For fifty years the tide of civilization has been rolling westward overland towards the Pacific. Between British Columbia and Mexico one will cross at least a dozen trails running east and west, reaching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and over which, like trunk lines of railway now, have rolled a mighty emigration. One of these trails led to Oregon. Formerly Oregon meant the Willamette valley, and as for many years the weary pilgrim plodded along with his head and hopes fixed hitherward, he many times passed without notice, locations as mach or core desirable than his Mecca. But as waves strike the shore and then recede, so the tide of emigration to the Willamette valley struck there, made its observations, and many in disappointment turned their raves eastward. Malheur county now has several well-to-do citizens who forty years ago camped on their way to the Pacific and allowed their stock to graze in the rich valleys of the Owyhee and Malheur rivers where their homes are now located. Malheur County, Oregon, is the south east county of the state, has a width from east to west of sixty miles, a length from north to south of one hundred and sixty-four miles, and embraces nearly ten thousand square miles of territory. This is a tract of country larger than the state of New Hampshire, and nearly as large as the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. And this was once a part of Baker County, with Baker City for the county seat.
For many years Baker City was the metropolis of Eastern Oregon, and had the trade of all this section of country. In 1883 the Oregon Short Line Railway, in building down the river, found it convenient at the east line of the state as well as this county, to cross the river from Idaho to the Oregon side, crossing back again into Idaho twelve miles farther down the river. Near where the railroad crosses back into Idaho the company established a station, giving it the name of Ontario. The building of this road had the effect to cut off from Baker City the trade from all this portion of the county and divert it to Ontario, which is ninety miles east of Baker City.
The change of commercial center naturally called for a division of the county, and the legislature of 1887 passed a bill cutting off from Baker County that portion of Oregon now known as Malheur County. The governor appointed as its first officers F. K. Froman, county judge; Henry C. Murray, sheriff; Ed. H. Test, county clerk, and C. T. Locey and John F. Lackey, county commissioners, and on the 3rd day of April, 1887, they set up housekeeping with a debt inherited front Baker county of $30,000.
In 1806 some prospectors, in traveling through the mountains in the northern part of the county, on a small tributary of Willow creek, found placer gold in paying quantities. Owing to a scarcity of water they found it impractical to work their claims except for a short time in the early spring when the melting snows furnished a supply. The ground was found so rich that a few stayed with their claims and this settlement, which was called El Dorado, may be said to be the first in the county. In 1868 Wm. Packwood, of Baker City, an engineer of great energy and ability, on hearing of the richness of the gravel in this camp, made investigations which proved to his satisfaction that it would pay to bring water on the ground. No scream of sufficient size to furnish the volume of water required was nearer than Burnt River, and it laid over a range of mountains. He conceived the idea of going up this stream far enough so that a ditch with proper grade could be brought over this range. To bring it over at the point desired, he had to go up Burnt River nearly one hundred miles. But he made the location, went East and interested capital at an expense of about $100,000, built the El Dorado ditch, and completed it in 1873. I am credibly informed, with its waters the miners washed from the grounds about El Dorado, Malheur City and Amelia, millions of dollars.
A thrifty mining camp always attracts people of other occupations and among those who gathered in the vicinity were a few agriculturists who located on Willow creek, and, aided by its waters, began truck farming with a view of supplying the miners. To a few this business proved very remunerative. Finding the soil very productive, as claims worked out and owners became tired of mining, they located ranches up and down the creek, and began farming and stock rising as a business. The first ranch taken in the county is in that valley and was located by Geo. Derby in 1866. The best of the ground has been worked out for a number of years, but the ditch is still there and a few Chinamen still continue to work old claims on shares.
El Dorado has been abandoned for twenty years or more, but Malheur City is quite a thrifty little village, and the trading point for many settlers up and down the valley. The county is in the arid belt, there being but five to seven inches of precipitation annually, and nothing in the way of fruits, grains or vegetables can be raised without irrigation. The county is watered by Snake River, which forms part of its eastern boundary line, and the Owyhee and Malheur rivers which are tributaries of Snake and flow a good volume of water throughout the year.
Along in the 70′s a few families located on the Snake, Owyhee and Malheur Rivers with a view to rising stock. But in the early ’80′s talk of a railroad coming through and our large stretches of beautiful valley lands attracted a number of families from Nevada and other localities, who were acquainted with farming by irrigation, some locating on the Owyhee and Snake valleys, and others in the Malheur valley. After making their selections and filings, the question of turning the water onto the lands was taken up. The families front Nevada located on the Malheur some ten miles above its continence with the Snake. Five miles further up the river they found a favorable point, and from it took out the Nevada Ditch which was practically completed in 1884. In 1887 it was incorporated in order to secure better management. The stock is all owned by the farmers, and on this ditch they have expended about $40,000. This ditch has first right to 2000 inches of the waters of the Malheur River, measured under a six inch pressure, under it are many beautiful farms, and the company is out of debt.
The work of turning the Owyhee River, owing to points of a number of hills that projected far out into the valley, which had to be gone around or cut through, the magnitude of the tract of land to be irrigated, and the much larger size of ditch required, made the task a difficult one. But in 1883 at a point eleven miles from its mouth, they started their ditch and worked on it more or less for five years. In 1888 they too incorporated for $50,000, and after working six years longer and expending this amount all in labor, they found themselves and their resources completely exhausted, and their ditch but about half done. Several times during the progress of this work they were offered by capitalists flattering amounts for this ditch and franchise, but they stubbornly refused and toiled on, many of them living on bread and beans and their teams oh hay. They had determined that when the ditch was completed they would be its owners. In 1894 the large mercantile firm of Kiesel, Shilling & Danilson, of Ontario, which had a tract of 1000 acres or more of land lying under the line of their ditch but several miles below their lowest excavation, proposed that If they would double their capital stock they would take five thousand dollars worth of it, and work it out and furnish others the supplies they needed, accepting in payment the 10 per cent interest hearing notes of the company.
This proposition they accepted, reorganized the company increasing the capital stock to $100,000 In 10,000 shares of the par value of $10 each, a large amount of the new stock was subscribed for, several contracts were let to be paid for in notes and stocks, and work began it earnest. In the spring of 1890 the ditch was completed, then bonded for $50,000 and its debt paid off. The Owyhee ditch is probably the largest one in Oregon. It Is 20 miles long, for the first ten miles is 20 feet wide on the bottom, gradually tapering front that to all 8-foot ditch, where it drops into the Malheur river, and will water 20,000 acres of land. The company has first right to 28,000 inches of the waters of the Owyhee River and their property is worth at a low estimate half a mullion of dollars. Since the completion of this ditch there has been a great transformation in the appearance of the valley. Sagebrush plain that for ages has been only the home of the coyote and jackrabbit, is being rapidly turned into farms which are producing grasses, vegetables and grains of an infinite variety and in marvelous abundance.
Settlement in the Malheur valley now extends up for 30 miles front its mouth. Above the Nevada ditch are the Sand Hollow ditch, the Gillerman & Froman ditch, the Malheur Farmers’ ditch and a number of other private ditches which furnish water for a large number of farmers who are beautifying, the valley and enriching themselves. Aldel Creek, a tributary of the Malheur, furnishes considerable water, and in this valley are located a number of families who are prosperous and happy. Wastefall is their post office and trading point.
Jordan creek, a tributary of the Owyhee, located towards the southern part of the county and about 50 miles from the railroad, also flows considerable water. The valley is settled by a class of enterprising farmers and stock raisers with Jordan Valley as their post office and trading point. Beulah, on the Malheur River, in the extreme western part of the county, is the post office of a number of families who are engaged in raising stock. In fact wherever there is found a tract of valley land that can be watered without too great expense, on it may be found one or more happy families. To the casual reader it may appear that the word “happy” is used herein rather indiscriminately, but not so. The farmer in the East plants his crops, then prays for it to rain, or growls for it to quit. We plant our crops and when we want it wet, go and raise the gate and so it is done. When we want the water to cease, we close the gate. For this advantage over nature we feel occasion for pardonable felicitation. A few orchards have been planted in the county long enough to come into bearing, and the result demonstrates that this is the home of the apple, prune, peach, pear, plum and cherry, and all varieties of berries known to the northern temperate zone. Hundreds of acres are now being planted to trees and raising fruit will soon be our leading industry. Owing to great expanse of hills covered with luscious bunchgrass, stock raising has been and will continue to be a source of great wealth to our citizens. In the main the county is void of timber, but the ever present sagebrush is here and furnishes an abundance of fuel. Coal has been found in three different places in the county, but not in sufficient quantity to pay to work. With the exception of the small tracts of placer ground in Mormon Basin and Malheur City that have been worked out, the mineral resources of the county are yet undeveloped.
Gold bearing quartz ledges of considerable strength have been found near Malheur City, and on Iron Side Mountain, but the ore is base and of low grade, and no machinery has yet been put on them. The gravel bars and sands of Snake River abound in flour gold so fine that a thousand colors will hardly make one cent, and so buoyant that it is difficult to save. These bars have been worked with more or less success for a number of years. Thousands of dollars have been expended on machinery for saving it on a large scale, which unfortunately have proven a losing experiment. We are informed that a process has recently been discovered which will save 90 per cent of it, and three large outfits representing a cost of over sixty thousand dollars have recently been unloaded at Ontario, and will soon be at work on the river saving the gold by the new treatment. Whether they save it or not there is no necessity for an able-bodied man being broke here. With a rocker, a shovel and a dipper, he can go down to the river almost any place and take out 75 cents to $1.50 in dust per day. This is a fact which the writer has seen demonstrated many times during the last fourteen years.
Vale, the county seat of this county, is pleasantly situated on the banks of the Malheur river, 16 miles above its junction with Snake, and that distance off the railroad. It has two bright weekly newspapers. Here the county has a commodious court room, clerks’ and sheriff’s offices and steel cage jail. The buildings are inexpensive wooden structures, but answer every purpose. All the leading branches of the mercantile business are represented in Vale, and it has a class of enterprising citizens. Mindful of the education of their children a neat four-room schoolhouse ornaments one of its blocks. It has two commodious hotels under able management, two large livery and feed stables, two substantial store buildings that would ornament a city of much greater pretensions, a number of substantial framed store buildings which are filled with complete stocks of goods represented in their respective lines; Odd Fellows hall, a public hall in the second story of one of the stone store buildings, equipped with stage and scenery, and a number of beautiful private residences.
Here, just across the river and at the edge of the city limits, is found the artesian well, which, in exhausts like an engine, throws a two-inch stream of boiling water 30 feet high and they are making arrangements to pipe it into the city to be used for heating and domestic purposes. This water was struck at a depth of less than 45 feet.
Having the interests of the people at heart and rather anticipating future needs, some of the leading citizens of Vale and vicinity have formed a company and there erected a substantial stone and framed flouring mill operated by water front the Malheur river, and equipped it with the modern roller process machinery. It is now in operation with a capacity of 50 barrels per day. The building and power is ample for machinery of 100 barrels per day, and the increase in capacity will be made, as occasion requires. Vale has the trade of a large tract of country, and a long period of prosperity and usefulness before it. The county has been particularly fortunate in the selection of officers who have managed its finances with great prudence and wisdom, and the strong iron bridges which span the rivers at convenient distances are monuments of their good judgment.
Nyssa, the first station reached on the O. S. L. R. R. on entering the state is eleven miles east of Ontario, and the post office and trading point of a bright little settlement.
Ontario, the only telegraph and regular reporting railroad station in the county, is located on the O. S. L. R. R. near the eastern boundary, and is the metropolis of the county. All branches of business are here represented. It has two hotels, which are well managed. The hotel Ontario is a palatial 30 room building of modern and beautiful design, and is an ornament to the city. The Methodist and Congregational societies each have a neat church edifice in which religious services are regularly conducted and largely attended. It has four commodious brick store rooms, with lodge hall over one of them, several large framed store buildings, four immense warehouses on railroad side track, large lumber yards, many fine residences, and a beautiful four roomed brick school house in which is conducted a graded school under the management of able teachers. Ontario is proud of its school. The principal streets are graded and set with shade trees on both sides. Water from the large irrigation ditches flows constantly down either side of the streets and on private grounds when desired. Ontario is the regular railway shipping point for not only Malheur County but all southeastern Oregon, and has the trade of all this territory. Here are found the largest stocks of goods on the O. S. L. R. R. Millions of pounds of freight are annually received at this station. Some idea of the magnitude of freight shipments may be gained when it is known that in 1866, 673 cars of livestock and two train loads of wool were shipped from this station. This business continued with little variation until 1896, when the stock shipments alone were 1034 carloads, and in 1897 the shipments ran all to 1982 cars of live stock alone, of which 652 carloads were sheep and the balance principally cattle. The railroad station agent has kindly furnished these figures and they are substantially correct.
Experiments have proven that a sugar beet carrying a very high percentage of saccharine matter can be produced here, and negotiations for the establishment of a beet sugar factory at Ontario are already under way. A starch factory is also one of the near probabilities.
The county is peopled by a distinctively American class and out of a population of about 6000 not fifty foreigners can be found. What foreigners there are are thoroughly Americanized and good citizens.
All the desirable valley lands have been located, but wild land with water right can be bought from $15 to $25 per acre, according to distance from railroad. The lord has blessed the locality with a soil of great fertility, and over it has hung an Italian climate. Immigration of it thrifty and industrious people is most earnestly desired and all look forward to a period of great prosperity and progress.