History of Eagle Valley, Baker County, Oregon

There are several accounts – some quite fanciful – of how Eagle Valley got its name.  The most likely one is that while scouting the country for gold in the early 1860’s a couple of prospectors came across a dead eagle near the place where a sizable mountain stream emptied into the long, meandering Powder River.

   It is easy to believe that they might afterward have referred to the stream as “the crick where we seen the eagle”.  Eventually it was called Eagle Creek.  The valley it drained became known as Eagle Valley.

   Bounded on the south by Powder River the valley is roughly pear-shaped with its neck at the northern end about five miles up the creek.  It is surrounded by low, sage-covered hills and has the advantage of facing into the south.  That and the fact that its elevation is lower than most of Baker County has endowed it with a milder climate.  Its growing season is longer and its winters are less severe.

   It is to the manuscripts of the late Henry S. Daly that we are indebted for most of the history of the early settlement of the valley.  In 1919 Mr. Daly wrote: “On the twenty-ninth day of September in the year 1862 an emigrant train that had crossed Snake River at Fort Hall came down the north side of that stream and recrossed at what was afterward called Brownlee Ferry, camped in Eagle Valley at the mouth of Main Eagle.  These were no doubt the first white people that ever saw Eagle Valley…The train moved on to Powder Valley.”

   He records that in December, 1862, four prospectors built a cabin on the north bank of Powder River a few hundred feet east of Main Eagle.  Among them were the Grover boys, George and Sam.

   The Daly manuscript states: “The Gover boys surveyed a trail from their place in Eagle Valley to Weiser, Idaho, put a bridge across Powder River and a ferry across Snake River one mile below the mouth of Conner Creek.  Hundreds of pack trains came and went by the trail.

   In the next year, 1863, gold was discovered in the Sparta area about nine miles northwest of the valley and in the same year John Daly staked a homestead claim on Juniper Creed (now Daly Creek), on the south side of Powder River at the lower end of Eagle Valley.  He built a log cabin and moved his wife and three sons into it in the late autumn of that year.

   As news of the rich Sparta gold strike spread, many hopeful prospectors and miners flocked to the mining camp which was first called Kooster, then Eagle City, and finally Sparta.  Very soon the camp grew into a town.  As the population increased so did the need for food-stuff.

   The spring of 1864 Mr. Daly and his three sons plowed up several acres of rich bottom land and planted a huge garden.  Henry Daly later wrote that in that year he loaded two pack horses with the first vegetables ever grown in Eagle Valley and took them up to Eagle City, (later Sparta) where he sold them to Mr. Green,  the storeman, for eighty-five dollars.  The Daly family found a ready market for their spuds, carrots, onions, and cabbages, and the butter from their nine milk cows.

   Soon they had neighbors, the Swisher, Love and Tarter families.  They, too chose to settle on the sub-irrigated bottom land where the lush wild hay provided forage for their livestock and the fertile soil produced abundant crops of grains and vegetables,.  A little later the Sam Gover family arrived.

   By 1868, Joseph Gale and his family found their way into Eagle Valley.  This was the same Joseph Gale for whom Gale’s Creek and Gale’s Peak had been named in western Oregon; the same Joseph Gale who helped construct and sail the Star of Oregon, the first sea going vessel built on the west coast; and the same Joseph Gale who served as a member of the executive committee which governed Oregon’s Provisional Government.  He took up a homestead which included land on both sides of Eagle Creek at the upper or northern end of the valley.

   During this period of settlement in the valley the many gulches of the Sparta area continued to yield fabulous amounts of gold.  The town grew as did the demands for services and goods.
   Supplies were brought in by pack train from Salubria, (now Cambridge), Idaho.  They traveled the Gover Trail to Eagle Valley, then north up the valley to the location later chosen by Joseph Gale for his homestead.  There they forded Eagle Creek and began the laborious climb out of the valley up Road Gulch.

   By the late 1860’s some freight wagons were in use.  At certain times of the year their drivers found it very difficult, and sometimes impossible to ford the creek.

   A crude log bridge was built for the convenience of the pack trains and freight wagons.  No doubt everyone referred to it as the new bridge.

   The bridge must have been a source of great pride to Joseph Gale for when he was appointed as the valley’s first postmaster in 1878, he asked that the post office and community be called New Bridge.

   At about the time the bridge was being constructed at the upper end of the valley, Mr. Daly and his neighbors built a log school house.  According to Henry Daly’s manuscript it was located “below the bluff below the present cemetery.”  It was the valley’s first school.  During the winter of 1869-70 it had an enrollment of fourteen.

   It is quite likely that the teacher, John Bowman, was paid by subscription, that is, given his lodging and whatever money the parents of his pupils could spare.

   In early January of 1871, the little community was shocked and saddened by the news that sixteen year old Joe Daly had accidentally shot and killed himself on New Year’s Day.

   Sam Gover donated a hill-top where the benchland breaks off toward Powder River to be used as a community cemetery.  The Daly lad was buried on the brow of the hill over-looking the homesteads of the first settlers.

   In 1878 while Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce was battling the United States Army for possession of his homeland, there was a brief Indian scare.  Fearing an attack, settlers hastily fortified a farm-house near the center of the valley and prepared to defend themselves.  It was later called Fort Moody.  There was a similar fortification at Daly Creek.  According to Daly’s report several families occupied it for a few days.

   Joseph Gale in the upper end of the valley had less to worry about.  His Nez Perce wife is said to have been a relative of Chief Joseph.

   Many more homesteaders arrived during the 1870’s and 80’s.  Soon the bottom land was all claimed and land-hungry farmers began considering how to get the abundant creek water up onto the bench land.  Their solution was to start higher up the creek and dig the series of irrigation ditches that still remain the backbone of Eagle Valley’s economy.

   One group after another formed Ditch Companies, applied for legal claims to the water, and began digging.  They used horse-drawn scrapers, plows, picks, and shovels.

   First was the Gover Ditch, then the Little Eagle Ditch the Nash K. Young, the Moody, the Holstine, the Waterbury-Allen, the Newt Young, the Tobin and finally the Dry Gulch, taken from the creek about five miles above New Bridge.

   Since the right to available water decreased as with each succeeding ditch the term “prior rights” came to be a convincing argument in any water dispute.

   Meanwhile the women concerned themselves with starting schools, organizing church services when visiting ministers were present, and forming Missionary Societies.  It has been said that teachers and preachers come and go, but Missionary Societies go on forever.  They are the warp upon which the fabric of community living is woven.

   Although without a date, John Daly wrote: ”The first church services were conducted by a man named Curtis, who claimed he was a reformed saloon-keeper and became a Methodist.  He preached at farm houses in the spring made work baskets for the women.”

   There were schools at Daly Creek, Sunnyside, Pleasant Ridge, Richland, and New Bridge.  The Richland district had completed nine years of school attendance in its second school house by the time a post office was established there in 1897.

   The late Mrs. Catherine Ashby remembered that the log bridge was still in use when she arrived in the late 1880’s and remained so for several years afterwards.  She mentioned that in the late winter of each year it was dismantled to keep the high waters of the spring run-off from washing it away.  From her recollections it appears that it was replaced by a higher and more substantial one after 1890.

   By that time the freight traffic across the bridge had dwindled, although a stage coach service remained in operation.

   The gold of the Sparta gulches was nearly gone and the once-thriving boom town was all abut abandoned.

   At about the turn of the century many people began to worry about the fact that no records of burials were being kept and about the haphazard method of selecting grave sites wherever the boulders permitted and the digging was easiest.

   Thus the Eagle Valley Cemetery Association was formed with elected directors to be responsible for the care of the cemetery.  To finance its maintenance, the directors decided to hold a Dinner and Auction Sale each autumn with the food and sale items to be donated by the members of the community.

   The annual cemetery Dinner and Sale was a custom that lasted for over sixty years.  It was the biggest social event of the year and one in which everyone participated.

   As their first duty, the newly-elected directors acquired some additional land and had the entire cemetery surveyed and plotted into numbered lots.  It was no easy job in the older section where graves often lay in two different lots.  More ground was purchased in 1926 and again in 1984.

   As the years went by and the maintenance revenues increased, the Association was able to employ a full time caretaker for seven months of the year, to remove the boulders, to plant trees and shrubs, and to install a sprinkling system.  The result is a beautiful, serene, park-like resting place for the loved ones who have gone on before.

   For some people, a walk through the cemetery might provide an encapsulated view of life and times of Eagle Valley.

   The white marble tombstone of Joseph Gale indicates that that intrepid pioneer died on December 13, 1881.

   Close by a gray granite marker is inscribed with the bitter accusation “murdered by his pretended friends.”

   Near the center of the grounds is an unusual stone with a peculiar metal box-like structure at the top.  It is said that during the days of Prohibition bootleggers would unscrew one of the metal sides and cache moonshine in the box to be picked up by the customer at a later date.  There may have been any number of night-time visits to the cemetery in those days.

   A little to the south is a beautiful black monument with the inscription “In reverent memory of the courageous men who have served with honor in the Armed Forces of the United States.”

   The monument was erected in 1971 by the parents of the late Sgt. John Holcomb, who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism in the tragic Vietnam War.

   The first three decades of the twentieth century were a time of vigorous growth.  The promise of the ditches had been fulfilled and prospering farmsteads covered the valley floor.  That some prospered more than others could be due to the fact that in any economy the thrifty always have an edge over the thriftless.

   Two churches were built at Richland, The Methodist and the Christian.  A third church, the Nazarene was started at New Bridge in the late 1920’s.

   In 1906 the Richland school district became a unified district and was able to offer four years of high school training to its students.

   Having been declared unsafe, Richland’s second schoolhouse was sold and moved. On its site a larger two-story building replaced it.  The eight elementary grades were taught in the four rooms on the first floor.  High school courses were offered in the upstairs rooms.

   In 1913 the unified district was expanded to include students from Robinette, Daly Creek, Sunnyside, Pleasant Ridge, and New Bridge.  Eleven years later a union high school building was built near Richland.  It was the price of the valley.

   In New Bridge a new site was obtained and a new four-room elementary school house was built in 1914.   A few sheep and beef cattle had been brought to the valley as early as the 1860’s.  By the mid-teens several farmers owned large bands of sheep which they wintered in the valley and drove to summer pasture on the free grazing land of the public domain.

   At New Bridge large orchards of apples, cherries, and peaches were planted.  When they began to bear, there was a need for wooden boxes in which to pack the fruit for shipment to market in Baker.  To fill the need the Ewing brothers built and operated a box board mill a few miles above New Bridge.

   During the 1920’s a cannery was built near New Bridge.  After operating for only a few years it was destroyed by fire.

   To the delight of its citizens Richland was incorporated into a city on March 27, 1917.  One of the first acts of the new city was to bond itself for funds to finance the installation of a four-mile wooden pipeline to bring creek water to the city for residential use.  The line proved to be a constant vexation with frequent leaks along its length.

   Travel to the county seat became much easier when the State Highway Department opened a new route into the valley with the building of a graveled highway down Powder River canyon.  It was no longer necessary to go over the hill through Sparta.  Highway 86 was upgraded several times during the following decades.

   Following the opening of the new road the Mutual Creamery Association, and outside interests, built a creamery at Richland to make butter and process cheese.  Mr. Kirk was sent in to serve as butter-maker and manager, a position he filled until the late 1920’s when he chose to retire.  At that time the dairymen of both Pine and Eagle Valleys took over the creamery and operated under the name Pine-Eagle Dairymen’s Association.

   By the end of the 1920’s many could afford to indulge in the niceties of life.  A telephone system had been installed.  Nearly every family owned an automobile.  The Idaho Power Company had brought in electricity.  And most of the city folks were able to luxuriate in the use of bathrooms.

   Then came the bitter harvest of the 1930’s the years of the Great Depression.

   The people of Eagle Valley were hit no harder than anyone less and easier than many.  They raised their own food and hurled their fuel from the mountains.  Neighbors helped neighbors.  Farmers traded work and equipment. Barter was common and “make-do” became a way of life.  But shoes and taxes took money.

   Almost every property owner became delinquent in his taxes, but by paying a little along, they managed to escape eviction and kept their homes from being sold for taxes.

   Teachers were paid their seventy-five dollars a month with warrants, promises of payment later when the tax money came in.  The banks cashed the warrants at a discount.

   It was then that the well-managed creamery proved to be the lifeline that kept the valley afloat.  Almost every farm family owned a cream separator and milked a few cows.  Every other day the cream truck passed by each farmstead to pick up the five and ten gallon cream cans that dotted the roadsides.  The little bi-monthly cream checks enabled many families to hang on and wait out the hard times.

   The social life of New Bridge and Richland centered about the activities of their churches, granges, and P.T.A.’s.  It didn’t take any money to get together for a potluck supper and only a little to attend a ball game at the high school.

   Just as the economy of the country was beginning to improve the nation was stunned by that terrible “day of Infamy.”  In early December of 1941, the Japanese bombed the American fleet in Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on the United States.

   Eagle Valley sent its full quota of young men to fight in the Armed Forces as it had done in 1918.  Many people left the valley to work in the shipyards and defense plants.
   The exodus of able-bodied men resulted in the introduction of mechanized farming as many farmers were forced to give up the use of horse-drawn machinery and turn to the use of tractors.

   Many teachers also chose to serve their country by working in the war industries.  It became impossible for the small districts with one-room schools to find capable teachers.  Daly Creek, Sunnyside, and Pleasant Ridge chose to consolidate with Richland and bus their students.

   Who could forget the war years?  The ration stamps and shortages?  The fear and tears?  The gold stars and purple hearts?  The V-mail?  And the jubilation when the boys finally came home?

   The severity of government restrictions of the use of the public land for summer grazing caused the sheepmen to dispose their large bands of sheep and turn to the production of beef cattle.  By the end of the fifth decade there remained only a few flocks which were kept in the valley the year around.

   The most far-reaching event of the 1950’s was the building of three hydro-electric dams on Snake River by the Idaho Power Company.  The people of Eagle Valley were over-whelmed by a sudden influx of dozens of trailer houses carrying construction workers and their families.  Theirs was a rougher way of life.  The local people endured them with as much patience as they could muster.

   Lured by the high wages, a great many of the smaller farmers sold their milk cows and went to work on the dams.  The resulting scarcity of cream made it unprofitable for the creamery to continue operating.

   The Pine-Eagle Dairymen’s Association became the Pine-Eagle Co-operative Associations, selling feed and farm supplies.

   In the late 1950’s Sawmill Gulch, the last remaining school district of the Sparta area, consolidated with New Bridge.  The next year the New Bridge district was consolidated with Richland.

In 1959 the Richland district became a part of the Pine-Eagle Reorganized District No. 61 by virtue of a weighted vote.

   The Oregon State Legislature had enacted a law which made it possible for only 40% of the votes cast to accept a reorganization but required over 60% of the votes to reject it.  Such an undemocratic voting procedure was the cause of much anger among the Eagle Valley people who cast a tie vote, 54-54.

   One of the first accomplishments of the newly reorganized district was to erect a modern elementary school on the site of the old one.

   The notable events of the early 1960’s were of such little concern that they passed almost unnoticed.

   A small Catholic church was built at Richland.  Within a few years the building was used for non-denominational services.

   The dairymen converted their operations into Grade A and Grade B dairies and sold whole milk to creameries of the other areas.  Huge refrigerated trucks with stainless steel tanks were sent to valley regularly to collect the mild.

   The post office at New Bridge was closed.  A rural route established, and mail service came through the Richland post office.

   The people voted to form a Cemetery Maintenance District and collect tax money to finance the care of the cemetery.  The old Cemetery Association ceased to exist and so did the annual Cemetery Dinner and Auction Sale.

   The city of Richland improved its water system and replaced the faulty wooden pipeline with a line of more durable plastic material.

   During the middle years of the decade the entire community became embroiled in a long and bitter school fight.  Through private contributions, Community Dinners, and Baked Food Sales a Citizens’ Committee raised enough money to finance a series of court cases in a desperate struggle to keep a high school in Eagle Valley.

   They lost the battle.  The high school was closed and its students bused to Pine Valley.  Within a few years the high school building, which had become the property of the Adventist Church, was destroyed by fire.  A new Adventist church building was erected on the site.

   A gradual change in the population ratio followed the loss of the high school.  Fewer young people chose to rear families in Eagle Valley.

   Many small places changed hands in the 1970’s, mostly in the New Bridge area.  Invariably the purchasers were retired people.  By 1980 it began to appear that there might be a thre3ad of truth in the cynical observation that the valley was becoming a colony of Senior Citizens.

   In 1984 an unusual act of nature forced the closing of the state highway to Baker.  A high hill on the north side of the road split across the top and slowly slid southward until it had completely covered the highway and blocked about half of the cannel of Powder River.  Once again the Sparta road was the only route out of the valley.  All traffic from Pine and Eagle Valleys passed through New Bridge for a few months until a temporary detour could be constructed on the south side of the river.  A permanent section of state highway to bypass the slide was begun in the spring of 1986.

   At present 1986, the operations of the dairies and the production of beef cattle form the basis of the economy, supplemented by the produce of three small orchards and the pension checks of the elderly.  There are no businesses at New Bridge and fewer than a dozen at Richland.

   Perhaps it won’t be too amiss to conclude this sketch of Eagle Valley with a wryly humorous story some of its people tell about themselves.  It is said that since the valley has no railroad to provide a wrong side of the tracks, its people had to find another way to establish a caste system and they chose the length of residence as their criteria.

   A temporary resident is known as an Outsider.  If he buys land or marries into an established family he has his foot in the door and becomes known as a Newcomer.  After sevven years of right living he makes a step up the social ladder and becomes known as a Johnny-come-lately.  Eighteen years later he is promoted to the comfortable status of Home Folks.  But, it is added, he can never achieve the ultimate rank of Oldtimer because he didn’t have sense enough to be born to valley parents in the first place.  (By Katheryn Braswell)

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