OTE - Oregon Travel Experience

Terrible Trail

Posted on: September 25th, 2011 by Annie Von Domitz in Historical Marker Details | 4 Comments

Subject:While trying to find their way into the upper Williamette Valley, emigrants traveled an alternate route that started in present-day Vale and traversed the desert near this site.


Weary Oregon Trail emigrants, eager to ease travel or gain mileage, often attempted cutoffs and shortcuts. While many of these alternate routes proved successful, others did not–they became roads to ruin for some and the end of the trail for others.

In 1853, Elijah Elliott, a Willamette Valley settler, convinced over 1,000 people to attempt a shortcut over the Cascade Range. Following Meek’s route to Harney Valley, Elliott’s party diverged around the south shores of Harney and Malheur Lakes. Continuing westward, the party became disoriented. As the emigrants became increasingly desperate, scouts searched ahead for water and a route over the mountains. Eventually, scouts located a crude road over the Willamette Pass. One year later, William Macy led 121 wagons along a similar route without serious difficulty.

In 1845, frontiersman Stephen Meek persuaded over 1,000 people to leave the trail at present-day Vale and trek across the desert toward the upper Willamette Valley. Blazing a wagon road up the Malheur River they entered Harney Valley, near this site. Hunger, thirst, illness, and death stalked the wagon train as it wandered west and ultimately north toward the Columbia River. Bitterness against Meek became so intense that he was compelled to travel beyond rifle range. Meek eventually forged ahead to The Dalles, where a rescue party was organized, but relief arrived too late for more than twenty emigrants who were buried in lonely graves along the way.

There is another marker at this same location: FORT HARNEY

Hwy/milepost: US 20 MP 144.35




Lee Marlin Schneider

- Comment left on: May 19th, 2013 at 9:33 am

My ancestor, Henry Marlin, was one of the participants in this wagon train. Tales say that the wagon train found gold and that Henry Marlin tried to flatten the nuggets. This later was called the Lost Wagon Train and the Blue Bucket Mine.
Bancroft. History of Oregon, Vol. I, pp. 516-517.

Madeline MacGregor

- Comment left on: May 22nd, 2013 at 7:47 am

Lee, that’s pretty awesome about your ancestor Henry. We love to make the connections between the people who traversed Oregon’s historic trails and their living descendents. Any time you want to submit a story to us for our website, Facebook, or our e-news, just let us know! We would love to hear more.

Judith Salyer

- Comment left on: January 31st, 2015 at 5:31 pm

I am the great great great grand daughter of the Rickards who were on the 1853 wagon train. I found out about this 4 years ago and the odyssey hasnt ended yet. Another relative of the Rickards made a marvelous book about the 1853 almost disaster and then a complete genealogy on the whole family plus notes taken a family reunions thereafter. I am proud to be the granddaughter of such brave souls and hope to learn more as time goes on!

Madeline MacGregor

- Comment left on: March 19th, 2015 at 1:13 pm

I would be proud too Judith, if I had such wonderful lineage. Thank you for letting us know!

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