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The trail to today

In the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, wagon trains had to find a way around the ferocious whitewater of the Columbia River, either by trekking over the steep, wooded wilds of Mount Hood or rafting the river.

In 1843, two children from the pioneer Applegate family drowned on the Columbia, a tragedy that changed the future of the Rogue Valley.

Because of the Applegate children's deaths and others' over the next few years, Applegate brothers Lindsay and Jesse won permission from the Oregon Provisional Legislature to blaze a "southern emigrant trail," heading in 1846 from the Willamette Valley through the Umpqua and Rogue valleys, then across a low point in the Cascades near the present Green Springs Inn, then down across the deserts of Northern California and Nevada, joining the Oregon Trail at Fort Hall, Idaho.

On their return trip, they brought the first party of settlers, bound for the Willamette Valley. But when they got to the Bear Creek Valley — present-day Ashland — many of these bone-weary folk said, "Ah, this looks pretty good. There’s no reason to go up north," says Ashland historian George Kramer.

“Everything comes from that moment. It was the first major emigrant route to include Southern Oregon. Arguably, the valley was settled very differently and earlier because of that success,” he adds.

The route was soon known as the Applegate Trail and it followed Bear Creek through the valley. When gold was discovered in 1851, Jacksonville was born and a stagecoach route was established on what are now South and Old Stage roads — which carry traffic from Phoenix through Jacksonville to Gold Hill to this day. 

Medford bloomed in the 1880s, displacing Jacksonville. In the decades following the arrival of the automobile, the main north-south route through the Rogue Valley became Highway 99. The interstate was completed here in 1966, though Kramer notes, “It would be inaccurate to say the Applegate Trail led to the interstate.”

The Applegate Trail went along Bear Creek, and where Ashland’s East Main Street and Talent's Talent Avenue are now. But “the important thing," says Kramer, "is not where it was located but how it opened up the route through the valley. It was the beginning of a major transportation corridor in the Bear Creek Valley.”

Reminders of the old trail survive, but you have to know where to look for them. Tub Springs State Wayside, just east of Green Springs Inn, still gushes with the same water — considered among the purest waters on Earth — that slaked the thirst of struggling wagon train pioneers. You can take jugs there and fill them any time of year.

The Mountain House on Old Siskiyou Highway, half a mile south of Highway 66, built in 1852 by three pioneer men who filed donation land claims with a common corner, still exists as a bed-and-breakfast and, says Kramer, is the oldest house in Jackson County.

Ashland City Councilor Pam Marsh, co-owner of the Green Springs Inn, says the Applegate Trail and its pioneers “are a tremendous legacy, especially when you live nearby. You are well aware how rugged the terrain is and how rough the weather. Families struggled to get over the mountains to the valley. It’s quite stunning to contemplate.

“We have a very concrete tie with history here. … The women willing to take off from farms in the Midwest, carrying children, drawn to adventure, driven by the stories that came back to them. They were literal trailblazers. We’ve added our imprint with roads on the basic imprint, but they created it.”

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Southern Oregon University archaeologist Chelsea Rose and former Jackson County surveyor Roger Roberts walk on what may have been part of the Applegate Trail near Sunny Valley. The pair were part of a team trying to identify the trail's path prior to a widening of I-5 in the area. 2010 Mail Tribune file photo
Dropping nearly 650 feet in less than a quarter-mile, the Jenny Creek Wagon Slide, the steep hill behind the Pinehurst Inn, was a difficult barrier for pioneers on the Applegate Trail. 2013 Mail Tribune file photo