American Heritage Chronicles

The tunnel at mile marker 20 on Highway 126 between Mapleton and Walton pictured just after its completion. When the tunnel finally opened in June 1958 it allowed what was then called Route F to connect the valley and the coast. Known over the years by multiple names such as the McArthur Tunnel, Mapleton Tunnel and Knowles Creek Tunnel, in 1988 the tunnel was re-named the Ralph A. Petersen Tunnel. Courtesy photo

Oregon’s Early Transportation Part 2

March 8, 2023 — In Part One of this series [in the Jan. 4 edition of the Siuslaw News], I noted that in the early days, around 1912, travel from Eugene to Florence on the coast could take as long as four days. During my research, I discovered that at different times in our region’s history, various routes were utilized as travel improvements to the coast were sought.

Some of the early routes in the 1880’s from the Valley actually went through Horton and Triangle Lake. In 1881 the Siuslaw Road Association was formed to get a road constructed from the Valley to the Coast, called the “Seaton-Eugene Road”. Seaton was associated with the Mapleton community at that time.

In 1885 the wagon road between Eugene and Mapleton was completed along a route following upper Siuslaw River Road and Richardson Road, aka Stagecoach Road. Portions of that old route still exist and can be travelled today – slowly and carefully.

Locally, the streets of Florence were still dirt, or mud depending on the weather, but if you were lucky, you might find some that were planked. In 1892 the Ladies Aid Society launched an effort to plank streets and sidewalks.

The railroad arrived to the western Lane region in 1915, but only to Cushman. There were attempts over the years to follow its route with a highway as well, but it was problematic, partly due to engineering challenges along the river.

Meanwhile, travel up and down the coastline continued to be a challenge, with partial completion of roadways limited due to lack of bridges, necessitating reliance on ferries or beach travel, which could prove perilous.

In 1919 talk began in the nation’s capital to construct a “defense highway” along the entire west coast, in response to post-WWI concerns of potential invasion. Construction began in 1922 on the route but progressed in stages, and slowly. As portions were completed and increased automobile traffic occurred ferries continued to be an impediment; bridges were needed.

When the project began the road was named “The Roosevelt Coast Military Highway”. In 1926 it became U.S. 101 and in 1931 the state re-named it the Oregon Coast Highway.

In the 1920’s work began on bridges to replace the ferry element. It would take until 1936 for all of the needed bridges to be completed and opened for traffic. Our own Siuslaw River bridge opened March 31, 1936. At that time the Florence population was only 350. The highway traffic was re-routed away from its existing route along Front Street, now Bay Street, and up Quince, directly to the newly paved Highway 101, bypassing downtown Florence, what we now know as Historic Old Town.

At that time, Highway 101 was the only paved street in Florence. Today we enjoy forty-five “centerline miles” of paved public roads, which does not include those private streets in certain communities nor Highway 101 and 126. As Florence grew over the years, it wasn’t until the mid and late 1980’s that Highway 101 went from two-lane to four. Spruce Street was also paved during that time, and Rob Ward commented that when that happened, Florence held a parade to celebrate the accomplishment.

Meanwhile, back on the valley-to-coast routes, things were progressing. During my research I found references to multiple routes over the various years of efforts and projects. Certainly, over what is now Highway 36 from Junction City vicinity through Cheshire, Blachley, Triangle Lake to Swisshome was utilized. Another route would have been Siuslaw River Road from Territorial Road south of Veneta, up to Richardson Road and on to Swisshome and then to Mapleton. I also found references to routes that included following Knowles Creek past Camp Lane, as well as utilizing established logging routes where public traffic was allowed, if not even encouraged.

In 1919 a road over Mapleton Hill and down the North Fork to Florence was completed.  In the 1920’s and 1930’s efforts were launched multiple times to see a more direct and viable route established, at least one emanating from 6th Street in Eugene and then passing through Elmira and Noti.

Finally, in late 1944, a frustrated group of residents and business owners from all the affected communities formed the “Route F Committee”. Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s this Committee worked tirelessly with transportation officials as well as local and state authorities to bring a modern transportation route connecting the region to the valley.

The tunnel would prove to be a major challenge.

The route was re-designated as a part of the McKenzie Highway 126 in 1957, thereby capturing additional funding. The population of Florence had grown to 1,560 when the tunnel finally opened in 1958, allowing the new Route F to connect the valley and the coast. Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s the route has seen numerous improvements at various points along the sixty-three miles it runs. Known over the years by multiple names such as the McArthur Tunnel, Mapleton Tunnel and Knowles Creek Tunnel, in 1988 the tunnel was re-named the Ralph A. Petersen Tunnel.

When it first opened as the “Fast Route”, the route was not actually paved all the way through, and future route alterations would take place such as the Veneta cutoff. The stretch by Austa, where you can view the old covered bridge, was paved in 1960. The section between Florence and Cushman was widened in 1965, and an accident-prone stretch west of Noti near Poodle Creek was straightened. And just in the last couple years the stretch just west of Walton was widened and re-configured.

I hope this has been as informative for you to read as it has been for me to write. As our Jeeps R Us Club travels our region, particularly the back roads and forest service roads, we continue to be amazed at what we find, such as narrow paved roads in dense remote areas complete with fog lines.  One of our club members, retired from the forest service, shared with us that this was required of timber companies in past years to protect the landscape from erosion, and to allow safe travel during the wet season. According to Rob Ward, that too created maintenance challenges when grades settled and pavement surfaces cracked.

I’d like to thank the staff and volunteers at the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum for their assistance and access to our region’s historical records while researching for this article. That place is an amazing gem for our community.

See you on the backroads!