compiled by Karen Bassett, Jim Renner, and Joyce White
copyright 1998 ~ all rights reserved
Oregon Trails Coordinating Council


In 1847, a cutoff providing a link between the main stem of the Oregon Trail and the Barlow Road was established to save Oregon Trail emigrants time and effort. The Oregon Trail, which skirted the Columbia River’s south bank for miles, was indeed the most practical route for the early emigrants, but as more and more emigrants traveled the main route, cutoffs and alternate routes designed by the emigrants themselves became more popular.

Historical Context

Following the opening of the Barlow Road in 1846, which provided an alternative to shooting the rapids on the Columbia River, a cutoff to the Barlow Road came into use. The Cutoff to the Barlow Road saved emigrants as much as a week of travel time.

Previously, emigrants traveled to The Dalles, then followed an ancient Indian trail south from The Dalles to Tygh Valley. In Tygh Valley, emigrants caught the Barlow Road and followed it over the Cascades to Oregon City. Oregon Trail emigrant and diarist Riley Root first mentions Cutoff in 1848, by which time it was apparently already well established. In the years that followed, the Cutoff was used extensively by Oregon trail emigrants.

“On the top of this bluff, the road divides, one leading to the Columbia River. The other, at the left, is the one we took.” -Riley Root, 1848

According to the History of Central Oregon, the Barlow Cutoff was called the Old Emigrant Road and Road in Ravine. The route was established and was being used increasingly by the emigrants — especially those with animals. The toll over the Barlow Road was $5 a wagon and 10 cents per animal… It entered [Sherman] county one mile below Leonard’s bridge, climbed the hill in a southwesterly direction, paralleled Grass Valley canyon until near the present site of Grass Valley, where it entered the canyon and continued southwesterly to Buck Hollow. The emigrants ferried themselves across the DesChutes on wagon boxes one mile north of Sherar’s Bridge.

Giles French reported that after Barlow had marked the road over the mountains it was not long before a shortcut was made to meet it at Tygh Valley. It turned off the Oregon Trail at the top of the hill west of the John Day River, went southwest and entered Grass Valley canyon at Nish, above Hay Canyon. It stayed in this canyon until past the head of the valley where the tall rye grass grew and where the town of Grass Valley was established. From there it went southwest to the ridge south of Finnegan Canyon and Buck Hollow. To get down into this canyon, the emigrants tied juniper behind their wagons for brakes and went down Hollenbeck Point to the bottom of Buck Hollow which they followed until they reached the Deschutes. Here they crossed below the dangerous rapids to climb part way up Tygh Ridge before crossing the valley to go to Wamic and the beginning of Barlow’s toll road. This cut off was not extensively used but there are records of several wagon trains that took it.

Emigrants made boats from their wagon boxes and swam the stock across the Deschutes. On August 30, 1848, Riley Root wrote,

“Traveled about 5 miles, to the crossing of Deschutes or Fall river. Here, we breakfasted in a deep chasm, almost as difficult of descent and ascent, as the valley of Sinbad the sailor, with nearly precipitous rocks, from 1000 to 1500 feet high, on every side. Afternoon employd in caulking wagonboxes, to ferry our goods across the river.”

Even with help from local Indians, it took Root and his party three days to ferry their goods across the Deschutes. In the years that followed, a series of ferries and bridges were built and washed out, but the road remained.

In 1852, the cutoff was so clearly established that many emigrants referred to the fork in the road: Esther Belle McMillan Hanna, wrote “The road forks… One takes to The Dalles, the other is a cut-off leading to the Cascade Mountains.”

Mr. Olney established a ferry at the crossing. The ferry toll was three dollars per wagon and, according to E. W. Conyers, “we swim our own cattle.”

George Miller West reminisced years later about the Falls and the troubles they had there. Their party lost two mares and a mule over the Falls, but they were able to buy salmon from Indians who were fishing from the ferry boat.

By 1846, a bridge was built. It was washed out and rebuilt in 1862. In 1866, S. B. Eakin wrote that, “We crossed DeShutes River on a bridge. Toll 7.75.” In 1871, Joseph Sherar bought the bridge and maintained both the bridge and the roads leading to it (investing more than $80,000 in both projects combined). The bridge and the falls bear his name.

The Falls was an important crossing point for years before American emigrants used the route. In 1826, the HBC’s Peter Skene Ogden wrote: “Proceeded down River of the Falls (Deschutes) to the Falls where we found an Indian camp of 20 families. Finding a canoe also a bridge made of slender wood, we began crossing…” At either end of the bridge was a fairly well established trail. According to several reports, Ogden lost five horses trying to cross the Indian’s foot bridge.

In 1845, the Meek party crossed the Deschutes here, hiring nearby Indians to swim the cattle across and rigging pulley systems to ferry the wagons across.