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The Travels of our First Webmaster

Voices of Spencer Creek

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Rogue River Adventure

The Wild and Scenic Rogue River is true to its designation: wildlife, flora, geology, whitewater thrills, history, it has it all.

By Lois Barton

Posted on Aug 14, 2005

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"Mail Boat on the Rogue River," photos by Risa and Patty Buff Bear

For many years I've dreamed of riding the mail boat up the Rogue River to Agness, Oregon. This year my dream came to fruition when a long time friend proposed that we plan an adventure and asked me where I'd like to go. She was enthusiastic when I mentioned my dream and offered to research the trip on the computer. A few days later she reported space on the boat had been reserved as well as two nights in a nearby motel.

We took off the afternoon of the fourth of July, driving four hours southwest from Eugene to Gold Beach on the Oregon coast where the Rogue River flows into the Pacific Ocean.

After a night at the motel we boarded a hydro-jet with perhaps 25 other passengers, including a toddler, about eight a.m. for a run of forty miles up river. Our ride passed Agness, the destination of the early mail boats, for eight miles of adventure through riffles with the skipper treating us to frequent splashes as he piloted the boat not only through those riffles but in complete circles under power in wide places in the river.

"Lois and Ellen the dog," photos by Risa and Patty Buff Bear

Our skipper had a golden retriever kind of dog named Ellen who was accustomed to making the run with him. It was my special privilege to share one side of the back seat with this friendly dog on the way up river. Whenever we approached a riffle, or a wild circling turn, she poked her nose behind my back, and would have slid in farther if I had allowed her the space. After our first leg of the upriver trip, the dog got off the boat with the rest of us for a rest stop, and when we headed upriver again for the eight mile run through more riffles she chose to await our return to Agness for lunch. She deliberately refused to come back on board after that rest stop. When we headed down stream after returning to Agness for lunch she rejoined us for the trip home but it was very obvious that she didn't appreciate the splashing fun.

The first half of the upstream ride we often stopped to observe wild life along the banks. I was delighted to see a live mink and a river otter for the first time in my 87 years. An osprey had fished an eel out of the river and sat on a tree limb puzzling over how to deal with it dangling and wiggly under his feet. We saw several bald eagles and herons as well as deer with fawns. Our sharp-eyed skipper noticed these creatures and slowed so we all got a good look at them in their native habitat.

As we rode upriver I was struck by the curious rock formations on the river banks. Every exposed area consisted of fairly narrow layered strata at odd angles one from another. Some sections lay almost perpendicular to the water. Other nearby sections lay almost horizontal. The book Cascadia: The Geological Evolution of the Pacific Northwest by Bates McKee on page 144 states, "The Rogue Formation is entirely volcanic - a sequence of massive andecitic lava flows and pyroclastic beds all of which have been altered to greenstone. Presumably these volcanics were extruded in a marine environment..." And on page 143, the area "has been folded and faulted extensively..."

This is more geology than I need to know, but speaks to my curiosity about the unusual rock formations I examined from the boat.

Most of the passengers knowingly chose Jerry's hydro-jets for the fun of it, expecting the excitement of thirty mile-per-hour wind in their faces through the beautiful river valley, as well as the playful, cold splashes that came our way. The headwaters of this river are located near Crater Lake!

We had unknowingly reserved spaces on Jerry's Rogue River Jet Boats not realizing his business was in strong competition to the Mail Boat runs. We covered the same parts of this wild scenic river, stopped for lunch at Agness as we would have on the mailboats, happily picking up local color, and fully enjoying the experience.

"Mail Boat on the Rogue River II," photos by Risa and Patty Buff Bear

When we got back to Gold Beach we were able to visit the Mail Boat headquarters and garner history of that hundred year postal service to isolated settlers whose only contact with the wider world was by the river. In the early years of the 20th century there were many prospectors and gold miners up river besides homesteaders and, in the '30s, a two-hundred man CCC camp.

An out of print book, Whitewater Mailmen, The Story of the Rogue River Mail Boats by Gary and Gloria Meier, 1995, gives the history of how the mail route got started in 1895. Elijah Price, a settler up river in 1861 whose wife and children were still in California, applied in 1863 for a permanent contract mail route. His repeated requests were denied as not practicable until 1894 when he volunteered to make the run weekly for a year without pay. March 15, 1895 the U.S. Postal Service decided he was in earnest and appointed him post master and awarded the contract.

The book illustrates the hundred year history with many pictures of early boats and pilots, great tales of valor, overwhelming floods and changes required to adapt to the passing years. There was no real road to Agness before 1964. A primitive trail up the north bank was used by pack animals. The buildings of Agness were located on both sides of the river. A suspension bridge in 1932 replaced the necessity of crossing by boat to the other sections of the villge

There is a picture in Whitewater Mailmen of a simple rowboat being poled upriver. The exact date when gasoline powered boats were introduced is not known, but a man named Henry Moore was hauling freight between Gold Beach and Agness in a gasoline powered launch in the summer of 1900. By 1907 the horsepower of motor-powered boats was still insufficient for the fast water stretches and pike poles still had to be used. By 1918 a twenty horse powered boat was making the entire run successfully, and the structure and power of the boats increased over the years till the hydro-jet came on the scene. The 1960s brought the transition from propeller driven boats to jets. The jet drive is easy to understand according to the book. A water power pump is powered by an automobile engine. "Today (page 133) three 340 horsepower engines and three jet drives easily provide plenty of power to navigate the Rogue's riffles and rapids."

It is unbelievable how much freight went upriver by boat. All the materials to build the CCC camp, several bridges and other items. A cow, an auto, a Cletrack tractor were among those "freight" items. Tons of gold ore came down on the boats as parcel post. Another picture in the Whitewater Mailmen book shows that tractor-grader combination weighed nearly eight tons, and was the first heavy equipment to be boated upriver.

A modern bridge was built in 1962 anticipating the completion of the road to Agness. Even though there is now a paved road up the south bank to Agness, the mail is still carried by mail boat from May to October. During winter months when river travel can be more hazardous, the mail goes up the road.

Several thousand vacationers from all over the world make the jet boat trip up river every summer. Both Jerry's and the Mail Boats carry hydro- jet passengers covering the same miles and offering the thrills described above. One Mail Boat option, however, is a calm ride to Agness only and return.

This overall experience includes a rare opportunity to observe wildlife and unspoiled flora of the mountains along the way. Go try it. You'll like it.

July, 2005

Copyright ©2005 by Lois Barton

The books mentioned in Lois' article, Rogue River Adventure, may be purchased at our affiliate book store,

Writer and historian
Lois Barton

Lois Barton is an 86 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil.

Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

Follow the links of the Voices of Spencer Creek for the most recent articles by Lois Barton, including:

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Obituary for a Country Cat

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Cortesia Sanctuary

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Tree and Me and Lady Slippers

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Cranberries

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Endurance Riding

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Butterflies and Community Development

and The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Last Gift.

See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By online magazine's archives:

Visit the Heron Rookery

Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The Midwife–The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By

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