"John Tom's" Road

"John Tom's" Road

McKenzie Pass - The building of "John Tom's" Road

By Agnes Millican McLean

From the Lane County Historian - Vol. VIII, #1, March 1963

Ed. Note: The "John Tom" of this story is John Templeton Craig, Lane County pioneer of 1853, road builder and mail carrier.

John Tom was a visionary spirit, adventurous, and of indomitable courage. He sprang from a line of Scotch-Irish folk embued with a mixture of stern righteousness and Celtic mysticism. His grandfather as a mere lad with a dream of America beyond the sea brooding in his heart, ran away from his home in Glasgow and boarded a vessel bound for the New World. That was about 1810. By 1820 the Craig family had set its roots deep into the soil of the adopted country. His grandson John Templeton Craig, the eldest of ten children, was born of the first American generation on a farm near Wooster, Ohio.

During his youth John worked with his father on the farm, earning and learning what he could, and turned the proceeds into the family coffer. But in the summer of 1853 he joined the great trek westward, thenceforth to merge his fortunes with those of the new settlers in the West Thinly clad in homespun and barefooted, he walked all the way across the plains by way of the Barlow Pass and Oregon City to Camp Creek Valley in the Oregon Territory, driving an ox-team for his brother-in-law, Dill Ritchey.

Now far from home and kinsfolk his unselfish concern was transferred to his fellow-men in the new land. John Tom, always ready to stretch out his sinewy arm to a friend or neighbor in need, was soon to become known far and wide for his kindliness and gentleness. Upon his arrival at the little settlement he found that a number of the newly-come families were without shelter, and his heart was moved by the thought of the suffering that must follow with the storms of winter. Immediately he set to work to build a saw-mill of the whipsaw type on Camp Creek near the Old Ford across the McKenzie. In this enterprise he was assisted by Dill Ritchey; but when shortly afterward a disagreement arose between the two men, John Tom left and began to work on the farm of Rodney Scott in the McKenzie Valley.

The wanderlust of such men as John Ledyard, followed by Lieutenant Williamson, General Isaac I. Stevens, who were sent out by President Pierce in 1853 to survey a road to the Pacific, inspired John Tom's first road searching. Up and down through the deep forests of the McKenzie he plodded, learning the lay of the land and pursuing some secret vision.

John Tom was deeply religious. His philosophy of brotherly love was firmly founded on the tenets of the old Scotch Presbyterian school, and the Rev. Jeremiah Dick, who preached those days in the log cabin school house at Camp Creek, was his pastor. He always carried his Bible in his knapsack along with his coffee-pot and frying-pan, and read it daily, often hourly, for guidance and inspiration. The Gospels and the Prophets were his literature, and the Psalms of David, set to the wild melody of the birds of the forest, were his songs.

John Tom loved the great forests and hills of the West. During the greater part of his life he made his home among them wherever the shadows of evening found him. There under the great trees he baked his sourdough biscuits upon hot rocks beside his campfire; killed and fried the flesh of the deer and bear for his meat; accepted an occasional beaver tail from a trapper for soup, and when his supplies ran low, turned to the tender growth of the forest, such as fern sprouts and miner's lettuce. No stranger was ever turned away from his campfire hungry no matter how meager his supply.

One day George Millican came along and stopped at his camp. Noticing that John's daily rations consisted chiefly of fern shoots, he offered to share his grubstake; but John Tom lifted his glowing, weather-beaten face and said in his highpitched voice: "No, thank you Mr. Millican, I think I can get along."

During the Indian War of 1856, John Tom entered Company B as a private. In a skirmish, the Indians cut him and nine other men off from their company and stole their horses. The men, however, escaped and made their way back to Cottage Grove in a half-famished condition, having subsisted on wild berries for fourteen days. John Tom made his way afoot across the country to Eugene City for help and George Millican with John Latta and Walker Young went to their assistance.

When Felix Scott Jr., crossed the Cascade Summit in the summer of 1862 by way of the McKenzie River, he was obliged at times to hitch twenty-six oxen to one wagon in order to make the grade with heavy laden wagons. Scott's men were driving nine hundred prime beef cattle to the Florence, Idaho, mining settlement. John Templeton Craig was with him as a helper over the mountains.

All this time John Tom had been dreaming of a lower pass over the mountains. He had been with the McBride exploring party when they discovered Salt Springs, enclosed on three sides by high hills, and came upon the rugged mountains lying between them and the headwaters of the McKenzie river.

Early the next summer John Tom, knapsack thrown across his back, and accompanied his Scotch friend, John Latta, trudged up over the Scott Trail to where it turned to the left and Salt Springs. Here John Tom, naturally turned to the right up Lost Creek Canyon. No one knew better than he that the hills were too steep and rugged for the building of a passable road over the Scott Trail. The vision of a better road had haunted him throughout the winter and he was still muttering to himself: "And an highway shall be there!"

Lost Creek Canyon is a deep gorge lying between high wooded hills to the north and south. Deer Butte to the northeast extends in a long precipitous ridge toward the west. Eagle Rock juts out like a huge block of gray marble from the center of the south range and the Three Sisters rise majesticly to the eastward.

Here White Branch sweeps between salmon berry and willow bordered banks through the canyon to join Lost Creek as it comes dashing out from under its hidden lava bed.

Pushing their way under and over the interlocking vine-maple, willow, and grease-wood, the two men emerged at Alder Springs and stood facing each other at the foot of the mountain.

"Mr. Latta, that's a natural road-bed," exclaimed Craig excitedly.

"That's right, John Tom. There's not a singe bad hill in this canyon clear to the foot of the mountains just a gradual pull all the way."

"Seems to me," said Craig shaking with emotion, "that here is my highway!"

"And now's the time to act. I don't believe Scott intends to do anything," Latta declared.

"I think, Mr. Latta, we'd better have a pot of coffee and start for the valley mighty quick," said John Tom beginning to stir the ashes. "Let's say nothing of our findings until we talk it over with George Millican, he'll know just how to proceed."

"Felix Scott has the priority," George Millican advised, intensely interested.

"He ain't done a thing and the summer's half gone," Craig argued.

"That's right, John," George said dropping his head in meditation as John nervously walked about.

"A bunch of business fellows in Eugene, I'm reliably informed, have their incorporation papers ready to file in case Scott fails to come through," George explained after a time.

"That's what I was afraid of," John said with a tone of defeat in his voice.

"What a capital stock of $40,000.00 they plan to put on a force of twenty to thirty men and push the road over the mountains in one summer.'

"One summer!" John exclaimed sarcastically.

"All the young fellows have gone to the mines - and the men - even Dill Ritchey is getting ready to go," John Tom declared.

"I don't think you need to worry John, if these fellows do get in the field, one summer's work'll likely be an eye opener," replied George with a twinkle in his eye.

"Thank you Mr. Millican," John said and turned away with renewed hope.

No mention of this company appears in the records thereafter although John Tom worked incessantly throughout the summer season and far into the fall grubbing brush roots and smoothing his Lost Creek Road. All the while something was telling him that a new company was in the process of organization.

On September 25, 1865, George Millican, William Y. Miller, J. M. Dick, and James W. Gray, filed articles of incorporation for the McKenzie Valley and Deschutes Wagon Road Company. The purpose of the corporation was to construct "said road from Robert Millican's Place by way of the valley of the McKenzie and the most feasible Pass of the Cascade mountains, north of the Three Sisters to the crossing of the Deschutes above the mouth of the Crooked River."

John Templeton Craig, as engineer and builder, then established himself at Rock House for the winter and traveled continuously up and down through the settlements telling the farmers of the advantages of his road across the mountains and how much easier it would be to travel than the Scott Trail. A road, he explained, could be built with their united efforts from which a substantial toll might be collected.

John Tom never carried bedding with him but fashioned his bed out of moss and fern and lay down wherever night overtook him in the forest. On his first trip he built his bed on the north bank of the McKenzie at the foot of a hollow cedar snag stripped of its rough bark, weather-beaten and bleached by the sun, which was ever afterwards called "Craig's Bedroom." This natural shelter was the mere shell of a tree perhaps seven or eight feet in diameter at the swollen base above the sprawling surface roots. The hollow center, extending upward ten or fifteen feet, formed the four wails of his chamber, and the whole out-of-doors was his living-room. Thenceforth Craig's enthusiasm never waning, he worked all of his life on the construction of his road. Under his pick and shovel steep hillsides were leveled into roadbeds, deep gulches filled; streams were bridged and timbers shaped p ed with his meager tools; the floors of bridges were nailed down with cedar pins whittled from the trees of the forest; trails that wound in and out to avoid the majestic trees standing in the way were straightened. Patches of the winding trail and deep earth scars were years afterward to remind the tourist passing over the highway of the former road-bed.

As the difficult construction of the road went on the demand for financial assistance became more and more urgent. The helpers must be clothed and fed . In those days the country was sparsely settled and the farmers had large families to clothe and feed and their ranches must be cleared in order to keep the wolf from the door. Thus it was that the burden of soliciting funds fell heavily upon Craig's shoulders. Again and again Eugene City, Springfield, and vicinities were solicited for provisions and the necessary funds to carry on the work.

The bridging of the McKenzie River at Craig's Prairie, or Strawberry Prairie, as it was sometimes called, was a vexing problem to John Tom, and the maintenance of it afterward caused him grave concern. One day he began to build the bridge by felling a large fir across the river and clambered over it to the opposite bank and felled another tree to serve as a second stringer for his bridge. Unfortunately, it swerved to the side striking the first one and breaking it into pieces. Then the swift waters carried both trees down the stream leaving Craig on the side of the river farthest from his supplies.

Nine days he searched for another tree suitable for a stringer, felled it across the stream and was able to reach the opposite bank. During this time he had lived on miner's lettuce and sourdough and was almost exhausted. Nevertheless, he started trimming the limbs from one of the trees he had felled, and his axe slipped from his trembling hands into the surging waters. John Tom needed his axe. He did not have the time to go after another; neither did he have the money to buy one. Accordingly, he set to work to recover it, planning to fill a sack with rocks and tie it across his back to make him sink before the swift waters could carry him downstream. He intended to grab his axe, slip off the bag, and rise to the surface. The helpers who already regarded John as an impractical visionary, winked at each other and pointed to their foreheads.

John Latta protested vigorously against such a perilous undertaking. "Listen to me," he pleaded. "That will never work." With difficulty he persuaded him not to try that way of recovering his axe. But John Tom always declared that his plan would have worked.

After the fir stringers were finally placed, the cedar puncheon floor was laid and nailed down with cedar pegs fashioned during the long evenings around the campfire. The railing was then set up, and the bridge was pronounced safe for travel June 26, 1869.

At the time of the completion of the road to Salt Springs, in the summer of '71 and the promised opening of a road to Foley Springs, a Military Road Company began to survey along the river with the purpose of securing government aid to finish Craig's road. The increasing number of emigrants passing both east and west in search of homes, the prospectors bound for the Idaho mines, and the large droves of cattle and sheep being herded over the mountains to grazing lands to the east made the opening of a passable road imperative. In view of the substantial tolls the road would bring in, Craig, the stockholders of the company, and the contributors to the project decided to rush the completion of the road before rival companies should get control. After the reorganization of the Craig Company, the road-building was carried on in a more business-like way, donations were secured with less difficulty by solicitors, and the progress was more rapid.

One day in August John Tom stopped at Robert Millican's house. His faded blue overalls and jumper - his sole apparel - were dirty and so worn that his bare flesh showed through the holes, and his red-topped boots sagged in wrinkles. From under his slouched black hat thin grizzled curls matching his straggling beard, fringed his bald crown, and partly hid his gentle but penetrating blue eyes. He leaned over the picket fence talking to himself and looking hungry and tired. He had been soliciting funds all day.

"Hello, hello, John Tom!" called Robert heartily.

"Come in and stop for supper. Do!" he urged stepping out on the little cabin porch bright with Mary Abigail's flowers.

"No, thank you, Mr. Millican, I want to talk to you about the road, then I'll be getting along."

But after many protests he was persuaded to enter the house and remain for an hour or so talking about the Road the need of funds and the advantages it would bring to the settlers. When John Tom talked Road to an intelligent and sympathetic listener he waxed eloquent. One forgot the ragged tramp and recognized the Evangelist, bearing good tidings to a new kingdom.

Afterward Robert's curious little daughter asked, 'How can Mr. Craig work so hard in the cold and rain to make a road for us? I think he is beautiful - not his clothes, but him."

"No other man on earth could withstand the toil and exposure. I don't know, daughter, perhaps he is - beautiful within."

After the repairing of the bridge and the reorganization of the company, John Tom the president, filed on a homestead, and built himself a cabin under the fir trees on the bank of the river to the south of it. The cracks between the logs were chinked with sticks and mud and the one window without glass could be closed and pegged shut from within. The fireplace before which he cooked his food was fashioned of boulders to the height of four feet and the chimney was made of sticks and clay. His box-shaped bed was fastened to the wall and cushioned with fragrant boughs and fern. His table was a large slab of red cedar with legs pegged into holes bored at the corners. Later he laid a puncheon floor of cedar over the packed earth. This was the first and the only home John Craig ever owned.

One day, the second summer after Craig had built his cabin, he and his helpers were piling tools and provisions into the wagon which was to carry them to the eastern stretches of the lava fields.

"Wagons will be rolling over these here mountains this fall before the snow flies," John Tom said as he carefully checked the load to be sure that nothing needed for the undertaking was left behind.

He was proud of the bridge he had built and proud of the little cabin home which stood under tall firs on the beautiful Strawberry Prairie. That morning as he rode through the level stretches his eyes followed the smoke spiraling upward from the chimney black against the intense blue of the sky and, pausing a moment, he lifted his slouched hat and whispered a fervent prayer of thanksgiving "The Lord answered me and set me in a large place."

Then he followed Scott Trail, winding through tall columns of Douglas fir where at this season a rosy tide of rhododendron in full bloom flooded the valley and the hills, to its juncture with his own road. There Craig's party turned to the right to make camp at Alder Springs after doing some repair work on the road along the way. Next morning the high climb to the summit began, the road leading up Alder Springs Gulch, At the Springs the road turned to the left straight up Dead Horse Hill to the top and Frog Spring in a little open prairie where the Sisters looked down upon them.

"Only three-fourths of a mile of lava to pulverize, Boys," said Craig with enthusiasm not shared by the workers.

Then his mind reverted to Windy Point and to the days when he and George Millican had tramped over the difficult trails in search of a better route until the soles of their high-heeled boots were worn to shreds and they were obliged to retrace their step sand equip themselves for another expedition. There was Shell Rock Grade from which loose rock came shattering down after every hard freeze.

After those years of beating and sledging the lava (on the summit) with torn and bleeding hands wrapped in discarded boot tops, the road bed was made passable and two emigrant wagons from Walla Walla, Washington Territory, came over the road to the Willamette Valley the last week in October. The emigrant from the east was no longer compelled to travel two hundred miles farther by the Barlow Pass as he was nearing the end of his journey across the plains to reach the Willamette Valley which lay with outstretched arms to welcome the weary traveler to a land of green hills and blossoming valleys.

 

 

 

Editor's Note: After the McKenzie Pass road was completed, John Templeton Craig, secured the contract to carry the mail to Camp Polk, near the present town of Sisters. That story JOHN CRAIG A PIONEER MAIL CARRIER, by Ruth E. Richardson was published in Vol. III, No. 2, LANE COUNTY HISTORIAN of Nov. 1958.

McKenzie River Reflections

McKenzie River Reflections is the weekly newspaper serving Oregon's McKenzie River Valley. Available by mail for $23/yr in Lane County, $29/yr outside Lane. Digital subscriptions are $23/yr. Subscribe at: http://mckenzieriverreflectionsnewspaper.com/catalog/subscriptions-0. Purchase copies online at: http://mckenzieriverreflectionsnewspaper.com/catalog/back-issues-0. Read about area communities including Cedar Flat, Walterville, Camp Creek, Leaburg, Vida, Nimrod, Finn Rock, Blue River, Rainbow and McKenzie Bridge.