How to cross the Snake River? Three Island Crossing State Park is the place the pioneers on the Oregon Trail favored.
Drinking water for the pioneers and all their livestock was a primary consideration in route selection on the Oregon Trail. Without water, all would die.
In Idaho, the pioneers used two major routes, called the Oregon Trail. The main route described here crosses the Snake River at Three Island Crossing. We are staying at Three Island Crossing State Park, where the crossings were made. The other route crosses the Snake River near Idaho Falls but was longer, even though it had better water sources.
The main route of Oregon Trail follows the Snake River valley on the south side of the river, from about American Falls to the current border of Oregon. In eastern Oregon, the route departs the Snake River Valley heading towards Baker City. Crossing the Snake River was important for the pioneers so that they could have more reliable water supplies coming from the mountains in Idaho.
On the south side of the Snake River, water was a bigger problem because of the lack of streams. On the north side of the river, water was less of a problem but the terrain was much rougher. So on the south route, daily trips were made down to the river and back up from the canyon, in areas that it was possible to get water for the pioneers and all their livestock. This would have been a full-time job, even if you weren’t trying to travel 20 miles each day.
The North Route
There was much more water on the north side of the Snake River. Water even flows out of the side of the rock, making about 1000 waterfalls, at the thousand spring area, all flowing into the Snake River. These springs, however, were on the north slope of the river and thus unusable from the south side. Also, the Malad River flows into the Snake a little downriver from the thousand springs area, also unusable by the pioneers, because it also came from the north.
The Malad River cuts a huge gorge into the rock and was unpassable requiring a huge detour. Thus the route was on the south side of the river. Once the pioneers got to the west of the Malad Gorge, they wanted to get to the, easier route on the north side of the river, to get easy access to the water. Getting to the north side was painful but very necessary.
Three Islands Crossing is nearly the only place a safe crossing can be made, usually, the Snake River is in a steep-walled gorge. Here the river bank is a very steep hill, hard but passable, leading right to the water’s edge. The Snake River spreads out and has three islands mid-channel at this crossing. Because the river spread out, it wasn’t as deep or as fast as when it is constricted by the canyon walls. In other river crossings, rafts were created from trees, at three islands, the required trees were not available. Wagons were turned into boats, which sometimes sank, or capsized. Livestock swam across. Numerous people, livestock and wagons were swept downriver at this location and never seen again.
Thousands of pioneers crossed the Snake River at Three Islands Crossing this point until a ferry was created in 1869. Glenn’s Ferry was established across the river about two miles downstream and was able to handle two wagons at a time. It was a long wait to get 300 wagons across the river but it was much better than swimming, which was the method at Three Islands Crossing.
When getting to the current city of Ontario Oregon, the pioneers had to cross the Snake River again, but in Ontario, it was not nearly as difficult.
I should say something about the campground, it was great. Everything you could want. Idaho State Parks has done a good job creating a very nice place.
Here is a link to the google map for the area.
Link to our route Salt Lake to Boise
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