History of Malheur County, Oregon
For fifty years the tide of
civilization has been rolling westward
overland towards the Pacific. Between British
Columbia and Mexico one will cross at
least a dozen trails running east and
west, reaching from the Atlantic to the
Pacific, and over which, like trunk lines of railway now, have
rolled a mighty emigration. One of these trails led to Oregon. Formerly
Oregon meant the Willamette valley, and
as for many years the weary pilgrim plodded along
with his head and hopes fixed
hitherward, he many times passed without notice, locations as mach or core
desirable than his Mecca. But as
waves strike the shore and then recede, so the tide of emigration
to the Willamette valley struck there, made its observations, and many in
disappointment turned their raves
eastward. Malheur county now has
several well-to-do citizens who forty years ago camped on their way to the
Pacific and allowed their stock
to graze in the rich valleys of the Owyhee and Malheur rivers where their
homes are now located. Malheur County, Oregon, is the south east county of
the state, has a width from east
to west of sixty miles, a length from north to south of one hundred
and sixty-four miles, and embraces
nearly ten thousand square miles of territory.
This is a tract of country larger than
the state of New Hampshire, and nearly as large as the states of Massachusetts
and Connecticut combined. And this was once a part of Baker County, with
Baker City for the county seat.
For many years Baker City was the metropolis of Eastern Oregon, and had the trade of all this section of country. In 1883 the Oregon Short Line Railway, in building down the river, found it convenient at the east line of the state as well as this county, to cross the river from Idaho to the Oregon side, crossing back again into Idaho twelve miles farther down the river. Near where the railroad crosses back into Idaho the company established a station, giving it the name of Ontario. The building of this road had the effect to cut off from Baker City the trade from all this portion of the county and divert it to Ontario, which is ninety miles east of Baker City.
The change of commercial center naturally called for a division of the county, and the legislature of 1887 passed a bill cutting off from Baker County that portion of Oregon now known as Malheur County. The governor appointed as its first officers F. K. Froman, county judge; Henry C. Murray, sheriff; Ed. H. Test, county clerk, and C. T. Locey and John F. Lackey, county commissioners, and on the 3rd day of April, 1887, they set up housekeeping with a debt inherited front Baker county of $30,000.
In 1806 some prospectors, in traveling through the mountains in the northern part of the county, on a small tributary of Willow creek, found placer gold in paying quantities. Owing to a scarcity of water they found it impractical to work their claims except for a short time in the early spring when the melting snows furnished a supply. The ground was found so rich that a few stayed with their claims and this settlement, which was called El Dorado, may be said to be the first in the county. In 1868 Wm. Packwood, of Baker City, an engineer of great energy and ability, on hearing of the richness of the gravel in this camp, made investigations which proved to his satisfaction that it would pay to bring water on the ground. No scream of sufficient size to furnish the volume of water required was nearer than Burnt River, and it laid over a range of mountains. He conceived the idea of going up this stream far enough so that a ditch with proper grade could be brought over this range. To bring it over at the point desired, he had to go up Burnt River nearly one hundred miles. But he made the location, went East and interested capital at an expense of about $100,000, built the El Dorado ditch, and completed it in 1873. I am credibly informed, with its waters the miners washed from the grounds about El Dorado, Malheur City and Amelia, millions of dollars.
A thrifty mining camp always attracts people of other occupations and among those who gathered in the vicinity were a few agriculturists who located on Willow creek, and, aided by its waters, began truck farming with a view of supplying the miners. To a few this business proved very remunerative. Finding the soil very productive, as claims worked out and owners became tired of mining, they located ranches up and down the creek, and began farming and stock rising as a business. The first ranch taken in the county is in that valley and was located by Geo. Derby in 1866. The best of the ground has been worked out for a number of years, but the ditch is still there and a few Chinamen still continue to work old claims on shares.
El Dorado has been abandoned for twenty years or more, but Malheur City is quite a thrifty little village, and the trading point for many settlers up and down the valley. The county is in the arid belt, there being but five to seven inches of precipitation annually, and nothing in the way of fruits, grains or vegetables can be raised without irrigation. The county is watered by Snake River, which forms part of its eastern boundary line, and the Owyhee and Malheur rivers which are tributaries of Snake and flow a good volume of water throughout the year.
Along in the 70's a few families located on the Snake, Owyhee and Malheur Rivers with a view to rising stock. But in the early '80's talk of a railroad coming through and our large stretches of beautiful valley lands attracted a number of families from Nevada and other localities, who were acquainted with farming by irrigation, some locating on the Owyhee and Snake valleys, and others in the Malheur valley. After making their selections and filings, the question of turning the water onto the lands was taken up. The families front Nevada located on the Malheur some ten miles above its continence with the Snake. Five miles further up the river they found a favorable point, and from it took out the Nevada Ditch which was practically completed in 1884. In 1887 it was incorporated in order to secure better management. The stock is all owned by the farmers, and on this ditch they have expended about $40,000. This ditch has first right to 2000 inches of the waters of the Malheur River, measured under a six inch pressure, under it are many beautiful farms, and the company is out of debt.
The work of turning the Owyhee River, owing to points of a number of hills that projected far out into the valley, which had to be gone around or cut through, the magnitude of the tract of land to be irrigated, and the much larger size of ditch required, made the task a difficult one. But in 1883 at a point eleven miles from its mouth, they started their ditch and worked on it more or less for five years. In 1888 they too incorporated for $50,000, and after working six years longer and expending this amount all in labor, they found themselves and their resources completely exhausted, and their ditch but about half done. Several times during the progress of this work they were offered by capitalists flattering amounts for this ditch and franchise, but they stubbornly refused and toiled on, many of them living on bread and beans and their teams oh hay. They had determined that when the ditch was completed they would be its owners. In 1894 the large mercantile firm of Kiesel, Shilling & Danilson, of Ontario, which had a tract of 1000 acres or more of land lying under the line of their ditch but several miles below their lowest excavation, proposed that If they would double their capital stock they would take five thousand dollars worth of it, and work it out and furnish others the supplies they needed, accepting in payment the 10 per cent interest hearing notes of the company.
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