Wagon Roads in Union County, Oregon

     Since the earliest travelers passed through it the Grande Ronde Valley has been a point of departure for two separate routes, either to the north toward the Walla Walla country or to the west as the most direct route in the Willamette Valley.

     The route of entry into the valley followed by the travelers from the East was by way of what is now known as Ladd Canyon, as this offered the shortest and most direct route between the Grande Ronde and Baker valleys. The early emigrant trains followed this way, using heavy logs cut in the upper reaches of the canyon as drags to slow the speed of their wagons as they descended into the Grande Ronde. For many years a great scattering of discarded logs could be seen at the canyon's mouth.

     Ladd Canyon was not known by that name until 1862 when Mr. and Mrs. John Ladd, pioneer emigrants from Illinois, established an inn at the foot of the hill and gave their name to the canyon. Good substantial meals were served by these early day restaurateurs at a dollar each. As early at 1855 Green Arnold, previously mentioned as one of the earliest settlers in La Grande, occasionally conducted a sort of trading rendezvous with the Indians and emigrants at the mouth of this canyon.

     Most of the wagon trains coming toward the La Grande region followed along the south side of the valley from Ladd Canyon, and avoided the marshy valley floor. Generally they stopped in the vicinity of La Grande as a camping and resting place before beginning the difficult climb west over the Blue Mountains.

Another route important in travel to and from the East by way of the Grande Ronde Valley was the toll road constructed in 1864 by J. M. Pyle through the bottom of the canyon which bears his name, just east of the town of Union. Mr. Pyle was an early member of the state legislature, being the first Senator from Union County. He operated this road until his death in 1865. An effort was made by the county to purchase the road, but being unable to agree on terms of purchase with the Pyle estate, the county built another road, above it, on the north and east side of the canyon. Being toll free, most traffic went over this road, in spite of its steep grades. Shortly after the county road was completed the owners of the toll road, which was by for the most desirable route, agreed to sell to the county, thus providing a good free road through the canyon. When the railroad was constructed through Pyle Canyon the contractors received permission to open up the abandoned county road to aid them in their work, promising to clear up the canyon after the railroad was completed. But this they failed to do, leaving much debris spread along the narrow defile through which the original Pyle road passed and making travel very difficult. The county tried by every means to force the contractors to do as they had agreed as far as the use of the old road was concerned, but eventually the county was put to the expense of clearing out the fallen rock which had been dislodged and which made travel by the canyon route very hazardous.

     From the north end of the valley there were at various times from 1862 down to 1900 three different routes across the Blue Mountains to the Walla Walla country. These were the Toil Gate road, the Linton road and the Thomas and Ruckles stage road.

     As early as 1862, Fred Nodine, one of the earlier settlers in Union was engaged by Dr. Baker and his associates of Walla Walla to bull a trail across the Blue Mountains to permit the passage of freight and supplies from Walk Walla to the mining camps on Powder River. Mr. Nodule received 200 for his work and the trail which he laid out was later expanded into a wagon road and was known as the Lincton road, just where this name was obtained is not known. The Linton road came into Grande Ronde Valley near Elgin and was entirely separate from the Toll Gate road, except for a comparatively short distance from the headwaters of the Umatilla River to the present site of Toll Gate. The Linton road did not approach Summerville any closer than the mouth of Willow Creek.

The Thomas and Buckles road followed one fork of the Umatilla River from Thomas Creek, crossed the summit of the Blue Mountains, and entered the Grande Ronde Valley on the west side near the north end. It passed through the town of Summerville and from there went across the valley to Cove, Union and Pyle Canyon. The route followed by this road began as an Indian trail connecting the valleys of the Walla Walla and Grande Ronde rivers, and was used by fur traders from 1819 to 1834 between Fort Walla Walla at Wallula and the Snake River country. The Thomas and Ruckles road was washed out for some distance by freshets in 1884 and was never rebuilt.

     The Toll Gate road followed up Phillips Creek from Summerville to the Phillips Creek grade and thence on to Toll Gate and Umatilla and Walla Walla country. This road was constructed in the fall of 1880 front Summerville to Toll Gate.

Of the history of the roads in Grande Ronde Valley proper not a great deal can be determined although the primary interest of the citizens of Union County in the early period was for better road facilities. Much of the work of the county court in the first years it sat was comprised of hearing petitions praying that roads be established connecting the various parts of the county. To the end that this might be accomplished, the court in February of 1865 divided the county into 11 road districts. On 9 March, 1865, there was presented a petition of 75 persons requesting that a road be built from Oro Dell to run on the north side of the river to "Mitchell's place on the big lake an the Grande Ronde River," there to intersect with the Walla Walla road. This petition was acted upon favorably by the court and the road was eventually completed, thus giving La Grande a direct road connection with Union.

     Although not passing through the Grande Ronde Valley another road used to some extent by travelers between the Walla Walla and Baker valleys was the Dealy road. This was a toll road which passed near Starkey where it crossed the Grande Ronde River proceeded along the east side of Beaver Creek through to Wolf Creek near North Powder and thence on into Baker Valley, terminating at the "Slough house," an emigrant stopping place six or seven miles north of Baker. The Dealy road was used largely by saddle trains and evidently but little by wagons. Among the advantages listed in the advertisements for this road were that it was 25 miles shorter than any other route between Umatilla and the "Slough House," had shorter drives between watering places, had better grass, and had the lowest rates of toll. The advertisements further stated that the road company had expended $8,000 in preparing the road, had improved the old military road between Birch Creek and the Grande Ronde River and had graded l0 miles of the route. But despite all these apparent advantages the Dealy road passed out of existence shortly after 1867 when the Meacham road across the Blue Mountains was completed.

     Although it would appear that the Union County stage routes would have furnished many ideal locations for robbery, passing as they did through wild, rugged and lonely country, comparatively few such attempts were made. The first organized effort to make away with the treasure of gold dust so often hauled by lumbering coaches occurred in August 1868. In many respects it was as colorful as any imaginary account in the fiction of Bret Harte.

     The plot to rob the stage was formed in the mind of a Dr. LeBurr, a physician of Summerville who evidently found it necessary to seek other income than that afforded by his profession. At any rate he, John Wheeler, George Savage and Jim Bailey, all of Summerville, waylaid the stage near Meacham at a point since known as "Robbers' Roost "Doc Austin, the driver that day for the Hailey Stage Company, suddenly found himself staring into the leveled rifles of two of the robbers and being directed to kick off the mail sacks and express strong box, shoved off that part of this cargo with alacrity. Had he not been aware of the fact that the strong box did not contain the gold which the robbers sought, he might have made some effort to defend the property in his charge instead of obeying the command given him without question. However, the plot for the robbery had in some way become known to Sam Hannah, the express company agent at Union and he had craftily substituted rocks for the gold which would ordinarily have gone into the treasure box.

     The robbers, undoubtedly disappointed that their plan had gone awry, returned toward Summerville, and were tracked by a posse. Wheeler and Savage left the county but were shortly captured by a United States marshal named Robbins near Olds Ferry on the Snake River in Idaho. Although handcuffed together, they jumped from the stage returning them to La Grande when it reached a point about three miles east of that town. The night being extremely dark, they could not be found, but the next day Wheeler was recaptured and was taken in custody at Summerville along with LeBurr and Bailey. Savage escaped and was never heard of again. The others served long terms in the penitentiary for robbing the United States mails.

     After paying his debt to society, Doctor LeBurr returned to Summerville, resumed his practice of medicine, and became a respected and honored citizen of the community. During the diphtheria epidemic which raged over the valley after his return he answered every call made for his services and exemplified the highest traditions of the medical profession. In later days, when asked why he returned to Summerville to reestablish his reputation instead of beginning life over again in some community where his dereliction was unknown, he replied. "If you want to find anything, the place to look for it is where you lost it."

Contributed by: Jim Reavis  

Union County

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