miles comes in a creek from the highlands back on either side. On these streams, from head to mouth, with but few exceptions, are good farming-lands.

"At this time there are hundreds of thousands of acres of good land lying idle, waiting for the industrious farmer to fence and plow and raise grain on. But what is the use? There is no market for the grain except in limited quantities, as we have no facilities for shipping to the outside world. The consequence is, that if a man does not have money enough to go into the stock-business, he won't come here at all. The one great trouble is to get our supplies. Within a year after the completion of a railroad to this locality the people over in your section will be surprised at the vast amount of grain received from here. As it is now, we have to drive our fat cattle from one to two hundred miles in the winter to find a market, and by the time we get them there they are poor. Give us a railroad, and we can ship our fat stock five hundred miles to market, and afford to sell cheaper than those who live in your (Willamette) valley. We do not have to feed at all. We mark and brand a calf, turn him out on the range, and, when he is four years old, sell him for twenty dollars cash-net profit about seventeen dollars. Does that pay? Give us facilities for getting to a better market, and it will pay better."

Passing still eastward after leaving Prineville along this Crooked River Valley, and then to its junction with the Des Chutes River, the country retains its fertile and promising character.

A FARMER'S OPINION.A farmer of twenty years' experience in Oregon, and who is a thoroughly reliable man, writes thus: "I have known this country well for several years. This fall (1880) I have taken a journey through it right along east, traveling slowly and with a view to settling. What my opinion is you may judge when I tell you that I have made up my mind to settle in the Crooked River Valley, where I shall go with my family in the spring.

"I know no part of Oregon that pleases me better. You have the best of land for wheat, oats, and potatoes. You can get a good garden, and grow all the vegetables you want. You have unlimited range for your stock, where they will get fat on the natural grasses, and where you can put up all the hay you want. Cattle, horses, and sheep do equally well out there. You are going into a healthy climate, away from all fever and ague or any other sickness of that nature; and you are going to a place where the land is bound to be worth four times its present value when the Oregon Pacific Railroad is opened."

Beginning the ascent of the Cascades, you pass through and over some twenty miles of rough lava country, interspersed with strips of scattering timber-land, and then come to Fish Lake and Clear Lake, the paradise of the fisherman, the hunter, and the berry-gatherer and botanist.

Before I leave the description of Eastern Oregon, let me quote from one more letter from a settler of last year out in the Prineville country: "I am located on a ranch on Camp Creek, and eight miles below the famous 'soap-holes' (silver-mines). We can raise almost anything out here, unless it is a mortgage. We have all the potatoes, turnips, onions, carrots, and beets we want; all were raised on our ranch, and, by-the-way, they were immense. I pulled one turnip that measured thirty-four and a half inches in circumference, and quite a number ran as high as thirty inches. Early-rose potatoes do remarkably well here. I have in about five acres of rye, and will sow about twenty acres of wheat and oats in the spring."

I should add that the towns in Eastern Oregon, away from the Columbia, are beginning to assume considerable importance.

Baker City was described in December, 1880, as having about one thousand inhabitants, while the amount of business transacted would average fully $450,000. There were then six substantial fire-proof business structures, and two large school-buildings, namely, "St. Joseph's" and "The Sisters of the Holy Names." The former is said to be a large four-story structure, in brick and stone, of the pure Gothic style of the fourteenth century, with accommodations for about one hundred and fifty boarding and day scholars; it is managed by a Roman Catholic priest named De Roo.

Prineville is a very lively and bustling place, with about the same number of inhabitants. It is growing fast, several fine buildings having been recently erected, among them a convenient and substantial church. There are three large general stores, supplied with heavy stocks of goods; from this, as a distributing center, the stockmen and ranchers for fifty miles and more in every direction fetch the necessaries of life. In the summertime ten or a dozen heavily-loaded wagons may be seen any day starting out along this road (which was called no road!) for their distant homes.

WARNINGS TO SETTLERS.It must not be assumed that all Eastern Oregon could be divided off into farms of the character of these choicer pieces which such men as I have referred to have chosen and settled on. There is many a rough, stony hill-side, where the sparse vegetation struggles for life in the crannies of the rocks. There is many a stretch of sandy, alkaline plain, where the dingy sage-brush grows, with here and there a tuft of bunch-grass; there is many a gully where the thirsty steer would look in vain for water, even in a dirt-hole, to quench his thirst.

But all this is fully consistent with the fertility and attractiveness of the valleys and slopes I have described. For, remember, we are dealing with fifty thousand square miles of country, on which, if the existing farms were marked on a large scale-map, they would be hardly noticeable in the vast expanse of land waiting for settlement and population.

But he would be a short-sighted man who should think of farming in Eastern Oregon, as it now is, save in a few accessible spots, where proximity to a road will provide a market at his door for the produce he has raised. In Northeastern Oregon, where the great crops of wheat are beginning to be grown, the farmer is at the mercy of the Transportation Company, which hitherto has sucked the oyster and left the farmer the shell. For what profit can there be in growing wheat at thirty and thirty-five cents a bushel, that same wheat being worth one hundred cents in Portland, and the difference being absorbed in freight and charges?

And yet, so great is the charm of novelty, so prone are a large number of the emigrants to this State to try a new place, that land up there fetches from five to fifteen dollars an acre, just about the same price for which they could buy a farm in the valley foot-hills, where wheat was worth seventy-five cents against the thirty-five, and where churches, schools, post-offices, and telegraphs are already provided.

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