Have you ever played the game Oregon Trail? When I was in school that was usually the number one pick for me. You get some characters and try to make it to Oregon without killing off Johnny, getting dysentery and dying. You had to hunt, chose your route and ford the river. I could never understand what the big deal of fording the river was. 2 feet of water? Go for it! I always thought that the fact that my wagons crashed and burned was a big exaggeration. It wasn’t until I visited the Deschutes River Campground that I changed my mind.
The Deschutes River is a very swift running river. I tried to swim/float in it once and it wasn’t fun because you had to keep fighting the current to not be swept into the Columbia River. I gave up after about five minutes and went to my usual swimming hole.
After reading the plaque accounts I looked at the Deschutes River with new eyes. It would have been challenging to ford it. Especially if the river was deep, or you got caught on something, or even slipped.
“When we finally reached the Des Chutes region we were obliged to do exactly what those before us had done, doubtless with no lighter hearts than ours. We cast aside every article that we could possibly spare. One wagon was shaved and whittled down as much as was consistent with strength and safety. All of our belongings were then put into this one, and the other perfectly good wagon left standing disconsolately beside the road. Oh, was truly heart-breaking! But it had to be done. There was no use repining. Here too, we parted with our cheery little sheet-iron cook stove, which had been a real joy and comfort to us all the way across the plains. Words cannot tell how I felt about leaving all these good things of ours, especially the stove after we had carried them so far.”
Ester M. Lockhart emigrant of 1851
River crossings were difficult for Oregon Trail emigrants and the Deschutes River was no exception. John McAllister, emigrant of 1852, warned “danger attends the crossage here…many large rocks and at the same time a very rapid current.” Emigrants, wagons and livestock all had to cross the river and casualties were common. Amelia Hadley, emigrant of 1851, noted a canoe “bottom side up, with a pair of boots tied in the captern.” Early emigrants often hired local Indians to assist at this river crossing. During the 1850s pioneer entrepreneurs seized control of the ford and offered expensive ferry service. A toll bridge was established by 1864.
“…we drove four miles to the Des Chutes River, a rapid stream heading to the mountain and one hundred fifty yards wide. The wind being high we could not ferry. We then concluded to ford it. The ferryman declared all would be lost, telling enormous lies to alarm us, but we employed an Indian guide who rode before each wagon, giving us the course to the island, the fore being very crooked; he than rode in front of one team the rest following in a string, the course being nearly straight across the second channel. We paid him $2 for his services, all being across safe and dry. Our ferriage would have been $15; thus we saved $13 by fording.”
Basil Longsworth Sept 17-18, 1853
While entering/exiting the campground there is a small road turn off. Go on it and you’ll see a wagon where you can get a photo op. Sit in it and consider trying to cross the swift running Deschutes River in it. And if you don’t think it would be hard, try swimming in the Deschutes like I did. That should change your mind.