Fort Rock Attractions: History & Geology

Fort Rock Homestead Museum Oregon

The year is 1905 and you have traveled thousands of miles across the country. You spot a fort-shaped rock formation in the distance and know you are finally close to your destination. A sage thrasher perched atop sagebrush seems to be singing its melodic song to welcome you. As you draw closer, you see several buildings clustered around a windmill-driven well. The wind blows the desert dust into your eyes. Blinking to make sure it’s not a mirage; you can’t help but let out a sigh of relief. You made it – you are finally here.

Windmill in  Oregon

Fort Rock Homestead Village Museum

Though that account was fictional, it would be easy to imagine that kind of scenario as you tour Fort Rock Attractions. The Fort Rock Valley Historical Society Homestead Village Museum site currently contains 12 buildings from the early 1900’s that were moved to the site from various locations in Central Oregon. There is a small gift store with items related to the area at the entrance. A replica blacksmith shop was constructed at the site in 2006 using reclaimed wood and other materials. Volunteers restored the buildings and carefully furnished them with artifacts. Due to their painstaking work, you really get a feel for how the early pioneers lived.

You will be impressed by the attention to detail. Buildings represent what would have been present in a small town of that time period. For example, the small doctor’s office appears ready to accept the next patient.

Fort Rock General Store

The Fort Rock General Store welcomes visitors with a wide selection of goods.

Fort Rock  General Store Oregon

It is the only building original to the site. It supplied goods to 1,200 people at one time.

Fort Rock  General Store Oregon

Sunset school

Sunset School has lessons on the chalkboard and rules for teachers to abide by near the door.

Fort Rock  Sunset School Oregon

Saint Bridget’s Catholic church

The pews at Saint Bridget’s Catholic Church are empty now but were once full of people at the only building in the vicinity built expressly for worship. It still serves as a place for weddings and memorials.

Fort Rock Church 20May2015

Pioneer homes

Six buildings served as homes for pioneers in the early 1900’s. There was a major influx of settlers as soon as the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 passed. The Act increased the allotment of land from 160 to 320 acres. Fred and Hannah Stratton moved to the area from Michigan in 1912. Their sons, Frank and Lewis, grew up in the house and Frank later married Vivian. Frank and Vivian founded the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society and opened the Museum in 1988.

Homestead Museum pioneer home in Oregon

The Widmer cabin was moved from the Bend area and now houses a large collection of arrowheads and other ancient tools crafted from obsidian collected in the area.

Homestead Museum pioneer home in Oregon

Simon Boedigheimer came to Fort Rock around 1912 and built one of the few two-story houses in the area. He left his wife and two children in the Willamette Valley while he worked on the house. A carpenter by trade, his house included special features such as built-in shelving and a stairwell closet.

Homestead Museum pioneer home in Oregon

The Websters and their six-year old son moved to the area in 1912. They bred Hereford-Shorthorn cattle and were very successful. Their son Carl went on to become a successful trapper and he kept careful records of his trap lines on the bedroom door moldings.

Homestead Museum pioneer home in Oregon

Alex Belletable and his wife came to Fort Rock in 1911. He was one of the wealthier homesteaders in the valley. The couple were French immigrants and they tried farming in the area but were not nearly as successful as they had been in France. They left the area in 1922.

Advice from a local leads to amazing discovery

George Mekenmaier built a cabin in 1910 before he married Hazel Penrose. Their children, Beatrice and George, played in the area now known as Fort Rock Cave. Many years later, Hazel encouraged anthropologist Dr. Luther S. Cressman to explore the cave. He excavated the cave and discovered nearly 100 sagebrush bark sandals that were later determined to have been made 9,000 to 13,000 years ago. They are the oldest ever discovered and they were arranged in a ceremonial pattern.

Fort Rock State Natural Area

Fort Rock State Natural Area , another one of the Fort Rock Attractions, is a short drive away. After a short walk uphill, you enter an amphitheater-like setting. The formation is part of a 6,000 foot wide caldera. About 12,000 years ago this area was covered by ice hundreds to thousands of feet thick. Temperatures warmed and a 900 square mile lake formed over the site. Three thousand years later sagebrush replaced the marshlands.

Fort Rock Natural Area Oregon

The Brother’s Fault zone lies beneath the site. Faults allow magma to get to the surface. As the lava hit the water, it caused a massive explosion. This explosion, and the prevailing Southwesterly winds, caused the horseshoe shape of the Fort Rock formation.  The tuff walls are all that remain as it collapsed upon itself. Terraces formed by the pounding action of the waves can be seen on surfaces of the tuff ring.

Flora & fauna

When I was there in May of 2015 on a Bend Parks and Recreation field trip, wildflowers were in full bloom and cliff dwelling birds flew around the site. There was a thick stand of death camas in the crater. A few bitterroot plants bloomed nearby. Early pioneers quickly learned from the resident Native Americans that the camas was poisonous while the bitterroot root could provide sustenance. Meriwether Lewis ate bitterroot during his explorations and brought specimens back east. The scientific name, Lewisia rediviva, reflects his discovery of the plant.

Sagebrush Sandal display
Fort Rock Valley Museum Sagebrush Sandal display

Fort Rock Cave

Tours of the cave where the ancient sandals were discovered are available by reservation only through Oregon State Parks. It is one of my favorite Fort Rock Attractions. Visit Inside Fort Rock Cave, for more on my trip there.

Warm Springs Museum – Native American history

Warm Springs Museum in Oregon

Wasco, Warm Springs, & Northern Paiute peoples

The Warm Springs Museum, located in Warm Springs, Oregon, is impressive inside and out. As you approach the building, note the interesting architecture that echoes some of the structures local tribes lived in. Be sure to view the building from the back as well. The building honors the Wasco, Warm Springs, and Northern Paiute tribes that reside in the Warm Springs Reservation area. There is a ¼ mile long interpretive trail behind the Museum.

Exterior Warm Springs Museum

Historically, the Paiute lived in a large area of Southeastern Oregon and traveled far in search of food.  The Wascoes, or “river people”, lived east of The Dalles along the Columbia River and were primarily fishermen. The Warm Springs people lived in a large area in the vicinity of the current reservation. They moved between summer and winter villages and were more dependent on game, roots, and berries. There was a lot of trading that went on between the tribes for food and other resources.

Baskets display
Baskets & photo of digging, Warm Springs Musem

Tribes looked to their elders for guidance and passed on traditions to their children. The family was the center of learning. Children learned subsistence skills such as basket making and hunting but also learned the value of traits such as patience and commitment.

Each tribe chose their own chief. They respected the values and traditions of other tribes.  For example, the seven drum religion of the Wasco was shared with other local tribes.

Europeans enter the scene

Dress & baskets

When white men entered the scene in the 1700’s, the importance of trade increased. Coffee, sugar, cloth, and especially beads, were valued trade items. Unfortunately the settlers also brought diseases that native people had very little immunity to. By the time Lewis and Clark arrived in 1804, the numbers of Native Americans had plummeted due to many succumbing to various diseases.

Exploration of the area by early settlers continued into the 1800’s. The Indian Removal Act was approved in 1830. In the 1840’s immigrants began moving to the area on the Oregon Trail. From 1840 to 1860, 250,000 settlers traversed the Oregon Trail.  John C. Fremont explored the area that would become the Warm Springs Reservation in 1843.

Forced onto reservations

In 1855 Native Americans were forced onto reservations. Most of their ancestral lands were ceded to the U.S. The Wasco and Warm Springs tribes ceded ten million acres.

The Northern Paiutes fought against scouts, soldiers, settlers, and other tribes in an attempt to keep their lands. They were finally defeated by General George Crook between 1866 to 1868 and forced on to the reservation.

The tribes were forced to give up their culture. Certain traditions were outlawed. Children were forced to attend boarding schools. If they were caught speaking their native language they were given demerits.

Headdress, pipe, & baskets Warm Springs Museum

Preserving a past

The Warm Springs Museum preserves part of the past and passes on valuable information to future generations. A short film on the history of local Native Americans plays as you enter the exhibit hall. You learn that water was important to all tribes and was referred to as the “blood of life”.

As you make your way through the Museum you will see an impressive collection of artifacts and recreations that give you a glimpse into the various tribes’ way of life. Many of the items are decorated with tiny seed beads that show an amazing amount of detail and artistry. Belts, bags, buckskin clothing, and war bonnets all feature intricate beadwork.

Re-creations of a wickiup and tule mat lodge invite visitors to look inside the structures local Native Americans lived in. A small, rustic cabin stands nearby. Tools of daily life are visible inside the structures.

Fishing gear Warm Springs Museum

There are a few parts of the exhibit that are interactive.  A camera films you as you attempt to use a hoop and copy the moves playing in a video of the hoop dance. Another display features recordings of the languages of the three tribes living on the reservation.

A nice gift store

The small gift store is a great place to browse for local products. There are several books on regional topics. Jewelry, bags, and colorful prints are also available. Huckleberry jam and syrup are tempting to buy for yourself or as a gift for someone else. Boldly patterned Pendleton blankets are neatly tucked into shelves patiently waiting for someone to wrap themselves in their warmth.

Interior Warm Springs Museum

If you are interested in the history of the Central Oregon area, consider a stop at the Warm Springs Museum. It is nicely laid out and has some remarkable artifacts in its collection. The information provided with the displays is interesting and may pique your curiosity into learning more. That is always a sign of a great museum.

Santiam Wagon Road – A walk back in time

Santiam Wagon Road
A remnant of the Santiam Wagon Road

A safe passage to the east

If you are looking for an interesting historical area to visit close to Bend, try following parts of the route of the Santiam Wagon Road. It parallels present day Highway 20 and parts of Highway 126 between the cities of Sisters and Lebanon, Oregon. This particular wagon road is interesting because its purpose was to provide safe passage from the Willamette Valley eastwards into central Oregon. A route was found in 1859 by connecting old Native American trails to a route discovered by Hudson’s Bay Company trapper, Thomas McKay. It became the main route across the Central Cascades from 1865 to 1939. In 1939 the Santiam Highway opened.

The road was maintained by the Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Wagon Road. Local ranchers formed the company with Andrew Wiley, John Gray, and John Brandenburg. These pioneers originally proposed the road and scouted a route. Tolls were collected along the route. Settlers used the road to move their livestock eastwards to pasture lands and markets. The new road also enabled trade, commerce, and communication between areas East and West of the Cascades.

Santiam Ski Lodge in Oregon
Santiam Ski Lodge

Santiam Ski Lodge

On a recent visit, we stopped at an abandoned building just north of Hoodoo Ski Resort. The Santiam Ski Lodge was built in 1939 by the US Forest Service with help from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It is a big lodge-style building with a rock wall base supporting large log beams. It slept 60 people. Now in disrepair, a potential buyer found it would cost as much as $5 million to make it usable. Update: In 2018, renovation work began on the lodge. Friends of Santiam Ski Lodge has updates on the progress..

An interesting tidbit of history

Another bit of local history in this vicinity focuses on a mile and a half of railroad track constructed at Hogg Rock. Colonel T. Eggenton Hogg thought he could make a lot of money by creating a rail line across the Cascades connecting Newport, Oregon and Boise, Idaho. As a part of his money making scheme, he had workers start at the summit of Santiam Pass. They would begin building a track through the sheer rock face. He only built a small section of track and then used mules to move a boxcar along the tracks to retain the rights to the pass by having a “working” right of way. The line was never completed after Hogg lost financial backing for the project.

Oregon grape
Oregon grape

The trail

Our group hiked 2.2 miles starting at USFS Road 2672 near Hackleman Creek. This trail follows the Santiam Wagon Road through old growth forests. You can almost imagine what the early settlers had to go through following the slow progress of their wagons along the road. We had to ford a few streams and climb a short hill as we made our way to the Fish Lake Remount Station.  In May, trillium, fairy slipper orchids, and Oregon grape were in full bloom. Winter Wrens made sure we were aware of their territory by singing loudly as we made our way along the trail.  The distinct distant calls, and large cavities observed in Ponderosa pine, cued us in to the presence of pileated woodpeckers.

Santiam Wagon Road in Oregon - Fish Lake
The meadow that has replaced Fish Lake

Fish Lake Remount Station

We arrived at the Fish Lake Remount Station in a little over an hour. The seasonal lake had faded away to be replaced by a large meadow. Native Americans hunted, fished, and collected plants in this area long ago. Settlers stopped at Fish Lake to stay in the roadhouse, built in 1867, and get much needed supplies as they made their way along the wagon road. The Willamette Valley and Cascade Mountain Wagon Road Company ceased operations to Fish Lake in 1907. The area was also popular for camping and it was not uncommon to see 100 wagons camped there in summer months. The saloon and hotel burned down in the 1920’s.

The Forest Service used the site to rest their pack animals and stock up on supplies. Packstrings sometimes had as many as 20 horses and mules tied together.  Three cabins and several outbuildings were built in the 1920’s and 1930’s and are still standing today. The CCC built several of the structures in 1934.

Cabin at Fish Lake Remount Station
Cabin at Fish Lake Remount Station

There is a parking area about ¼ mile away from Remount Station. There are several picnic tables at the site and a great view of the lake (or meadow depending on the time of year). If you want to spend more time there, two cabins, are available to rent.