American Heritage Chronicles - Part 1

State of Oregon Primary State Highways 1939 map shows only the state highway system and not secondary or county roads. If you look closely you can see that Hwy 126’s route does not yet exist. The State revised both the names and the highway numbering system multiple times over the decades, however, the numbers associated with the various routes on this map, do not appear in any of the research material.

Oregon’s Early Transportation Part 1

As we travel around the western Oregon region we call our home, we probably take for granted that the roads we travel on have always been there – but not so. Many of the high-speed, smoothly paved routes we travel on daily are not even a century old, and some even younger than that.

Our Jeeps R Us club has traveled multiple back country roads in recent years, viewing some of our area’s history, including roads. After digging into the history books, I’ve learned some interesting tid bits.

We need to start back when our Oregon Territory was first being created and settled in the mid 1800’s. In the 1830’s and 1840’s when the first white settlers began arriving, most transportation corridors were merely foot paths and game trails inland, or waterways when necessary. Wagon roads began appearing after the waves of wagon trains dramatically increased the population in the Territory. That increase in residents also increased the traffic throughout the late 1800’s with freight wagons transporting goods between markets, and stagecoaches transporting passengers between new communities.

Much of this increase in modes of transportation was taking place in the central portion of the state as it settled and grew faster. Well before the Oregon Coast Highway began evolving on the coast, Highway 99 was taking shape in the valley, to link the states of Washington, Oregon and California. The influx of activity and associated needs also resulted in the birth and continuing evolution of our regulatory components we still deal with today.

In these early transportation years, road conditions varied, with none of those variations even close to what we enjoy today. Many roads were simply hard-packed dirt which turned to mud in rainy seasons, often times rendering them impassible.

Some road surfaces could be ‘planked’ with timber to enhance usefulness particularly in rainy seasons, or some might even be graveled. After the turn of the century, only twenty-five miles of roadway in the entire state, were actually paved as of 1923.

With the noticeable increase in traffic, routes and needs, regulations began to increase as well.  In 1904 the state passed a regulation that at least one bicycle lane be established on all roadways; obviously Oregonians embraced bicycle travel even back then! It included a one-dollar fee be imposed on riders for a ‘tag’.

In 1905 the first vehicle registration fee of three dollars was implemented, alegedley as a one-time fee. However, by 1911 that became an annual renewal instead. In 1919 Oregon passed its first gasoline tax to go towards road building.

By 1919 there were 83,332 automobiles registered in the state and by 1926 215,000 drivers as well.  The transportation needs were increasing as well as improving.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the locations of many of the transportation routes evolved from the wagon roads. When the railroads began arriving in the state in the 1870’s and 1880’s, some of those pre-existing roadway routes began shifting, sometimes affecting the existence of several communities around the state.

Similarly, as the vehicle transportation needs increased, Hwy 99 through the central part of the state affected communities’ existence as well, as its location began to favor a more direct route rather than the patch-work style of routes connecting multiple communities, not to mention ease of construction issues.

As construction in various portions of Hwy 99 progressed throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, by 1928 it was already the longest paved road in the nation. Hwy 99 remained the primary north/south route through the valley and central part of the state for the next several decades. In 1956 the interstate highway system was created when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed that legislation. It took until into the early and mid-1960’s for the completion of I-5 here in Oregon, which then replaced Hwy 99 in many locations, and/or once again caused disruption and change in the communities along its route.

While transportation amenities were rapidly improving in the central part of the state, the same can not be said along the coast. Routes between the valley and the coast were limited and those which did exist were primitive. Routes among the coastal communities themselves were mostly non-existent, with connectivity being a mix of rough roads, ferries and travel along the ocean beaches. Travel often took days rather than the mere hours that we enjoy today. For example, it took four days from Eugene to the coast with a circuitous route ending only in Mapleton, and then river travel from there to Florence.

In part 2 we will learn more about the evolution of our western Lane County and greater Florence Area transportation history I hope you’ll stay on board with us!