John Day Fossil Beds
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Chapter Five:

The Dalles-Boise Military Road

At about the same time that prospectors struck gold on Canyon Creek in central Oregon, the U.S. Congress, under the control of the Republican Party, was entertaining proposals to stimulate private enterprise in the American West. Unlike earlier programs where the Topographical Engineers of the U.S. Army surveyed and contracted for the construction of wagon roads west of the Cascades in the 1850s, the Republicans embraced a new model. They granted millions of acres of the public domain to private companies as an inducement to borrow money, hire surveyors, lay out, construct, and operate railroads and wagon roads across the West. Through an unparalleled "give away" of the nation's lands, Congress encouraged the private sector to create a transportation infrastructure which would meet the needs of miners, settlers, and townsite developers (Jackson 1952).

Oregon, which became a state in 1859, was the target of a series of land grant wagon roads. Ostensibly these were intended to stimulate private building of roads which could be used for military purposes. They were thus identified as "military wagon roads" and were laid out, at least, with terminal points to give credence to that designation. The Oregon routes included the following, in order of their establishment:

  • Oregon Central Military Wagon Road (Springfield to Fort Boise, Idaho), July 2, 1865 (13 Stat. 355).

  • Corvallis-Yaquina Bay Military Wagon Road (Corvallis to Yaquina City), July 4, 1866.

  • Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Military Wagon Road (Albany to Fort Boise, Idaho), July 5,1866 (14 Stat. 89).

  • The Dalles-Boise Military Road, February 25, 1867 (14 Stat. 409).

  • Coos Bay Military Wagon Road (Roseburg to Coos Bay), March 3,1869 (15 Stat. 340) (Beckham 1997: 2).

In each instance eager men of business and daring, which often far exceeded their capital and experience in locating and constructing wagon roads, formed companies and harangued the Oregon legislature to get the right to build the route and qualify for the land grant. Under the terms of the program, Congress passed the land grants to the state. When a section of the road was completed, the company could petition the governor to certify to its worthiness as a route of travel. With the governor's approval, the acreage was then transferred to the company which was free to sell or lease the tracts. The enabling legislation provided for three sections, each odd-numbered, for every mile of road built.

Lands of rich potentials were involved in these grants. In order to assure that would be the case, the road surveyors laid out routes which, wherever possible, passed through major stream courses and lush lake bottomlands. The Oregon Central Military Wagon Road, for example, when it reached the summit of the Cascade Range, did not head due east toward Boise. Instead, its surveyors turned it south into the Klamath Basin to carve out a huge section of the Klamath Indian Reservation as potential grant land. It then meandered into the valley of Goose Lake and into the Warner Valley and the Harney Basin, securing a bounty of lands eventually prized for their grazing.

So, in accord with what other companies were doing, the investors in The Dalles-Fort Boise Military Road examined a route into the John Day watershed to follow the stream east to the Blue Mountains. They found a trace well-established by mule teams and Wheeler's wagons, the existing Dalles to Canyon City Road. A regional history subsequently commented:

This route entered the territory now embraced by Wheeler county near where Burnt Ranch post-office now stands and followed the John Day river to Bridge creek, thence up Bridge creek to where Mitchell now stands, thence up the east branch of Bridge creek to the north branch of Badger creek, thence down Badger creek to where Caleb now stands and thence east along Mountain creek until it reached the border of what is now Grant county, about three miles west from the John Day river (Shaver et al. 1905: 636).

Under the terms of its grant of 1867, the company was to receive a bounty of public lands.

On October 20, 1868, the legislature approved the franchise of The Dalles Military Wagon Road Company to 'build" the route. The terms of the federal grant provided that as soon as the company had constructed ten contiguous miles, it would seek up to thirty sections of land (19,200 acres) and, selling its grant, could then finance further construction and, in turn, secure more land. On June 23, 1869, Governor George L. Woods stated he had "made a careful examination of said road" and commenced the certification process. There followed a second certification on January 12, 1870, attesting to completion of the entire road.

Fig. 27. Land grant corridor of The Dalles-Boise Military Road in John Day watershed (General Land Office 1876).

On June 18, 1874, Congress authorized transfer of lands to the State of Oregon and on December 18, 1874, the Commissioner of the General Land Office withdrew from public entry all odd-numbered sections within three miles of either side of the road. The road company then selected its grant (or lieu lands if any of the odd-numbered sections had already passed into private ownership). The incorporators, mostly businessmen from The Dalles, then sold the grant for $125,000 to Edward Martin of San Francisco, California, on May 31, 1876 (Shaver et al. 1906: 439-440).

In the stroke of a single transaction, Edward Martin became one of the largest landowners in the Pacific Northwest. Born in Ennescorthy, Ireland, in 1819, Martin settled in California in 1848 and entered the real estate business. In 1859 Martin was an incorporator of the Hibernia Savings and Loan Society. By 1863 he also owned E. Martin & Company, a wholesale liquor business. At his death, Martin's Eastern Oregon Land Company held a reported 450,000 acres in Oregon (Bancroft 1890[7]: 184-185).

Public dissatisfaction with the military wagon roads mounted steadily. Unable to sell the acres patented to them and obligated to pay taxes on the grants, the wagon road companies were pushed toward bankruptcy. Having built, at best, only rudimentary traces through rugged terrain, the companies were sharply criticized by aggrieved travelers and shippers who confronted mud holes, washouts, fords rather than bridges, landslides, and interminable delays.

The Grant County Express in March, 1876, printed a scathing denunciation of the road:

There are places on the Dalles Military Road where the bottom has dropped out. If the Road Company should follow their road to where it ought to go they would find a warmer climate than Grant County. Like a great serpent it has dragged itself through the John Day valley, poisoning the whole country. The road is an illegitimate child of one ex-Governor Woods — after a carpetbagger in Utah. It was and is a great swindle (Mosgrove 1980: 49).

Fig. 28. Route of The Dalles-Boise Military Road, 1878, through the John Day watershed (Habersham 1878).

Local settlers screamed unfair when the companies held out at "ransom prices" lush farmlands they desired to acquire. They charged, perhaps with justice, that the companies had obtained the land from the public but were not serving the public. When the companies erected gates and dared to charge tolls for using their rights-of-way, residents along the route were ready to mutiny. Some refused to pay; some drove around the gates; some tore them down and threatened to kill the toll keepers.

Public outcry grew steadily about the unfinished road through the John Day watershed and its lack of maintenance. In 1885 the Oregon legislature passed a memorial requesting Congress to look into possible fraud. On March 2, 1889, Congress authorized the Attorney-General to sue for foreclosure on all lands granted to The Dalles-Boise Military Wagon Road Company and to cancel all patents issued by the United States. Louis L. McArthur represented the United States; James K. Kelley and the law firm of Dolph, Bellinger, Mallory and Simpson represented the defendants. The lawyers argued the case in 1890. Judge Sawyer ruled for the defendants and dismissed the case. In 1891-92 the matter worked its way through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and to the Supreme Court. On March 6,1893, the highest court affirmed the validity of the land grant as sustained in the district court and court of appeals. The defendants had stressed throughout that the only proof of construction was the certificate of the governor. Once that had been issued the title to the land was absolute. To the dismay of thousands of disgruntled residents of Eastern Oregon, the courts agreed (Shaver et al. 1906: 440-441).

An early history of Sherman County confirmed the intensity of feeling about The Dalles-Boise Military Road:

The government was in full possession of all facts necessary to lay bare this scandalous conspiracy and convict the conspirators. There was a voluminous oral and written testimony in the shape of affidavits and written testimony of such an action. But the federal supreme court virtually said that two wrongs would make a right; that because congress had passed an unwise and ill-digested act, which imprudence was taken advantage of by an unscrupulous executive, the honest, homeseeking pioneers must suffer the penalty of combined pernicious legislation and executive truculency (Shaver et al. 1906: 441).

Burnt Ranch
Fig. 29. Burnt Ranch, ca. 1890, stage stop on The Dalles-Boise Military Road, on the southern bank of the John Day River. (OrHi 4626-a).

The total grant secured by the Eastern Oregon Land Company was approximately 562,000 acres. Wailer S. Martin, President of the company in 1904, offered to sell quarter section lots in Sherman County to the federal government in units of not less than 10,000 acres at the rate of $60 per acre. Martin claimed that the company had made extensive improvements, including fencing, and the price was therefore justifiable (Shaver et al. 1906: 442).

The general alignment of The Dalles-Boise Military Road persisted on maps of central Oregon into the 1910s. It remained the primary overland route into the John Day valley, and offered the quickest access to the Columbia Basin and the commerce of Portland until the close of World War One. Remnants of the route are overlaid today by portions of U.S. 26, and segments of graveled roads in Wheeler and Grant counties.

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Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002