The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 9, Number 2, Pages 36-40
Spring, 1984

The Wastucna Road

by Bette E. Meyer

 

In the mid-1860s, word of gold discoveries in the western United States flashed across the country and excited the population. By summer, 1865, the region just east of the continental divide in Montana Territory attracted much attention. Strikes had occurred along the Little Blackfoot River and in Last Chance Gulch (present Helena). Claims paying more than one hundred dollars a day,(1) extending for several miles along the river, served as a beacon for miners, would-be-miners, and an assortment of individuals who attached themselves to large mining camps.

Most of the adventurers had only a vague idea about the location of the new strikes; few could pin-point the spot with any assurance. How to reach these bonanzas presented a challenge to those who sought the gold for the discoveries were in places few had been before. Undaunted, waves of travelers came west, seeking fortune - easy fortune, if possible. All clamored for the fastest possible way to the mines.

Reality was often a sobering experience. Some had taken the long and tedious passage around the tip of South America and up the Pacific Coast to San Francisco, and thence northward by sea to Portland, Oregon. Soon, these months of travel were shortened by utilizing a trail across Panama from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Vessels awaited survivors on the western shore and took them, at exhorbitant rates, to San Francisco. Once in Portland, the steamboats of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company carried the miners, and those associated with them, up the Columbia River to various points.

By 1864 Wallula served as a terminus for river traffic. Here passengers disembarked and freight was off-loaded for Walla Walla. Miners purchased supplies and equipment in the town for their journey through the mountains to the gold strikes. It was from Walla Walla that the Mullan Road headed for Montana Territory, ending at Fort Benton, the head of navigation on the Missouri River. The road brought the travelers close to the gold deposits. However, since the completion of the route, the Mullan Road had not been kept in good repair. Intended originally as a wagon road, the route was impassable to these vehicles. Closed most years from October to June by snow in the mountains, the trail was in such poor condition that it took pack trains five weeks to travel the distance during the summer months.(2)

The Oregon Steam Navigation Company, a profitable enterprise that already controlled transportation on Pacific Northwest rivers, saw new opportunities when miners demanded quick transport to the mining areas. Rather than "lose" the miner to Walla Walla when he left Company vessels at Wallula, the OSN Company devised a grandiose, farreaching transportation system that was designed to reap great profits from the then-current goldfever. Overland travel and water navigation composed the complex system.

Although vessels had traveled up the Snake River as far as Lewiston during high water levels on the river since 1861, Priest Rapids was the limit of continuous navigation on that section of the Columbia River at all seasons. The Oregon Steam Navigation Company proposed an extension of its route from Wallula to White Bluffs, some sixty miles upriver but below Priest Rapids. A small community developed on the eastern bank of the river, from which point a road extended across the arid Columbia Plateau to the southern shore of Pend Oreille Lake in northern Idaho Territory.

Another steamboat, the Mary Moody, took travelers and pack animals across Pend Oreille Lake and up the Clark Fork River to Cabinet Rapids. There, a portage was required to another steamer which sailed as far as Thompson Falls. A third vessel was constructed for this section of the river between the falls and the Jocko River, from whence stages and wagons carried passengers and freight to Missoula, located about ninety miles west of the Montana gold strikes. Despite the many transfers, freight from Portland could reach Missoula in ten to twelve days, perhaps less.(3) On the return trip, it took those making the trip only sixty hours of actual travel time to arrive in Portland, Oregon from Helena, Montana Territory.(4)

The Oregon Steam Navigation Company promoted the town of White Bluffs as the jumping-off place for the Montana mines. Passengers boarded OSN Company vessels in Portland and utilized boats or vehicles of the company all the way to Missoula, a highly beneficial arrangement for the company. In the spring of 1866, hundreds of passengers with thousands of pack animals selected the White Bluffs route as the quickest way to the Montana mines.

These efforts of the OSN Company did not go unnoticed by the citizens of Walla Walla. Through the editorial voice of the Walla Walla Statesman, the White Bluffs Road was disparaged at every opportunity. Thus, it was undoubtedly with some joy that the newspaper announced in the spring, 1867 a new, faster way to reach the mining areas. The new route not only ignored the town of White Bluffs and the White Bluffs Road but it also re-focused attention on Walla Walla.

The Wastuckna Road was proclaimed to be the shortest route to Colville, Pend Oreille Lake, Spokane, and Helena. Although it did not eliminate months from time spent in transit as did the earlier passage across Panama, the Wastuckna Road did shorten the overland journey to Pend Oreille Lake by about forty miles. This meant saving one day on the trail for pack trains and three days for wagons.(5) Well supplied with water, wood, and grass, the route had few hills, no mud, and no rocks.

By taking trails previously used, travelers experienced steep, high hills when crossing the valleys of the Touchet, Tucannon, Snake, and Palouse Rivers. The new road, starting from the Columbia River at Wallula, avoided this part of the country, and they only had to contend with the bluffs along the Snake. On the way to the ferry, wagons and trains descended three hills and ascended two others, none of which caused difficulties.

Wagon trains formed at Wallula and followed along the bank of the Columbia River for about three miles. Striking out from the river, the migrants headed across a prairie in a direct line to Fish Hook Bend on the Snake. Crossing fairly level ground, this section of the road, some twelve to fifteen miles, coincided with a well-traveled Indian trail.

Encountered almost immediately was the only real obstacle of the journey - a four mile stretch of sand.(6) Fortunately, the sand was neither deep, nor heavy, nor did it drift. From Fish Hook Bend, the distance to the wire-rope ferry at Jim Ford's Island was ten miles. The route again followed an Indian trail. With some of the road already broken, the journey was made easier for pack animals and wagons. Jim Ford's Island was for years past a favorite crossing of the Indians on their way from the Walla Walla region to the Yakima Valley, Priest Rapids, and other locations along the Columbia.(7)

Upon ferrying across the Snake, the road ascended a high hill via a long, sloping canyon. Although steep, loaded wagons would make their way to the top of the hill without double teaming. Even though the Wastuckna Road followed old paths and roads for about half the distance, posts were installed at each mile along the way, and a furrow was ploughed which rendered "the remainder plain even to the most heedless traveler.'(8) It was fifteen miles from the ferry to Wastuckna Lake - the longest stretch between water. Yet, this was much shorter than the twenty to twenty six mile drives between water from the Touchet to the Snake on the old roads. The lake, an oasis amid surrounding sagebrush, was situated in a coulee. Here travelers often stopped to refresh and to rest their animals beside the cool water.

The Wastuckna Road, leading northward, then paralleled another Indian trail around the lake and along the coulee for some eight miles to a spring. The route then took a branch canyon to the left and traversed it for four miles, all the while ascending a rise to the plateau. Another four miles brought the miner to Cow Creek. Descending into the valley of the creek, the road intersected the Colville Road and the Mullan Road not one-half mile from Cow Creek House, near present Benge in Adams county. The total distance from Wallula to Cow Creek House was estimated at fifty eight miles whereas going via the Touchet River was eighty five miles, and for wagons from Walla Walla, one hundred miles.(9)

Those individuals hurrying to the gold fields did not think they were over-charged by the fees paid to the ferryman at the crossing. Each loaded wagon and team cost $2.00, with every additional team charged fifty cents. An empty wagon and its team were taken across the river for $1.50. After the first team, each additional set of animals cost thirty seven and one-half cents, the same charge for loaded pack trains.(10)

Near Cow Creek House the trails emanating from Walla Walla divided. The Colville Road continued more directly northward, passing by Harrington and to the east of present Davenport. After crossing the Spokane River, it skirted Waitts Lake in Stevens County, and then passed to the west of the town of Chewelah before arriving at Colville (Pinckney City). The Mullan Road veered to the northeast from Benge and passed by Cheney some twelve miles to the southeast. The route avoided the site of Spokane and forded the Spokane River to the east in the Spokane Valley.

At the Spokane River, travelers had to make a decision. There was a choice of journeying eastward over the Mullan Road, through the Coeur d'Alene Mountains, past Missoula, and to the Little Blackfoot River and Last Chance Gulch. An alternative was to turn north to the steamboat landing on Pend Oreille Lake and take passage, in turn, on the Mary Moody, the Cabinet, and the Missoula, finally reaching Missoula, with the gold strikes just beyond the horizon.

At this time, however, the bonanza in western Montana was diminishing and the mining population looked about for another Eldorado. Most conveniently, to the north in the Kootenai region, rumors of new gold strikes beckoned, and the Wastuckna Road brought adventurers to their destination a little faster than the previously used routes.

Credit: Research and Cartography by David Anderson, Eastern Washington University.

Footnotes

1. Walla Walla Statesman (Walla Walla, Washington Territory), July 21, 1865.

2. The Dalles Mountaineer (The Dalles, Oregon), April 6, 1866; Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), May 10, 1866; William S. Lewis, ed. "Experiences of a Packer in Washington Territory Mining Camps During the Sixties," by James W. Watt, Washington Historical Quarterly, XX (January, 1929), 48.

3. Oregonian, May 9, 1866.

4. Oregonian, June 9, 1866.

5. Walla Walla Statesman, September 27, 1867.

6. Oregonian, February 28, 1867.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Walla Walla Statesman, February 22, 1867.

10. Walla Walla Statesman, September 27, 1867.