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.