Birch Creek Ranch Site
Malheur County Oregon
Birch Creek Ranch, the collective name for two ranches founded about 100 years ago, is an oasis in the arid, scenic Owyhee River Canyon. Its green fields contrast strongly with the sun-drenched cream- and chocolate-colored formations and the red and black volcanic rocks that soar up from the edges of its narrow meadows. Prepare yourself for an astonishing, world-class beauty that changes through the day.
How the Ranch Got to Be Public
In 1988 the Bureau of Land Management purchased the Birch Creek and Morrison ranches, located on the Owyhee River about 38 road miles northwest of Jordan Valley. Normally the BLM does not purchase ranches. However, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act allows federal agencies to buy selected lands from willing sellers in order to protect outstandingly remarkable values along wild and scenic rivers like the Owyhee. The ranches that make up Birch Creek Ranch were acquired as part of this program.
A Short History
The Morrison Ranch was founded about 1900 by James Morrison, a bachelor from West Virginia, who settled about a mile downstream from Birch Creek. Morrison sold the ranch in 1919, but it reverted to him in 1923. He lived at the ranch for most of the remainder of his long life. Mr. Morrison died in Caldwell in 1962, and Boise businessman Marty Rust purchased the ranch in 1968.
Birch Creek Ranch goes back to around 1900, too, when Juan Domingo Lequerica, a Basque, settled at the mouth of Birch Creek.
His tenure was brief, cut short by an accident typical of the times. Domingo Lequerica was driving a wagon and horse team down the precipitous grade into Birch Creek or about the last day of July. Presumably the brake failed, the team ran away, and Lequerica fell from the wagon and was run over. Surviving the accident, Lequerica removed his shirt and stuck a knife through it in the road to mark the place, then dragged himself, with two broken legs and other injuries, over the hill in an effort to try to reach the creek. Searchers subsequently found his body on the hillside and fixed his death on August 1 . (Paraphrased from: "Owyhee Trails: The West's Forgotten Corner", Mike Hanley with Ellis Lucia.)
The ranch was sold to Donata Urbuaga and Simon Acordagoitia, also Basques. The Acordagoitia family lived there until 1937, when they sold it. Birch Creek had a number of owners until 1971 when it, too, was purchased by Marty Rust, who operated both ranches as a unit. The BLM subsequently bought the ranches from Mr. Rust.
Birch Creek Ranch Today
Mr. Rust was sensitive to the historic values at the ranch. Although he seeded fairly large areas to grass (surely not a priority for the first occupants of the ranch), he maintained the historic character of most of the houses, outbuildings and features, and he kept them in good repair.
Of the twenty-six buildings and structures at the ranch, nineteen contributed to the property's inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, where it is in prestigious company. Contributing elements include stone walls built by the Basques (one of which runs straight up the east slope of the mesa behind the caretaker's house; look for it); Mr. Morrison's 70 year-old, 30 feet diameter irrigating water wheel, still in place, but not working; several stone root cellars; the systems of irrigation ditches; the barn; and others.
Birch Creek was evaluated by historian Stephen Dow Beckham of Lewis and Clark College. He nominated it for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places as an historic rural landscape with Basque ethnic associations. It was placed on the National Register in 1997.
It's a Public Facility
The ranch grounds are open to the public, and the caretaker and his wife are usually available to answer questions. It is a good summer trip for people with high clearance vehicles. The road into the property is steep and bumpy in places, but the drive is worth it.
There are four secluded primitive campsites along the river at the end of the Morrison Ranch. The public is welcome to enjoy them.
A Word of Caution
The ranch is remote. There are no telephones and concessions such as snacks and soft drinks are not available. Bring drinking water. Drive a high clearance vehicle or, better yet, a 4-wheel drive, and don't attempt a trip when the road is wet or snow-covered.