Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Getting the Wheat to the River

The Palouse has been a wheat growing area since the late 1800s. The silt loess soils of the Palouse are very fertile, hold soil moisture well and are blanketed with dry land wheat. That is the wheat is grown without irrigation. Rain fall amounts in the western Palouse dip below 10 inches per year, but most of the precipitation falls in the late fall through early spring during the cold season and thus is soaked into the soil and available for winter wheat.

The Snake River cuts through the middle of the Palouse wheat lands. From the beginning of agriculture in this region, transportation to market has been nearly as important as growing the crop itself. Transport via boat was quickly established with a fleet of steam boats navigating up and down the lower Snake River to the Columbia River and Portland. However, the lower Snake River is entrenched into a very steep and deep canyon for most of its length. Hence, even though the river might be a just a few miles away, access to the river can be challenging.
Hauling heavy wheat loads down steep grades using teams of horses or steers with the brakes applied the entire descent was long and dangerous. Even today the roads used to access the canyon are steep and low gear and brakes need to be applied even in a light passenger car. An approach to avoid the steep dangerous grades was building grain slides. These involved wooden tubes that funneled the wheat to the river below. The initial design worked, but the heat generated toasted the wheat black. With baffles and vents the system worked better. Coordination was required however with loading the slides at the top and bagging the wheat below. A tram system was built in the Mayfield area. Bill Gulick included a fictional description uses of the tram system in his historic novel Roll on Columbia and reports that at least five grain slides were operated along the river.
While making a drive down to the canyon bottom in the eastern Palouse, I noted a road called Tramway Road that skirted along the upper edge of the canyon and decided it would be worth the minor added distance on the route to the canyon bottom. The route led to great views of the canyon and had the added surprise of the remnants of an old tramway used for hauling wheat to the river.

Top of old tramway with river below
Trace of tramway route down the slope. The canyon is 1,600 feet deep. 

The lower Snake River is still heavily used for grain transport. In fact with the lower four dams river transport can be done with large boats and over a longer period of time. Trucks and development of paved roads has eased access to the river and with bulk transport the old wheat slides and tramways have been long out of use.
I should add a brief note on the geology of the canyon. The horizontal bands on the slopes are primarily various basalt lava flows of the Columbia River basalt group. However, the base of the canyon at this location has eroded down into the underlying ancient continental margin.


Sam Crawford said...

Outstanding pics, Dan!

Anonymous said...

Cool. I own a parcel of wheat and barley farm near the little town of Oakesdale, so this interested me. Yes, and you have some great photos. If you ever get to the top of Steptoe Butte, you can get some amazingly beautiful images, especially in the spring and fall.

Lisa McShane said...

Incredible pictures!

Dan McShane said...

There must be something about plunging ridges and valleys that appeals to the eye.
I would like to get to Steptoe Butte agian sometime soon.