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Oregon Trails: Stage Road Trails

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NEAR GOLD HILL, Ore. — This month marks the 125th anniversary of the completion of the railroad through Oregon to California. It not only made travel safer, quicker and easier, but it also marked the beginning of the end of stagecoach travel in our region.

Along the west side of the Bear Creek Valley, between Gold Hill and Jacksonville, and south to Talent, runs a scenic two lane road long known as “Old Stage Road.” Today, it’s a pleasant drive with a great view of the valley, and a popular route for cyclists. 150 years ago, it was the main north south road connecting a series of small communities and stage stations.

When the railroad come through in the mid-1880’s, replacing the Oregon and California stage, it became a country road and for the traveler, stage travel was something of an endurance test, with stations every 15 miles or so where teams could be changed and passengers could stretch their legs.

“They could travel up to 250 to 300 miles in a 24-hour period. That’s amazing!” said Don Rowlett at Box R Ranch. “They used a ‘six-up’. A six-up meaning six horses. and they would be usually thoroughbreds that have the stamina and the breathing capacity to make the run, but they would be used usually for every 15-17 miles run and so there were stage stops every 15-16 miles. And each one of those stops then had a fresh six-up waiting to be put on to that stage and they’d be on their way again.”

Rowlett says horses were paired together for specific duties.

“The wheelers are the one’s that’re up closest to the coach and then you have the swing-team in the middle and they you got the leaders that’re out front. and so a lot of times the would put probably the bigger horse, the real pullers right up at the swing. But all of them get into the act and it’s beautiful to watch them, go out through a field or a trial or anything. It’s beautiful,” said Rowlett.

This stage station near Hilt, Coles Station, was the first stop for anyone heading north into Southern Oregon before the steep climb over the mountains. It was also the first after coming south down off the Siskiyous. When travelers reached the Rogue Valley, this was likely their first stop, at the Barron Stage Station. It became known as the Mountain House.

“A lot of times stage places would function almost like a post office. You would come and get your mail. The mail arrives sometimes on the stage and it was just a gathering place, for all of the settlers all throughout the southern end of Bear Creek Valley,” explained Architectural Historian, George Kramer.

After Barrons, travelers then went on to Jacksonville, and then to Rock Point, which pre-dated Gold Hill by a dozen years. Rock Point had one of the first telegraph stations in the area. It’s now a tasting room for Del Rio Vineyards. If you were going north, before there was much where Grants Pass is now, you’d probably stop at Wolf Creek. The Wolf Creek Inn is still there, and still provides good meals and a place to stay.

Don Rowlett says stage travel was an adventure at times, and aside from the dust and exposure to the weather, was probably more comfortable than you might think and it was because of this stack of wide cowhide straps separating the coach from the bouncing of the chassis. They’re called “thorough-braces.”

“The carriage itself or the cabinet the folks rode in was just exactly like a water bed! It rocked and rolled and the thorough braces took all of the hard slams that you’d hit a rock or a, the metal hit metal on the springs.That was gone on a stage coach,” said Rowlett.

Rowlett owns a replica Concord coach, but just as popular in this area was a more utilitarian vehicle called a “mud wagon.” It was more popular on coastal and side routes where the road might not be quite as good.

“A mud wagon is a much sturdier wagon and so it’s made for cross-country travel. Tough country! I mean, hard terrain,” explained Rowlett.

After 150 years the Old Stage Road is no longer the main route north south through the Rogue Valley. It’s now more of a scenic drive, but it still attracts a lot of travelers and is one of the most popular roads in Jackson County.

Wells Fargo posted notices to passengers on how to behave, including:

“Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink, share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and un-neighborly.”

“Buffalo robes are provided for your comfort during cold weather. Hogging robes will not be tolerated and the offender will be made to ride with the driver.”

“In the event of runaway horses, remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians and hungry coyotes.”

And, “Gents guilty of unchivilrous behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It’s a long walk back. A word to the wise is sufficient.”