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The First Roads
We know that the earliest visits of the explorers, trappers, missionaries and the military were without the benefit of wagons. The first wagons in Cowiche were those of the Longmire Wagon Train in September 1853 and even those wagons didn’t come to the Cowiche region we know of today. After visiting with George McClellan and his troops on the Wenas the people on the Longmire Train (36 Wagons) continued west crossing the Naches for the first time two miles upstream of Nile Creek. That area would become part of the Cowiche School District nineteen years later.
It is not clear how many wagon trains used the road through the Valley of the Naches River, but we do know that none used the same road to Cowiche as the Longmire Train because they had been lost much of the way out of Walla Walla. David Longmire, sensing that the Indian guides were headed in the wrong direction, turned the train not far from White Bluffs on the Columbia and headed toward what we know of today as the Yakima Firing Center crossing the Yakima River near Selah.
Future wagon trains came along the Yakima River from Walla Walla to Painted Rocks at the mouth of Cowiche Creek before proceeding on up the Naches River following the route that the Longmire Train took just above where Nile Creek empties into the River. Thus, the first road in Cowiche made for use by vehicles with wheels was the "Citizen Road" made for wagon train travel from Walla Walla up the Naches river Valley to points west of the Cascade Mountains. The location at the mouth of Cowiche Canyon was a significant location on that road as it was the place nearly all wagon trains stopped for a week or so while scouts and others went ahead to insure that no floods, rock slide or snow blocked the way to the summit of Old Naches Pass.
In 1856, the military paused in it’s pursuit of the Yakama long enough to construct a road that was capable of transporting their large five inch howitzers and wagons carrying supplies needed to defeat the Yakama and force them to relocate to the reservation. The road was called "Military Road" and connected The Dalles with Ft. Simcoe. It followed a route west of Eel Trail out of The Dalles across the Simcoe Mountains and rejoining the Eel near Toppenish ridge. Officially, the road ended at Ft. Simcoe but it was likely at that point, additional roads were cut to St Joseph’s Mission near Tampico, probably via Yakima city (Union Gap). Whether any other branches of that road existed in Cowiche, as we know it today, is unknown.
By the mid 1860’s roads could be found branching off from the Citizen Road over Old Naches pass. John Goodwin and others cut a road up lower Cowiche Canyon in 1867 to get to and from his farm and the store at Ft. Simcoe and later in 1869 to the store in Yakima City (Union Gap) and to other places. Soon after 1867, it is believed a wagon road was cut from the Wiley City area over Cowiche Mountain to Cowiche Valley; however, no date for such a road has been found. Events would have placed a road over Cowiche Mountain to Wiley City and probably on down the Ahtanum to Yakima City by 1872. That original wagon road over Cowiche Mountain was believed to run west of and nearly parallel to the current Summitview Road.
For the most part those early wagon roads were parallel trails cut by wagon wheels randomly connecting homesteads and farms. To point out the crudeness of these paths in the wilderness is unnecessary. It is probable that homesteaders and farmers maintained roads adjacent to their land, but in the early days there were often miles between such areas where farmers were attempting to keep roads passable. We know that most farmers followed the rule of only maintaining roads near their property well into the 1900s when Yakima County began to take over the responsibility for road maintenance because of the increasing use of motorized vehicles.
Roads were constructed by grubbing and pulling sagebrush and clearing trees. A log was cut to length and a chain or ropes at either end were attached together and pulled by horses or oxen to grade or smooth the surface. Some were able to fashion a metal scraper plate on one side of the log adding to the ability to scrape and smooth the road surface. When ruts developed from the drying of muddy roads, a chain was wrapped around a small log and pulled behind horses or oxen to breakdown the ridges and fill in the ruts. Often users of the road simply make a new roadaround the ruts. Many roads cut through farmer’s property often between the barn and the house literally linking the homes of the people living in the community. If a road transited a large dry stretch of land, the location of a spring might dictate the route.
Settlers longed for news from home and became extremely vocal with representatives in government about non-existent or poor mail service. In an effort to encourage the migration west, in 1851 congress reduced letter postage to three cents for distances of less than three thousand miles and ten cents for greater distances. By 1854 when Washington Territory was split off from Oregon Territory mail delivery to the far west had the government's full attention. Before the Civil War, it took months to get letters back and forth to family in the eastern part of America from Cowiche and weeks to relatives in the Willamette Valley and the western part of the territory, Ben Snipes wrote of writing friends and family in the east in the 1850s requesting some special breed of horse be delivered to him in The Dalles and the correspondence wasn’t acknowledged for nearly a year. The mail service was so poor that most dispensed with sending mail and relied on oral and written messages delivered by those passing through.
The Civil War diverted the nation’s attention from the west, but by the end of the War Butterfield and Hollaway stagecoach lines and wagon-freight was passing along the Oregon Trail routinely from St. Louis to Portland. Steamers were operating on the Columbia in the 1860s and stagecoach traffic was common north and south in western Washington from Bellingham Bay to Portland, Oregon and points south. The Columbia River and the Cascades had more or less sealed off the Yakima Valley from the early immigrants, but by the end of the War the ferries were operating daily putting immigrants and their belongings across the river headed for points north including Cowiche.
It was the mail contracts that opened the way for stagecoaches. The first U.S. Government mail contract that can be linked in some way to the Yakima Valley and Cowiche was a route awarded by the government between The Dalles and Walla Walla in 1862, which was expanded, to Umatilla in 1864. John Haley, a man from Yakima City, took over that initial mail contract along the Columbia in the mid 1860s and it is believed the first mail began coming into Yakima Valley via packhorse through the Horse Heaven country from Umatilla in 1865 or 1866. Haley extended the contract to points as far away as Boise, Idaho and far north into Washington Territory and in the process he organized the Northwestern Stage Company.
During the first few years, mail to Yakima was delivered by various conveyances to and from different points along the Oregon Trail south of the Columbia. In addition to packhorse, hacks, democrat wagons, buckboards, saddle horses and bobsleds were used. Most of the mail traveled back and forth between Yakima and The Dalles probably along the Military Road to Ft. Simcoe and then along a make shift road on into Yakima City. Residents in the Cowiche Region would have gone to Yakima City to pick up mail until 1884 when the first post office opening in what became Old Cowiche.
The government insisted that maximum efforts be made to get the mail through so when the Columbia froze so
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