Allen Porter's wagon has had a long life and a story of its own. We don't know when it was made, but it began its journey across the Great Plains with a team of oxen on April 7, 1850, with 19-year old Allen Porter, his father and mother, and several siblings walking beside it. After reaching Fort Walla Walla, they followed the rivers to Vancouver, since the Cascades were considered impassable. (The Naches Pass trail was not a wagon road yet.) The family reached their Oregon destination on October 15, 1850, and spent the next two and a half years in Marion County. But during that time, Allen made trips in opposite directions to both California and the Queen Charlotte Islands prospecting for gold. In June of 1852, he arrived at Henderson Bay on south Puget Sound and worked in a mill nearby until the fall of 1853. He then filed the first claim on the Plateau under the new Donation Land Act. He immediately set about proving his claim on the 320 acre tract of wilderness near today's Enumclaw by building a cabin and planting oats and potatoes. 1
However, relations between the first white resident and the neighboring tribe grew tense over the next two years, culminating in their burning down his cabin. According to one account, Allen hid in the forest when the natives attacked .2 In another story, he fled in the night to the village of Seattle, pursued by numerous braves.3 Whichever is the case, he escaped and returned to find the charred ruins. His barn and oxen were spared, along with his trusted wagon. So Allen Porter gathered what implements and supplies he could salvage and headed off to resettle near what is now Roy.
According to several accounts, Allen Porter relocated in Roy for good, but in his own diary, he talks about repeatedly returning in that wagon to further develop his property here.
"I resided on the land described from November 1, 1853 to September 5, 1855, when I was forced by hostile Indians to leave the said land and I have never felt perfectly safe in residing there since on account of a personal hostility evinced from time to time by the Indians then at war with the whites.
"In the spring of the year 1858 I returned to my land and remained there about six months, when after securing my crops I left when some troops which had been stationed in the vicinity left. Again in 1870 or 1871, I returned and began improvements. . . Since 1870, I have contracted for a new house, built a barn, dug a well and enclosed about 200 acres with rail fence, and have about 50 acres in cultivation." 4
Allen Porter used his wagon as a farm vehicle for bringing home supplies and delivering produce to markets. It continued to serve him there for fifty-four more years. When he realized he was reaching the end of his life, he asked that when the time came, his body would be carried in his old wagon back to Porter's Prairie near Enumclaw.5
However, the trip for Allen Porter's was not the end of the wagon's journey. Next stop was the Ferry Museum in the Tacoma Courthouse. From there, it traveled to Seattle to be a featured exhibit for the Alaska-Yukon Exhibition in 1909. It was returned to the Courthouse until the new Washington State Historical Museum was completed. And finally, after three-fourths of a century there, the Porter wagon was donated to the White River Museum in Auburn, where you can see it today. 6
The Oregon Trail actually had its beginnings as a foot trail for trappers and traders as early as 1811, but was not ready for wheels until the mid-1830s, when the first wagon train left Missouri. More than 400,000 people used the trail before 1869, when the opening of the transcontinental railroad offered a faster, cheaper, and safer alternative to wagon travel.7 The railroad actually followed the Oregon Trail for much of its length, as does Interstate 80 today.
A journey across the Great Plains in the 1850s was arduous, dangerous, and expensive. A typical ox-drawn wagon would average only about ten miles a day, so the trip would take about five months under the best conditions. There were no bridges, but numerous rivers had to be crossed. Native braves sometimes attacked to steal horses and supplies. In a typical year, about 5,000 wagon train emigrants died along the way. And even though the drive to take these risks was often borne of desperation at home, the trek was expensive--about $1000 in supplies, plus an additional $400 for a typical wagon. Studebaker Company later mass produced them, dropping the price to $175. 8
Before the Naches wagon road opened, the river became the trail. Pioneers often disassembled their wagons and made crude boats or hired space on barges. The Columbia was particularly dangerous in the Gorge, with its rapids and high winds. Then at the even more turbulent Cascade Rapids, the wagons and goods had to be taken around the worst of the boiling water in a 1.6 mile portage. At that point, the pioneers could take a toll road around Mt. Hood for $5 per wagon and ten cents per animal, cheaper than taking a barge the rest of the trip to Vancouver.9 To reach the Puget Sound area, settlers continued down the Columbia and then up the Cowlitz River to Cowlitz Landing. From there, they traveled the rough trail to Olympia or Steilacoom.
The Naches Pass Trail was to open for wagons in 1853, creating a much more direct route to the Puget Sound Region. Teams from both sides began building, but the Yakima group gave up when they heard (falsely) that no wagon train was coming, but the Longmire group had already left Fort Walla Walla. On their way up to the pass, they had to ford the Yakima River 68 times, and after reaching the end of construction, build their own road as they went.10 Relieved to have finally crossed the pass, they soon discovered a precipice. James Longmire's own words best give the feel of trying to manage a wagon in the 1850s, in this case, on the challenging route from what is now Yakima through Enumclaw:
"Three miles farther on we came to Summit Hill where we spliced rope and prepared for the steep descent which we saw before us. One end of the rope was fastened to the axles of the wagons, the other thrown around a tree and held by our men and thus, one by one, the wagons were lowered gradually a distance of three hundred yards, when the ropes were loosened and the wagons drawn a quarter mile farther with locked wheels. Here we reached the Greenwater River.
"All the wagons were lowered safely, except the one belonging to Mr. Lane, now of Puyallup, which was crushed to pieces by the breaking of one of the ropes, causing him and his family to make the rest of the trip on horseback."11
Wagon building required considerable skill, especially making the wheels. They had to be strong, light, and perfectly round. A wheelwright spent many years training to cut and shape the various pieces. Spokes were turned to be symmetrical, and tapered so that they were thickest where strength was most needed, but kept slim in other places to a minimize weight. The spokes were fitted into precisely cut felloes, curved sections that made up the circumference. An iron hub was used to handle the stresses at these critical points, and iron hoops protected the wooden felloes from wear.12 (If you visit the Carriage Museum in Raymond, you can try piecing together the complex parts of a wagon wheel in one of their interactive exhibits.)13
1. Personal Journal of Allen L. Porter. Washington State Historical Museum, Tacoma, WA.
3. "A Race for Life, Experience of Allen Porter, October 26, 1855." in Building a State: Washington, 1889-1938. Washington State Historical Society. Charles Miles, Ottis Bedney Sperlin. p. 564.
4. Series 815 Donation Land Claim No. 100 Allen Porter on mircofilm at Chief Archives Branch--General Archives and Record Center GSA, 6125 Sandpoint Way NE, Seattle, WA.
5. " 'Allen Porter' Wagon Travels Its Last Mile." Tacoma Daily Ledger (predecessor of the Tacoma News Tribune). July 23, 1911.
10. Larry J. Kolano. Puyallup Perspectives. Graphic Press, Tacoma. 1976. p. 9.
Enumclaw Centennial Blog Series
The Histories of Enumclaw
Introduction--Enumclaw: The First 6020 Years
Early Enumclaw: 6000 Years Ago to the Mid-1800s
Early Enumclaw: The First European Americans Arrive
The Adventures of Allen Porter's Wagon
Enumclaw's Early Plateau Neighbors
Schools and Districts
Enumclaw Becomes a Town: 1879-1913
Incorporation through World War II: Enumclaw from 1913-1945
Logging and Lumber
Growth and Prosperity: Enumclaw from 1945-2008
Searching for a Town's Identity
Recent Past to the Present: Enumclaw from 2008-2013
The Limits of Growth
Enumclaw's Next Two Decades: 2013-2033