Walla Walla to Seattle Historic Corridor Wagon Roads

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 3/20/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10757
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The Cascade Mountains posed a formidable obstacle to wagon travel in the 1840s and 1850s. When waves of emigrants began arriving in the Northwest, they followed the Columbia River Gorge, the easiest (relatively speaking) path through the Cascades, and most spilled into the Willamette Valley in what is now Oregon. Some of the new settlers turned north into what would become Western Washington, settling on the Cowlitz Prairie and at the southern end of Puget Sound. In the 1850s, in order to encourage economic development in Western Washington, and later in the Yakima and Kittitas valleys, settlers developed a series of wagon routes linking Puget Sound with Walla Walla, then the economic center of the Columbia Plateau. Railroad service through the Cascades soon replaced the wagon roads for most people and livestock crossing the mountains, but during their existence the wagon roads between Seattle and Walla Walla provided an important transportation route and encouraged settlement of the Yakima and Kittitas valleys, and their routes supplied a framework for sections of the state's first highway system.

Wagon Road over the Cascades 

In the early 1850s, settlers on Puget Sound, primarily around Olympia, wanted to recreate the success of Portland, Oregon, but they needed a large influx of settlers to drive the area's economic development. Looking east to where the Oregon Trail emerged from the Blue Mountains, the Puget Sound settlers saw an opportunity to intercept the stream of wagons heading to the Willamette Valley and Portland, and draw some of them to Puget Sound via a wagon road over the Cascades.

Part of the route between the Blue Mountains and Puget Sound had been developed in the 1840s. In 1843, Marcus Whitman (1802-1847), who, with his wife Narcissa (1808-1847), established a mission in the Walla Walla Valley in 1836, brought a wagon train north from the arid Umatilla Plain into the valley. The emigrants rested in the well-watered grasslands, a veritable oasis in the desert, and then continued west to the Columbia River, which they then followed through the Cascade Mountains via the Columbia River Gorge. Many wagon trains followed this route in the 1840s, until tensions at the mission over disease, emigrants encroaching on Cayuse lands, and cultural differences, erupted in a Cayuse attack in 1847. The mission was abandoned and emigrant trains' use of the valley dwindled.

In the early 1850s, settlers north of the Columbia, in what would become Washington Territory in 1853, began asking the federal government to fund wagon roads. According to historian W. Turrentine Jackson, "Ample evidence is available to suggest that the settlers north of the Columbia River, in petitioning for a separate territory from Oregon, were prompted more by a desire to improve transportation than by existing economic and social differences" (Jackson, 89). Just before the establishment of Washington Territory, in January 1853, Congress appropriated $20,000 for a military road between Fort Walla Walla, at the confluence of the Walla Walla River and the Columbia River, and Fort Steilacoom, on Puget Sound, northeast of Olympia.

Choosing a Route 

Fort Walla Walla was chosen as the eastern terminus of the road because of its position at a key transportation junction in Eastern Washington. It stood at the easternmost point of the lower Columbia River and at the mouth of the Walla Walla River, which was the starting point for a number of Indian trails to the north, south, and east. According to geographer D. W. Meinig, "Inland, the Walla Walla Valley was the junction of routes fanning out north and east to the forested zones and for the overland path to the United States. The fact that the Indians were friendly and large numbers of pack horses could be pastured and watered here made it a convenient and adequate rendezvous" point (The Great Columbia Plain, 53). Over time, those existing Indian routes developed into wagon roads -- including the Mullan, Kentuck, Colville, Texas, and Old Territorial roads -- that carried miners and settlers in and out of the interior, in addition to their continued use by area tribal members who used them to reach hunting, gathering, and fishing sites and to visit other Indian communities to socialize, trade, and form political alliances.

Over the years, after a new Fort Walla Walla was established farther up the Walla Walla Valley in 1856, a town with the same name grew up around the fort. Walla Walla served as the economic center of the Columbia Plateau for three decades, until the railroads bypassed it and Spokane gained economic dominance.

In 1853, however, the old Fort Walla Walla at the Columbia River made the most sense for a road terminus because it served as the last logical point to choose between a river and an overland route. Puget Sound residents hoped that by offering a passable route for wagons over the Cascade Mountains, more settlers would choose the Puget Sound lowlands as their ultimate destination.

Not long after Congress made the military road appropriation, Lieutenant George B. McClellan (1826-1885) traveled to the east side of the Cascades with a dual mandate. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), who would assume the presidency of the Confederacy during the Civil War just a decade later, charged McClellan with investigating a route for the military road and arranging for its construction. At the same time, newly appointed territorial governor Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862) named McClellan to head a surveying party to find viable routes for a railroad through the Cascades. Given that McClellan and Stevens clashed personally and considering Davis's higher position, it is surprising that McClellan focused more on the railroad survey than on the wagon road. He investigated routes from the east across the Cascades at Naches Pass and at Yakima Pass (a short distance south of Snoqualmie Pass), but stopped short of crossing over the mountains because of the depth of snow.

The Yakama Indian guides with the survey party encouraged McClellan to continue north to Snoqualmie Pass, but he refused. That pass would later be explored by Lieutenant Abiel Tinkham (ca. 1824-1871), who Stevens sent into the Cascades in January 1854 after McClellan, this timing making the attempt from the west side, failed a second time to cross the mountains, again citing heavy snow. Approaching from the east, Tinkham hired Indian guides to take him through Yakima Pass into the Cedar River drainage. He then crossed over to the Green River and traveled down its valley into the Puget Sound lowlands.

Building a Road 

Concerned that McClellan would neglect the wagon road, Puget Sound settlers began work in 1853 on the western approach to Naches Pass themselves. The Olympian newspaper called for the construction of the road as soon as possible: "Late advices from the States say, 'an immense throng will cross the plains this year,' -- and our word for it, many thousands will come to Washington, if they can get here. It is our duty to them, to our country and to ourselves to open the way. Let us not by an unjustifiable, aye criminal, inertness neglect to do everything in our power" ("Road Over the Cascades"). Work crews led by Edward Jay Allen felled trees and cleared brush to widen the existing Indian trail to accommodate wagons. 

The workers nearly reached the crest of the Cascades at Naches Pass before stopping work for the season in October 1853, just as the first wagon train to follow the route was finishing its journey. The Olympian reported that the road was complete, but that first wagon train, the Longmire-Byles group, barely made it. Struggling up the eastern slope, the pioneers crossed the Naches River 68 times as they ascended to the summit. 

Not long after beginning their descent, they found themselves at the edge of a cliff, with no clear route around it. When they found they did not have enough rope to lower their wagons to the foot of the cliff, James Byles offered to slaughter enough of his cattle to make rope out of their hides. Using the spliced rope, they lowered each of the 36 wagons down the cliff. The emigrants managed to make it into Fort Steilacoom on October 9, 1853. 

The following year, Lieutenant Richard Arnold (1828-1882) led an effort to improve the route between Fort Steilacoom and Fort Walla Walla. He decreased the grade on parts of the road on the west side of the mountains, and on the east side reduced the crossings of the Naches River to 44 by rerouting the road. Several more wagon trains followed the road in 1854 and ensuing years, but it never served as a primary route over the Cascades for wagons due to the difficulty of its route and a lack of forage for livestock on the west side. It was soon supplanted by both other forms of transportation and alternative wagon routes.

Alternate Routes 

In the late 1850s, steamboat service on the Columbia River reached Wallula, at the mouth of the Walla Walla River. By 1859 regular service could be relied upon for carrying cattle and sheep to coastal markets and for bringing settlers to the interior. A stage service run by John F. Abbott carried passengers between Walla Walla, growing up around the site of the army's Fort Walla Walla about 30 miles upstream, and Wallula. Miners used the route to travel to British Columbia, Idaho, and Montana.

Following quickly on the miners' heels, cattle and sheep ranchers herded livestock from the Willamette Valley into the grazing lands of the Walla Walla Valley and surrounding areas. Some drove their herds into the Yakima Valley in the late 1850s, after the army's defeat of area Indians who were resisting encroachments onto their lands and the terms of treaties signed with Isaac I. Stevens in 1855 and 1856.

Those early travelers heading from the Willamette and other points west of the mountains into the Yakima Valley and the Kittitas Valley (as the northern upper valley of the Yakima River was known) primarily followed a wagon road built on the route of an Indian trail through Satus Pass -- U.S. Highway 97 from the Columbia River south of Goldendale into the Yakima Valley later would also follow essentially this route. Stage service, beginning in the 1860s, carried travelers between The Dalles on the Columbia River and the Kittitas Valley, largely along the future route of U.S. 97 to Yakima City (later Union Gap) at the mouth of Ahtanum Creek, and then up the Wenas Valley and over Umtanum Ridge into the Kittitas Valley.

Wagon roads connecting towns in the Yakima Valley with steamships at Wallula and the city of Walla Walla developed along several routes. The military-road route remained primary. Historical maps also show a wagon road that traveled north from today's Richland and then headed westward along Selah Creek to the Wenas Valley. Another wagon road circled Red Mountain to access the rich grazing and farming land around it.

Ranchers grazed cattle and sheep herds on the region's grasslands and then drove them to markets on the west side of the mountains or in the eastern and northern interior. David Longmire (1844-1925), a farmer in the Wenas Valley, drove herds over Naches Pass multiple times during the 1870s and 1880s. Ben Snipes (1835-1906) made a small fortune on cattle he grazed in the Simcoe Mountains, Ahtanum Valley, and Moxee Valley. Andrew J. Splawn (1845-1917), a rancher in the Yakima Valley in the 1860s, drove herds to mining camps in the Cariboo region in British Columbia, to Boise and the Salmon River mines in Idaho, and to mining camps in Montana and the Fraser River valley. Splawn also drove herds over Snoqualmie Pass in the 1870s. To reach the west side of the Cascades, some herds were driven to the Columbia at Wallula or The Dalles and shipped downstream.

Over Snoqualmie Pass 

The road between the Wenas Valley and the Kittitas Valley became more important in the 1870s as more settlers came into the region and the road over Snoqualmie Pass developed. The wagon road over Umtanum Ridge, known as the Shushuskin Road, offered a fairly easy, but somewhat circuitous route. In 1882, a Wenas Valley settler named Jacob Durr built a toll road over Umtanum Ridge that crossed the ridge directly from the lower end of the Wenas Valley and met up with the Shushuskin Road just before it emerged in the Kittitas Valley. Although it offered a savings of several miles, the route was so steep that Durr had to install turntable-like platforms at the ends of several of the switchbacks because wagons did not have enough room to turn the corners. The cost of the toll road was high, $25 for the year, or a lifetime pass $40, and the route arduous, so most of the traffic used the Shushuskin Road.

Travelers and herds moving across Snoqualmie Pass followed the trail up the valley of the Yakima River to Lake Keechelus near the summit. There, the trail met up with a road being developed by Seattle residents. According to his memoir, Arthur A. Denny (1822-1899), along with Jeremiah Borst (1830-1890) and William Perkins, hired two Klickitat men to lead them east through Snoqualmie Pass. Denny claimed that they left the Indian trail at the summit and followed an alternate route along Lake Keechelus, though the reason for this is not clear.

In the fall of 1865, the King County government and local residents contributed money and a crew worked on a road from Ranger's Prairie (later North Bend) to Lake Keechelus. Work resumed in the summer of 1867, with a road opened to the south end of Lake Keechelus that year. Though Denny wrote that the road led to the south end of the lake, other sources describe how the emigrants built rafts out of timber found around the lake and floated their wagons and passengers to the north end (livestock had to swim), where they unloaded and followed the trail west.

The trail descended westward via the South Fork Snoqualmie River's valley to about where Issaquah is today. From there the wagon road took travelers around Cougar Mountain and into the area that would become Renton, and connected to the Fort Steilacoom-Seattle military road.

In the 1870s, large numbers of settlers streamed into the Yakima Valley and surrounding areas. They established ranches and began to grow fruit trees and other crops. Most of these settlers approached from west of the mountains, instead of coming directly from eastern states via the Oregon Trail or other overland trails. There was more land available east of the Cascades, and cattle raised on the shrub steppe there grew to marketable size about two months faster than those reared west of the mountains.

To help keep the road over Snoqualmie Pass open year-round, in 1883 a group of investors including Walter A. Bull (1838-1898), Nathan W. Preston (1854-1933), and Henry M. Bryant (1841?-1919) incorporated the Seattle and Walla Walla Trail and Wagon Road Company to develop and operate a toll road between Taneum Creek, west of Ellensburg in the Kittitas Valley, and Snoqualmie Pass. At either end the road connected with existing routes (down the west slope of the Cascades via the South Fork Snoqualmie River and southeast to Walla Walla through the Yakima Valley). The Kittitas County Board of Commissioners awarded a road franchise to the company in 1884.

Railroads Supplant Wagons, Highways Follow Wagon Roads

The new toll road fell short of expectations for its owners. Travelers evaded paying the toll and in 1887 the Northern Pacific Railway brought its rail line over Stampede Pass, just south of Snoqualmie and Yakima passes (a tunnel under the pass was completed the next year). The railroad ran through Spokane, Pasco, Yakima, and Ellensburg and provided a reliable way of transporting people and goods over the mountains.  

The 1887 opening of the Cascade Division of the Northern Pacific shifted the human geography of Eastern Washington. Walla Walla began to lose its place as a regional center while Spokane grew in population and economic importance. According to D. W. Meinig, "The completion of the Northern Pacific had set the axis and was soon followed by development of a diverse array of districts to the north and south" (The Great Columbia Plain, 323). The importance of a direct connection between Seattle and Walla Walla declined.  

The significance of Snoqualmie Pass and the route followed by the wagon roads to Walla Walla did not lessen, however. Not that long after the Cascade Division opened, automobiles were introduced in Washington. In 1913, the state legislature appropriated funds for seven state highways. Portions of two of the routes, when they opened in 1915, largely followed the old wagon roads between Seattle and Walla Walla. One, the Sunset Highway, followed the route of the wagon road through Snoqualmie Pass and then continued along the route of the Seattle and Walla Walla Trail and Wagon Road Company to Cle Elum, where it headed north to Wenatchee. An extension of the highway carried traffic to Ellensburg, connecting there with the Inland Empire Highway, which began in the Swauk mining district in the Wenatchee Mountains. The Inland Empire Highway followed the route of the Shushuskin Road over Umtanum Ridge to the Wenas Valley. There it met up with the route of the military road built in 1853 and 1854 and followed it, with some minor variations, on to Walla Walla.


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