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Whitman Mission NHS - History & Culture

Barlow Road

Painting of Barlow Road.

In 1845, 53 year old Samuel K. Barlow of Illinois arrived at The Dalles. He became very disgruntled at the high tolls being charged to transport emigrants down the Columbia. He was also very concerned about the extreme hazards of the trip. Barlow scouted out a wagon road around the south side of Mt. Hood, which he began operating as a toll road in 1846. It was a very rough road, with trees and rocks making the journey even more difficult.

The Barlow Road was the last overland segment of the Oregon Trail before reaching the Willamette Valley. This road provided an alternative to the dangerous and expensive route that used rafts to transport wagons down the Columbia River. But it was not free. The Barlow Road was the first place on the 2,100 mile Oregon Trail where tolls were charged. When the road opened in 1846, tolls were $5.00 per wagon and 10 cents for every head of livestock. Five dollars was about one week's wages, but consider the alternative -- floating down the Columbia River in boats or rafts cost nearly $50.00! By 1863, tolls had changed to $2.50 per wagon and team, 75 cents for horse and rider, and 10 cents for other livestock.

The Barlow Road operated under many owners as a toll road from 1846 to 1919. There were no tolls after 1919 when the estate of the final owner deeded the road to the State of Oregon.

Where was the Barlow Road located?

Many say the Barlow Road started in The Dalles, but in 1845 when Sam Barlow scouted the new road, a route already existed from The Dalles to Tygh Valley. By 1850, many emigrants by-passed The Dalles. They went straight from the John Day River to Tygh Valley, crossing the Deschutes River at Sherar's Bridge. Tygh Valley could be considered the beginning of the Barlow Road.

The National Park Service considers the start of the road to be the first tollgate site at Gate Creek. Whatever starting point you choose, the ending was always Oregon City--the "End of the Oregon Trail."

The Barlow Road Today

The Oregon Trail was named a National Historic Trail by Congress in 1978. The Historic Trail designation was meant to protect the trail remnants and artifacts for public enjoyment. Very little of the original Oregon Trail is visible today, about 20 percent. Of this 20 percent, approximately 10 percent is on National Forest land. On April 13, 1992, the Barlow Road was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Historic District.

The Mount Hood National Forest maintains 40 miles of Barlow Road corridor. Much of the road on the Forest is still in use today for recreation activities. About 30 miles remain "intact," but not always in a form you would expect. The Barlow Road underwent an evolution of travel modes--from oxen-pulled wagon to Model A Fords. In the Zigzag Valley, much of the original route is beneath U.S. Highway 26. Motorized travel meant mechanized re-routing and maintenance. The new motorized routes (including Mount Hood Loop Highway of 1924) left many isolated pieces of "pristine wagon ruts." Rut traces are still visible today.

The ruts are actually a swale--a five to six foot wide trench worn out by the wagon and the stock that pulled them. Near "Pioneer Woman's Grave," they get four to five feet deep. Fine traces exist within 200 feet of paved parking at Pioneer Woman's Grave and Barlow Pass. The one mile hiking trail from Barlow Pass to Pioneer Woman's Grave has some of the best rut traces to be seen; they are marked with rustic "Original Wagon Route" signs. There are also fine traces near Devil's Half Acre. Without formal maps, ruts on Laurel Hill are for the true "rut nuts" to search out. Wagons were lowered at Laurel Hill; a stump with rope burn was near the top of chute number two, but the marks have disintegrated through time.

Pioneer graves can still be seen. In addition to "Pioneer Woman's Grave," several others exist at Summit Meadow. These are on private land across the street from where the Summit House stood.

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Last modified on: May 25, 2004