The City of Irrigon stands at the crossroads of two of the most historic trails marking the development of our nation, the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Oregon Trail.
On October 19, 1805, Captains Merriweather Lewis and William Clark camped with their Corps of Discovery on an island in the Columbia River just a stone’s throw from the present site of the Irrigon Marina. Here they encountered Native Americans living in lodges made of reed mats. Here as in other places along their journey they negotiated with the Indians for various provisions including dried fish, firewood, roots, and dogs for meat.
Currency for trading with the Indians included such articles as bells, thimbles, knitting pins, brass wire, and beads.
The explorers demonstrated their peaceable intentions by offering to smoke with their hosts and provided entertainment in the form of violin music played by members of the party.
The island has now been submerged by waters backed up by the John Day Dam to form Lake Umatilla, but during rare periods of low water, portions of the island can still be observed peeking above the surface of the river.
Less than a month later, on November 16, 1805, the Corps of Discovery completed their historic quest when they first caught sight of the Pacific Ocean at a point near McGowan, Washington, on the north shore of the Columbia River at its mouth.
Sergeant Patrick Gass wrote in his journal on that day: “We are now at the end of our voyage, which has been completely accomplished according the intention of the expedition, the object of which was to discover a passage by way of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific Ocean.”
After spending a cold, wet winter at Fort Clatsop on the Oregon side of the river the Corps of Discovery launched their return voyage up the Columbia in March of 1806, again passing through Irrigon in April of that year.
After their triumphant arrival in St. Louis in September, 1806, the stories of the remarkable adventures of the Corp of Discovery spread throughout the nation and helped to spark an intense interest in exploration and development of the Pacific Northwest.
Starting in the 1840s emigrants opened up trails from the western boundary of the United States at Missouri and Iowa to the frontier territories in California, Oregon, Washington, and Utah. About 300,000 of those emigrants made their way over what was to become known as the Oregon Trail, from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon. In 1843, one group of nearly 1000 oxen-drawn wagons set out for the fabled green and fertile lands of the Willamette Valley. This “Oregon Fever” was further fueled by the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which allowed married couples to claim up to one square mile of this virgin land. Unfortunately, no treaties were then in effect delineating this land from that in use by Native Americans. This oversight would later lead to conflicts with tragic consequences.
None of these trails were static or fixed in finite locations. Emigrants were always seeking alternative routes for reasons to suit their own purposes. Such was the case with the Oregon Trail. The main route generally followed the Snake River across much of southern Idaho. At the place called Farewell Bend, near Ontario, Oregon, the pioneers veered away from the Snake River, bidding it farewell as the name implies, and struck out overland across the Blue Mountains. Arriving at what is now the City of Echo, Oregon, the trail took several branches. The main trail proceeded westward through a stage stop called Well Springs and then onward to the Columbia River near The Dalles.
Another branch of the trail followed the Umatilla River from Echo down to its confluence with the Columbia River at what is now the City of Umatilla. A third branch traversed down through present-day Umatilla Army Depot and joined with a Columbia River shoreline trail here at Irrigon. This trail segment intersects almost exactly at the campsite of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery, thus the city logo “Where Lewis and Clark & the Oregon Trai meet”.
According to a Historic Resource Assessment published by the Bureau of Land Management in October, 2000, the Irrigon spur of the Oregon Trail was mapped by the General Land Office in 1861. Use of this alternate route enabled emigrants to gain access much sooner to the banks of the Columbia River where at one time a steamboat landing was situated near Irrigon.
Irrigon became a railroad siding in the 1880s. Completion of the first transcontinental railroad in May of 1869 obviated much of the need for pioneers to migrate west via covered wagon, but the BLM report indicates that the Irrigon spur of the Oregon Trail continued to be used as a local connecting road until it was closed off by construction of the Umatilla Army Depot.
Today all that can be seen of his old segment of the Oregon Trail is a couple of faint depressions, or swales, in the sand and sagebrush along Highway 730 on the eastern outskirts of the city.