Hit the Road, Jack: Exploring the History and Legacy of the Pioneer Barlow Family

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There are countless names and families who stand out in the annals of local history, and who helped found Canby and build it into the community it has become over the past nearly 200 years.

Philander and Anna Lee, whose donation land claim would become the heart of downtown Canby, have obviously earned their place. “Big Jim” Baker, the wild frontiersman who operated a huge ranch in what is now north Canby in the 1830s — and nearly had the honor of having the town named after him — makes for a colorful tale.

Kentuckian Champing Pendleton and family were among the earliest known permanent settlers in the Canby area and would make their mark on the town for decades to come.

But perhaps no single person was more instrumental in those very early days than another Kentuckian, Samuel K. Barlow. After all, he built the Barlow Road — the final overland segment of the Oregon Trail — without which, the so-called “A-B-C” sister cities of Arurora, Barlow and Canby may not have developed until decades later, if at all.

Samuel Kimbrough Barlow was a trailblazer in every sense of the word, a tailor by trade and training who lived a colorful life. In August 1827, he was convicted of manslaughter for killing a man with an ax the previous October.

Sentenced to one year of hard labor, his crime was eventually pardoned by the governor of Indiana after scores of people — including the victim’s brother — pleaded on his behalf since he had acted only to protect his wife, Susannah Lee, and their six children: Sarah, James, John, Eliza Jane, Eli, and William.

In 1845, Barlow and his family joined legendary pioneer and statesman Joel Palmer, who would later serve as an Oregon legislator and speaker of the House, in his train of 23 covered wagons bound for Oregon.

Along the way, the 53-year-old made one of the earliest ascents of Mount Hood (though he did not reach the summit), as he and Palmer were scouting for a crossing. The party had arrived in The Dalles in the fall of 1845 and told they would have to wait weeks for passage.

Unable to afford the high price of food, and having seen a notch in the south slope of the mighty peak, Barlow declared, and I quote, “God never made a mountain that had no place to go over it or around it,” and headed south to find a way around Mount Hood.

On October 7, 1845, Barlow climbed all the way to the 9,000-foot level in order to clear the treeline and find a way off the mountain.

The path they ultimately chose would later be known as Barlow Pass, and the party made it through — some on horseback, some barefoot, on moccasins worn nearly to shreds from the long journey, and at least one woman riding atop a cow — before the first snows fell that season.

Nine years later, Barlow, along with five other men led by Thomas J. Dryer, made another attempted ascent of Oregon’s tallest peak which some consider the first summitting of Mount Hood, though the report has been disputed.

A later climb by a party led by Henry Pittock in 1857 was far better documented and is generally considered the first “official” ascent to the summit, with Dryer et al.’s deemed to have fallen a couple hundred feet short.

At any rate, there is no dispute that the Barlows achieved their goal of reaching and establishing a new home in the Oregon Country, with their party arriving in the burgeoning Oregon City on Christmas night in 1845.

The groups returned for their wagons after the snows melted the following year, and Barlow petitioned the Provisional Legislature for the right to construct a toll road over the route taken by the party. With a partner, Philip Foster, Barlow began road construction.

It was a difficult road to build. There were miles of thickets and dense timber to slash through. There were steep hills and streams to cross. Swamps had to be “corduroyed,” which was a type of road made by placing logs perpendicular to the direction of the road over a low or swampy area.

Barlow asked for $4,000 to construct the road, having estimated a rate of $50 a mile. But even in those days, this proved inadequate and supplies had to be bought on credit. By August 1846, the road was was ready for travel.

Most Barlow Road travelers shared a similar experience. If possible, they camped overnight at Gate Creek or Tygh Valley, resting their livestock for the trial ahead and lightening their loads by abandoning any unneeded items.

Early the next day, they set out for a long drive up the eastern slopes of the Cascades to reach White River, where they camped along the western bank below the mouth of Barlow Creek. If all went well, the next day they advanced to the upper reaches of Barlow Creek and camped in the deep forest east of Barlow Pass.

After about 1860, a forest fire in that area created what emigrants called “The Deadening,” and later, the Devil’s Half Acre. The third day travelers pressed over Barlow Pass and descended to Summit Meadow. By then, their livestock were desperately hungry but could find only sour sedges or dry willow and alder limbs to nibble on.

The fourth day was a brutal slog: the transit of the boggy lower slopes of Mount Hood where, in 1849, the U.S. Army’s Mounted Riflemen were compelled to abandon their heavily loaded wagons and cache military supplies at what later became known as Government Camp.

If a slow wagon got in the way, or if oxen died, as was sometimes the case, travelers might be caught on the one-way trace on Laurel Hill and have to spend the night, literally, in the middle of the road.

But if they were luckier, they made the difficult descent of Laurel Hill and passed down the Zigzag drainage to camp at a small clearing near present-day Rhododendron.

The penultimate day involved a long drive but the road was — usually — in good shape. At the Sandy River, they forded to the north bank, passed through heavily forested Mensinger Bottom, ascended the Devil’s Backbone, and pushed on to the second Sandy River crossing.

And on the sixth day — provided all had gone well — they ascended the hillside to present Sandy and drove on to Philip Foster’s farm at Eagle Creek.

The Barlow Road was not only the final leg of the Oregon Trail for most settlers — it was also the only stretch on the 2,100-mile trail where tolls were charged.

Five tollgates were eventually established along the route of the Barlow Road, from Tygh Valley to the Sandy River, between 1846 and 1918. The tolls ended when the last owner’s deeded the road to the State of Oregon.

For two years following the construction, Captain Barlow personally collected the toll. In 1846 according to his report “one hundred and forty-five wagons, fifteen hundred and fifty-nine head of horses, mules and horned cattle, and one drove of sheep” passed through the toll gates.

A portage operation along the Oregon shore from the Upper Cascades to the mouth of Tanner Creek, established by Joseph Ruckel and Harrison Olmstead in 1855, along with a warehouse to serve steamboats in those months when vessels could ascend beyond the upper end of Bradford Island, competed with the Barlow Road.

Five years later, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company took over the Ruckel and Olmstead line, consolidating portage interests in the Gorge and emerging during the Civil War as the region’s transportation monopoly.

The discovery of gold in Idaho and Montana in 1862 and the rushes to that region fueled the flow of goods and passengers and confirmed the value of the company’s investments.

When the road opened in 1846, tolls were $5 per wagon and 10 cents for every head of livestock. Five dollars was about one week’s wages in those days, but the alternative — floating down the Columbia River in boats or rafts, or later, paying the exorbitant fees charged by the O.S.N. — cost at least 10 times that amount.

Thus, the Barlow Road thus became the “poor man’s route”: an arduous, time-consuming, but cheaper alternative to the Columbia Gorge.

Barlow was appointed justice of the peace for Clackamas County (which was much larger in those days) by acting Governor Kintzing Prichette in 1850 — the same year that he bought a donation land claim from Canadian explorer and fur trader Thomas McKay — who later led a militia company that saw action in the Cayuse War.

This is the first in a two-part series exploring the history and legacy of the Barlow family. See here for the nutty conclusion.

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