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Profits, pain and terror on the roads to the Okanogan

By on September 23, 2019 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

Colockum Pass – 

spring 1888

“At that time the road along the plateau and the summit of the Ellensburg mountain road beggared description. 

“The snow was of great depth, and for several miles the road was strewn with wrecks. There were broken sleds and broken wagons, with household goods piled up in many places, which goods could not be moved except in small quantities. 

“Some families were compelled to spend the greater part of a week getting through that wilderness of melting snow.”

The Northern Pacific Railroad brought emigrant trains with settler families, wagons, teams and stock to Ellensburg. There they unloaded, resupplied and lined up to cross Colockum Pass. 

The road was a challenge anytime of the year, steep and rough. Spring snowmelt turned it into a morass of mud and torrents. 

Frank Bromiley, with his brother Wilson, and their wagon crossed the pass from Ellensburg in the spring of 1888. His description of the conditions evokes the labor, suffering and determination of every settler in search of a new home.

When the Moses/Columbia Reservation was returned to public domain in 1883, the Chelan, Methow and Okanogan valleys west of the Okanogan River were slated to open for homesteading in 1886. 

The Washington Territorial government understood, rightfully so, that Colockum Pass road would be a primary route for new settlers heading north.

In 1880, the trail over the pass had been widened to accommodate wagons and in 1884 the spur road from the mouth of Colockum Creek to the Wenatchee River was surveyed and constructed. By 1887 and 1888 the road was bringing hundreds of settlers and miners bound for the Okanogan country through the Wenatchee Flat. 

It was estimated that, for a time, there were 100 commercial freighters carrying goods over the pass. Add to that the homesteader’s wagons and there could have been 100 wagons and teams spread out over the road on any day.

The Burch Brother’s Ferry was first put in service in 1885 about at Olds Bridge site near Wenatchee. Later, it was cut in half, hauled to Lake Chelan and rebuilt as steamer “Queen of Chelan.” Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center 012-51-37

They bought supplies at Sam Miller’s store and, later, at McPherson’s new store. They lined the pockets of the Burch family who ran the steam-powered side-wheeler ferry that crossed the Columbia just north of the Wenatchee River mouth. The ferry could carry two wagons and teams and crossed the river following the same route as the Odabashian Bridge does today. 

Once across the Columbia the settler’s wagons were driven up Badger Mountain, following Corbaly Canyon, and over the Waterville Plateau. From there they headed down to cross the Columbia again on the Central Ferry near present day Brewster just above the mouth of the Okanogan River.

They had a couple of options for crossing the Okanogan. 

Depending on the season the river could be forded. At times of higher flow the wagons were unloaded then driven into the river to soak up water. The boards swelled and, with the help of rags and grass for caulking, the wagon box was water tight — mostly. 

Loaded back up, the wagon could be floated across the river to the new promised land, the Okanogan.

There were still days of difficult and primitive roads, or no roads at all, to reach homesteads. This was especially true if the destination was the Methow Valley. It could only be reached by steep and torturous trails over the ridge of mountains separating the Okanogan and Methow valleys.

The second route to the Okanogan involved entrepreneurial capitalism at its best; big demand and small supply plus a monopoly. 

The Northern Pacific also brought emigrant trains to the bustling, rowdy railhead of Sprague, southwest of Spokane. There, homesteaders could resupply and repair before jolting across 60 miles of eastern Washington desert to the new town of Wilbur and Wild Goose Bill Condon’s ferry at the Columbia River. By 1875 Wild Goose Bill was developing a horse and cattle ranch on Goose Creek above the Columbia.

The Condon Ferry loads up to cross the Columbia River. Okanogan County Historical Society photo General Collection, # 3285.

By 1883 Condon knew three important things: The Northern Pacific would soon arrive in Sprague, the Columbia Reservation would soon open to white homesteaders and the road from Sprague to the Okanogan country would pass through his ranch. 

His profit making skills kicked in. He platted the town of Wilbur (his middle name) on his land, built a store and hotel with outbuildings and began a toll ferry service to cross the Columbia. 

He soon added a toll road from the ferry landing to the Okanogan River where he fashioned a toll bridge made of boards on top of rock piles in the river. He borrowed wagonloads of rocks for the piers from graves in a nearby Indian cemetery.

The first Condon Ferry was a small fleet of Indian dugouts that hauled people and goods across the Great River of the West. 

Anna Green was 5 when her family crossed on Condon’s canoes. Two canoes were lashed together to carry large wagon parts. 

Greene remembered the ordeal. “We spent five days alone crossing the Columbia River, a perilous and awesome undertaking. The river boiled downstream at an unbelievable speed. Indian dugouts were used to make the crossing. They were treacherous and only the skill of the Indian paddlers made the crossing possible… my mother was terrified and insisted that the boys and I go in the same dugout with her. If we were to perish she wanted us to all go at once.”

Condon soon enlarged his fleet with a small scow (flat decked boat) that he and his Indian wife, “both exceedingly strong persons,” rowed across the Columbia carrying passengers and freight. 

By early 1886 Condon had a new and larger ferry. He chained five large logs together to build a raft that was pulled across the river by swimming horses. 

Early Okanogan homesteader, Ray Foster, described the feat of getting a team of horses and a wagon on the ferry. “The driver would strongly urge the horses, against their own good judgment, to make the final jump from shore, a performance that had to be perfectly timed so that horses, wagon and driver landed neatly on… a vessel just long and wide enough to hold them.” A ferry ride cost the driver $2.50. That included the toll for the road and the bridge over the Okanogan River.

There was a third way to reach the Okanogan used by only a few settlers and without the difficulties and terrors of Colockum Pass or the Condon ferry. 

A person on foot, horse or wagon could follow the Okanagan River from its source at Lake Okanagan in British Columbia across the border to Washington Territory.

Regardless of the route taken to reach the Okanogan country, settlers spoke of their new home with words of great satisfaction. 

After traveling from Spokane to the Okanogan Highlands near Chesaw, L.B. Vincent described arriving at their new home. 

“Next morning, after a month on the trail we made a climb of about 1,000 feet. The panorama that greeted us at the summit was beautiful. Our gently sloping land was covered with knee-high bunch grass. Lupine was in bloom over the whole landscape and green mountains surrounded us. We had reached the Okanogan.”

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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