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Traveling On The Oregon Trail

Posted in Events on October 1, 2012 Comment (0)
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Traveling On The Oregon Trail

The first wagon train to leave Independence, Missouri, and head west by way of the Oregon Trail was in 1836. At that time, the trail had been improved for wagon travel to Fort Hall, Idaho. Anyone wishing to travel beyond that point had to leave their wagons behind. The trail all the way to the Pacific Ocean had been used for many years on foot and on horseback but not in a wagon.

This was the first view pioneers had of Three Island Crossing. Only two of the islands were actually used to get across the river but there were three separate channels of water.

It was four years later before the first three wagons made it through the mountains from Fort Hall to Fort Walla Walla in Washington. They were followed by thousands more. With each new group, the trail was improved or in some cases the route was moved to an easier or shorter crossing.

The Snake River at Three Island Crossing was considered the most dangerous river crossing on the Oregon Trail. In other areas, the river cut through deep canyons but at Three Island Crossing it was easily accessible. The islands split the river flow into three smaller channels that were not as deep and did not flow as swiftly as one huge channel.

On the other hand, this was the largest river crossing on the trail. The water was too deep to drive across so the wagons had to be caulked and floated. They had to battle a swift current that continually pulled at the floating wagons and tried to carry them downstream. Pioneers would swim across with one end of a rope that was tied to the wagon on the other end. Once they were across, the wagon was put into the water and guided by pioneers tugging on the rope. Many of them capsized in the swift current and those who tried to rescue a sinking wagon were in danger of drowning.

Three Island Crossing was a milepost on the Oregon Trail. It meant three quarters of the journey was behind them. On the other hand, it was dreaded by the pioneers because of its reputation as the most dangerous river crossing between Missouri and Oregon.

Some travelers chose not to cross and stayed on the south side of the river. Doing so meant traveling many additional miles through desert country where feed for the animals was scarce and water was harder to find.

In addition to the threat of the river, pioneers had to contend with the Shoshoni Indians that lived near the crossing. The Indians were not pleased to see them but expected the travelers to trade with them. If animals and supplies were not carefully watched, some might disappear in the night. The best way to make friends with the Indians was to hire them to help with getting the wagons across the river. When animals disappeared, the best way to get them back was to hire the Indians to find them.

Once the wagons were across the river, they had better grass and easier access to good water. They had also cut many days of travel off the time it took to reach their destination in Oregon.

This artist’s depiction of a wagon train crossing the river can be found at the overlook for Three Island Crossing. It is on the loop trail included in the guidebook, which can be obtained via the Internet.

A route called the Main Oregon Trail Byway has been established. It is about 100 miles long depending on the options selected and follows very closely to the original route. The section in the Three Island Crossing area is a loop that provides different angles from which to view the crossing. After leaving the crossing, the trail continues toward Boise, Idaho, along unpaved roads connected together by paved highways. Some parts of it are on public lands. Other parts travel through private farms and ranches. It took us about a day to visit the park and then follow the trail across the rolling hills to Boise. A free downloadable guidebook can be found at http://www.idahoocta.org/MOTBCB_Booklet.pdf..

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The guidebook points out areas that were used as camps but nothing exists there today. The current route runs parallel to the original route much of the time. The book will often point out the original trail calling them wagon ruts. They may have begun that way but in reality the trail has been driven on by farmers, ranchers, and travelers in all sorts of vehicles for many years before access to it was restricted. Even so, those ruts do mark the original route used. Unfortunately, because access is denied, they will eventually erode away and will fade into history as Mother Nature uses wind and water to level the land.

It is not easy to find info about the community of Mayfield. Some say it was never a town but this old school and community hall still stand.

There is nothing left of the Hot Springs near Teapot Road. It is on private property so access to the area is restricted. Pioneers claimed the water was hot enough to fry eggs. The guidebook claims the water level in the area has been lowered by irrigation which caused the hot springs to dry up.

The Main Oregon Trail Byway passes Rattlesnake Station where a stage stop was built in the 1860s. By that time, use of the Oregon Trail had passed its peak but the population was growing in Idaho. The station was later renamed Mountain Home and a small community was growing around it. The entire town was moved closer to a newly installed railroad in 1883.

Following the byway can make for a pleasant day with the family. The history of the area gives adults something to think about while following the kids or grandkids on some of the available hikes along sections of the wagon road. Although much of the trail is on private property, there are plenty of hiking opportunities. The free guidebook points them out and some of the points can be like a treasure hunt for the kids to find.

The old stage station at Mayfield is still standing on private property.

Navigation: GPS Positions
From in the town, take 1st Ave to Bannock. Go under I-84 and turn left on the old Oregon Trail RD. The free booklet at the visitor center provides a mile by mile guide to the trail so we only included a few waypoints here.
Latitude Longitude Comments
N42 57.7932 W115 18.5013 Turn left to begin the Old Oregon Trail Rd.
N43 11.7993 W115 33.3715 Turn right for an interpretive sign. The town of Rattlesnake Station was in this area. It was renamed Mountain Home, then moved to a location closer to the railroad.
N43 25.0736 W115 54.0729 This is Mayfield ghost town and stage station. Everything is private so take photos from the road.

Sources
Much of the history used in this story was obtained from Internet web sites. Another reference was the free guidebook available from the Internet, as well as at the visitor center. The Xterra Pro-4X driven by Lone Writer was provided by Nissan. Tires are provided by BFGoodrich. GPS and mapping software is provided by DeLorme. For more information, visit www.lone-writer.com or email leh@lone-writer.com.

The Main Oregon Trail Byway in Idaho is pretty well maintained but can be trouble when wet.
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