Monday, July 1, 2013

Oregon Backroads: Eastern Oregon where the west was won!

For those people that have lived in Oregon all their lives, Eastern Oregon is all that land east as the freeway (I-84) leaves the Columbia River. This is the place where the Oregon Trail passed and battles with native American left marks on the land and the Homesteaders dropped their belongings on dry hillsides with such high hopes.
Range lands is still precious and well guarded.
As you travel east on I-84  through the Cascades along the Columbia River and over the Blue Mountains toward that far edge of the state not only does the landscape change, the culture and the feeling for time is altered. In some ways the west was never won in this part of the world.

A school friend of mine, Gary Langley, sent me a letter yesterday with a description of a ranch, his family owns in Baker County. They have decided to sell the land. He spent part of his childhood on the Homesteaded ranch his grandfather claimed in 1917.  His father, mother and a brother lived in a two room house with no electricity and no running water. A pitcher pump pulled water from a well probably dug in the early 20 century.
My Grandparents Elsie and Ira Langley built that cabin as was required in order to be given a 160 acre homestead by Woodrow Wilson in 1917...They had to grow hay and raise cattle for 5 years to own the land outright....Or they could live there for 1 yr. and pay $1.25 an acre to own it outright. The cabin had 2 rooms splitting the cabin in half...1/2 a communal bedroom and the other 1/2 for cooking and living. There was a bull snake that lived in the house and kept mice and rattlesnakes away. 
It was a hard life with no indoor plumbing, electricity and only a well with a pump for drinking and cooking water. The crick (Clear Creek) ran year around from a very strong spring called Try Spring. The water ran the whole distance of the property and provided irrigation for the 4 small fields used for growing hay to feed the cattle in the winter. The barn (almost fallen down by now) housed 4 work horses that pulled horse drawn machinery for doing the processing of the hay to be stacked for the winter feeding season. 
The only access to the ranch was a wagon road in which we came down the hill with a team of horses pulling a wagon that Walter and I sat in a wash tub in the back of the wagon to get up and down the hill. 
Grandfather was assassinated by a disgruntled and crazy fellow rancher in Dec of 1918. Grandma moved off the ranch and it was not until 1944 that dad and his brother went back to ranching again.In 1945 Mom, Dad, Walter and I moved in and ranched for a year or so until I had to go to school.
Gary revisited this land last week with family members and a neighboring rancher. One family member was thinking he could live there and not have to bother with other people...then he saw how hard it was to find and opted out. The woman rancher, 79 years old, carried a sharpened shovel to lean on when walking and to kill rattlesnakes with. Time in nature is not recognized and the perils are much the same as they have always been. The hike into the homestead took two hours. The hills in this part of the world are very steep...when a person from the Northwest says "steeper than a cows face" that is just what they mean.

While I would drive on the back roads on this part of the country, I would never open a gate or trespass on land. It is "the law of the west" and you should pay attention. Ranchers need to protect their herds and land.
Map here for area. This is Rye Valley Road going up Dixie Creek.
For locals that live between Baker City and Ontario, the Langley ranch is located off of Dixie Creek up a county road called Rye Valley Lane. There is an exit sign on the freeway and the road would eventually carry you through Mormon Basin to Burnt River Canyon road.  There are remnants of hydro gold mining in Rye Valley and a small creek flows down a narrow canyon.

My great grandparents owned a ranch along the creek where my great grandmother ran the ranch with the help of her brother and a son. They probably were homesteaders. Life was so hard for this little woman. Her son was dragged to death by a horse and his grave is on that land. The brother was killed by a train coming home from a weekend drunken spree in Huntington.
Pioneer Gravestone in Baker City (?) Durbin Creek runs near Huntington.

Clear Creek originates on the property at Try Spring.

Homesteaded granted by Woodrow Wilson in 1917

Woodpeckers had a field day on the side of the old house. The holes were there when my friend lived in the house in the 1940's.

Along US I-84 as you pass an old mining operation and cement plant in a place that used to be called Lime, a small cemetery sits along the hillside. Gary's family is buried there. It is west of the mine and on the north side of the road. If you were to visit, the tomb stones are probably still standing to this day.  There is another similar cemetery on the hill going east as you leave Huntington. Many of my family rest there.

The little river that runs near the freeway is the Burnt River. It is a muddy and polluted little waterway that flows into the Snake River just east of Huntington. I was raised in this little community back in a day when small towns like it across America were a safe place for children and fathers worked all their lives at the same job.

Huntington was home to my family when the Union Pacific Railroad was just arriving in the late 19th century. At the turn of the 20th century it boasted more than 10 whore houses with equally as many saloons. The wild west was alive and well in those days. My grandmother worked at the local mercantile and her parents were immigrants from Sweden. My great grandfather was a foreman on the railroad and supervised construction of the bridges that connected the railroad with the rest of the state.
Note: I hear that Howell's Cafe in Huntington is still serving a mean pizza. Check it out for me will you please?
Life without running water, no indoor plumbing and a wagon ride to get home is what my generation in Eastern Oregon have experienced. Swinging bridges crossed creeks and outhouses dotted the countryside. While most of my mid-western friends were working in department stores or riding roller skates at the local drive-in during the 50's, we were still marveling at the wonders of the modern world. Time had passed us by it seemed.

I, however, lived in town and even though our little house was only about 800 square feet, we had all of the amenities. TV came to our house in about 1955. It was a window to the world for us. That was when our lives really began to catch up with the 20th century.

So, if you are interested in seeing the remnants of a third world country very close to home, take yourself across Oregon from west to east. You can go down the freeway but better yet, go through Bend towards Burns or travel east and south to Harney County. Leave the freeway at Durkey and travel up the Burnt River Canyon toward Unity. Find a campground, fish in Unity Reservoir. I see there is a state camp ground there.

True, things have changed a lot over a 100+ years but if you squint your eyes and block out the power lines as you pass an abandoned house beside the road, you can almost hear and see families scratching a living from the land. You will hear sounds of unrelenting hardship mixed with the simple joy of being alive in a time when anything was possible and land was free.

I do love the State of Oregon.


Note: The pictures were given to me by Gary Langley. I am grateful for that.

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