Since the 1860s, the Santiam Wagon Road has been an instrumental corridor for travelers moving from the dry planes of Central Oregon to the lush ground of the Willamette Valley. From the road’s initial construction into the early 1900s, Fish Lake was one of the most important waypoints along the way. In the spring when the lake filled with snowmelt, the fishing was a source of food for travelers; in the summer when the snowmelt left behind lush, nutrient rich meadow, the lakebed was a food source for stock. Travelers would stop to rest, resupply, or wait for weather to improve before setting out again through the Cascade foothills. During this wagon road era Fish Lake boasted at least one hotel, a saloon, a stage line and mail service, and plenty of corrals and barns for livestock.
When the Forest Service was created in 1905, Fish Lake became a Cascade National Forest ranger outpost, and several of the structures that still stand on the site date to this era. The Dispacher’s Cabin, for instance, held the switchboard that was the nexus for miles and miles of wire that connected regional lookouts. Forest Supervisor C.C. Hall’s house dates to the 1920s and enjoys an excellent view of the lake from the back porch. By the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps was improving the functionality of the site with the construction of a tack room, a blacksmith shop, and a barn.
The great thing about Fish Lake is that visitors get to interact with this supremely preserved and presented history. Many of these buildings are open for public viewing, and eloquent and extensive interpretive panels help establish a sense of context. And it is free. Best of all, it makes a great winter adventure if you can manage a reservation.
This historic site is a fantastic stop. If you can make room in your crowded itinerary that most likely includes plenty of other area activities, you won’t regret it.