Union County has one less unsolved mystery today thanks to the efforts of a former Elgin police officer.
Ronnie Allen solved the puzzle as he was pulling his car into the driveway of a Union County home recently and saw a 10-by-20 inch stone marker in its yard, one with large etched letters reading: Old Oregon Trail 1843-57.
Allen immediately knew he had found what had been missing for about 100 years — an Oregon Trail marker that legendary pioneer Ezra Meeker had helped erect and dedicate on April 11, 1906, in the lower Ladd Canyon area.
“My mind lit up like a candle (when I saw the marker),” said Allen, who had been searching for the marker for two months.
Allen eventually purchased the 150-pound marker from its owner and showed it to officials from the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, who confirmed that it was indeed the missing stone. Allen then donated it to the interpretive center, where it is now displayed.
Cheri Garver, a visitor information assistant at the center, is delighted with the new addition, which is part of an Ezra Meeker exhibit.
“Thousands of people (each year) can see it and touch it,” Garver said. “It is pretty cool.”
She said it is remarkable that Allen was able to find it.
“It was pretty amazing to find that marker almost 100 years after it was lost,” Garver said.
In the early 20th century, while in his 70s, Meeker traveled across much of the United States in an ox-drawn wagon along the Oregon Trail to draw attention to the historic route in an effort to preserve it. The marker that Allen recovered is one of 15 that were placed or dedicated in Meeker’s presence during his travels, according to “The Missing Chapters” by Dennis M. Larsen.
The Oregon Trail was close to Meeker’s heart because he had taken the route west from Iowa in 1852 when he was a young man. He later settled in what is now Puyallup, Washington, and was the town’s first mayor.
The 1906 dedication ceremony for the lower Ladd Canyon marker was attended by about 30 people, including Meeker and children from a nearby school. The day before, Meeker had been present at the unveiling of a similar stone marker at B Avenue and Walnut Street in La Grande. Close to 800 people, many of whom were schoolchildren, attended the ceremony, according to a story in the April 11, 1906, edition of The Observer. That stone today sits 50-100 feet from where it was originally placed, Allen said.
Meeker, Allen said, donated $5 to help with the purchase of both the Union County stones.
Allen learned about the missing lower Ladd Canyon stone marker earlier this year while researching the route the Oregon Trail followed in Union County. An Elgin police officer in the 1970s, Allen put the investigative techniques he had learned during his law enforcement career to good use while searching for the marker. He started by going door to door in the neighborhoods near the stone marker at B Avenue and Walnut Street, asking people if they knew about the lower Ladd Canyon marker. Information he gained led him to other parts of La Grande in search of tips and leads, which he received plenty of.
“Some were accurate, some were worthless,” Allen said.
Despite a few dead ends, he never considered stopping his search.
“It was like chasing someone with a red light and siren going,” Allen said. “I was not going to give up the search.”
The marker he was searching for had been erected a quarter-mile east of Pierce Road on Hot Lake Lane, where it was surrounded by a pile of rocks. According to Allen, those rocks are still there today.
The marker Allen recovered is one of two connected to Meeker that are now in the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center’s collection. Garver said she admires Allen’s investigative skills and his humility.
“He’s a very humble person. He’s not out for recognition. He wants to make sure history is preserved,” she said.
Allen decided to donate the stone marker to the interpretive center rather than return it to its original location near Hot Lake Lane to keep it safe from theft and vandalism. Allen also believes it is best for the marker to be in a place where thousands of people can see it each year.
“It belongs to the people of the state,” Allen said.