By Sherry Woods Kaseberg
Columbia River Gorge hikers call it Biggs Arch, and now it’s official. It’s one of a few of these geological prizes in the area. It’s worth a hike that offers grand views up and down the river – roads, railroads, barge traffic, wind turbines and Maryhill Museum of Art.
We might imagine entrepreneurs William Biggs and Sam Hill standing at this arch envisioning the development of agriculture, roads, railroads, ferries and bridges.
Biggs Arch is on the bench above Hwy. 30 on the segment of the Oregon Trail where wagons descended to the river about a mile west of Biggs. Barely visible from Highway 30, it can be reached by hiking up the trail between the Oregon Trail markers, and can be viewed from I-84 a short distance west of the grain elevators.
On October 30, 2010, the Oregon Geographic Names Board voted to recommend approval of several names, including for Biggs Arch and Mattie’s Hump near Biggs Junction in Sherman County.
The Board comprises journalists, historians, cartographers and geographers who volunteer their time to consider proposals for new and changed names for Oregon geographic features.
Since this little-known basalt arch had no official name, it was reasonable to propose a name already used by hikers that also honors the name of William H. Biggs whose contributions to the area include legislation establishing rail sidings.
According to an account published in An Illustrated History of Central Oregon in 1905, the Hon. William H. Biggs, a retired farmer and land owner in Sherman County, was living in Wasco in a most picturesque residence (which has been preserved) surrounded by a spacious lawn and large and beautiful shade trees.
He was born in Belmont County, Ohio, May 12, 1831, the son of John and Charlotte (Coleman) Biggs. His family moved to Lewis County, Missouri when he was nine years of age.
When he was 19 years old, in 1850, he crossed the plains with an ox train to California, where he remained two years engaged in mining. He returned to Missouri, where he worked in the forwarding and commission business for three years at Canton, Missouri, on the Mississippi river. The next three years he served in the capacity of a pilot on the Mississippi River, and then followed the livery business at Canton three years, before going to Colorado for a short time.
On March 10, 1859, at Canton, Missouri, Biggs was united in marriage to Martha E. Ellis who was born in Lewis County, Missouri, the daughter of Judge William Ellis and Sarah (Cassady) Ellis. In 1870, William, 35, and Martha, 28, were living there with her parents, their two children having died young.
Biggs was appointed sheriff of Lewis County by Governor Gamble. Two years afterward he began trading in cattle, horses and mules, continuing until 1871, when he went to Deer Lodge, Montana, returning in the fall. The following spring he was back in Montana with a drove of five hundred cattle.
In 1873, he engaged in a variety of business enterprises in Missouri, and in the spring of 1874 he took five head of fine trotting horses from Lexington, Kentucky to Deer Lodge, Montana after which he located at Dixon, California.
In February, 1880, he came to Sherman County and secured land where Wasco was built. He seeded the first crop of wheat in the spring of 1881 and brought from California the first gang plow introduced in this section. With limited capital, he managed to push wheat growing along and purchased more land.
In 1885, Biggs was in Salem successfully securing the passage of a bill compelling railroads to place sidings where needed. Two were in Sherman County, one rail siding at Biggs named as a compliment to his efforts, and the other at Rufus, named for Rufus Wallis on whose land the town was built.
Biggs was elected a member of the Oregon Legislature in 1886 and introduced the Maximum Freight Bill which passed the house but was defeated in the senate. He was appointed to the railroad commission by Governor Pennoyer, but he did not serve. In 1888 he was nominated for the State senate, and was defeated.
On February 20, 1897, The Dalles Times Mountaineer noted that according to W.H. Biggs of Wasco, there was a strong probability that a railroad would be built to Wasco that season. The editor indicated that it would likely be an Oregon Railway & Navigation branch; then a day later he reported that this was strongly denied – that it would be a strictly local undertaking.
The Wasco Observer of November 2, 1899, reported that at a discussion sponsored by the Wasco Library Association that week on the question of a railroad to Wasco, two speakers had argued that “a railroad running through the county would undoubtedly be the downfall of the county morally, socially and financially.” But several forces were leading to the possibility of a line – the increase in wheat output – cattle can walk to the nearest railroad, wheat cannot – the growth of the towns, and the reorganization of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company.
In Rails to the Mid-Columbia Wheatlands, the Columbia Southern and Great Southern Railroads and the Development of Sherman and Wasco Counties, Oregon (1979), John F. Due and Giles French noted that, “It is perhaps just as well that the name of the engineer who planned the route is not known because the line was from beginning to end a somewhat jerry-built affair. The line was started from Biggs, a siding at the foot of Spanish Hollow named after W.H. Biggs, a homesteader and later U.S. land commissioner in The Dalles who persuaded the legislature to require a siding at this point. As a result, the line had to climb very steeply from the beginning, whereas had it been started near the Deschutes, in the fashion of the Oregon Trunk, it could have climbed gradually into the canyon – although such a route would have been plagued by the shifting sand dunes that characterized that stretch of the Columbia shore at the time.
The City of Wasco was platted on portions of the Clark Dunlap, McPherson, Levi Armsworthy and William H. Biggs claims. In 1901, Biggs filed a plat for Biggs’ Second Addition to Wasco with the county clerk. By 1905, he owned about eight hundred acres. He began renting this land at the time he was appointed receiver of the land office at The Dalles where he remained for over four years.
~ Shaver, F. A., Arthur P. Rose, R. F. Steele, and A. E. Adams, compilers. “An Illustrated History of Central Oregon.” (Embracing Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, Wheeler, Crook, Lake, & Klamath Counties) Spokane, WA: Western Historical Publishing Co., 1905. p. 497.