Looking down on the Columbia River Gorge from high up on Rowena Loop, one sees where the river cuts through the Cascade Mountains. For three years this was the end of the Oregon Trail as an overland route. It was here, just past The Dalles, that the wagons were loaded on rafts or bateaux and floated down to Fort Vancouver and Oregon City.
The west end of the gorge was wretchedly unsuitable for a wagon road: the river was hemmed in by steep slopes and cliffs of hard, volcanic rock, the climate was cold, wet, and windy, and the only areas that were reliably flat enough to permit wagons to pass were soggy bottomlands that were subject to seasonal flooding. Before 1843, no wagon had made it much past Fort Hall intact.
From 1843 until 1845, wagons could reach The Dalles, but from there the emigrants had little choice but to make a raft of pine logs, buy a raft from enterprising Indians, or rent a bateaux from the Hudson’s Bay Company for around $80. Many lives were lost on the rapids of the Columbia River, the relentless winds overturned many a raft, and there was a stretch of impassable rapids that had to be portaged. Worse still, families were often divided as cattle were driven over Lolo Pass, on the northwest shoulder of Mount Hood, to Eagle Creek and Oregon City. Despite these hardships, almost one in every four emigrants chose the river route after the Barlow Road was opened.
When – and if – the pioneers emerged from the Columbia River Gorge, they floated downriver to Fort Vancouver, a British fur trading post. Chief Factor John McLoughlin was under instructions to discourage American settlers, but the “Great White-Headed Eagle,” as he was called by the natives, was a Christian in the best sense of the word and could not ignore the plight of the onrushing immigrants. He extended credit to many penniless pioneers, and he was still owed thousands of dollars at the time of his death in 1857.
McLoughlin encouraged the Oregon Trail travelers to head south to Oregon City and the Willamette Valley. This was in part to keep American influence from spreading throughout the extensive territory claimed by Great Britain under the auspices of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but also because he had a stake in the city he had founded at Willamette Falls in 1829. The HBC ran a store there, and McLoughlin would build a house and later retire there. By 1844, Oregon City had three stores to supply farmers and was the seat of the newly-founded American Provisional Government. Anyone wishing to file a land claim had to come to Oregon City.
Two emigrants would make decisions at or near The Dalles that would change the character of the Trail. In 1843, Jesse Applegate had the misfortune of losing a wagon to the vagaries of the Columbia River, and his wife suffered the heartbreak of watching a child drown whom she had refused permission to learn to swim. From this experience, Applegate made the decision to open a trail across the inland deserts and into the Willamette Valley from the south. This he did, but the Southern Route (we know it today as the Applegate Trail) was a less than desirable route. The terrain was harsh and dry, and in one of those rare instances where emigrants’ worst fears occasionally came true, Klamath Indians sometimes raided passing wagons. More than one wagon train over the years had to be rescued by Army troops or irregulars riding out of the Willamette Valley.
In 1845, Sam Barlow found himself arriving late at The Dalles, where he was faced with the prospect of waiting for a bateaux that was downstream with no scheduled return. Running out of money, food, and patience, Barlow stated that, “God never made a mountain but what He provided a place for man to go over or around it.” He then set off with his wagons around the south shoulder of Mt. Hood, Oregon’s tallest volcano.
Following an Indian trail, Barlow managed to get his wagons about halfway around the mountain before being forced to admit defeat. At the crest of the Cascade Mountains, Joel Palmer climbed the glacier now named for him and scouted a route off the mountain. Palmer saw that there was little chance of getting the wagons through, so the party sent some of their wagons back to The Dalles and cached the rest of their possessions at a spot they christened Fort Deposit. Most of the party and their livestock was able to enter the Willamette Valley by following the Lolo Pass Trail, an old Indian trail around the northwest flank of Mt. Hood that was too narrow and steep to allow wagons to pass. Thus free to proceed on foot, Palmer, Barlow, and Barlow’s eldest son attempted to walk off the mountain.
Exhausted, footsore, and cold, Palmer and the Barlows stumbled into Eagle Creek and met local resident Philip Foster. Rejoining his wife and family in Oregon City, Barlow spent the winter contemplating his route over Mt. Hood. He approached the Provisional Government and obtained official permission to build the Mount Hood Toll Road in early 1846. The Provisional Government allowed him to charge $5 a wagon and 10¢ a head for livestock to use the Road.
With Philip Foster as his financial backer and a crew of forty men, Barlow hacked out a narrow road through forests, rivers, and marshy meadows from The Dalles to Oregon City, a distance of about 150 miles. Reuban Gant is recorded to have driven the first wagon across the new road in 1846; Barlow reported to the Oregon Spectator — the first newspaper published west of the Rockies — that 145 wagons and nearly 1600 head of livestock made it over the Road that first year.
Despite being cheaper than renting HBC bateaux and (perhaps) safer than rafting down the Columbia, Barlow was almost universally reviled for building his toll road. Many emigrants were incensed at the idea of having to pay a toll on the last 150 miles of a 2000 mile journey, particularly when they reached Laurel Hill, a slope so steep that the emigrants had to wind ropes around tree limbs and drag hundred-foot-long tree trunks to lower their wagons safely down the incline.
Laurel Hill was such a nightmare that even after months of heat, dust, disease, and death, most diarists proclaimed it the single worst stretch of the Oregon Trail, bar none. The Barlow Road’s elevation was also a source of difficulty for the emigrants, as snow and icy fog are commonplace on the mountain during the fall. As Barlow’s original toll gate was on the east side of the mountain, weary and frustrated emigrants cursed him for collecting tolls from dead people — that is, charging tolls to people who would die while attempting to follow his road into the Willamette Valley.
Over the years, five toll gates were built to serve Barlow Road traffic from 1846 until 1915, when the right-of-way was willed to the State of Oregon and the last gate, near the town of Rhododendron, was removed. The route was one way — west — for its first fifteen years, until a road was blasted out around Laurel Hill. With the Barlow Road open to traffic in both directions, it became a true thoroughfare, and emigrants were gradually displaced by stagecoaches and freight wagons. In the 1880s, it served the first tourists headed up from the Willamette Valley to vacation and recreation sites on Mt. Hood.
Today, much of the western half of the Barlow Road in Clackamas County is paved over and used by skiers, hunters, and campers visiting the mountain from the Portland area, though this is less a testament to Barlow’s skill as a surveyor than it is the result of the terrain dictating where it would be feasible to build a road. However, parts of the Road’s eastern half in Wasco County are still very pristine, just as the last emigrant wagon left it over a century ago.