What is it about the Oregon Trail that still captures our interest after all this time? Gregory Franzwa thinks part of the fascination is because we can empathize with the pioneers who came along the trail.
"They were mostly just ordinary people, just like us," he says. While the people on the Santa Fe Trail, for example, were mostly teamsters, into hauling freight and making money, the Oregon folks were just plain people. "They took all they had and hit the trail. And most of them walked the whole way. I think we all have a bit of that restless spirit, but there's no place like Oregon left to go. I think that's a big part of the never-ending fascination."Franzwa, an author and researcher living in Tucson, is author of "The Oregon Trail Revisited," a history/guidebook to the old wag-on trail that extended from Independence, Mo., to Oregon City, Ore.
Franzwa will present an illustrated slide lecture about the trail Monday, March 16, at 3 p.m. at the Utah State Historical Society, 300 Rio Grande. He will sign books before and after the program.
"The Oregon Trail Revisited" was first published in 1972. This latest version is the fifth edition and has been updated to reflect changes in landscape and highway systems. And there have been a lot of changes in the past 25 years. "Hardly a paragraph has escaped unchanged," says Franzwa, "except for the history part. And even that has been updated because we are still learning more and our perceptions change. We get new insights all the time, and that's reflected in the new version." New photographs have also been added, as has a foreword by American West historian Robert M. Utley.
"I spent the whole month of May 1997 driving along the old trail. Although I have been on numerous segments of the Oregon Trail at various times during the past quarter-century, my 1997 research trip was the first continuous retracement from one end to the other since 1971, and I was most surprised at the changes." Gravel roads have been paved. Highway numbers have changed. Bridges have disappeared. New ruts have been discovered.
The book consists of three parts. First there's a comprehensive history of the old trail, a readable account that captures the pain, the adventure and the hope of the trail. The major section provides driving directions to the trail, wherever it can be reached safely with a family car, and including information on the historic sites and landmarks along the way. It lends itself to a complete retracing of the trail, of course, but is also very helpful if you are just visiting selected parts of the trail or if you are somewhere and want to know what sites and landmarks are in the vicinity.
The final section outlines a "speed trip" along the 2,020-mile road for travelers who want to take about 10 days and hit the highlights all along the trail.
From 1841 through the 1860s, upwards of 500,000 men, women and children traveled by ox-drawn wagon along the trail. "The story of typical American families heading West to build new lives, homes and towns is an inspiring one," says Franzwa. "It thrilled me as a child and it thrills me today."
In fact, that lifelong interest in the trail has resulted in a number of other publications, including his "Maps of the Oregon Trail," which shows the Oregon Trail superimposed on a base of contemporary highway maps.
In 1982, alarmed at the rapid destruction of some of the remaining ruts of the Oregon Trail, Franzwa called a dozen like-minded friends together in Denver to found the preservation-oriented Oregon-California Trails Association, which now has a membership of more than 5,000. And there is hope that bits and pieces of the Oregon Trail will be there to delight and inspire us for many years to come.
"The Oregon Trail Revisited" is available at the Utah Historical Society or by mail from The Patrice Press, Box 85639, Tucson AZ 85754-5639.