From Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon, hundreds of thousands of pioneers from the east traveled the fabled Oregon Trail in search of new opportunities.
Idaho, with its vast, dry sagebrush plains, proved to be one of the more arduous parts of the trip. No where is this more evident than in Glenns Ferry at Three Islands State Park, the place where 53,000 of these travelers made the choice to cross the powerful Snake River.
Glenns Ferry is a spit of a town with not much more than the Oregon Trail Café, the Starlight Saloon and a smattering of other businesses. Turn off highway 84, head south toward the Snake River and follow the signs to
Three Island State Park and Oregon Trail Historic and Education Center. The park’s $4 day use entry fee will get you into the Center too, which is well worth your time.
It seems a bit strange that they selected an ultra-modern building design for the Historic and Education Center. The wooden pioneer wagon that greets visitors in front of the building seems at odds with the architecture. No matter. Inside you’ll find sophisticated and informative displays that tell the story not only of the famous river crossings, but also the impact the mass migration of settlers had on the local Shoshone and Paiute Indian tribes.
Start your tour with the eight-minute video that gives an overview of place this area played in the shaping of the west. The emigrants traveling westward could choose to cross the Snake to the north at Three Islands or they could continue on a more southerly route. A successful crossing meant an easier trail to Oregon with fresh water and grass to feed their animals. An unsuccessful crossing could spell disaster – losing everything and oven their lives.
The emigrants arrived at Three Islands exhausted after four months of arduous travel. The Snake River was wild and not dammed and could only be cross in late July or early August when the water was two to four feet. Local Indians who often camped by the river during the summer, fishing and hunting, knew the river well. For a price, they helped the travelers cross the swirling waters, often riding or swimming horses across first to encourage the other livestock to follow. The natives also traded dried salmon, a welcome addition to the emigrants’ stores of bacon and flour.
The Education Center’s dioramas and audio displays do an excellent job of exploring not only the emigrants crossing, but also the intersection of cultures between the white and the Indians. One video display of local tribe members and white ranchers has them discussing how the mass immigration of thousands of white settlers devastated the local tribes and led to their persecution and the establishment of the reservation system. They also talk about how the annual Three Island Crossing re-enactment, which both groups perform every August, is part of the healing process.
After your visit to the Historic and Education Center, walk down toward the river and you’ll find a trail that edges the river. If you walk a short distance, you can see the actual crossing site.
To get an even better sense of the crossing’s geography and see parts of the actual Oregon Trail , ask for directions at the Center to the Snake River Overlook. It’s a short drive over a bridge and up a gravel road into the hills on the south side of the river. At a green cattle guard, take a left. Watch for stakes on the side of the road indicating the actual Oregon Trail. You can see the faint track as it winds through the sagebrush. Up here, overlooking the river below, the earth is parched and dry. You can easily imagine how the pioneers must have felt and they bumped their way along this difficult trail.
A bit further up the road is the overlook where you can get a good view of the three islands that offered a way to cross the river. The south side of the river is now cultivated and irrigated farmland. The north side is the park. You can easily see the scars left on the north shore from the crossings of thousands of livestock and heavy wagons.