Riddle Brothers Ranch - Pioneer Homestead
The old Riddle Brothers Ranch is located in Harney County
Oregon near Steens Mountain.
Stretching some 50 miles long north to south,
the mountain rises from alongside the Alvord Desert at an elevation of
about 4,200 feet to a summit elevation of 9,733 feet, making it appear
like it is a mountain range rather than a single mountain. Surrounded by
wilderness the area was long inhabited by Native Americans for some 10,000
years prior to the arrival of European explorers in the early 19th
The first recorded history of the area began with exploration between 1826
and 1829 by fur traders of the Snake Country expeditions. It was called
the "Snowy Mountains" by John Work, of Hudson's Bay Company and one of the
fur traders who were the first Europeans in the area. A few years later,
the region was explored by Canadian fur trader, Peter Skene Ogden. In
1845, Steven Meeks led a wagon train through the area, mistaking the
snow-covered Steens for the Cascade Mountains.
Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon. Photo by
This image available for photo prints
and downloads HERE.
In 1852, William and Maximilla Riddle traveled the Oregon Trail and then
the Applegate Trail to settle in the South Umpqua River country of
This region was subsequently known as Riddle Valley and by 1884 known as
In 1860, the Army sent Major Enoch Steen to protect settlers and determine
feasibility of a road from southeastern Oregon to the Willamette Valley.
After fighting and riving off members of the Paiute tribe of the mountain,
his party named many prominent topographic features including Steens
Mountain. In 1864, Captain George B. Curry led a
unit of the 1st Oregon Cavalry through the area. The cavalrymen crossed a
river on the west slope of Steens Mountain during a violent thunder storm.
Curry named the river Donder und Blitzen, which in German means thunder
and lightning. Over time, it became known as the Donner und Blitzen River.
Cattle were driven into the area in 1872 and that same year, one of
William Riddle's sons, Tobias, married Sarah Smyth and moved to the Harney
Basin with his in-laws. Initially, they settled at some warm springs near
Hines and, after a tough winter, moved to more moderate climes near
Tobias and Sarah would have nine children.
Later, in the 1870's the Riddles sold their holdings to Peter French, the
famous cattle baron, for $30,000 and they moved back to the Riddle Valley.
Shortly thereafter, Sarah's father and brother were killed by Indians
during the Bannock War.
By the 1900s many cattle
ranches had been established in valleys surrounding Steens Mountain. Three
of these ranchers were the Riddle Brothers -- Walter, Frederick and
Benjamin, who were the sons of Tobias and Sarah Smyth Riddle. The three
bachelor brothers arrived around 1900, at which time there were some
100,000 cattle and sheep grazing the open range in valleys surrounding
the Little Blitzen River, they secured home sites and began raising
cattle. Over the next several years, the Riddles increased their land
holdings on both sides of the river to 1,120 acres, eventually gaining
control of all the water in the area. Without access to water, the
nearby open range land was useless to other ranchers.
The three Riddle brothers lived on their ranch for 50 years and none of
them ever married. In the late 1950s, they sold their
ranch to a man named Rex Clemens, who continued to raise livestock on the property
for nearly 30 years.
In 1986, the
Bureau of Land Management purchased the property from Clemens in order
to maintain the ranch for its historic value. In 1991, the Riddle
Ranch was listed as a historic district on the National Register of
Today, the Riddle Brothers Ranch National Historic District is part of the
historic context of pioneer settlement and the development of the
livestock industry in the
The structures remaining on this pioneer ranch and their setting conjure
up images of simpler times… homemade housing, handcrafted furnishings,
kerosene lights, candles, streams full of trout, and habitats conducive to
both livestock production and the support of wildlife. The Riddle Brothers
Ranch was part of Oregon’s last frontier -- a settlement on semiarid lands
which captured the interest of thousands of speculators and home-seekers
in the northern Great Basin between 1900 and 1920.
Riddle Brothers Ranch National Historic Site,
photo by the Bureau of Land Management.
This image available for photo prints and
The Bureau of Land Management has restored and stabilized the structures
without changing the quality or historic representation of the buildings.
The pioneer ranch complex is maintained as an open air museum with original
artifacts displayed where they were used. Many visitors enjoy discovering the
historic structures scattered across the ranch meadows including the Frederick
Riddle house, cookhouse, barn, root cellar, and blacksmith shop/tackroom;
and the Benjamin Riddle house, barn, bathhouse, root celler, and willow corral.
Unfortunately, the Walter Riddle House was destroyed by wildfire in 1994,
and all that remains today is the stone fireplace.
Fishing, hiking, horseback riding, exploring, or relaxing along the Little
Blitzen River among shaded cottonwoods are some of the many activities
awaiting you at Riddle Brothers Ranch. Visitors
may hike the Cold Springs Road north of Riddle Brothers Ranch to access
portions of the Steens Mountain Wilderness, or east cross-country to reach
Little Blitzen Gorge. Camping is not permitted at the site and though
there are a number of Native American archeological sites on the ranch
property; these are not open to the public.
Access into Riddle Brothers Ranch is
regulated by a locked gate during the summer season, which is usually
mid-June through October. The gate is open to vehicular travel
periodically throughout the week and as conditions allow. Travelers should
call the Burns District office or check the sign on the access gate to
find out when the road will be open. Access by foot, bicycle, or horseback
is permitted anytime. The road into Riddle is rough, especially during wet
conditions. High clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended.
Directions to Riddle Brothers Ranch -
From Burns, take State Highway 78 southeast for approximately two miles.
Turn right onto State Highway 205 and travel south for 60 miles to Frenchglen. Continue on 205 through the town of Frenchglen and up “P”
Hill, travel approximately 10 miles, then turn left on the Steens Mountain
Loop Road south entrance. The turn-off to Riddle Brothers is approximately
20 miles off Highway 205.
of America, January, 2015
of Land Management - Burns District
Bureau of Land Management - Oregon Resources