Euro-American Settlement

The Deschutes River was seen by white explorers for the first time on October 22, 1805. Lewis and Clark stopped at the mouth of the river while exploring the Columbia River. They referred to this tributary of the Columbia River by its Indian name “Towornehiooks”. The first white men to actually explore the Deschutes River were trappers from the Hudson Bay Company twenty years later. In 1825 a group of trappers lead by Peter Skene Ogden ascended the Deschutes from the Columbia River. The Hudson Bay trappers gave the river the name that is used today. They referred to the river as the Rivière Des Chutes, which is French for “river of the falls”. This presumably referred to Celilo Falls on the Columbia River near the mouth of the Deschutes (these falls have since been submerged due to the construction of the Dalles Dam). Although the area was not settled until years later, hundreds of settlers crossed the river on the Oregon Trail as they traveled west to the Willamette Valley to homestead or headed east to supply miners or graze livestock.

Sherars Falls
Reaching the Deschutes River, early immigrants were forced to cross at Sherars Falls. Without a bridge in place, the settlers had to dismantle their wagons and hoist them across, piece by piece. The first bridge at Sherars Falls was constructed in 1860 and was subsequently rebuilt over the next few decades as Sherars crossing became more and more popular with emigrants descending from the Shaniko area. A hotel was located on the west bank below the falls but burned down in 1940.
The hotel at Sherars Falls.
Courtesy Van Borstel Collection

Railroad History
Between 1909 and 1911, the Deschutes River canyon witnessed one of the last great railway battles waged between two aging railroad tycoons: James J. Hill of the Oregon Truck Railroad and Edward H. Harriman of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroad. Racing for the timber and agricultural wealth of Central Oregon, the two adversaries positioned their construction crews on opposing sides of the Deschutes River. Hill’s forces pushed their way up the west side of the canyon while Harriman’s division advanced along the east bank. As competing crews dug and blasted their way through the canyon cliffs, skirmishes reportedly erupted in which gunfire and attempts at sabotage were exchanged. At night crews would sneak across the Deschutes to cause time-costing landslides, blow up their competition’s powder supplies, or place open bags of rattlesnakes among sleeping workmen. The race ended on October 5, 1911 when James Hill drove the golden spike of the Oregon Truck rail line at Bend. The completion of this line brought an increasing number of permanent towns and homesteads to the area. Although Edward Harriman lost the rights to a railroad, remnants of his line are now used as the Deschutes River access road.