Pine's Drives: Head up 97 to see Cow Canyon, Shaniko and Antelope
This is the third of my five favorite historical drives through Jefferson County.
It is a condensed version of the historical eighty-mile loop drive covered in my recently published book, Historic Drives Through Scenic Jefferson County, Oregon. The drive is over all-paved and well-traveled roads. You will not only experience a scenic drive, but cover a lot of area that heavily impacted the Homestead Era and development of what is now Jefferson County. Gas up, bring along snacks, sunscreen, water, a companion to share the rush of historical excitement with and field glasses. Use my mileage numbers as approximations, as your mileage may differ slightly. If you bring along my Drives book, the drive is on page 183, titled, Willowdale, Cross Keys, Cow Canyon, Shaniko and Antelope Loop Drive. And yes, I do realize much of this drive is outside of Jefferson County, but this area of Wasco County was certainly impactful to our local history.
From Madras to Hay Creek
To begin your drive, at the light near McDonald's in Madras, set your odometer to "0". Drive north from Madras on Highway 97 toward The Dalles. For the first five miles or so, productive, irrigated fields are on both sides of the highway. When settlers first arrived in the mid-1800s, these rolling hills were covered with waist-high natural grasses. Excellent grazing lands for cattle, sheep and horses.
Land speculators and the railroads heavily promoted the opportunities this land presented. This area was all in Wasco County at the time. The county seat was in The Dalles. The major north-south routes, trails mostly, were not along this highway's route; they were eastward running from Prineville, the area's largest town and later county seat, through the Hay Creek Ranch northward to The Dalles.
By the early 1900s, droughts began replacing the once-regular amounts of rainfall that replenished the grasslands. Overgrazing and poor dryland farming practices contributed to a landscape that would no longer support dryland farming. By the 1930s, many people had moved away, often abandoning their farms. When this happened, sage and juniper slowly moved in and took over. Much of the drive today will be through waterless areas that would resemble how the lands must have looked back then.
At 10.5 miles, you will be approaching Lyle Gap, named for a prominent landowner in the area. This was an important gap in the surrounding hills for those traveling north and south through Central Oregon. It brought travelers into the fertile valley of Trout Creek, where Hay Creek and Trout Creek join.
To experience the route of the original road through the gap, at about 11.0 miles on the odometer, watch for a small green road sign on the right that reads, "Hay Cr. Rd. 2 miles" (before you begin the highway grade downward). Slow down and turn right onto Hay Creek Road. This road approximates the original road grade through the gap — of course, back in the late 1800s it was a rough dirt road, full of dips and a long, hard pull for a freight wagon's team of horses, mules or oxen.
At the bottom of the grade is a natural (dirt/gravel) road to the right, with a sign pointing down the road to the Richardson's Rock Ranch a mile away. Though our drive will not go down that road, put it on your bucket list. You may be thinking, 'Seriously!? A rock shop? Boring!' I can assure you, it is fascinating for kids of all ages whether you are into rock-hounding or not. Be sure to call before making the trip out to it, as hours of operation vary.
Across from the rock shop, next to Hay Creek, is the site of the old 1878 Trout Creek Post Office and Heisler Stage Station. The stage traveled south from here on the Hay Creek Road to the Hay Creek Ranch and on to Prineville, or north to The Dalles or to Shaniko once the railroad arrived in 1910. A much-used road from this station also ran eastward into the hills to Ashwood until the more modern road was built over by Pony Butte.
Through the Trout Creek Valley
For our drive, follow the paved road around to the left. You are now paralleling Hay Creek, which may be no more than a trickle depending on the time of year. Green fields around are irrigated from the creek.
Water was usually plentiful within the next few miles of this drive through the valley. The surrounding hills and lower elevation protected crops from frosts. Several roads and trails funneled into the valley, making it a natural location for stage stations, farms, ranches and post offices. After 1911, Lyle Gap also provided area settlers access to the railheads in Gateway and Madras.
At roughly 15.1 miles, on your right, you approach what appears to be a pink rock outcropping. This is the Rose Stone Quarry. This beautiful pink colored rhyolitic tuff has been quarried for years for use as fireplace decoration and commercial building facades. Soon, you arrive back at Highway 97. Turn right.
As you travel along the highway, Trout Creek is now flowing in the distance to your left. Once, a truck-stop café, store and post office named Willowdale were located here. It was a haven for frazzled truckers who had just come down the infamous Cow Canyon Grade in the mid-1900s. More on that later.
The next few miles of this valley were some of the earliest settled lands in Central Oregon. The combination of water, farmable and grazing lands made this valley a natural location to settle. As Central Oregon grew, it became a valley through which north-south freighters, stages and those living in Central Oregon passed through to do business in The Dalles. The valley was also known for the fresh fruit and vegetable its orchards and gardens produced.
Rural post offices, stage stations and schools have been located in the valley since the 1870s. Names such as Cross Keys, Trout Creek, Heisler, Lyle Gap and Willowdale have all been community names within the valley. By 1928, Willowdale was the last post office within the valley. Many prominent early day Jefferson County families ranched in the area; some still do. The well-known Teal and Coleman Ranch had their headquarters here in 1868. They trailed thousands of cattle as far east as Council Bluff, Iowa, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, to reach eastern markets. As you drive along the highway, you will see signs for the R2 Ranch. This is the largest ranch in Central Oregon.
The once-perilous Cow Canyon
At 18.5 miles, you will cross a bridge over Trout Creek and soon begin a long grade up Cow Canyon. This five-mile-long canyon, with an elevation gain of 1,400 feet, was used for eons by indigenous peoples traveling from the Columbia River southward. A narrow, steep walled canyon, it was one of the few manageable ways into Central Oregon that avoided the mountains to the east and the steep-walled Deschutes River's canyon to the west.
As the old creek bed trail came more into use by ranchers and settlers, the trail was built up, becoming a narrow winding road that frequently washed out. Over time, the grade was improved by Wasco County at the insistence of The Dalles merchants, circa 1869. A toll was charged until 1912 to defray improvement and maintenance costs. Until the railroads came up the Deschutes River Canyon in 1911, this was the shortest and fastest route in and out of Central Oregon. The problem was that it was a five-mile-long steep pull for teams of horses and mules. Some freighters pulled two wagons in tandem with teams of eight or more animals, making this grade too hard for teams other than those with single wagons. There was a spring located about half way up at the toll booth area which offered driver and team some relief. At 22.2 miles, watch for tall poplar trees on your left indicating the site of the tollbooth and spring.
Going down the grade was also dangerous. If the heavily laden wagons picked up too much speed, or if the horses became spooked by a snake and the driver lost control, over the edge could go the wagon, cargo, livestock and driver. Pullouts were few, and wrecks were common. Teams of horses wore bells that would jingle with the horses' cadence. This not only allowed the horses to pull in a rhythm with each other, it alerted other drivers of their presence for quite a distance ahead and behind. The old road grade and its retaining walls can still be seen from the modern highway, if you know what you are looking for. One can still hike the old grade which is on the west side of the canyon wall.
In the early auto era, besides narrow, tight curves, lack of guardrails and sheer drop-offs, brakes overheated and failed going down the canyon. Coming up the grade, radiators boiled over and engines overheated. Room to pass a slower wagon or vehicle was nonexistent.
This remained a problem even into the modern times, though now, overheated radiators and failing brakes are almost unheard of. I recall many times in the 1970s and '80s hearing of eighteen-wheelers overturning coming down the grade due to a sleepy driver, icy roads or failed brakes. The Willowdale Café, at the bottom of the grade, was a well-deserved respite for truckers who had white-knuckled it down the grade. Coffee and a slice of the Willowdale's famous home-made pie was the ticket. Unfortunately, only a roadside pullout remains of this once-popular restaurant.
Once at the top of the grade, there is a highway rest area with restrooms. Stay right at the highway intersection, continuing on Highway 97. At 33.4 miles, on the left is a pull-out with a Cascade Mountain identifier. Worth the stop on a clear day. At 35.7 miles, you pass the 45th Parallel, meaning you are equal distance from the North Pole and the Equator.
Shaniko: Boom town to ghost town
Then, at roughly mile 38, you will begin entering Shaniko. Shaniko was named after a nearby early-day German settler named Scherneckau. Shaniko reflects how the Native Americans pronounced his name. Shaniko is now labeled a ghost town, though it still has fifty residents, give or take.
Early Central Oregonians had hoped and prayed for a railroad into Central Oregon from the main Columbia River track. For years, they had been told this would never happen due to the deep canyons and lack of population. In 1900, a forty-six-mile rail line was built up a canyon of the Columbia River's gorge, southward, across the rolling hills to Shaniko. At the time, there was no town of Shaniko. At the terminus, almost overnight the town was created and boomed. No longer did Central Oregonians have to travel an additional 134 miles (round trip) to the railhead at The Dalles to ship their wool, livestock, wheat and other products by rail to the eastern markets. This was a saving of several weeks of travel time, not to mention wear and tear on wagons and animals.
Shaniko became a town with a fabulous hotel and restaurant, still seen today, where millionaires met and did business. For example, $5 million came through Shaniko banks on wool sales in 1904 alone. Serving all of Central Oregon and some of Eastern Oregon, 400 rail cars of cattle and over a million bushels of wheat were shipped from Shaniko in one year. It was a boom town, with lots of money changing hands. Saloons, gambling halls and a red-light district helped relieve cowboys, freighters and travelers of their hard-earned money. Finished goods were shipped into Shaniko by rail in quantities and size that wagons would have had trouble transporting. Gigantic warehouses were built to hold all the wool coming in from the big sheep ranches. In fact, Shaniko was called the "Wool Capital of the World."
Within 10 short years, the bottom fell out for Shaniko. By 1911, the railroad that would "never come to central Oregon" did. In fact, two railroads battled up the Deschutes River Canyon, reaching Madras in 1911 before pushing on into Bend. Why the change? Railroad magnates saw the many advantages of having this rail line for the agriculture produced in Central Oregon and supplying the growing population — but it was the dollar signs they saw above the vast forests around Bend that did the trick. Lumber was in high demand.
These rail lines were the death knell for Shaniko, as now merchants, ranchers and farmers could access the rail depots at Gateway, Madras, Culver and Opal City. There was no reason to fight Cow Canyon and the distance to Shaniko when railheads were just a few miles away. Shaniko had a population of 600 in 1910. A fire in 1911 burned much of the town, hastening its decline. By 1959, Shaniko was openly referred to as "Ghost Town" at the Oregon Centennial Exposition. In 1966, the rail line was shut down. Still, it is a fun town to walk though. The fine hotel, old stores, museum, school and remaining warehouse are well worth a leg-stretching break.
Ending up in Antelope
Leave Shaniko driving east on Highway 218 for the eight-mile drive to Antelope.
This was a popular route for miners in 1862 when gold was discovered in Eastern Oregon. As miners and supply trains passed through on their way from The Dalles, many stayed in the fertile Antelope Valley. First there was a stage stop, then a small community developed. For freighters unwilling to travel the Cow Canyon Grade, a longer, easier route up through Antelope was the preferred alternative. When the railroad arrived and Shaniko boomed, so did the traffic through Antelope, which until that time had been dependent on miners, freighters and area ranchers. By 1901, Antelope had incorporated into a city. But when Shaniko began its decline, so did Antelope. Its importance declined even further in 1925 when The Dalles to California Highway improved the Cow Canyon Grade and passed through Shaniko, leaving Antelope by the wayside. Little remains of historic Antelope other than the quiet assemblage of homes, a school (which once had the most modern masonry around) and, hopefully, the town restaurant that serves awesome pie and ice cream.
There is a huge amount of history that occurred during the 1980s when the Bhagwan and his thousands of red-clad followers took over the Antelope town council and renamed Antelope as the City of Rajneesh. In the process, they intimidated and strong-armed many longtime residents into leaving. Though the 7,000 followers did an amazing job of bringing back to life the former 64,000+ acres of the Big Muddy Ranch, their leaders' activities turned sinister. In their efforts to sway votes toward their candidate during an election in The Dalles, followers sprayed salmonella on restaurant salad bars to keep voter turnout low. Many people fell ill. Homeless people were bused in from many towns, signed up to vote, and promised food and care if they voted for the Rajneesh ticket. The final straw was their attempt to murder state, federal and local officials. This topic is too extensive for this historical drive. For more information, many articles and books have been written about this period. The Oregonian did a twenty-part investigative series in 2018 on the Bhagwan episode in its newspapers. It is well worth the read.
At the end of town, turn right onto Highway 293. Follow it about 14 miles back to Highway 97, following many fields irrigated by Antelope Creek (often out of your field of vision). Turn left to go south on Highway 97, heading back through Lyle Gap and towards Madras, ending our historical day drive.
I hope you enjoyed this extensive, yet brief drive into our county's history.
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