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Scribbling in a stagecoach

Until the stagecoach connected Oregon and California in 1860, if you wanted to go to Portland or San Francisco from our neck of the woods, it was either walk, ride a wagon, saddle a horse, or take your chances with a stubborn mule.

To those living in the Willamette Valley in the 1870s and ‘80s, Eastern Oregon was just a worthless desert, not worth anyone’s time, and Southern Oregon was little more than a mystery, but almost everyone loves a mystery.

Newspaper correspondents from the north gradually realized they could make a few easy bucks by taking a trip to our “unknown” land and writing a story or two about what they saw along the way. A few scribes continued their journey over the Siskiyou Mountains into California.

An Oregonian correspondent; known only as A.L.L. (we’ll call him Al), racked up eight columns of text over two days in June 1871, at a time when newspaper pages were two-feet tall.

Although we History Snoopers might hope to hear what life was like back then, we’re almost always disappointed. Much like an early version of a tour book, the writer paints a word picture of the scenery as he traveled south. Rarely, if ever, does a live person appear in print.

“A journey to Southern Oregon is usually rendered tolerable at this season,” Al tells us, “by agreeable weather, improved roads, and the scenery in its liveliest colors.”

However, this year, Al reminds us that the spring has been wet, and “the roads are muddy and almost impassible, leaving the beautiful scenery in all its glory.”

After a few hours by train from Portland, Al reaches the town of Halsey, about 40 miles south of Salem. The rails end on the yet to be completed railroad line, and passengers take a carriage to the stagecoach stop on the western side of the Willamette River.

After a night in Eugene, and before the sun rises, they begin “the worst portion of the road. … It is a quagmire — a mortar-bed with the bottom plank pulled out — an Irish bog. … The coach lurches forward under the gentle persuasions of the driver, which send the rear passengers into the arms of the ones in front, scraping top and sides as they go.”

The road dries and they see the tents of railroad workers who clear and prepare the land for the future railroad that won’t arrive for months. It’s miles of words — scenery, pines, sagebrush, clouds and river rapids — as they pass by Roseburg, Canyonville and Grants Pass.

Al finally crosses the Rogue River at Rock Point. As the sun goes down he arrives in Jacksonville, where Al’s story becomes a mere chamber of commerce description of “an isolated valley,” full of fruit trees, livestock, mines and “a captivating climate.”

As Al leaves the coach and begins wandering through Southern Oregon scenery, the stagecoach leaves Jacksonville for the Siskiyou Summit. The crossing is most often made at night, and passengers never see the dangers they face.

Another correspondent, “Pioneer,” recounts part of that journey.

“Few have taken this trip because one must ride in a Concord stage over mountains and plains. We begin the steep ascent of the mountains — a fearful grade — mighty forests on one side and deep gorges and ravines on the other. Then, down to California, over sharp curves near the edges of cliffs. Six horses go over the road at breakneck speed. All of the driver’s strength is needed on the brakes.”

When the railroad finally connected Portland to Sacramento in 1887, correspondents quickly jumped on board. Writing in a rail car, of course, was so much more comfortable than scribbling in a stagecoach.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including History Snoopin’, a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.