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The Fascinating History of Zigzag, Oregon

By Robert Matsumura

The Fascinating History of Zigzag, Oregon

Famous Oregon Trail pioneer Joel Palmer, after whom Mt. Hood’s Palmer glacier is named, observed about a ravine on the mountain: “The manner of descending is to turn directly to the right, go zigzag for about one hundred yards, then turn short round, and go zigzag until you come under the place where you started from; then to the right and so on till you reach the bottom.”
Palmer, along with Samuel Barlow and William Rector, led two groups of pioneers on an expeditionary trip from the Dalles into the Mount Hood wilderness in an attempt to discover an overland route to Oregon City. Prior to this, pioneers upon reaching the Dalles had no choice but to pay the heavy fees charged by the barge operators to transport their wagons to Oregon City, and then make their way on foot or horseback along the shores of the Columbia River until they reached their destination.
While searching for a route from the Dalles to the Willamette Valley, Palmer and his companions crossed from the White River to a canyon near the timberline along the southwest face of Mount Hood. In the process, Palmer and his party were forced to navigate their way down a particularly steep ridge through a series of switchbacks. In the wake of this arduous descent, Palmer and his people named the ravine, the mountain and the canyon “Zigzag.” A glacier perched above the canyon was dubbed the Zigzag Glacier.
The venture to blaze a route to Oregon City proved successful. A year later the Barlow Road was established whereby those arriving on the Oregon Trail could opt to travel overland in their wagons to Oregon City rather than paying the exorbitant rates demanded by the barge operators. A number of toll gates were established to access the Barlow Road, one of which was located at the Forest Service campground just east of the town of Rhododendron. In 1917 a post office was established at a community west of the Barlow Toll Gate. In September of 1918 this post office and the community it serviced were officially named Zigzag. It was said that the town took its name from the Zigzag River located nearby.
William (Bill) John Lenz, one of Zigzag’s prominent residents, was well known as a musician, hiker, guide, hunter and storyteller. Lenz was also a skilled wood craftsman and created furniture, log structures, and eventually the original Mazama Lodge at Government Camp. In 1927 Lenz built the Zigzag Inn from hand-hewn logs at the intersection of Lolo Pass Road and Mount Hood Loop Road (today’s Highway 26).
During the Great Depression, Camp Zigzag was established to house Oregon’s first Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This camp, constructed in May of 1933, served as home to the men of the CCC, who during their years of service helped with reforestation efforts and the creation of campgrounds and trails in the Mount Hood Wilderness area. Among the camps built by the 145-man company are the Tollgate Campground and the Camp Creek Campground, which are both still popular today. The men of the CCC also built the Zigzag Ranger Station for the U.S. Forest Service, provided the labor for the terracing for Timberline Lodge, and blazed the Timberline Trail. When President Franklin Roosevelt arrived at Mount Hood on September 28, 1937 to dedicate Timberline Lodge, the men of the CCC lined the road at Zigzag to welcome him.
Today, the Zigzag Inn that Lenz built in 1927 is still in business and a popular stop for folks traveling to and from the mountain. Throughout the years, townsfolk, travelers and loggers all enjoyed the Inn’s hospitality. During the 1950s, the present downstairs of the Inn was known as the “cellar” where music and dancing took place until the early hours of the morning. A gas station once resided at the location as well and was a convenient place for locals and visitors from Portland alike to fuel up.
In 1974 the Zigzag post office closed. While the community of Zigzag remains unincorporated, along with Welches, Rhododendron, Wemme, Aldercreek and Brightwood, it comprises what is known as the Villages of Mount Hood.
The next time you find yourself journeying to Mount Hood, have a thought for Joel Palmer and his intrepid companions as you pass through Zigzag. Stop to admire the rugged craftsmanship of Bill Lenz at the Zigzag Inn and enjoy a hearty meal while you’re there. Lastly, the hard work and dedication of the CCC workmen cannot be overstated. Their efforts from 1933 to 1942 literally helped shape the environs of Mount Hood, both recreationally and ecologically, into the magnificent wilderness area we know and love today. Zigzag is not a name one readily forgets, which is only fitting, as this humble and historic alpine community certainly deserves to be remembered!

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