entertainmentlife-150419670-ar-0-wpymppgrutvz.jpg
Highway 99 was constructed in Jackson County using a team of horses and mules. Photo courtesy of Talent Historical Society

Tales of Highway 99

For unknown millennia, animals wore trails in the ground that later were followed by American Indians as they hunted and gathered food through the Rogue, Umpqua and Willamette River valleys.

Those early routes eventually would become the historic Pacific Highway, which stretches 1,600 miles from the Mexican border through California, Oregon and Washington to Canada.

It was the residents of Jackson County who championed construction of the road in Oregon. Those up north, who had access to steamships plying the wide waters of the Willamette River, lagged in their support for the new highway.

In the early days of construction, counties had to pay for their segments of the road, and Jackson County residents were the first to pass a bond to finance the work, said Jo-Brew, author with Pat Edwards of two books chronicling the history of Highway 99.

"They started in the Siskiyous and headed out toward Medford," Brew said of the 1913 launch of the project. "They followed a muddy wagon trail that was a toll collection road run by (pioneer) Lindsay Applegate. They had no motorized equipment. They only had teams of horses and mules."

They did have plenty of dynamite to blast away stubborn rocks and earth, she noted.

"Most people don't realize how common it was for every farmer to have dynamite," Brew said. "In old farmhouses and barns, you can still sometimes find it stored."

Brew and Edwards will share tales from the construction of the road, as well as stories of the people and communities along its path, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Monday, April 20, at the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd. The duo are on a book tour up and down the Pacific Highway promoting their jointly written "Oregon's Main Street: U.S. Highway 99: The Folk History" and Brew's "Oregon's Main Street: U.S. Highway 99: The Stories."

"They built a road, but not a road as we think of it," Brew said. "It was about 16 feet wide. Where it was too muddy, they put logs side by side across it so wagons wouldn't get stuck."

In a Works Progress Administration interview in 1939, W.C. Driver described his life back when he was a roving preacher in the days of nearly impassable roads. His account shows how desperately better roads were needed, especially during rainy months.

"Many, many times the mud was hub-deep on the wagon wheels, necessitating the driver and quite often the passengers get out and help the horses lift the wagon out of the mire," said Driver, who traveled with his wife.

Eventually they abandoned life on the road entirely to live and travel in a train car named "Good Will" for 12 years. One end housed their living quarters and the other could seat 100 people for a church service.

"In the southern part of the state there were children as old as 20 that had never heard a Christian service," Driver said. "They would walk for miles to hear the preacher in the railway car."

Some of the institutions along the Pacific Highway are long gone.

A stagecoach station that thrived in the era of horses and wagons was sold to Jackson County. The property along Highway 99 between Phoenix and Talent was converted into the County Poor Farm, according to Brew and Edwards.

"Many of the county's 'down-and-outs' lived there, beginning in 1907, and into the early 1950s," Brew and Edwards wrote. "Like many poor farms in the country, it was a working farm. Many, but not all, of those who lived there were in their 70s or older."

Widows, widowers, former mine workers and laborers, and others raised their own fruit, vegetables, chickens, pigs, cows and sheep. They socialized with each other and bedridden residents stayed in a small hospital on the property, according to Brew and Edwards.

In the 1950s, construction of I-5 began, ushering in even more change along the Pacific Highway — Main Street in many Oregon communities.

"Highway 99 was designed to connect communities. I-5 was designed to have no stoplights," Brew said. "Some communities that got bypassed by I-5 became almost ghost towns compared to what they were."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Vickie Aldous.

Share This Story