Grant and Wheeler counties remained comparatively isolated from the rest of Oregon until the 1920s. Construction of highways financed by state and county taxes linked residents of the upper basin to the outside and eventually allowed development of recreational amenities such as state parks. Even so, better roads did not bring more permanent residents (see Table 1) nor did the highways become much more than corridors for local traffic. Without them, however, it is doubtful that a national monument in the John Day Fossil Beds could have ever been established.
Ease of travel over mountainous topography was the primary concern in developing state and federal highways in the upper John Day Basin. Not surprisingly, their location often corresponds to the general location of earlier trail or wagon road segments. Many of them incorporated parts of aboriginal trails, a number of which provided access to the basin in the protohistoric period. 
Discovery of gold along Canyon Creek in 1862 quickly made an old route to The Dalles the main access for non-lndians to enter the upper basin. A series of trails went up the Deschutes drainage from The Dalles, joining the John Day's main stem between Pine Creek and Bridge Creek. Although rough and sometimes dangerous because of problems with the Northern Paiute, river and rail access at The Dalles made it the logical supply point for much of eastern Oregon.
State authorities contracted for the survey, mapping, and improvement of this series of trails in 1868.  In exchange for a sizeable grant of land, The Dalles-Canyon City Military Road Company agreed to build a road suitable for the transport of supplies from The Dalles to Boise.  (The name "military" during this period is a misnomer, because these roads actually represented federal financing of civilian developments on the frontier). In this case, work on The Dalles to Boise road lasted a year, having merely linked existing trails amid charges of fraud. 
Despite its often shoddy condition, the Dalles Military Wagon Road remained the main access to the upper John Day Basin for roughly 50 years.  Distance to markets shortened somewhat with construction of a railroad to Shaniko in 1900, followed by establishment of a terminus in Condon five years later, but few improvements to roads in the upper basin became evident until automobile use increased throughout eastern Oregon during the 1920s.
In 1914, the only road traversing either Wheeler or Grant counties that warranted inclusion on a map of state highways arrived in Fossil from the north.  It reached the Cant Ranch a year or so later, but road work had to be financed solely by the counties until 1917.  That year an act of the legislature created a system of roads supported by state funds which financed work on two highways in the upper basin. The John Day River Highway quickly became the most important route because it linked Grant and Wheeler counties with markets reached by utilizing the Columbia River. This road went from Biggs via Condon, Fossil, Spray, and Dayville to John Day.  At that point the route connected with the basin's other main road, the Pendleton-John Day Highway, which ran roughly north-south similar to what is presently US 395. 
Oregon's Market Road Act took effect in 1920 and had a profound impact on the road systems of Grant and Wheeler counties. Apportioned state and county taxes resulted in a number of road segments being built over the next two decades. Construction of a county road from Antelope to Mitchell, accessing the Painted Hills area, began in the 1921-22 biennium.  Another market road linking Clarno with Fossil appeared by 1926, though less than twelve years later it had been brought into the state system as highway 218. 
For the most part, placement of state and county roads in the upper basin had been set by 1930. Improvements followed, with the most ambitious being the rerouting of a road segment which followed part of The Dalles Military Wagon Road through Picture Gorge.  This section greatly aided east-west travel when completed in the early 1930s and later became part of US 26. 
Table 1. Census figures for Grant and Wheeler counties, 1890 - 1990.
Last Updated: 30-Apr-2002