Author: Ernest Ingersoll

THE old emigrant trail to Oregon, getting well away from the route to California and across the Idaho deserts, followed down the northern bank of the Boise River to the Snake, crossing which, it made its way northwestward to The Dalles of the Columbia. The "Oregon" those first settlers sought was only a small area out of the half a million square miles then included in the boundaries of the new Territory, and lay south of the Columbia, between the Coast Range and the Cascade Mountains, where now are the oldest settlements in the State. The present interest of this region to us is derived from this fact, and from its natural beauty, agricultural wealth, and prosperous population.

The coast of Northern California and Oregon is defined by a bulwark of basaltic hills, with peaks three or four thousand feet high, resisting further encroachments of the ocean. Parallel with this Coast Range, but about one hundred and fifty miles inland, runs the magnificent continuation of the Sierra Nevada here called the Cascade Mountains. The everlasting snows of the central crest of this range are guarded by rank upon rank of foothills, but there remains space between the outermost of the three and the slopes of the Coast Range for a wide area of level and cultivable land, and in this area is comprised the two valleys, Wahlamet and Umpqua, that form the subject of the present article, together with the low cross spur of hills dividing them.

The greatest river of the Northwest, every one knows, is the Columbia - a river equalled by only two or three on the continent. Of tributaries, nevertheless, it has very few below where the Snake comes in, and it does not receive its greatest auxiliary until within a hundred miles of its ocean bar. This is the Wahlamet, or Willamette, as it is often spelled, as though it were a French diminutive instead of an Indian word. About the Wahlamet, indeed, there is nothing diminutive. At the city of Portland, twelve miles above its junction with the Columbia, it is nearly half a mile in width. Ocean steamers of the heaviest draught--steamers going round the Horn and traversing the Pacific in the China trade--come there to discharge and to be loaded, while river boats steam a hundred miles further up.

Receiving many deep tributaries, such as the Santiam, Tualatin, Yamhill, Molalla, Clackamas, Long Tom, and Luckiamute, finally itself forking into a cluster of sources whose fountains never fail, because fed by Sierra snows, it is apparent at a glance that the wide valley of this river is well drained. Lack of water, indeed, is far removed from the Oregon farmer's fears in respect to his crops; if anything, he suffers from too much rain, especially in winter and spring, when inundations are likely to occur, though they rarely amount to wreck-making floods. The average annual rain-fall in the upper part of the valley is nearly the same as around Lake Erie, but in the lower Columbia Valley it is twice as great.

For several years the Oregon and California Railway Company has been running trains up the Wahlamet and on beyond, aiming to meet an approaching line from California, and so make an all-rail route from San Francisco to Portland-cities now connected only by steamers. This railway now runs to Roseburg, two hundred miles south of Portland, and throws off several branches, so that the whole agricultural region of Western Oregon possesses ready means of shipment for its produce. A trip over the main line at least of this railway ought not to be missed by the visitor to Oregon, not more as a matter of instruction than as a pleasure, for few regions are fairer, and the domestic scenes that intermingle with nature's unchanged grandeur are doubly interesting to eyes weary with the utter wilderness encountered in coming from the East.

The vicinity of Portland being rough and wooded, the cultivable area of the Wahlamet Valley begins only about twenty miles above, where the receding hills leave wide spaces of level ground. Here, however, the valley is forest-grown-woods made up almost wholly of evergreens, and, so far as timber is concerned, of a single tree, the Douglass fir (Pseudostuta douglassii). It is this species that furnishes all the lumber of the district; but the forests easily accessible have been despoiled of all likely trees, and only one saw-mill's to be seen along the railway, breaking the monotone of forest green with its stacks of fresh planking and its great heaps of bright yellow sawdust. Abandoned by the choppers, these tangled woods, rapidly choking with second growth, become the resort of an abundance of game, and the tumbling streams that traverse them are full of trout. The land covered is good enough soil, but as yet there is not the demand which makes its clearance profitable, in view of cheaper holdings farther away. The little district about Oregon City makes a break beyond which the old woodland covers another score of miles, more entertaining to the seeker of things picturesque than to the "practical" man. Then begins the open prairie region which is the pride of Western Oregon, and where there is so dense a farming population as to support several branch lines of railway penetrating to remote settlements. This open area is about a hundred miles long, and averages perhaps fifty miles in width, with side valleys penetrating far into the foot-hills of the Cascade range. Much of it is prairie, but in general it is diversified by lines of woodland following the courses of streams, by copses of detached fir woods, and by low hills covered with an open, park-like growth of two sorts of oak. The immediate vicinity Of the Wahlamet (up which steamboats go regularly to Salem, and occasionally as far as Eugene City) is liable to overflow, and the railway crosses its swift flood at Harrisburg upon a bridge approached by long trestle-work; but these wide bottoms support a magnificent growth of deciduous trees - ash, maple, alder, cottonwood, and innumerable of lesser size which closely reproduce the appearance of the Upper Mississippi lowlands.

To these fertile districts attention was attracted almost half a century ago. "Oregon" then comprised everything north of California, indefinitely, and was claimed by both England and the United States. In 1846 a treaty designated the parallel 49 the boundary between British Columbia and the United States, at which time Oregon contained about 10,000 people. By 1850 the Territory had been organized under the United States, and 3000 more immigrants had arrived. In order to make good titles to land taken up when the sovereignty of the region was doubtful, and also to encourage further immigration, Congress passed what is called the "Donation Law." This perfected titles originating under the previous provisional government, and gave to every actual new settler 320 acres of public land; or, if he were married, it gave him and his wife 640 acres. This law during its brief existence aided the settlement of the country so rapidly that the census of only a decade later showed over 50,000 inhabitants. It must be remembered, however, that the Oregon of that day included the present Territories of Washington, Idaho, and Montana. So far as the present limits of the State of Oregon are concerned, there was little habitancy outside of these very valleys we are discussing, and it was here that the Donation Law operated both for good and evil. Its good lay in the impetus it gave to immigration; its evil, in the fact that, in a region where the really choice land was in small areas, it placed too much in single hands.

This, perhaps, would not have been an evil under some circumstances; but the unfortunate fact in the present instance was that the people who came, took up land, and settled, were, as a rule, an extremely poor class of vagabond farmers from the border States, the Pike County region of Missouri and the lowlands of the Ohio River and Arkansas furnishing the majority. They were poor, also, in the sense of having little money, and this helplessness, added to their thriftless habits, made their possession of the best land in the valleys a misfortune to the State, since they shut out those coming later from fields they would have cultivated to far greater advantage.

This unenterprising class of farmers, locally spoken of as "the old Oregonians," has declined in influence, however, and is represented by the loungers of the community. Their children have lost their drawl of speech and action, or their property has been bought by their betters, so that now, for the most part, an active and well-to-do race of farmers till the acres and control the destinies of the western slope of the State.

That this is true is plainly seen in the landscape. The farms will average more than a hundred acres in area, and follow one another uninterruptedly from the river back into the wooded foot-hills, the two valleys of Wahlamet and Umpqua containing now about one hundred thousand people outside of the metropolis. The houses are almost invariably of frame, and of good size and appearance, with far more attention paid to comfort and attractive surroundings than it is customary to see even in the Eastern States. The general air of thrift and neatness in the little villages scattered here and there is very noticeable also, and the school-houses and churches are as thickly planted as in Ohio or New York. The many scattered groves of splendid oaks, in which, perhaps, grew one or two yellow pines or a few stately firs, gave an opportunity not lost sight of to place one's house where the effect would be that of an ancient homestead, around whose sacred altars trees planted in grandfather's youth had had time to become of great size and dignity. This pleasant deception is seen everywhere; and it is deceptive in spite of your knowledge, giving an impression of a country occupied for centuries, and full of traditions.

To this appearance of domestic felicity --" happy homes of a free people," as the land agents are fond of shouting -- is added at the bright season of early summer the utmost charm of great natural beauty. The whole wide basin lies open to the eye, robed in green, but green of what infinite variety of tint and shading, between the emerald squares of the new wheat and the opaque mass of the far-away hill forests sharply serrate against the sky, or melting into a farther and farther indistinctness of hill and haze. The foreground, too, is always pleasantly sketchy; or, if you think my picture lacks bright color, look at that great golden swath of ranunculus laid athwart the meadow; at that brown patch of freshly ploughed ground; at this brilliant red barn and white farm-house half hidden in its blossoming orehard !

All the cereals are raised here, but you will see little of anything except wheat, which for half a century has made Oregon famous. In 1831, it is related, the first wheat was sowed at French Prairie, in Marion County; and that same field yielded thirty-five bushels to the acre in 1879. Rich land that, but equalled in many parts of the western valleys, where the soil is a dark loam, underlaid by clay. The richest acres of course lie along the wooded river-bottoms, in many of which can be traced extensive beaver dams. The beavers have long ago departed, but their occupation, by making broad reaches of still water, overflowing the lowlands, and permitting wide deposits of alluvium, has produced a soil of extraordinary fertility.

Of wheat, the yield to the acre runs from twenty to thirty-five or more bushels, full and heavy grain often exceeding by five to nine pounds the standard weight of sixty pounds to the bushel. "Land summer - fallowed and fall - sowed is certain to produce twenty-five bushels as a minimum yield. In some parts of this valley [The Wahlamet] where the fields have been cropped continuously for a quarter of a century, they still produce enormously, thus demonstrating the great strength and permanent qualities of the soil. The wheat of this region is a plump, full berry, from which flour of uncommon whiteness is made. Its excellence in this respect is so fully recognized that in the English markets it commands a premium of from three to five cents over the best produced in California. Many varieties of wheat are cultivated. The old white winter wheat, originally introduced by the Hudson Bay Company, is excellent in quality, and retains its hold on popular favor. White velvet wheat is certainly as good, and perhaps more productive. Spring varieties of white wheat, as Chili Club, Little Club, Australian, and others, are well liked and give good crops. The peculiarities of the soil in the various counties mainly determine, however, the kind of wheat which is used for seed in different localities."

The surplus yield of wheat at present is about 150,000 tons annually in Western Oregon -- more than two-thirds of the crop of the whole State. This amount represents about 5,000,000 bushels, much of which was converted into flour here. This year the acreage and crop will be a little larger. There is at every little railway station a great warehouse, to which the farmer brings his wheat for sale as fast as it is threshed. This obviates the need of barns; and you will see very few of these structures in Oregon, except stables used for live stock. All the wheat thus gathered in the country warehouses finds its way before the winter is over to the wharves at Portland, the railway charging a uniform freight rate from all points. At Portland vessels are loaded, and the grain or flour starts on its long voyage around the Horn. "Neither mildew nor rust has appeared to any great extent, and no failure of the wheat crop has been known since the settlement of the country ..... Owing to the dry summers, the wheat is not affected by the long sea-voyage to Great Britain, Whither most of it is exported, and by the double passage through the tropics incidental to its transportation."

Next to wheat, oats are the most important crop, there being raised yearly a surplus of the finest quality for export. Rye and barley are also planted extensively. On the river-bottom lands hops are grown to a large extent, the Wahlamet Valley being famous for the excellence of this product and the extraordinary yield. The picking is done by Indians, for the most part, and an exciting picture it makes. Flax also is a plant widely cultivated, as well as magnificent clover and all the vegetables, the potatoes being of superior quality; but nowhere in Western Oregon will you see "the silken sweep of the corn billows rushing through yellow fields" of maize. For this plant the nights are too cold. That refreshing coolness following quickly upon the retreat of the sun, hastening down from the mountains to close our eyes in well-blanketed and undisturbed sleep, is fatal to Indian corn, which glories in the blaze of the midsummer heat, and waxes fat and succulent through damp and sultry midnights.

Farmers in Western Oregon, however, by no means restrict their energies and capital to raising grain, or growing the varied fruits that flourish so well in the Wahlamet orchards. Vale and open hilltop are clothed in a turf of rich grasses and weeds, blossoming into loveliness for the farmerRs eye, while storing up juices relished by his grateful beasts. Unadapted to the raising of herds of beef cattle, as a dairy country the region is most admirable, and everywhere one sees hosts of sleek kine pasturing in full content. Milk, butter, and cheese are staple products, therefore, and on the Wahlamet much attention has been paid to the improvement of the milch stock, short-horns finding the most favor. For these cattle very little fodder is provided, the custom being to let them run out-of-doors all winter; but this results in deterioration, and often in loss, so that it would be far better to shelter and feed them during the midwinter, when cold sleety rains follow one another in doleful succession. As for snow or hard ice, neither is often seen.

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