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History circles back

Wagon wheel found during excavation for Sandy River bridge
by: Jim Clark A backhoe operator discovered this old wagon wheel buried near the Sandy River at the bridge work site in Troutdale. The wheel was found near the location of an old wagon road. So far, people are guessing that the wheel could be 150 years old.

It's not unusual for construction crews in the Columbia River Gorge to occasionally come across a historic artifact buried deep in the ground or under water.

In years past, crews have unearthed fenders from Model T cars, pieces of china from the early 1900s, old milepost signs from the Columbia River Highway, broken bits from stoves and numerous cans and bottles, such as a glass bottle of hair tonic from the early 1900s.

However, construction crews on the Interstate 84-Jordan Road project in Troutdale were still surprised and excited on Wednesday, Aug. 10, when a backhoe operator, excavating the eastside of the Sandy River for a bridge piling, dug up something unexpected - an antique wagon wheel, buried about 12 feet below the sand.

Given its depth below ground and its location downriver from a pioneer wagon road, crews surmised that it might have come from an Oregon pioneer's wagon, possibly making it up to 150 years old.

Kimberly Dinwiddie, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said most artifacts that crews have found in the Columbia River Gorge date from the late 1800s to the 1940s.

'There's buried treasure of our past all over this area,' Dinwiddie said. 'However, finding a wagon wheel that may be 150 years old is unusual.'

The wheel stands about 4 feet tall and has a metal outer rim and an inner rim made of wood, although a section of the wooden rim is missing. The wooden wheel spokes were hand tooled to fit into holes bored into the wooden rim. The worn wood has the texture of rough tree bark.

Hardened mud clings to parts of the wheel, while small stones have lodged into the crevices of the wheel, including a large gray stone firmly stuck in the wheel's hub.

ODOT has not yet had an archeological expert examine the wheel to determine its age, Dinwiddie said.

A relic from pioneer history?

If the wheel is as old as crews suspect, however, it could possibly be a leftover relic from The Dalles-Sandy Wagon Road, which would have passed through the area upriver from the construction site.

Built in the 1870s through funding from the Oregon Legislature, The Dalles-Sandy Wagon Road ran between the mouth of the Sandy River to The Dalles through the gorge. The wagon road crossed the Sandy River near where the wheel was found, according to a historic map of the trail.

According to Hood River-based historian Sally Donovan, who wrote about the Sandy River Delta, homesteader Felix Hicklin claimed almost 325 acres along the eastside of the Sandy River in 1851. He eventually owned up to 1,100 acres on the eastside of the Sandy River around what is now Lewis and Clark State Park, running a dairy business until the family sold the ranch in 1908.

Troutdale historian and Outlook columnist Sharon Nesbit wrote that a ferry was used to cross the Sandy River near the Lewis and Clark State Park boat ramp. The railroad was built and crossed the Hicklin land in 1882.

Other ferries that crossed the Sandy River in that vicinity operated through 1912, when the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway bridge was built.

Gresham resident Bus Gibson, who has studied many of the mountain and historic trails in the area, said The Dalles-Sandy Wagon Road was very difficult, steep and treacherous for travelers to use. When settlers reached the Hicklin farm, they would have used a ferry to cross the river or 'attempted to find a crossing besides the ferry,' he said.

Gibson said wagon roads, routes and wagon tracks can still be found throughout the area, many of which lie within 60 feet of Interstate 84. Portions of The Dalles-Sandy Wagon Road can be found mostly in Hood River County near Cascade Locks, he said.

'It's possible (the wheel) might have come from an earlier wagon road at the river there,' he said.

Rolled away

The old wagon wheel has been removed from the Sandy River and stored away for protection.

Kimberly Dinwiddie, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said the agency works with the Oregon Historic Preservation Office and with archeologists when artifacts are discovered in order to determine what should be done.

She said ODOT's environmental staff also is searching for a historical museum or society that would be willing to take the wagon wheel.

'We're building a bridge for future generations, but we found something from the past,' Dinwiddie said. 'This wheel was used before we even started building our infrastructure.'

So far, the wagon wheel is the only historic relic crews have found during the Sandy River bridge project, she said.

'We'll definitely be open about it if we find more,' she said.