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Old McKenzie Pass Highway (OR 242)

The Old McKenzie Pass Highway (OR 242) will officially open to all traffic on Monday, June 19, 2017.

The narrow, twisting roadway and high elevation (5,325 feet) make the highway too difficult to maintain and keep clear during the winter months.

Many of us look forward to the annual opening and to traverse lava fields, snowcapped peaks and cruise along rushing rivers which highlight this scenic highway to central Oregon’s Cascade Mountain passes.

Heading east-bound, OR 242 travels through Lane, Linn, and Deschutes counties, beginning at the junction with OR 126 near McKenzie Bridge and ending at the junction with US Highway 20 and OR 126 at the City of Sisters.  From Sisters, Oregon heading west, the route travels past hay meadows and ascends 2,000 feet through ponderosa pine forests.  The road follows an old wagon route, emerging from the forest at Windy Point and provides a dramatic view of Mt. Washington and a 2,000-year-old lava flow.  The 25 mile, 4,000 foot descent snakes down switchbacks to the dense Cascadian forests and ends near the McKenzie River.

Few realize that the McKenzie Pass is also known as the Craig’s McKenzie Salt Springs/Deschutes Wagon Road.

The backstory — in 1862, John Craig was was one of 50 men hired by Captain Felix Scott to build a trail from Eugene over the Cascades. By then the rush of westward-bound Oregon Trail pioneers had slowed, but the discovery of gold in Eastern Oregon prompted a flood of people heading eastward. Scott’s plan was to sell Willamette cattle to the hungry miners east of the Cascades.

As Scott’s road-building crew neared the lowest route across the mountains they encountered miles of snow and jagged lava fields at McKenzie Pass. Craig favored chipping out a road through the lava fields, but Scott decided to skirt the lava fields in favor of a notch at Scott’s Pass on the shoulder of North Sister that was 1000 foot higher, steeper and crossed more snow. Scott’s route was later abandoned and is known today as the Scott Trail in the Three Sisters Wilderness.

After working for Scott, Craig spent the next 15 years working for himself while championing his vision of a lower crossing through McKenzie Pass. In 1871 he formed the McKenzie, Salt Springs and Deschutes Wagon Road Company and began to build his toll road. He cut trees, chipped and chiseled a roadbed out of the jagged lava fields just north of North Sister to form a McKenzie Pass crossing lower than what was available at the time.  By the Fall of 1872 his road open and began collecting tolls of $2 for a wagon, $1 for a horseback rider, 10¢ for cattle and 5¢ for sheep. After its completion he won a federal contract to deliver mail from the Willamette Valley to Camp Polk in Central Oregon over the road. In summer, the mail was carried on horseback. In winter it was carried on John Craig’s back. To accommodate the mail carrier, a small cabin was built about half way across, in which he could spend the night.

For many years John Craig carried mail from the Willamette Valley to Eastern Oregon, by horseback in the summer and on his own back in the winter.  After attempting to ski Christmas mail over McKenzie Pass in the winter of 1877, he was found frozen beside his mail pouch in his shack atop McKenzie Pass.  Mystery still shrouds the details of his death.

The U.S. Forest Service decided in 1920 to make the highway a tourist-friendly route over the mountains, so engineers took care to align it for sightseeing, with spectacular views of volcanic peaks, including the Three Sisters, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Washington, Broken Top and even the more distant Mount Jefferson to the north.  The road became a seasonal scenic highway in 1962 with the completion of the Clear Lake-Belknap Springs section of OR 126.

The highway is a local favorite and should be on everyone’s Oregon highway bucket list.

References:

The John Craig Story
McKenzie Pass
John Craig – A Pioneer Mail Carrier, by Ruth E. Richardson – 1963

OR 242 map/photo courtesy of Google.

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