Stone engraving leads Oregon man on historical investigation

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LA GRANDE, Ore. (AP) — It is a stone of mystery, one with a message to share.

The question is — was the message meant for people living in today’s nuclear age or for Oregon Trail travelers in the 1800s?

This is the query Ronnie Allen of Union County, a student of local Oregon Trail history and a former Elgin police officer, is now pondering.

“Sometimes I’m up until 2 a.m. working on this,” Allen said.

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He is speaking of a 16 by 15 inch, approximately 150-pound stone with a mysterious engraving that was found near the base of Ladd Canyon. The owner of the property where the stone was located loaned it to Allen in March.

“He wanted me to protect it and find out what the engravings on it mean and when they were made,” said Allen, noting that the stone had been cracked earlier when a vehicle ran over it.

Allen believes the stone’s engraving, a near perfect circle with three lines running within it, has two possible sources of origin.

One possibility is that the engraving is a peace sign. Allen said the design resembles that of the internationally recognized peace symbol, also known as the nuclear disarmament symbol. The peace symbol was created in the late 1950s.

Another possibility is that the intricate etching was made by pioneers on the Oregon Trail as a means of directing travelers on the best direction to go down Ladd Canyon in a wagon.

Allen noted the stone was found 400 yards from the portion of the Oregon Trail that runs through Ladd Canyon. He said it is possible the lines on the engravings on the stone show the two routes available to pioneer travelers near the base of Ladd Canyon. One was the actual Oregon Trail and the other was a toll road operated by Native Americans. The toll road, up to a mile in length, was much easier for wagons to traverse because it had been cleared of debris such as rocks and fallen trees.

Travelers who were injured or in poor health and had to ride in wagons were more likely to take the toll road in lower Ladd Canyon.

“The shaking and jarring (on the unimproved Oregon Trail route) was too much for some people,” Allen said.

If the engraving on the stone is from the Oregon Trail era, Allen believes the etchings may have been made by Freemasons. He explained that many Freemasons came to the Northwest via the Oregon Trail.

“Their craft was cutting stones,” he said.

In his effort to solve the mystery, the Union County resident is taking a close look at the tools that could have been used to make the engravings. A hammer and chisel would have been used if the engraving was made by Oregon Trail pioneers, and a battery-operated rotary disc grinder probably would have been used if the stone had been etched in the past 60 years, Allen said.

Those who have examined the stone include local stonemasons who said the cuts were made by a rotary disc grinder.

“They were absolutely certain of it,” Allen said.

Still, Allen remains uncertain of the message’s origin, noting that the bottom of the stone’s engraving has yellow and gray lichen on it. He said this lichen grows slowly and that if the engraving had been made in the past 60 years there would no lichen on the engraving.

Allen intends to continue contacting experts in the course of his investigation. He plans to have a geologist in Baker City analyze the stone to determine what kind of rock it is and whether it is native to this region. He hopes that the geologist’s findings will uncover evidence that will help him solve the mystery. Any clue would add to a growing list.

“There are a lot of little leads, some good, some bad and some exciting,” Allen said.

Should it turn out that the stone engraving was made by Oregon Trail pioneers to provide directions, it would mean the rock’s marker would represent something unique. Sarah LeCompte, manager of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, said that pioneers sometimes etched names and dates in stones but she is not aware of directional markers.

“Directions were not needed because there was only one trail,” she said.

Bethany Nemec, development coordinator for the End of the Trail Oregon Interpretive Center in Oregon City, said she does not know of any markers that provided Oregon Trail travelers directions.

“(The presence of a marker used to direct Oregon Trail pioneers) would be very unusual,” she said. “People generally relied on guidebooks that showed springs and streams.”

Allen, who served as a police officer for the old Elgin Police Department in the early 1970s, compares his work on the stone case to some of the crimes he looked into while in law enforcement.

“It is a little like the investigations I did of burglaries and robberies,” he said.

He said that almost a dozen people have seen the mystery stone and they are split down the middle on whether it is an Oregon Trail marker or a peace symbol. Most people, Allen said, feel strongly one way or the other.

“It boils down to the eye of the beholder,” he said. “Whatever you want you will get.”

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Information from: The (La Grande) Observer, http://www.lagrandeobserver.com/