How were the Payne Cliffs formed?

Payne Cliffs MT File Photo

Those majestic cliffs across the freeway from Phoenix have a long and dramatic history. Called Payne Cliffs after a pioneer family, they are part of sediment laid down on the east side of the valley over the last 65 million years by stream erosion.

Before that, the whole region was on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Pushed up by subduction of the eastward-moving San Juan de Fuca plate, it became dry land, then was covered by a two-mile-thick layer of sediment brought down by erosion, says Monty Elliot, an emeritus professor from Southern Oregon University.

The mountains above Payne Cliffs, including Grizzly Peak, are lava that flowed down from Cascade volcanoes about 30 million years ago. The whole area has been eroded by streams in recent eons.

Beneath Payne Cliffs is the Hornbrook formation, which was the ancient seabed laid down between 100 million and 65 million years ago. These formations began tilting up toward the northeast from 12 to 17 million years ago and mixed with later lava flows to form our valley floor.

The area, like all higher elevations in the valley, was used for about 12,000 years as summer hunting and berry-gathering grounds by American Indians.

The sun-dappled, south-facing cliffs, now halved by stream erosion, got their modern name from C.T. Payne, an Oregon Trail pioneer of 1852. He crossed the plains at 21, with his new bride, Elizabeth, 16, and they lived in Linn County, moving to Fern Valley, below the cliffs, in 1868, according to A.G. Walling's "History of Southern Oregon," 1884.

The Payne family farm included Sunny Cliff Orchards, owned by Jim Henry. It was large, extending to Bear Creek. The family name also stuck to Payne Road and Payne Creek, according to a 1954 article in the Mail Tribune. After raising 11 children and edging into old age in the early 20th century, the Paynes moved into Ashland. He died at 84 in 1915, and she at 96 in 1932.

The area in the shadow of Payne Cliffs has since been host to many orchards, including some owned by Associated Fruit, and was considered as a route for Interstate 5 in the 1950s, but orchard and business interests opposed that option.

Janet Inada, owner of Rogue Valley Roses, says "it's a wonderful place, like living in a natural park. You can't hear the noise of the freeway up here and the soil, where I am, is nice."


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