Did you know the Indians in our area were the Atfalati Indians? Another name they were known by was the Tualatin Indians, and they relocated their camps whenever they needed a new source of plants for their food and medicines. Game was plentiful to hunt in those days (as a matter of fact, people hunted duck and pheasant in our locale even in the 1940s). Jean Ameele shared that her neighbor Mr. Shepard, who married the oldest Ernst daughter [think Ernst Road near Sunset Highway], would tell about the Atfalatis that used to camp down in the ravine between 89th and Vista Hills. And Richard and Patricia Seidler Burling, having grown up in the area and having a keen interest in stories passed down in their family, understood one of the last places the Indians camped before leaving the region entirely was at the end of Club Meadow Road in West Slope.
As settlers began arriving, an Ordinance of 1785 required a survey of land before the federal government would grant deeds. That system was known as a cadastral survey and gave every parcel of land its own address. John B. Preston, Oregon’s first Surveyor-General, was appointed by President Fillmore to set up this system in Oregon so that settlers could record their claims with his staff in the General Land Office in Oregon City. Once a settler received their deed, they could plat a town or subdivide their lands and sell off the access. Preston and his crew went into the West Hills above Portland in June of 1851 and drove a wooden stake in the forest, marked the intersection of two lines and provided an accurate grid for surveyors. The Willamette Meridian Line runs north to Canada and South to California, and the Base Line runs west to the Pacific and east to the Snake River. (The Willamette Stone is located off Northwest Skyline Blvd. between Cornell and Thompson Roads.)
In the early 1800s, Thomas Jefferson wrote extensively about the moral benefits of an agricultural lifestyle, and when hopeful farmers read that Oregon had fertile soil and mild climates, more than 30,000 people traveled overland to Oregon between 1840 and 1860. Most of these people were from the Missouri and Ohio River valleys, and many made it to our own part of Oregon to raise wheat, cattle and chickens, grow produce and plant fruit trees. The only roads were trails made by the Indians and wagon trails that led to Portland markets and the river, where goods could be more easily transported.
The Donation Land Claim Act was passed in 1850, and until December of that year it provided 640 acres of land to each Oregon couple. Any American male over 18 could claim a maximum of 320 acres, and his wife could also receive 320 acres. By December 1850, a settler had to be at least 21 to receive land, and the maximum acreage was reduced to 160. Lee Ackley recalled in our 1999 interview that one of the homestead Pointers married an Indian and was able to receive extra property. Even though most of the best land in the Willamette Valley had been claimed, it was reported that large tracts remained uncultivated by 1860.
Until the California Gold Rush, it was a struggle to subsist for many of the settlers; but they prospered once settlers were able to get their wheat, produce and other products to the gold fields. The route to the most accessible port for Washington County farmers seemed to be a dirt trail referred to as the Lownsdale Road (Daniel Lownsdale selected this natural trail which headed up the ravine of Tanner Creek through the West Hills and over the Sylvan Hill). It may have been the best at the time, but you can probably imagine that the normally long trip to Portland’s waterfront was also hard and frustrating when wagon wheels got stuck in mud, wagons tipped over or hit a stump.
Since it was equally important to Portland’s struggle for survival as it was to the farmers, the Portland & Valley Plank Road Companywas granted a charter by the Territorial Legislature and stock in the company was sold through the Willamette Valley. The first plank road venture in the Oregon Country began in 1851 with the planks coming from Portland’s own steam sawmill, according to Carl Abbott’s Gateway to the Northwest. The intention was to complete ten miles of planked road by November of 1851. (That book also described roads “as mud and water mixed to ‘a very good batter’.”)
Plank roads were basically two large logs laid lengthwise about as far apart as the length of planks laid crosswise over them. The best description I’ve read is in Eugene Snyder’s From Early Portland: Stump-town Triumphant, which explained they looked like ties on a railroad, only edge to edge. These worked well on flat terrain, but on steep grades this kind of road tended to wash away if there wasn’t adequate culverting under the roadway. This was the case when the partially completed planking was badly damaged during the 1851-52 winter rains. Although the road had been surveyed to the top of the hill, the plank road had been laid only six miles from the lower end of the canyon from Jefferson Street. Lack of funds stopped the remainder of the work. The balance of the rutted road had some turnouts for wagons to pass and was wide enough for one wagon, so it was still considered the best route.
By Sharon Wilcox, 2001