Old McKenzie Highway honored in American history

Old McKenzie Highway honored in American history

Share your Old McKenzie Highway memories: Share your videos and photos, post a comment or contact KVAL News with your story. You can help us tell the story of this historic route.

MCKENZIE PASS, Ore. - Felix Scott Jr. started improving an old Native American trail up the McKenzie River in 1862.

He hired John Templeton Craig to help.

Craig later worked with John Latta to construct the McKenzie Salt Springs and Deschutes Wagon Road in the 1860s and 1870s, a wagon road that was the predecessor to the modern McKenzie Highway.

Craig froze to death in December 1877 in a cabin near the summit. His grave and marker are found near the McKenzie Highway close to Craig Lake.

Now the route built up in the footsteps of these Lane County pioneers has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places - and not for their contribution to American and Oregon history.

The nomination hinges on the transformation of the road from 1917 to 1935.

The Oregon Department of Transporation said the development of the McKenzie Highway "represents a facet of history that is significant on state level because it illustrates the mechanics of building the first forest road in Oregon after passage of the 1916 Federal-Aid Road Act, and it uses the prevailing concepts of scenic road construction found in national parks and forests in the 1920s and 1930s."

The Oregon State Highway Commission improved the original wagon road in 1917.

From 1921 to 1924, the Forest Service and the US Bureau of Public Roads in Oregon designed improvements to the road to encourage tourism by offering motorists sweeping views of forests and mountain and volcanic vistas from McKenzie Pass as they travelled through National Forest lands.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the Dee Wright Observatory in 1935 to provide outstanding views of mountains and volcanoes, still a popular attraction more than 75 years later.

The route climbs through the Oregon Cascades, passing within yards of both the Mount Washington and Three Sisters wilderness areas.

Oregon's State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation recommended the highway's nomination in December 2009. Almost 2,000 historic Oregon properties are now listed in the National Register, which is maintained by the National Park Service under the authority of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. More than 600 of those are roads or transportation features.

Share your Old McKenzie Highway memories: Share your videos and photos, post a comment or contact KVAL News with your story. You can help us tell the story of this historic route. >>> Photo Gallery

History of the McKenzie Highway
Source: Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places

The McKenzie River and subsequently the highway owe their names to Donald McKenzie, an early explorer who was born in Scotland in 1783. He took a partnership in the Pacific Fur Company at the request of its founder, John Jacob Astor, after ten years in the Canadian fur trade. He crossed the continent to arrive in the Pacific Northwest in 1812. He explored the Willamette Valley as far south as the present-day Eugene-Springfield area and the three forks of the Willamette River. The upper fork soon bore his name. McKenzie later went into a career with the Hudson’s Bay Company and made a substantial fortune in the fur trade before retiring to New York state, where he died in 1851 (Munford 1981).

Felix Scott Jr. built the first trail/road along the McKenzie River and over the mountains to central Oregon.

Trails and routes over the mid-Cascade Mountains were necessary for pioneers reaching the Willamette Valley and later for gold seekers searching for access to discoveries in eastern Oregon.

Scott’s family came west from Missouri to California in 1845 and then to Oregon the following year. Scott eventually staked a claim on the south bank of the McKenzie River, north of present Springfield near the Mohawk River’s mouth. In the early 1860s, when prospectors discovered gold in Idaho and eastern Oregon, Scott saw the need for a miner’s supply road over the Cascades from the upper Willamette Valley (Williams 1988).

Scott began construction of his McKenzie Fork Wagon Road in 1862. It would follow an American Indian trail that went up the McKenzie River from its confluence with the Willamette River (Munford 1981).

Scott hired John Templeton Craig to help create the route. Craig was a native of Ohio who came west in 1852 and settled in the lower McKenzie Valley, but after the road-building expedition with Scott, he craved an isolated life and built a cabin on Craig’s Pasture at what he considered a more logical place to cross the McKenzie River for a different route over the mountains.

Local settler and explorer John Latta discovered this route in 1866. He worked with Craig in the late 1860s and early 1870s to create what they called the McKenzie Salt Springs and Deschutes Wagon Road. This was the route that the present McKenzie Highway would follow—traversing up the Lost Creek and White Branch valleys and passing near Proxy Falls near Deadhorse Grade. After crossing Scott’s Trail, the new road climbed up through the lava beds, thereby reaching a summit at least seven hundred feet lower than Scott’s Pass. It was open to travel in 1872 and provided the main transportation link between Eugene City and central Oregon (McLean 1963). Craig was the first president of the road company.

The road was popular with cattle drovers, miners, travelers, and also served as a contract mail route (Sawyer 1930:264). By 1898, local residents wanted to improve the wagon road as a public county road. However, it was not until 1910—the year that the first automobile came through the pass—that Lane County began improving the road. No maintenance had occurred for several years. The vesicular basalt fields required the most work. This included removing large rocks, and breaking up smaller rocks and covering them with ballast; removing high centers and stumps; constructing road-turnouts; and in some places widening the road by two feet. Additional funding in 1913-14 furthered these improvements, including shaving grades of more than 10
percent along the route. Those who promoted the road saw it as an important link for automobile use and for economic purposes, such as market, tourist, and business travel. (Hatton 1996:106).

During the teens, the USDA-FS made plans for improving sections of the road for forest access. Both the Cascade National Forest (now Willamette National Forest) and the Deschutes National Forest made substantial allocations to improve the road at McKenzie Pass. The forests and the county crews had many obstacles to overcome concerning upgrades and maintenance. They contended with steep grades, ruts, softsandy spots, potholes, and snowdrifts, and it was not uncommon for them to gash tires on the sharp lava rocks (Hatton 1996:107).

During the summer of 1914, several hundred people traversed McKenzie Pass, showing its increasing popularity as a touring route. They traveled by automobile, hack, or wagon, on horseback, or even by foot. Men and their teams often hauled cars up the steep grades. Native peoples from the Klamath Reservation continued to use the mountain route to reach the Willamette Valley for hop picking. In 1916, in a push to improve the section between Sisters and Windy Point, the Sisters Road District conducted surveys for road improvements, since it was of economic interest to have a passable road for tourists. The McKenzie Highway would soon become the most traveled highway in the state outside of the Columbia River Highway (Hatton 1996:107).

Lawmakers created the Oregon State Highway Commission (OSHC) in 1913. A year later, the commission included the McKenzie Highway as one of five routes in a “Proposed System of State Roads.” However, the state legislature did not adopt the road for upgrades and expansion as a state highway until 1917, after passage of the Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916 and a reorganization of the Oregon State Highway Commission and department, whereby some road responsibilities shifted from counties to the state. The USBPR worked with the USDA-FS and the OSHC to improve the McKenzie Highway No. 15 as a market road, scenic route, and forest highway. (Carrick 1993:3, 6-7, 15; Oregon State Highway Division 1988).

The USBPR administered federal financial assistance to states for road construction within or adjacent to national forests and parks, but the State Highway Commission would manage the contracts. The USDA-FS was also involved in the agreement if the highway was on national forest lands. The USBPR administered road work under the Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916 and subsequent acts. Oregon’s road system grew with the help of funds that the federal acts authorized. The USBPR appropriated money for surveying, constructing, and maintaining roads and trails that provided access to and through national forests. In general, local, state, and federal road improvement programs upgraded original alignments dating from the era of wagons and early automobiles. For primary highways, the USPBR financed construction with modern grade and curvature standards and tried to find ways to incorporate Rustic-style architectural elements in its road designs.

Highway upgrades and improvement work began in 1919 targeting deficiencies in the improved wagon road’s geometry, bridges, and driving surfaces. Although the new McKenzie Highway alignment generally followed the route of the improved wagon road, it bypassed many sections due to the steep grades. (Several highintegrity segments of the approximately 9-foot-wide wagon road remain within the forest and the lava beds.)

Forest Service labor, under the direction of the USBPR, carried out improvements on the McKenzie Highway in the early 1920s (OSHC 1920, 1922, 1924, 1926). Federal participation in forest road construction began in 1916 when Congress passed the first Federal-Aid Road Act. This program provided federal funds for roads that were needed primarily for management of the national forests, as well as providing funds to states for road improvements.

By 1920s, the USBPR’s Portland District office, under the direction of Charles H. Purcell, oversaw federallyfunded highway construction, bridge construction, and culvert placement in Oregon, Washington, Montana, northern Idaho, and Alaska (OSHC 1926:346, 351). Purcell had been state bridge engineer for Oregon from 1913 to 1915, where he devoted much of his efforts to overseeing bridge design on the Columbia River Highway east and west of Portland, and the Pacific Highway in southwest Oregon. In the early 1920s, his staff were the design engineers for the McKenzie Highway and the Mt. Hood Loop Highway, in addition to other routes, during the mid 1920s. Purcell left federal service in 1927 to become the California state highway
engineer and oversaw design of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge beginning in 1931. He was California public works director from 1942 to 1951.

Purcell’s assistant on the McKenzie Highway was John Arthur Elliott, a University of Washington engineering graduate who studied with Samuel C. Lancaster, the designer of the Columbia River Highway section in Multnomah County. Elliott located the route in Hood River County following Lancaster’s philosophy of integrating the road into its surroundings. This included designing the five-windowed Mitchell Point Tunnel.

Elliott went on to design much of the Mt. Hood Loop Highway in the 1920s. He also helped draw up a longterm agreement between the USBPR and the National Park Service in 1925 to cooperate on park road design and construction. Elliott eventually became the ranking engineer for Region 6 of the USBPR (Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas) (Nitteberg 1956).

The USBPR and the USDA-FS worked together to build and improve the McKenzie Highway in cooperation with the state. They followed principle design concepts of leading landscape architects such as Andrew Jackson Downing, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Calvert Vaux, and Henry Hubbard in carrying out their design.

Most importantly, the Forest Service consulted with noted landscape architect Frank A. Waugh on road and road-related improvements in the western forests for recreational use. This is evident on the McKenzie Highway as much as it is on the Mt. Hood Loop Highway on nearby Mt. Hood National Forest. The traveler is greeted by a panorama of natural scenic views that were incorporated into the vision of the completed road.

The McKenzie Highway was built as a component of the natural landscape through which it passes (Waugh 1918).

The McKenzie Highway would be the first as well as the longest forest road project in Oregon. During the 1919-20 biennium, the USBPR and the USDA-FS started planned improvements for the 53.8-mile section of highway from Blue River (west of McKenzie Bridge) in Lane County to Sisters in Deschutes County (including the 35-mile-long section that is the subject of this nomination). Discussions in 1919 focused on whether the completed roadway should be 12 or 16 feet wide, exclusive of ditches. In the end, several miles were completed to only 12 feet wide, with the ability to build out to 20 feet when traffic warranted it. A maximum grade was planned at 6 percent, with a minimum curve radius of 75 feet (USBPR Records).

Nationwide geometric road design guidelines were not yet in place. This was a time when state and federal highway engineers were still struggling with what were appropriate lane widths, grade constraints, curve radii, and pavement requirements for different types of roads. It would be a few years before the USBPR and the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) would outline a nationwide roadway design policy.

The geometric benchmarks that Elliott used as a framework for his design of the McKenzie Highway fall in line with the early AASHO guidelines for roads of this type. By the mid 1920s, Elliott would employ the same philosophy for the Mt. Hood Loop Highway. Likewise, in 1924, Frank A Kittredge, another USBPR engineer who studied engineering with Lancaster at the University of Washington, adopted similar standards for the Logan Pass section of Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. There, he held to a grade maximum of 6 percent, with 100-foot radii for open curves and 200-foot radii for blind curves. A previous design for that highway called for maximum 8 percent grades and very tight curves (Hadlow 2000, Begley and Carr 1996).

The contract work began on August 26, 1919, on the eastern 15 miles of the McKenzie Highway. Four contractors each completed a section of the highway. The contract for grading the Section 3 Deadhorse Grade on the west slope near the summit, for example, went to Joplin & Eldon (OSHC 1920:298). The contractors would subcontract “small gangs” to do the physical work. Two camps were set up for the 90 employed men, who were immediately put to work grubbing, clearing, and grading the roadbed, and working on culverts. All work was by hand; no heavy equipment was used at this time. The project office, workers, and the cook were all housed in tents (USBPR Records).

Reconstruction of the Deadhorse Grade section involved crossing the “old road” at several points. It climbed nearly 2,000 feet in 2.4 miles. Some sections were at 7 and 9 percent, and the new plan called for the gentler grade. Steep drops in the earlier road were eliminated in favor of a curving gradient for the new highway. The work also included constructing two timber-beam bridges with rubble-masonry headwalls on the Deadhorse Grade section.

Grubbing and clearing, and grading were difficult. The climb to the lava beds near the summit consisted of a base of sandy loam overlain with boulders and ledge rock that needed clearing. The alignment required a large rock cut through Windy Point. The section from the summit to Sisters involved pioneering an alignment through pine timber, which required cutting trees, removing stumps, and filling in stump holes. The “big cut” of 1924 involved a steam-shovel excavation of a ridge of jagged basalt just east of McKenzie Pass. It made summer travel easier, but winter snows piled up in the cut. With completion of this cut, an old “automobile stairway” was partially removed. The stairway consisted of wooden planks that were wedged into the steep lava slope in the 1910s for traction to make it possible for westbound motorists to cross the vesicular basalt beds (Hatton 1996:109; USBPR Records). Many culverts built on the McKenzie Highway had dry-rubble or cement-rubble masonry headwalls with corrugated metal culvert piping, wooden box culverts, or log-cribbing abutments.

By 1923, crews applied a gravel surface comprising a base course and a top course. They smoothed the base course with dragging equipment to create a uniform cross-section before applying the top course. The lava segments were sand-surfaced in 1924. In 1925, snow fences were built at the summit to catch the drifting snow (Hatton 1996:108). The improved highway was completed in the summer of 1925 (The Sunday Oregonian 1925).

When finished, the McKenzie Highway was the only major road through the middle Cascades and it carried a large amount of local traffic and tourists from all over the United States. The upper highway, the subject of this nomination, was in a well-known recreational region that had top scenery, hunting and fishing, as well as the hot-spring resorts, hotels, and campgrounds. The lower highway, between Belknap Springs and Springfield, was important for the agricultural market. Also, the Blue River Mining District within this section relied on the highway for transporting ore.

In 1926, the McKenzie Highway became part of US 28 which ran from Florence to Ontario, Oregon. This was when the AASHO adopted a US route numbering system. Portions of the McKenzie Highway were paved in the late 1920s with asphaltic concrete, but the entire highway was not paved until 1946. The state renumbered the highway as Oregon 126 in 1951. The Clear Lake-Belknap Springs Highway was completed in 1962 as an all-weather route to connect the McKenzie Highway with the Santiam Highway (US 20). The subject route over McKenzie Pass became a secondary route, due to snow closures at the Pass, and was renumbered Oregon 242. Though the highway was resurfaced in 1991-92, no route changes or widening occurred at this time.
The USDA-FS received additional funds under the Depression-era New Deal program to advance forest policy.

The forest recreation plan of 1933 outlined work needed to develop, rehabilitate, or restore natural resources and to develop and enhance recreation resources through work-relief programs such as the CCC (Throop 2002; Tweed 1980). This program provided the means to complete the Dee Wright Observatory at McKenzie Pass in 1935, which provides outstanding scenic views of the surrounding mountain peaks and volcanoes (McKenzie River Reflections 2004; Willamette National Forest 2006).

Dee Wright Observatory (1933-34)

The Dee Wright Observatory was completed as a memorial to Dee Wright, a USDA-FS employee and CCC foreman at Camp Belknap who died while construction was in progress. Dee Wright grew up in Molalla, Oregon, and had previously worked for the Oregon Department of Justice and later as a mule packer and forest guide for the Mt. Hood National Forest. During his tenure with the USDA-FS from 1910 to 1934, he worked on several trail and building projects, including the construction of cabins on Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams. In 1921 he acted as chief guide for the Bruce Expeditions, which made pictorial records of historic ventures in the northwest (Hatton 1996:116; The Bulletin Board 1972).

In response to the Great Depression, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the CCC in early 1933 as one of the first New Deal emergency agencies to put Americans back to work. The CCC’s mission was to reduce unemployment among young men and to preserve the nation’s natural resources. The CCC worked with many departments, including the USDA-FS.

The CCC built recreational structures that are representative of a distinctive style of construction that focused on durability, attention to detail, and quality of workmanship. Structures typically harmonized with the environment. The CCC established base camps and spike camps in most of the national forests (McClelland 1993). The young men cut trails, built roads, constructed bridges, built campgrounds with log facilities, laid telephone wires, constructed drift fences to manage cattle, built log corrals, enclosed springs, dammed creeks to create small reservoirs, and constructed guard stations, ranger stations, and fire lookouts.

The CCC enrollees who built the observatory also worked on recreational enhancements along the McKenzie Highway and Clear Lake-Belknap Springs Road. They were from Camp Belknap, also known as Camp F-23 of Company 927 (Willamette National Forest 2006). The camp was at the present location of the McKenzie Ranger Station on the western portion of the McKenzie Highway. The enrollees were generally young men of rural origins who came from the Midwest or Oregon. The camp operated from 1933 until 1938 as a woodworking center where the young men cut logs into planks for benches, tables, and chairs using a USDA-FS
pattern book. Experienced local men trained in carpentry and masonry helped the CCC enrollees during construction. Aside from constructing the Dee Wright Observatory, they built part of the road from Belknap Junction to Clear Lake and Santiam Junction, and shelters and recreational facilities along the route at Clear Lake, Fish Lake, and along Horse Creek Road. They also built smaller campgrounds, trails, a part of the Pacific Crest Trail then known as the Skyline Trail, and small dams in the area (McKenzie River Reflections 2004).

The early twentieth century saw an increase in professional management of Oregon’s national forests to sustain utilitarian uses of forest resources. In addition, by 1915, the USDA Forest Service became engaged in recreational use of forests, when automobile travel had increased to the point to justify improved roads to accommodate motor transportation and recreational camping (Tweed 1980). By 1925, the Forest Service built over 1,500 campgrounds in the national forests and many were in Oregon.

William N. Parke designed the Dee Wright Observatory. He was the landscape architect for the Willamette National Forest between 1933 and 1937, and played a key role in the implementation of a new emphasis on recreation in the Willamette National Forest during the Great Depression. Parke was a forestry graduate from Oregon State University and had completed graduate work in landscape architecture at the University of Oregon when he was hired as a recreation planner. Parke was in charge of designing campgrounds and he selected sites, developed site plans, and designed structures and other improvements for a wide range of recreation facilities, many which were built by the CCC (Cox 1988).

Share your Old McKenzie Highway memories: Share your videos and photos, post a comment or contact KVAL News with your story. You can help us tell the story of this historic route.