Early 1800s & the Applegate Brothers
Between 1825 and 1843, Hudson Bay trappers were the first white people to travel through the Rogue River Valley. Early settlers and trappers frequently referred to the local Indian tribes as "The Rogues" because of their willingness to fight for their rights.
In 1843 the Applegate brothers, Jesse and Lindsay, were part of a band of settlers traveling the Oregon Trail from Missouri. The young sons of both men died while crossing the Columbia River on a raft that was carrying all of their belongings. At that point the Applegate brothers vowed to backtrack and hopefully discover a safer, alternate route to Oregon and avoid the treacherous Columbia River. Beginning at Fort Hall, Idaho in 1846, they forged a new trail through Nevada, California and eventually through the Rogue Valley. However, they failed to note the spectacular beauty which would one day provide Oregon's greatest tourist attractions. The trail followed by the Applegate party was on the south side of the Rogue River and crossed at Fort Vannoy about five miles west of present Grants Pass.
The Applegate wagon train of emigrants in 1846 made the first wagon tracks through the beautiful Rogue River Valley. The emigrants of that time had but one destination in mind, the Willamette Valley, and Josephine County was named for Josephine Rollins Ort, who came to Illinois Valley with her father in 1851. Her party was credited with the first discovery of gold in Southern Oregon. This event was the catalyst for a major migration to Southern Oregon of prospectors seeking their fortunes.
While pioneers set down roots and homesteaded, the first real industrialists came in search of gold. In 1852, sailors who had deserted their ship near Crescent City started for the newly discovered gold fields at Jacksonville, but found rich deposits at a location in the Illinois Valley just 25 miles south of the present Grants Pass. Then the rush was on! The promise of gold caused Grants Pass to grow quickly. Men flooded north from California to pan for gold in creeks, sift through mud in sluice boxes and to later use large hydraulic works to find it. This discovery at "Sailor Diggin's" immediately became an important mining center with a population of several thousand. The name was later changed to Waldo in honor of William Waldo, brother of Daniel Waldo, a prominent figure in early Oregon history. In 1858, many miners left for new discoveries on the Frazier River of British Columbia never to return again. Nothing remains today of the many mining towns that sprang up in the Illinois Valley.
The Railroad & Our Name
Like many towns, Grants Pass owes much of its growth to the railroad. Grants Pass served as a stagecoach stop in the 1860's and became a rail head with the completion of the Oregon-California Railroad (now Southern Pacific) in 1884. The name was selected to honor General U.S. Grant's success at Vicksburg the same year the post office was established in 1865. Until after 1900, our name still retained the original spelling of Grant's Pass, using an apostrophe. The rapid growth of population in the county brought with it tradesman of many types, including miners, farmers, lumberman, and orchardists. Grants Pass became the trading center of the county.
Center of Activity
When the tracks were extended into the modest settlement of Grants Pass around 1880, things starting hopping. Suddenly, the center of activity shifted from the western part of Josephine County, with its mining, to the east and Grants Pass. The first downtown building was constructed in 1883. In 1885, Grants Pass won an election to be the new seat of Josephine County, beating out Kerbyville (now Kerby) and Wilderville for the honor. The county’s first courthouse went up in Grants Pass in 1886. The first church here was the Newman Methodist Church, built in 1887 on the site of the present building, which was completed in 1890 under the leadership of Rev. T.L. Jones. By the 1890's the Grants Pass Water, Light and Power Co. generated power at a dam a few hundred feet west of the present Caveman Bridge, the first of several bridges to span the Rogue River. The city became a bustling frontier town with dirt streets, hotels and lots of saloons. It gradually matured and grew, adding banks, schools, varied stores and even an opera house. The Historic District continues to be a popular spot to explore because it constantly grows and develops yet preserves the history and stories of many buildings.
Lumber & Farming
The county’s timber was a useful resource from the beginning, if only to supply logs for cabins and firewood to keep the chill off. Once the easy gold was gone and even the Chinese miners had moved on, the county needed something else to survive. Lumber was that something.
The trees began to fall. Mills large and small popped up around the county, but especially in Grants Pass, where the railroad stopped. They turned out wood products of all kinds, from boxes to window sashes to planks. Much like the occasional mine, such as the one found on Creekside Road today, the mills are also still working. The log yards are full of pyramids of trees - but not like it used to be.
All along, of course, there were farms and dairies. Local growers tried various products, including vineyards and hops, both of which became less profitable once prohibition began. For a while the county was a major U.S. producer of gladiola bulbs.
Meanwhile, people began to realize that tourism was an industry itself. As the other industries lost some of their muscle, this new idea began and continues to take hold. Tourists come to Grants Pass to get a taste of small town charm in our Historic District, cozy lodging, restaurants with GMO-free and local ingredients, unique family-owned shops and so much more.
You can discover and learn more history about Grants Pass at the Josephine County Historical Society.