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Chapter 4

The U.S. Army had little reason to penetrate the vast mountainous region of the North Cascades. From time to time, troops did skirmish along the borders of the fastness. The report has already noted small patrols escorting the International Boundary Commission in 1858 and showing the rifle to Indians on the Skagit around 1880. Three additional events involving the Army in the 19th century remain to be noted: a survey for a route across the mountains, 1853; Camp Chelan, 1880; and a significant reconnaissance by 1st Lt. Henry Hubbard Pierce in 1882, just one year before his death.

In 1853, President Franklin Pierce appointed I. I. Stevens the first governor of the Territory, of Washington. Soon after reaching the Territory, Stevens directed a brilliant young Army captain, George Brinton McClellan, to explore for a wagon road passage through the Cascade Mountains. In carrying out this task, McClellan displayed the same cautious approach to the problem that he would later be criticized for in the Civil War, when he was Commander in Chief of the Union Army for a brief time.

In September 1853, he led his exploring party northward along the eastern foothills of the Cascades. From Wenatchee Valley he traveled along the west bank of the Columbia River. Turning more directly northward, he moved up either Navarre of Knapp Coulee and reached the shore of Lake Chelan. He crossed the outlet of the lake at its southern end and, again reaching the Columbia, went into camp. A Spokan chief, Louis (or Quiltanee), told him that the Indians of the area used a trail beginning at the head of the lake to cross the mountains to the Skagit (Satchet) River. Students agree that Quiltanee was most likely describing the trail already noted that went up the Stehekin and over Cascade Pass.

This information failed to arouse McClellan's curiosity. To his mind, Lake Chelan was too great an obstacle: "The lake itself is some thirty miles long, and is shut in by high mountains, which leave no passage along its margins." A few days later he traveled a short distance up the Twisp River where he learned of another trail "said to pass from this ravine, over a very difficult country, to the stream emptying into the head of Lake Chelan [Stehekin River], then to cross very steep and lofty mountains at the head of that stream [again, Cascade Pass], and finally to reach the Skagit river on the western slope."

Rather than explore this trail, McClellan continued up the Columbia toward Fort Okanogan. In the end he pessimistically reported to Stevens that no good, economical route lay across the mountains. Disgusted settlers later undertook the construction of their own wagon road from Seattle to Walla Walla, crossing the Cascades considerably to the south of today's park. McClellan missed an opportunity to see some outstanding scenery. Cascade Pass escaped from being considered for a highway. [1]

Twenty-six years later, in 1879, the U.S. Army decided to build a post on the newly-established Indian reservation that lay to the west of the Okanogan River. In August, Companies E and I, 2d Infantry, left Fort Colville in northeastern Washington for this reservation. They camped for the winter at the confluence of the Columbia and Foster Creek, about 35 miles up the river from the outlet of Lake Chelan and near the present town of Bridgeport. Lt. Col. Henry Clay Merriam named this temporary encampment "Camp Chelan." Post Order No. 1 read: "Military post hereby established, temporarily in the angle formed by the confluence of Foster Creek and the Columbia River."

The following spring, Merriam decided to move the infantry to Lake Chelan proper. First Lt. Thomas Symons, a young Engineer officer who had graduated first in his class at the Academy, left a description of the search for a good site. He and Colonel Merriam had already gone almost half-way up the lake itself:

I first visited Lake Chelan in the summer of 1879, when searching for a site for a military post. Colonel Merriam of the Second Infantry, and I, with In-no-mo-setch-a and one of his sons, paddled about twenty-four miles up the lake [probably near Safety Harbor] in a dug-out canoe, and found that the farther up we went the more grand and beautiful the scenery became. About its mouth there is a large area of arable prairie land. The hills in the vicinity are covered with trees, and the lake shores, with the exception of those nearest the outlet, are completely timbered. The shores are in places exceedingly steep, the granite walls rising smooth and shiny, without a tree or blade of grass, for a thousand feet or more from the water's edge.

Sometime between that trip and the spring of 1880, Colonel Merriam made at least one more journey up Lake Chelan, apparently reaching its head, over 50 miles distant:

Colonel Merriam afterward went further up the lake, and says that the timber becomes better and better as the lake is ascended, and cedar is foudn [sic] about the head of it, which region he describes as being wonderfully grand. At the extreme upper end he found solid vertical walls of rock, and on these, several hundred feet above the water's edge, were a large number of hieroglyphics written on a horizontal line, evidently by people in boats when the waters were at this higher level. Above the first line were others at varying altitudes, but always in a horizontal line. The present Chelan Indians could tell nothing about them, but said they must have been made by people who lived there long before they came there to reside.

Merriam may have stretched things a bit. But pictographs, now almost wholly destroyed by vandals, still exist at the head of Lake Chelan. A dam has raised the water level 17 feet in recent years; even accounting for that, the pictographs are far from "several hundred feet above the water's edge." Symons said that he hoped to get up to the head himself to see the markings. A record of this proposed trip has not yet been found.

The new camp stood on the site of the present town of Chelan. Symons wrote that it

was established just where the lake narrows into the creek, on a beautiful bunch-grass-covered plateau on the north bank, stretching back about a mile to the rocky and timbered hills. Here the work of erecting a saw-mill and building the post was carried on with vigor and rapidity, considering that everything had to be done by the labor of troops with a very little assistance from outside.

First, the troops erected temporary shelters. They made brick, cut timber, built and ran the sawmill, constructed a road from the Columbia up the steep slope to the camp (a distance of 2-1/2 miles), "and a thousand other things." About the time that the post began to take on a semblance of permanency, a visiting inspector-general, Col. Edmund Schriver, recommended that it be abandoned. His reason was the difficulty patrols experienced in reaching the vast plain to the east of the Columbia. To get from the camp to the top of the steep bluffs on the opposite side of the river presented, as Symons said, many "drawbacks": "the terrible road getting down to the river from the Great Plain on the east, the descent being about 2,500 feet; the crossing of the river where there was quite a swift current; and the ascent of the hill to the lake."

As quickly as they had come, the infantrymen packed their bags that fall and moved farther up the Columbia to found Fort Spokane, today within Coulee Dam National Recreation Area. Camp Chelan's active life had lasted less than half a year; but its structures remained a little longer. In 1881, Symons, accompanied by a civilian topographical engineer and artist, Alfred Downing, visited the site:

Procuring a couple of ponies . . . [we] went up the steep road and over the plain to pay a visit to the lake and the old camp. Everything was about as the troops had left it, and it certainly presented a sorrowful appearance, with its tent and shanty frames standing, the deserted sutler's store, and old tin cans and commissary boxes innumerable. There was quite an amount of lumber piled up in good condition, and everything was untouched and undisturbed by the Indians; not an Indian was visible except an old squaw who had been . . . [gathering] a large basket of elderberries. [2]

One year after Symons gazed upon the deserted camp, another lieutenant, Henry Hubbard Pierce, led a command across the North Cascades, following closely if unintentionally the route taken by Alexander Ross in 1814. Although this trail was known by then, if not traveled often, Pierce's meticulous account is of value. Alfred Downing accompanied him too, and prepared the first map of this mountain route.

The expedition left Fort Colville on August 1, 1882. In addition to the half-breed guide, Joe LaFleur, the train included 1st Lt. George B. Backus, a Dr. Wilson, a detachment of enlisted men, a competent packer, 15 Cayuse horses, and 14 pack mules. By August 17, the party had reached the Methow River. Pierce traveled up it to its confluence with the Twisp River, then up the latter. Reaching an elevation high enough to see to the west a "majestic prominence", he named it Cathedral Mountain (?). A trail led him on to the junction of the Twisp's North Fork and War Creek. Along War Creek, the trail became more difficult to follow and in some stretches disappeared entirely. Finally, August 20, he reached a pass that most likely was today's War Creek Pass, from where he could see the head of Lake Chelan:

As I gazed westward from a height of 6,500 feet above the sea, and 5,800 feet above the lake, a scene of remarkable grandeur was presented. To the south and west were the rugged peaks of the Cascade Mountains covered with everlasting snow. At our feet reposed Chelan, in color like an artificial lake of thick plate glass, while Pierce River [Stehekin] brought its clay-tinted waters with many a winding down the narrow canyon that opened to the north.

Pierce found the descent to the lake difficult: "A zigzag path along the back of a narrow, rugged spur. After 9 miles, knee deep in dust like ashes filled with sharp fragments of rock, and constantly threatened by bowlders [sic] tumbling from above, the almost perpendicular slope was accomplished."

They pitched camp on the Stehekin, one mile from its mouth (camp no. 18 on map). Pierce decided that the head of the lake in no way represented the appearance that Colonel Merriam had suggested. Erroneously, he concluded that Merriam had gone only to a false head, twenty miles to the south, where the "Sta-he-kin River flows." Alas for Pierce, he was at the Stehekin; and his own name, which he applied to the stream, would not stick long as the river's label. [3]

He described the valley bottom as "a dense jungle of cottonwood, willows, firs, and underbrush, with frequent lagoons covered by almost tropical growth of rush grass, ferns, and other marshy vegetation." A "most imperfect" trail took them up the valley. On the right he saw three streams that he named Ida, Juanita, and Isabel. Unfortunately, these names have also disappeared. Ida was probably Rainbow Creek, for here he observed "a magnificent cascade . . . with a sheer unbroken fall of 300 feet"--today's still-magnificent Rainbow Falls. He also noted mountain goats on the cliffs of the valley and "lusty" trout in the river.

One of Pierce's names that is still on the map is Agnes Creek, which the party passed on August 23. That same day, they reached Coon Lake; however, Pierce did not give it any name. That night the expedition camped (no. 20) at the junction of Bridge Creek (he called it Backus Fork) and the Stehekin (above this point, Pierce named the Stehekin as Symons Fork). Although the party forded Bridge Creek, Pierce noticed that nearby there was "a rude bridge of drift-logs, joined with strings of cedar bark, and ballasted with stone, built by the Indians, and doubtless often used by them instead of risking the . . . current."

They followed the trail along the upper Stehekin, but were not favorably impressed with its quality: "Often progress was . . . made by taking the actual bed of the creek." While it is difficult to pinpoint their camp (no. 21) for the night of August 24-25, a study of the map indicates that it must have been close to the junction of the Stehekin and Horseshoe Creek.

The next morning Pierce and Downing set out ahead of the train to ascend the steep trail to Cascade Pass. Before reaching Lake Chelan they had met an old prospector, one of the earliest notices of miners in the Stehekin Valley. Now, glancing up toward the Pass, Pierce spotted him again:

With a look of utter discouragement upon his face. Upon inquiry, he advised me . . . to return; saying that ascent was impossible for packs [mules], that his best horse had tumbled from the cliffs ahead, its body lying in the brush close by. . . .

Shaking hands with the old man, who bade me a sorrowful farewell . . . we gained the height without mishap, the last few hundred feet becoming exceedingly treacherous by reason of a sleety shower.

Pierce and Downing built a fire "among the rocks of a heathery ridge" near the pass and waited for the others. Soon, Lieutenant Backus and Dr. Wilson joined them. Hours later, Joe LaFleur arrived announcing that he could not get the mules up the slippery slope. Reluctantly, Pierce ordered the train to go into camp, still on the eastern side of Cascade Pass. Meanwhile, Backus had explored ahead; he returned reporting to Pierce that beyond them was a small grassy prairie but that the western slope of the mountain was "precarious, if not wholly impossible." The storm, turning to snow, continued through the night and into the morning of August 26: "Breakfast over, the question of advance or return was formally submitted, all, without exception, voting more or less decidedly for the latter."

Despite the vote, Pierce ordered the men with some of the Cayuses to go forward. He directed the pack train to return via the head of Lake Chelan (where some animals and property had been left) and to "proceed by the shortest route to Colville." The men did not finish the repacking of supplies until late afternoon. They then moved the camp to better shelter one-half mile nearer the pass (camp no. 23). Here they found the remains of the old prospector's hastily-abandoned camp, including his frying pan and shovel.

Morale improved. The sky cleared. The reduced party crossed Cascade Pass in the morning of August 27. They followed closely the headwaters of Cascade River, crossing the expanse of loose rock that the present trail also traverses. The men discovered "floating specimens of rotten quartz, rich in gold" along the trail. Today, one of the upper tributaries of the Cascade is called Soldier Boy Creek, and one of the mining claims in that area was named the Soldier Boy. Then:

The path wound its uncertain way for three miles through an entangled growth of trailing alders over seven feet high, emerging from which we came upon the margin of a creek, in and out of whose waters the footway led us blindly for a considerable distance.

Through groves of gigantic cedars, often 40 feet in circumference, with frequent patches of bewildering fern and devil-club, the journey brought us past a powerful waterfall . . . to the track of an avalanche 300 yards wide. . . .

We encamped close by the stream [Cascade] now assuming large proportions, in the midst of a forest of white pine, red firs, and cottonwoods. This is certainly one of the most magnificently timbered regions in the world, the pines towering above our heads, large, straight, and without a knot for perhaps a hundred feet.

The remainder of the trip down the Cascade was uneventful. The trail often kept to the slopes rather than in the tangled growth of the canyon bottom. Nevertheless, the soldiers had to chop away an endless number of fallen trees.

Pierce camped the night of August 29-30 (no. 26) "beneath some moss-grown Oregon maples that shaded an old Indian camp," still on the Cascade. Nearby, two dugouts lay on the river's bank. The party continued the descent for two more days, finding the fords becoming increasingly more difficult as the river widened and its current strengthened in its lower reaches.

Near the mouth of the Cascade, Lieutenant Backus located an Indian summer lodge. LaFleur discovered that he could speak the language (Skagit?) of the two Indian families camped there. Pierce employed the Indians to take the party down the Skagit in their two canoes. He abandoned the exhausted Cayuse ponies. At sundown, September 1, the patrol reached Sterling, 12 miles above Mount Vernon (near present Sedro Woolley): "A mere logging camp, with two shanties and a saloon. After our half rations for a week, a beautiful supper, hastily prepared by the red-shirted landlord, was eaten . . . and camp was pitched among the stumps."

In evaluating his successful reconnaissance, Pierce concluded that the Army need not concern itself with developing a military road through that portion of the North Cascades. The mountain range was a sufficient barrier in itself to keep the Interior and the Coastal Indians separated and to prevent them from ever forming a successful alliance. He believed that a small military force in the Okanogan or Methow valleys would be sufficient to maintain the peace of the area. In conclusion, he added that the old miner whom he had met had told him of a better route across the mountains some place farther north, but Pierce was not able to describe the location of this route in any detail. Apparently unaware of Ross's adventures of an earlier era, Pierce wrote:

This reconnaissance of 295 miles, through a territory never before traversed by white men, will, I trust, add to a correct understanding of the geography of the country and perchance attract attention to fertile regions and pleasant landscapes hitherto unknown.

Unlike the report of Henry Custer, Pierce's account gained public attention. The Army's leaders, including Brig. Gen. Nelson A. Miles and Gen. William T. Sherman, gave it their blessing and, in 1883, it appeared in a Federal Government publication. General Sherman wrote:

Further explorations will be made, and publication of the information gained should be made, as it is to the national interest that the timber and minerals of that region should be brought within the reach of the emigrants who will throng to Oregon and Washington Territory as soon as the Northern Pacific Railroad is completed.

Immigrants were not waiting for the railroad's completion. Gold had already been discovered in the North Cascades. The seekers of riches were already uncovering the deepest secrets of the mountains. [4]

Evaluation and Recommendations

The U.S. Army's role in the early history, except the Pierce expedition, is one of the lesser themes of the park's history. The northern Pacific Railway Survey, Camp Chelan, the escort for the Boundary Commission, and the patrols up the Skagit barely skirt the park and its story. Pierce's expedition is, however, significant. Although he was not the first figure in history to come this way, his report and its map publicized the country. Through this reconnaissance, the timber and mineral resources became known, for better or worse, to a multitude of people.

Recommend that the railroad-wagon road survey of Captain McClellan, the Boundary Commission escort, and the patrols up the Skagit be mentioned in publications, films, and exhibits on exploration, the Indians, and the international boundary.

Recommend, too, that the Park maintain contact with the appropriate officials of the government of the Province of British Columbia concerning the grave of Pvt. Michael Brown at Lake Chilliwack (see preceding chapter). Its proximity to the park, on a trail that will be traveled by visitors, will result in visitor interest, both Canadian and American.

Recommend, finally, that considerable attention be paid to the Pierce expedition in various interpretive media. Especially recommend that interpretation be carried out along the trail, especially the Stehekin Valley and vicinity of Cascade Pass.

Additional recommendations concerning this trail and Pierce's route are included in the chapter on transportation and communication to be found later in this report.

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Last Updated: 11-Jun-2008