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As It Was: Families Build Their Own Crude Roads in Early Days

In 1897, Henry Clay Tison and his sons used axes, picks and shovels to build a road to their home on Elk Creek near Crater Lake.  During the winter months, their rustic road was impassable except on foot or horseback, so Tison had to bring a supply of staple goods to last the winter.  The family lived mainly on venison, bread and blackberry pie.

Tison’s situation was typical of rural living in nineteenth-century Oregon and Northern California. Early settlers bounced in springless wagons over rocks, fallen branches and tree stumps on roads no more than rough clearings through the forested, mountainous wilderness.  River crossings were treacherous.

Stagecoach roads had names like “Shake Gut Line,”  some following old Native American footpaths, while others following trails for driving sheep and cattle to summer pastures in the mountains.

For years, travelers used Tison’s road on the way to Rogue River, Crater and Diamond lakes by way of the tiny community of Trail, Ore.  In the early 1900s, counties and state highway departments began improving roads for car travel.  Back-country forest service and logging roads allowed people to get out and enjoy the area’s natural beauty. 

Sources: Bryson, Bill.  Made in America, An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. Perennial, An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 1995, p. 159; Moore, Edith M. Pioneer Days in Canyonville. Vol. 2, Canyonville, The Lions Club, 1969, pp. 22-26.

Sharon Bywater of Ashland, Oregon grew up in Southern California. She taught English literature and writing at Syracuse University in New York, where she also wrote and edited adult literacy books and published freelance articles in local media. Later, she lived in Washington, D.C., where she worked as an international telecommunications policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Commerce. She has Master’s degrees in English and Communications Management.