Submitted to : Oregon Department of Transportation


Early Oregon Coast Transportation (1856-1912)



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7.2 Early Oregon Coast Transportation (1856-1912)

Native and Early Euro-American Trails


In general, the environment of the Oregon Coast was not conducive to early European-American travel or settlement. The Oregon Coast is rugged, displaying hilly land forms with steep slopes – providing little level land for towns or agricultural farmland. The coastal terrain includes beaches, dunes, marches, sea cliffs, terraces, and headlands. Two-thirds of the coast consists of beach, however many stretches are short and partitioned by steep headlands and cliffs, making them difficult for continuous travel.77 During the early transportation era, some beaches afforded good travel, specifically at low tide when the beach surface was hard and smooth and where some minor headlands or outcrops could be bypassed. During high tides, travelers were forced upon the upper beaches where loose sand in addition to steep headlands that proved difficult to traverse. During storms and high waves, travelers made their way via dunes and terraces along the beach. The Southern Coast’s long foredunes, characteristically narrow and hammocky, were also used for travel, but proved tiresome for long stretches of walking. Other areas along the beach that provided level land for travelling and settling consisted of sand, gravel, cobbles, and boulders that overlaid bedrock, creating a generally dry and stable surface. Consequently, many European-American settlements are located, in part, on terraces.78

The Northwest Coast Indians were instrumental in aiding early European-Americans traverse the Oregon coast; many were hired to transport goods by canoe and provided subsistence resources like salmon. Where possible, travelers journeyed along estuaries, and rivers rather than using pack animals and backpacks along trails with steep, dense terrain. They also followed the land along tributary streams when navigating between the Coast Mountain Range in the west and the Willamette Valley to the east. The tributaries provided a natural low pass. Travelers also crossed streams and bays, ranging from small creeks to large rivers, with canoes while their horse swam behind. Native canoes assisted at these ferry crossings. Later, enterprising European-Americans built and operated their own boats.79

European-Americans established some early trails along the densely vegetated coastline, rather than traversing long stretches of flat beach that would render them visible to Native Americans miles away. The presence of elk and Native American trails greatly influenced where early European-Americans decided to locate their trails. It has been difficult for researchers to document early Native American trails, because later European-American travelers appropriated Native American trails. Nevertheless, when traveling by trail, both European-Americans and Native Americans generally stayed close to the shore unless difficult terrain forced them to seek higher ground.80

Another factor influencing the location and character of the coastal trails was the operation of placer gold mines along the southern Oregon Coast. Trails connecting placer mines to the coast facilitated the enormous task of supplying the miners. Supplies also moved along the Oregon-Californian Trail from the Willamette Valley. Used for a short time during the mid-nineteenth century, the trails fell out of use when mining operations declined. The Donation Land Claims (DLC) and early settlements also impacted the location and configuration of coastal trails as property owners on occasion impeded access to more convenient routes.81


Trails of the Northern Oregon Coast


Early European-American trails, specifically along the northern Oregon coast, tended to be circular in nature and generally served two settlement areas, such as the trails connecting the Clatsop Plains and the Tillamook Plains. A precursor to the US 101 route began at Skipanon with water transportation across Youngs Bay to Astoria. The trail continued to Point Adams. Historic pioneer maps depict DLC’s on either side of the trail with Native American villages are noted at the river mouths. Land travel in this northern area was difficult due to the low laying swamp areas that flooded during winter. In this area, the most expedient route followed the long, narrow ridges of the foredunes. This portion of the trail paralleled the beach 1 mile inland and corresponded to the current location of US 101. During the early 1840s, the northern coast developed quickly, because the area possessed low lying vegetation that was relatively easy to clear for cultivation. However, course sand, infertile soil and the propensity for summer droughts made actual cultivation difficult. Consequently, settlers in Clatsop Plains generally moved southward after a short time.82

Between Cannon Beach and Nehalem Area, numerous obstacles to travel existed along this section of the coast, such as Tillamook Head, Cape Falcon, and the Neahkahnie Mountain. Most travel in this area occurred along beaches, creeks and ridges, which proved difficult for walking with carrying packs. For short distances, land travel tracked present day US 101 from Seaside to Cannon Beach, moving inland from Cape Falcon to inland from Manzanita, and then onward from Garibaldi to Manzanita. All other intervening routes followed the beach and ridges.83

The Tillamook area’s alluvial plain, bay and river attracted early settlers. The plain, an unusual coastal feature, extends approximately 8 miles in length and approximately 6 miles in width. Boats and ships easily navigated this area. Fishing provided an important early subsistence source– with settlers depending on salmon and potatoes for many years. The early trail moved west from Tillamook and followed the beach to Cape Lookout. A later trail east of Tillamook headed south, tracing the approximate location of present day location of US 101, and eventually following the Nestucca River.84 Settlers in Tillamook arrived by two routes – from Astoria, journeying south by the aforementioned routes, and from the Willamette Valley via the Rogue River and the Nestucca River drainages. Native Americans were familiar with these routes and directed early settlers to the route locations.85

Trails of the Central Oregon Coast


The trails of the middle coast area, including the Siletz-Yaquina and the Alsea-Heceta Head areas, were settled later than the north and south and, as a result, fewer trails were created or used in that area. Because an Indian reservation existed along this stretch of area, settlement by European-Americans did not begin until the 1870s. Trails in the Siletz-Yaquina area had overlapping access routes along the long stretches of beach, short expanses of present day US 101 (south of Lincoln City to Kernville and then from Lincoln Beach to Otter Crest), river routes along both the Siletz and Yaquina rivers and land routes connecting the rivers. The Siletz and Yaquina rivers also provided numerous landings along their banks. Early travelers likely preferred traveling along the river banks, rather than taking the beach route, as the river bank landings provided safe rest areas among sparse settlements.86

In the Alsea-Heceta Head area, trails were predominantly located along the beach from the mouth of Alsea Bay to the mouth of the Siuslaw River. Indian villages existed at Alsea Bay and the Yachats River mouth. Settlers that navigated around ‘heads’ or wide mouth channels used short inland trails that generally followed the eventual location of US 101.87


Trails of the Southern Oregon Coast


The trails of the southern Oregon Coast include those within the areas of Siuslaw-Umpqua, Coos Bay-Coquille, Cape Ferrelo, Gold Beach-Port Orford, and Cape Blanco. In the Siuslaw-Umpqua area, trails ran mostly along the beach from a point south of Florence to Coos Bay, with a ferry crossing midway at Winchester Bay. Numerous Indian villages were located along Coos Bay.88 The Coos Bay-Coquille area contained numerous routes including canoe routes that followed the bay and Beaver Slough, and inland land trails that followed present day US 101 through the City of Coos (now Coos Bay). The trails and canoe routes connected the small settlements that later would become part of the greater Coos Bay area. Available routes existed south of Coos Bay along large expanses of beach to the Coquille River mouth and beyond. In addition, there were canoe routes up the Coquille River and land routes between the coast and the river.89

The Cape Ferrelo area did not have any beach access routes. Travelers used mostly land trails, sections of which overlapped what became US 101, and other trails that ran along ridges above the beaches and east of US 101.90 The Gold Beach-Port Orford area and the Cape Blanco area contained beach routes, land routes across ridge tops over-looking the beaches, and routes further inland. US 101 generally follows these original land trails from Port Orford past Gold Beach to Sebastian State Park. In the Cape Blanco area, the highway does not follow any of the known historic trails; instead it parallels a trail a mile to the west. This area also contained beach trails and land trails that followed rivers east.91


Stage Coaches, Early Cars, & Transportation Endeavors along the Oregon Coast


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