Ghost town of Dead Ox Flat
Name: Dead Ox Flat
GPS: 44.1632195, -116.9721084
Directions: The entire area North and Northwest of Ontario Oregon is part of Dead Ox Flats. The town of Dead Ox is a bit harder to pin down directly, but was likely only a few miles away from Ontario.
Sometimes city names pop up in the most interesting of places. While looking through vintage photographs on Shorpy.com I came across this interesting photograph.
The caption says: “October 1939. “Mr. and Mrs. Wardlaw at entrance to their dugout basement home. Dead Ox Flat, Malheur County, Oregon.” Medium-format nitrate negative by Dorothea Lange for the Resettlement Administration.”
I’ve never heard of Dead Ox Flat so decided to look more into it. The origin of the name is rather obvious once the location is placed in Oregon’s Malheur County. Located as it is north of Ontario Oregon, this is the Oregon High Desert homesteaders, crackpots, hopeful real estate investors, the United States Government, and the Oregon State Government envisioned when it was first found that given enough water, the land supported good crops.
There is no history of the area before 1902 that I can find. The area was no doubt surveyed for beavers by both the Hudson Bay Company and the Northwest Fur Company in 1818 during a survey of the nearby Boise Valley (in Idaho.) During the 1860’s through 1900’s, White Settlers tried to farm this area, most were unsuccessful at best. Since it’s near the Snake River it was thought that there was enough water, or canals of some sort could be built and farming would flourish. Fort Boise and nearby Ontario both grew quickly during this same time period, but mostly because they were directly on the Oregon Trail which later became a Stage Coach Route, before being replaced by the railroads.
The US Department of the Interior started investigating damming up rivers in Central and Eastern Oregon in the first decade of the 1900s. This announcement caused yet another land rush to Oregon. Just as it happened in the 1860’s with the announcement of gold, people world wide immigrated causing new towns and tent cities to popup over night. Land spectators snapped up any piece of available land and resold it at profit to new settlers. For instance, in 1909 the Government’s mere consideration of building “Hole in the Ground” Dam in Christmas Valley caused at least ten different towns to pop up. These towns were big enough to warrant post offices, but eight were completely gone by 1925.
In the meantime, local governments, private corporations and even individuals attempted to build pumps strong enough to bring water into the valley. By 1916 plans to dam the Owyhee River were finalized, but the project did not get under way until April 1927. One of the side effects was the creation of the Dead Ox Flat water district, a pumping station and 61 mile canal to Dead Ox were built in 1937.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was involved in the last part of this project, but as part of the “New Deal” a young female photographer named Dorothea Lange came to the area in 1939. She took some of the Depression Era’s most iconic photos, and spent time taking photos in and around Dead Ox Flat.
Today the area’s population seems to be about 1,500, almost evenly split between male and female residents. Dead Ox Flats no longer has it’s own post office, and is considered a suburb of farming community, Ontario Oregon. Huge farms cover the entire valley. Other then the pump building, and the pipes from the dam, little of Dead Ox Flat’s history remains.