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Wednesday, January 6, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Oregon's Other Trail -- A Pioneer Route And Its Compelling Story Was Nearly Lost To History - Until A Family Opened Its Own Pocketbook To Help Bring Adventure To Life

Traveling south into Oregon along Interstate 5, few motorists are aware they are approaching a historic pathway that played a major role in the settlement of the Northwest.

Near Dallas - a town of about 10,000 a few miles west of Salem - motorists begin to follow the Applegate Trail, a southern alternate route to the better-known Oregon Trail.

It's a pioneering route with a compelling history, but one whose story has gathered more dust than attention in the last 150 years.

With the help of her family, a single-minded woman in a quiet little valley some 200 miles south of the Washington-Oregon border has set out to help change all that.

Betty Gaustad, a former flight attendant for United Airlines, says the story of the Applegate Trail has been waiting all this time to be told properly. With her daughter and brother, she's trying to do just that.

The Applegate Trail Interpretive Center celebrated its opening this fall in the community of Sunny Valley, about 14 miles north of Grants Pass.

The center is in a new 5,500-square-foot metal building behind a two-story, fir-columned Western false front that blends in with the rustic countryside.

It's a rare find among such enterprises - a tasteful, precise, carefully crafted collage of artifacts, murals, historical fact and pioneering spirit. It pays tribute to a people who endured great hardships while seeking new and better lives in the West.

The center is part museum, to be sure. But if the word "interpretive" means teaching that stresses appreciation and understanding, that combines factual with explanatory information, then it lives up to its official name as well.

A tour begins with an introduction to the trail's history. There is a video documentary on life in the wagons, in the camps and of brutal river crossings.

It's a compelling story, one born of tragedy.

Brothers Charles, Lindsay and Jesse Applegate and their families followed the Oregon Trail west with the "Great Migration" of 1843. On the last, hard leg of their journey down the Columbia River, a raft overturned. Brothers Jesse and Lindsay each lost a son to the river. Their friend, Alexander McMillan, also perished.

These pioneers settled in the Corvallis area.

In the summer of 1846, the brothers set out to fulfill a vow: to blaze a safer, southern, overland route from southern Idaho to Oregon.

With a handful of followers, they slowly made their way from the Corvallis area to Southern Oregon, across the Cascade Mountains and the deserts of Northern Nevada into Eastern Idaho.

At Fort Hall, they recruited westbound settlers to follow them on a southern route to the Willamette Valley. The first of many thousands of wagons to use the trail headed out in mid-July.

The trail was relatively easy at first. Southwest into Nevada to follow the Humbolt River west, then turning northwest across the Black Rock desert into northern California and southern Oregon.

These Oregon-bound pioneers endured dust storms, flooded rivers, Indian attacks, treacherous mountain passes, disease and food shortages.

Many blamed the Applegates for their distress. They felt they had been misled or tricked, that the brothers had not prepared them for such a difficult journey.

In Gaustad's interpretive center, that hardship is compressed into lifelike exhibits and film that bring the pain and disappointment to a solitary point - Grave Creek and the surrounding countryside.

Here, the emigrants bogged down amid a series of treacherous mountain passes they had not anticipated. Wagons foundered and failed and tried again to make it up the steep slopes of Mount Sexton, Smith Hill and the region's high country north of Wolf Creek.

A huge mural by Ken Dolan on the center's east wall gives a stunning perspective to the rugged landscape, to the mountains that separated the settlers from their dreams.

The struggle is focused in the story of Martha Leland Crowley, a 16-year-old girl, who, during that first trek of 1846, used the last of her youthful energy urging others to press on when things were most bleak. She died of typhoid and is buried beside a creek a short distance from the center. The stream is known as Grave Creek, in memory of her struggle.

Up to 20 people died on that first trek westward along the new trail - six in the Crowley family alone.

"It's a little-understood history story," Gaustad says. "It's a story that needed to be told. This is where the first emigrants spent more time than any other on the trail. It's where hardship reached its peak."

Gaustad developed the center at the urging of her mother, Irene

Gaustad, who died last winter.

Gaustad mortgaged her ranch and business properties to finance the center. She received some help from regional economic grants, but financed 85 percent of the project herself.

With the help of her brother, Dennis Gaustad, and daughter, Jacquelana Ladd, of Sunny Valley, Gaustad enlarged her dream adding the story of the settlement of the Grave Creek, Leland and Sunny Valley areas.

The center devotes display rooms to the discovery of gold in the area in 1851, to the Indian Wars which followed, the stagecoach era, the coming of the railroad, and the lives and times of early settlers in the Leland area.

The center was busy on the day that Grace Blanchard, a pioneer in her own right, paid her first visit.

Blanchard has been a teacher in Josephine County all her adult life, and has a passion for getting the Applegate Trail story told. For years, she carried traveling displays of the trail and its history into schools throughout the Rogue Valley, and came to be known to thousands of young students as "The Applegate Lady."

Her eyes beamed as she looked around the new center.

"It's marvelous," she said. "It's just wonderful."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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