Early Transportation in Eugene, Oregon
Eugene Downtown Core Area Historic Context Statement
Planning and Development Department, City of Eugene - November 1991
When Eugene Skinner, Elijah Bristow and other Lane County settlers arrived, access to the area was by trails. The trails existing at the time were those made and used by the native American population, often developed from deer trails. These ran mainly through the foothills because of the flooding and moisture prevalent on the valley floor. The higher trail provided a firm footing for the horses. Firewood, water and grass for horses to food on were plentiful in the foothill areas. After the establishment of homesteads, paths began to widen and wagon roads began to appear between farms. The first public form of transportation beyond trails and immigration roads, however, were the ferries. Eugene Skinner began a ferry service across the Willamette just to the east of Skinner Butte. By 1851 James Huddleston had established a store at the site of Skinner's Ferry. One of the first acts of the initial county commission was to establish a road between Skinners Ferry and Spores Ferry to intersect the Long Tom River. Jacob Spores had established a ferry service across the McKenzie near the present site of Armitage Park in 1848. Spores' Ferry began by transporting foot passengers in a canoe from one bank to another.

The river was the primary means of transporting freight during the early days of Eugene's development. In 1856, the first steamboat arrived from the north, and in 1857 the "James Clinton" inaugurated regular service to Eugene. Service only ran for four to six months per year when the water was high enough. In 1862 the Peoples Transportation Company ran the "Relief" to Eugene and in 1869 the "Echo" reached Springfield. in 1898 the "City of Eugene" (image 1) (image 2) was built in Eugene. It was the only sternwheeler built at the shipyard here. Beginning in 1871 the U.S. Engineers began efforts to maintain a 2 1/2 foot channel to Eugene but gave up on that effort in 1904. In 1905 the last stern-wheel steamboat reached Eugene.

During the 1850's overland transportation to other areas began to improve. In 1851 the East Side Road ran from Spores Ferry north. In 1852 the citizens began to petition for a road from Jacob Spores' ferry to Skinner's Ferry intersecting the territorial road near the Long Tom River. In 1854 the Military Wagon Road had opened to Southern Oregon. The Territorial Road ws built on the west side in 1855. In 1862 the McKenzie Wagon Road Company built a road over the McKenzie Pass. In 1864 the Oregon Central Military Road pushed east, crossing the Cascade summer in 1867. In 1888 the Wildcat Creek Road pushed west from Elmira to Mapleton.

While steamboats were plying the river, stagecoaches were traveling the difficult roads to and from Eugene. The first stage reached Eugene in 1855. By 1868 a passenger could travel across Oregon in 60 hours on the Portland to Sacramento stage. The last stage to California ran in 1870, one year before the arrival of the first train in Eugene. Stages still ran up the McKenzie as late as 1909.

The arrival of the railroad in 1871 changed the pattern of development in almost every realm. Industry spread along its tracks instead of remaining bound to the river or the Millrace. The western portion of what is now the Whiteaker neighborhood was developed immediately after the railroad berm controlled flooding in the area. Most importantly, however, industries in Eugene could now export their products greater distances than ever before. Eugene had the means to become a major market.

The Oregon and California Railroad became the Southern Pacific Railroad run by the University of Oregon patron Henry Villard. By 1887 the railroad was completed to California. The Southern Pacific Railroad built the current passenger depot in 1908, replacing a wooden depot building. In 1926 the construction of the Natron cut-off to the east created a new route to California and made Eugene a major division point in the transportation network. This resulted in many new jobs for the people of Eugene and sealed its place as "Oregon's Second Market." In 1926 Southern Pacific ran eleven passenger trains daily between Eugene and Portland.

Passengers were also traveling on another type of train, the Oregon Electric Railroad, which reached Eugene in 1912. The Oregon Electric Passenger Station (27 E 5th Avenue) was constructed in 1914. Its construction marks the peak era of passenger service for American railroads. Its confluence at 5th and Willamette with the Southern Pacific Railroad and the electric street car line denotes "a brief period in American history when mass transportation was favored over individual transportation, a brief period between the horse and the automobile." (-Oregon Electric Station National Register File, City of Eugene)

The presence of the Southern Pacific terminal was a logical point of the convergence for local transportation modes such as the streetcar. Mule-drawn trolleys began operation in 1891, financed by Henry W. Holden and with Wiley Griffin driving. The line ran to the University and out Willamette Street to 17th Avenue and then south eight blocks. Mr. Holden had purchased the old Whitney farm southwest of town as a site for a pleasure park and destination of the street car line. Unfortunately the line never reached that place and the park was never built. The line was shut down and in 1903 the rails were purchased and moved to Black Butte Mines. in 1906, however, the Willamette Valley Co., having recently sold its water and power interests to the city, received a franchise from the city council to built a streetcar line powered by electricity.

In March of 1907 the council also contracted Warren Construction Co. to commence street paving on Willamette Street between the train depot and 11th Avenue. This construction was to occur in conjunction with the railway construction. In may 1907 the Eugene & Eastern Railway Co. took over the project and began construction. The line was sold to the Portland, Eugene and Eastern in 1907 which was bought by the Southern Pacific in 1915. Southern Pacific changed the system's name to the "Eugene Street Railway." Cars ran to Springfield by 1910. When fully developed the system had lines running on the College Hill loop as far as 29th Avenue, the Fairmount loop to 26th, to Springfield, along West 8th Avenue, the Territorial Highway, then northwest on Blair Boulevard to Cross Street where passengers could communte from farms and homes along River Rd. This system operated until 1927.

In just a few years, however, a new mode of transportation would render the Eugene Street Railway and the Oregon Electric passenger service unprofitable. The first automobile arrived in Eugene in 1904. By 1906 the city had four. By the 1920's the automobile had become the primary form of transportation in the region.

Along with various forms of developing transportation came the various forms of facilities needed for their operation. Blacksmith shops, livery stables, stage stops such as the Renfrew Tavern, wagon makers, shipyards, ferry landings and boat launches were established. With the early automobiles, mechanics appeared as well. The evidence of these functions can still be found in the survey and context area, in the form of train stations downtown, former blacksmith shops such as the Hayse Blacksmith Shop at 357 Van Buren Street, and a few early mechanics shops such as Sam Bond's shop at 4th and Blair and the Toby Auto Service at 540 Charnelton Street.