Shaniko: From wool capital of the world to ghost town

Featured image: Today’s Shaniko, Oregon (photo by Cheryl Landes)

Unlike many Old West towns, Shaniko, Oregon didn’t spring into existence from a vast gold strike. Wool was its lifeblood.

In the mid-1800s, the high desert of southern Wasco County was a vast, quiet land full of bunchgrass, sagebrush, and rocks. A gold rush in Canyon City broke the silence in 1862 when thousands of miners walked or rode horses through isolated country to reach the new settlement about 190 miles southeast of The Dalles.

Shaniko City HallShaniko City Hall (photo by Cheryl Landes)

Traveling to Canyon City was difficult, even on horseback. No roads existed, so pack trains carried supplies. Pack train operators risked their lives taking necessities to the miners and hauling gold back to The Dalles. Hostile Indians often attacked, or bandits robbed them.

The constant threats sparked complaints that finally reached Washington, DC, and in February 1867, the State of Oregon received a grant to build a military wagon road from The Dalles to Fort Boise, Idaho. After the road was finished, settlers began homesteading between The Dalles and Canyon City. By the time the gold rush ended, they had established a strong sheep ranching community. Sheep were an ideal choice for central Oregon, because they could traverse uneven and rocky terrain easily and did not tire quickly.

Sheep ranchers transported their wool to The Dalles, the only market in the region. One delivery often meant traveling over 200 miles round-trip.

Shaniko SchoolShaniko School (photo by Cheryl Landes)

To make shipping more convenient, some bankers and businessmen invested funds in 1898 to build the Columbia Southern Railway at Biggs Junction. The developers chose Cross Hollows, a former stagecoach stop, as the terminus for the line, and bought a section of land on a hill overlooking the old station. They plotted streets for a town and installed a water system. Ranchers were so enthusiastic about the new railroad that they worked their own teams and scoops during the two-year project.

Cross Hollows’ name was changed to Shaniko in honor of August Scherneckau, the former stage-stop keeper and postmaster. Shaniko was a nickname the Indians gave Scherneckau, because they couldn’t pronounce his real name. While living in Cross Hollows, Scherneckau had contributed greatly to the town’s prosperity by building a store, a saloon, and a sixteen-room inn that generated up to $50,000 each year during the Canyon City gold rush.

Shaniko BankShaniko Bank (photo by Cheryl Landes)

When the first passenger train arrived in Shaniko in May 1900, a town of construction workers greeted the newcomers. So did J.J. Wiley, an enterprising businessman. When he heard that the railroad would end in Shaniko, he quickly built a saloon to serve the anticipated flood of settlers and traders.

Within a year, Shaniko was transformed from a tent camp of construction workers into a trade center, where horse-drawn wagon trains hauled wood and wheat into town and carried supplies out to small communities scattered over a 20,000-square-mile area. Shaniko Warehouse, the largest wool and wheat warehouse in the state, was finished that year. Its capacity was four million pounds of wool and any amount of wheat that arrived there. A second warehouse, covering 75,000 square feet, followed, along with other buildings to store hay, coal, barley, and kerosene.

Shaniko warehouseA warehouse in Shaniko (photo by Cheryl Landes)

Shaniko became the “wood capital of the world.” Population estimates range from about 800 to 1,000 during the boom years. (Sources do not agree on exact figures.) People from as far away as San Francisco and Boston attended the large wool sales. The streets, hotel, and saloons were often crowded with buyers, salesmen who advertised their wares, and curious visitors.

Freighters brought great bags of wool into town on rigs of three or four wagons behind four- or six-horse teams. Empty wagons and teams stayed overnight at the wagon yard, an enclosed space located near the houses of pleasure. The houses of pleasure were owned by the only woman in Shaniko bold enough to smoke a cigarette in public.

Shaniko-old houseAn old house in Shaniko (photo by Cheryl Landes)

In the spring, ranchers who lived closer to Shaniko herded their sheep to the shearing yards at the west side of town to remove the wool. Each shearer was assigned his own pen, a sheep was herded into it, and he started clipping. When one sheep was sheared, it would be led away and replaced by another.

As many as three wool sales were scheduled every year in Shaniko. A private railroad Pullman car took buyers to town the night before a sale to give them a full day to examine and bid on the wool they wanted.

On the day of the sale, a warehouseman would pull down a sack from the top of each wool owner’s pile and slit it open. Buyers removed a fleece, separated a handful of wool, and examined it for texture, shrinkage, and staple. They then placed sealed bids on the wool that best suited their purposes. The warehouse foreman received the bids, which he discussed with the owner of the wool to determine if a price was acceptable. If the owner agreed to a price, he received a check. After that, the owner settled accounts in town—often including a stop for refreshments at a saloon—and returned to his ranch.

When the sale ended, the buyers left Shaniko. The wool remained behind to be baled, marked, and loaded in boxcars for shipment.

Shaniko General StoreThe general store in Shaniko (photo by Cheryl Landes)

As the wool market expanded, so did the railroad. By 1902, Shaniko included maintenance shops to repair equipment and keep the engines running smoothly. Branch offices representing the Columbia Southern Railway opened in Moro and Portland.

Despite Shaniko’s overwhelming progress, other forces were beginning the downfall of both the town and the railroad. In 1911, a rival railroad completed a line along the Deschutes Canyon connecting routes into California. Small communities that formerly used the terminal at Shaniko now had direct access to their own railroad. Later that year, a fire swept through Shaniko’s business district, destroying most of the buildings. None were rebuilt.

The Columbia Southern Railway continued to ship carloads of wool, wheat, and livestock from Shaniko, but not enough to keep the town alive. By 1959, Shaniko was declared a ghost town, and five years later, the railroad closed after melting snow from an unusually heavy snowfall washed out the line in Biggs Canyon.

Today, Shaniko’s wooden sidewalks lead to emptiness. Other than the 30 residents living here, the only humans present are the curious travelers who pull off US Highway 97 to take pictures of the old warehouses, water tower, schoolhouse, and the Shaniko Hotel. The high desert was once again silent.

Shaniko Sage MuseumShaniko Sage Museum (photo by Cheryl Landes)

Starting in 2004, some community organizations formed to restore the buildings of Shaniko. Although the work continues, the schoolhouse, church, and city hall have revived. Some businesses, such as a general store, museum, gift shop, and restaurant moved into other buildings and are open randomly from April through September. A toy and game museum is open in the schoolhouse on weekends, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. The town also hosts Shaniko Days the first weekend of August with live music, food, gunfights, games, quilt show, auction, and antique sale.

Shaniko is located on US Highway 97, 80 miles north of Bend and 128 miles southeast of Portland. For more information, visit the town’s website.

Shaniko Wedding ChapelThe old church, now known as the Shaniko Wedding Chapel (photo by Cheryl Landes)

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