One for the road.
In the historic photos, Dwight Huss looks wild-eyed, and who could blame him. It was June 1905, and Huss had just finished a grueling 4,000-mile journey from New York to Portland to win the first transcontinental automobile race.
When he pulled into Portland in his 1904 Oldsmobile Runabout with mechanic Milford Wigle at his side, the miles of rough road, the rainstorms, the breakdowns and the near disasters of the trip were reflected in his eyes. It had taken 44 days to cross the continent on roads that were little more than wagon trails.
"Those 44 days must have taken 44 months off their lives. Huss just looks deranged," said Tony Farque, district archaeologist for the Willamette National Forest.
The dubious honor for the absolute worst stretch of the trip goes to the Santiam Wagon Road that Huss and his lone competitor, Percy Megargel with mechanic Barton Stanchfield, used to cross the Cascades.
The Willamette National Forest has restored portions of the old road, which once connected Albany with Prineville, and the agency is honoring the centennial of the car race with a four-day hike culminating in a ceremony on Friday that will include vintage cars like the ones Huss and Megargel drove.
Both men agreed that Sevenmile Hill - in the Tombstone Pass area south of what is now Highway 20 - was almost the death of them.
Farque, along with other experts including a botanist, a geologist and an American Indian will lead hikers along about 19 miles of the old road. Part of the fun will be trying to figure out where Huss almost went over the side of the steep track, and where in later years a Eugene mayor scouting places to divert water from Clear Lake for the city flipped his car.
The Runabouts were not your father's Oldsmobile, nor even your grandfather's. They steered with a tiller, not a wheel, and had no windshield or fenders. Whatever got on the car - mud, sand, gravel - got on the drivers. The friction brake was a lever manhandled into place and held there by sheer muscular force.
"They white-knuckled it down Sevenmile Hill," Farque said. The road was so steep, Huss's mechanic had to tie a log to the back bumper to slow the car down.
Hikers marvel at it now, Farque said.
"It's in beautiful condition, but there's no way you could ever get a car up or down it," he said.
But what was bad for early travelers has an up side for today's visitors. Stretches of the road still exist. While most of the beds of early trails have been covered by modern highways, this portion of the old road was so bad that engineers chose a different route for Highway 20, the road that replaced the Santiam Wagon Road.
"They had to move way off site, it was way too steep," Farque said.
In its heyday, the Santiam Wagon Road was a bustling corridor of nascent commerce. Ranchers drove cattle east on the road to high desert grasslands and markets. Shepherds in Eastern Oregon brought the wool west to the valley's mills.
A stagecoach ferried people from Prineville to Albany, a journey that took 3 1/2 days, Farque said. There were roadhouses along the way. Among the most popular stop-off points was a hotel at Fish Lake, a snow-melt lake that transforms into a meadow each summer. There, travelers stayed at a hotel, where a room cost 25 cents a night, as did meals.
Road travel wasn't free. Entrepreneurs with government permission had constructed the road, and they charged a toll - $3.50 for a buggy with a team of four horses down to 10 cents per head to move cattle and 3 cents per head to move hogs along the road.
The road was supposed to go all the way to Ontario, and was envisioned as a good way to move cattle and other supplies to the gold mines in Idaho. But that part of the dream never materialized, Farque said.
The road petered out at Prineville, he said. "There were lots of complaints by potential users once it got out east of Prineville, that it was not there. ... There was a huge congressional investigation, but no fraud was ever proven," he said.
The road continued to be used well into the 1920s. As late as 1922, cowboys rounded up wild horses and drove them west for auction in Halsey, Farque said.
But by 1939, there were safer routes across the mountains and the road fell into disuse.
In 1993, the Forest Service and volunteers restored 19 miles of it, with several access points along Highway 20 east of Sweet Home.
Bits of history still linger, with old bridges and historic markers indicating load limits, directions to water, even mile posts. Sometimes, visitors find old car parts. Once a hiker came back with an old whiskey bottle.
The road traverses diverse geology, from lava to sand to forest duff beneath old growth Douglas fir and cedar. Along that stretch of the trail, hikers will see where American Indians peeled the bark from cedar trees to make baskets in the 1880s.
The hike begins Tuesday, but on Friday, The Willamette National Forest will offer a special celebration at the Fish Lake Guard Station.
While Huss' Olds won't be there, vintage car clubs will have similar Runabouts on hand. For those lucky enough to own such vehicles, a portion of the old road still can be driven. Rangers allow those with pre-1940s vehicles to drive the stretch from Fish Lake to Tombstone as long as they have a permit from the Sweet Home Ranger District office.
One hundred years ago, Huss beat out his only competition and won a $1,000 prize. Megargel arrived seven days later to some good-natured ribbing from Oregonians, Farque said.
"They asked him, 'Percy, what's it like being second in a two-man race?' '
His answer: "It's great to be young, crazy and ride around in an automobile."
CELEBRATING A GREAT RACE
Four-day hike: Heritage expedition costs $425. For more information, call (541) 367-9206 or visit www.fs.fed.us/r6/willamette/newsandevents/events/sweethome/swr2005.html.
Friday celebration: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Fish Lake Guard Station on Highway 126, 1/4 mile from the junction with Highway 20. Activities include living history presentations, tours of Fish Lake's historic buildings, and a barbecue lunch (for a fee). Public parking at Santiam Junction, four miles east of Fish Lake, with shuttle bus service every 15 minutes starting at 10:45 a.m. For more information, call Joanne West at (541) 367-9206.
In 1905, Dwight Huss (left) with mechanic Milford Wigle won the nation's first transcontinental auto race. They began in New York City, traversed the Santiam Wagon Road and ended in Portland at the Lewis and Clark Exposition 44 days later. Paul Carter / The Register-Guard In this 1995 photo, re-enactors drive 1904 Oldsmobiles on the Santiam Wagan Road during a Forest Service dedication for the restoration of a three-mile section of the road. In 1905, two curved dash Oldsmobiles, Old Scout and Old Steady, raced in the nation's first transcontinental auto race across America. They began in New York City, traversed the Old Santiam Wagon Road, and ended in Portland at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition 44-days later.
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|Title Annotation:||General News; Event commemorates a 1905 cross-country auto race that included the perilous Santiam Wagon Road|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Jul 3, 2005|
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