Portland’s Trail of Tears

Sandy Boulevard – Our Road to Nowhere 

Are you aware that every time you drive on Portland’s own N.E. Sandy Boulevard, you’re traveling in the ruts of the Oregon Trail? – which ran over two thousand miles from the Midwest ending on a rutted wagon road through virgin forest in the Willamette Valley from the Sandy River to a pasture just to the Northeast of Oregon City.

A family aboard their hand made raft headed down the Columbia in the 1840’s or 1850’s. Historians estimate that hundreds of emigrants died on this eighty mile stretch of white water and rapids, especially in the first few years of emigration.

Yet there is not a single sign, marker, statue or bit of graffitti anywhere on the fourteen mile route of today’s Sandy Boulevard recognizing this history, despite thousands of early day emigrants, our ancestors, traveling the road.  

Today, our Sandy Boulevard starts nowhere and ends nowhere, a strange thing since all roads are built to get people from one specific place to another.  At the East end, today’s Sandy Boulevard dead ends behind an RV park and sales facility.  At the West End, Sandy Boulevard sort drizzles out just South and West of 12th and East Burnside.  There’s nothing to travel to or from at either end.  Why spend thousands of dollars building a road 14 miles long that starts nowhere and goes nowhere?  Is a puzzlement.

According to the earliest federal government map of the Willamette Valley, in 1852 there were very few roads.  One road probably dating from the mid-1820’s after Oregon City was founded, is from today’s Oregon side of the Columbia running South to Oregon City.  This was the McLoughlin Road named after Dr. John McLoughlin, considered by historians as the “Father of Oregon.”  Today, that is our McLoughlin Boulevard.

The double line from the Sandy River to the McLoughlin Road is the Sandy Road where hundreds of emigrants traveled to Oregon City after leaving the Columbia River coming off the Oregon Trail.  Because of the number of deaths on the rapids of the Columbia, one or two hundred of those rafting down the Columbia each season, today’s Sandy Boulevard can easily be named “Portland’s Trail of Tears.”

Along this road passed hundreds, even thousands of wagons carrying early emigrants to the Oregon Territory, especially in the years before alternate roads were hacked from the forest, or steam-powered riverboats traveled in stages between portages from The Dalles to landings and wharves in Portland.  Then in 1883 the railroad made it through the Columbia River gorge.

Portland’s Trail of Tears

Of the 2,200 mile journey from Missouri or other mid-western state or territory, the last leg of the trek was the most dangerous: The eighty miles from The Dalles to the Sandy River through the Columbia River Gorge. Historians estimate that about 1/4 of the emigrants coming down the Columbia into the Willamette Valley died — of disease, of hypothermia, and especially drowning.

The Promised Land is an outdoor bronze sculpture by David Manuel commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail in 1993 of a pioneer family, circa 1843. The parents stand to the back and their son stands between them in front. The father points with his proper right hand toward “The Promised Land” in western Oregon and his left arm is around his wife, who holds a doll to her chest in her left hand, implying a child lost on the Trail West.

Emigrants arrived on the Columbia in October or November after an exhausting walk across country. Many were ill with pellagra or scurvy from the lack of fresh vegetables. Many lacked the money to try an alternate route such as the Barlow Road. Their oxen, mules, and horses were spent and unable to travel further. Yet the most dangerous part of the journey lay ahead.

To make the passage, emigrants had to harvest logs from which to fashion a raft as shown above, load their goods, wagon and family on the raft, then push off into the Columbia. At then had to disassemble their wagon, assemble their remaining goods on the raft after lashing their wagon body to it, then push off into the river.

Unlike today, in these days the Columbia River was a wild, whitewater trip requiring emigrants to pull their raft to shore and tear it down to make portages around the worst of the rapids, especially at The Cascades. The eighty mile journey took as much as a month with emigrants, adults and all, standing calf-deep in freezing water. And anyone who fell into the river — well, their chance of survival was tragically small. Hundreds if not thousands drowned in the river between 1843 and the 1850’s when steam riverboats began working the river.

After traveling the Columbia, emigrants had a two day trip to Oregon City along the Sandy and McLouwhere they camped for the winter before moving out into the Willamette or Tualatin valleys to establish a land claim for their new farm and home.

Today we can drive the Columbia River Gorge in two hours – a trek that took as long as a month back in the 1840s.  The backbone of the trip through Portland was the Sandy Road, today’s Sandy Boulevard, our unrecognized and un-honored Trail of Tears from the 1840’s.

For schedule, availability and reservations call

— 503 298-3661 —


SinCity Portland Walking Tours

Well researched * Historically accurate * Typically Portland

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