Oregon trail story retold
The Lost Wagon Train of 1853 has faded into history, but the experiences of the homesteaders who took the harrowing shortcut into the upper Willamette Valley continue to live on.
The unique Oregon Trail story has been brought back to life earlier this month in time for its 160th anniversary during two reader’s theater performances. More than 60 people attended the Saturday, Nov. 2 performance at the Wildish Community Theater in downtown Springfield, which benefited Start Making A Reader Today.
Writer Pete Peterson and four narrators drew upon surviving journals and memoirs to tell the story of how more than 1,000 homesteaders bested extreme fatigue, illness, heat and thirst to save 125 miles of travel by trekking across the Eastern Oregon desert and over the Cascade Mountain to reach Lane County. Their arrival doubled the county’s population.
Peterson, a retired Lane Community College journalism instructor and adjunct professor at the University of Oregon, said it is among the best documented of Oregon Trail stories thanks to the efforts of the late Lane County historian Leah Collins Meneffee, who over a span of 40 years located source materials from the settlers.
“It’s their story and Lane County’s story,” Peterson said in opening Saturday’s 70-minute performance.
Peterson wrote “Our Wagon Train is Lost,” a 1975 book about the waylaid wagon train, and followed that up with the 1993 play, “That Pioneer Road,” which was performed at LCC in 1993. This weekend’s performances are further condensed from a reader’s theater that he wrote and performed 10 years ago for the wagon train’s sesquicentennial. To illustrate the story, the narrators used, as props, many of the life-sized photos of actors dressed in pioneer attire that the late Eugene artist David Joyce, another LCC instructor, created for the 1993 play. Peterson revealed each of the photos as specific settlers were introduced during the course of the narration.
During the early settlement of Eugene and Springfield, the new residents realized there needed to be a more direct route to the area as the main stem of the Oregon Trail passed far north along the Columbia River.
Residents in Benton, Lane and Linn counties hired surveyors to establish the new toll-free route known as the Free Emigrant Road. Crews had marked and begun to clear the route when Pleasant Hill settler Elijah Elliott began publicizing it to homesteaders he met near Boise, Idaho, where he was meeting his migrating family.
One hundred families began following him, unaware that Elliott hadn’t taken the road before. Losing patience and supplies, the settlers endured harsh terrain and weather before rescuers came to their aid with pack animals and wagons loaded with supplies.
Narrator Omar Nelson, a retired carpenter who performs with local theater groups, said the narration allowed him to indulge his loves of live theater and Central Oregon history. “The opportunity to be part of the story of this wagon train is a thrill for me,” he said.
Dave Baker, whose descendants established homesteads throughout the Eugene area, said the narration was a reminder of the dedication and toughness of early Oregon pioneers to find a new life for themselves. “It’s hard to believe they’d go through so much to get to their destination.”