A fly fisherman casts his line at the old Bybee Ferry crossing site.

Bybee Ferry crossing: A piece of Southern Oregon history

Keeping your feet dry while crossing the Rogue River in the pioneer days of Jackson County wasn't an easy proposition.

Not that it was much of a problem during those hot days at the end of the summer, when the river's rushing rapids turned to a lazy crawl. If you knew the right place, a horse, a wagon or a cooperative mule might just get you safely across, but Bybee's Ferry wasn't that place.

William Bybee owned the ferry from 1863 until 1886, when the first Bybee Bridge was built. Because Bybee charged a toll to cross the river, anyone who avoided his ferry and forded on their own cut into his profits. Stories say that Bybee fought a fruitless 20-year war against these "freeloaders," even threatening them with his rifle.

"He was probably the largest landowner in the area and also the owner of a number of businesses over his lifetime," said Larry Smith, who recently portrayed Bybee as part of the Historic Homes tour in Jacksonville.

For just a moment, Smith slipped back into character. "I had lots of businesses and I lost them all," he said with a Bybee laugh.

"With gold mines in Josephine County, farms, ranches, stock herding, and a race track — he tried a little of everything," he said.

Smith believes that Bybee acquired the ferry because he owned farms and ranches on both sides of the river.

"The ferries gave him access to both sides without having to pay someone else," he said.

Shortly after Bybee's death in 1908, the Palmer Investment Co. purchased nearly 1,600 acres of his land and turned into the Modoc Orchard.

Bybee arrived in Southern Oregon in 1854 quickly becoming one of the most influential and yet controversial citizens of Jackson County.

"He was a very complex character," said Smith.

Bybee was twice elected Jackson County sheriff, and yet, although he was never charged, many people believed he had killed his own cousin during an argument.

Bybee served in the Oregon Volunteer Cavalry during the Civil War and was part of Lt. Col. Drew's expedition that explored Eastern Oregon from Fort Klamath to western Idaho.

As a civilian in 1865, he accompanied Capt. Franklin Sprague's company on one of the earliest trips ever made to Crater Lake.

"Of course, losing his children brought the saddest moments of his life," said Smith. "He had 11 and he outlived six of them. They didn't die in infancy — they were 5, 6, even 14 years of age."

In the late 1970s, the Southern Oregon Historical Society placed a metal marker at the site of the ferry crossing. Whether from flood waters or the overgrowth of blackberry bushes, the marker has disappeared.

With a bridge bearing Bybee's name still crossing the river, except for those brave little children who can somehow wade in the Rogue River's ice cold water, getting to the other side while keeping your feet dry has never been easier.

Bill Miller is a freelance writer living in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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