Categories: Breaking News

‘Little woman’ behind the wheel – Medford News, Weather, Sports, Breaking News

It wasn’t the most monumental historical event in Southern Oregon, but Ina Olwell should have expected more than a brief Mail Tribune paragraph. Even a Pendleton newspaper gave it two.

After all, the daughter of Charles Ray of Gold Ray Dam fame, the man who had helped bring electricity to the valley, was also married to one of the most prominent real estate developers in all of Jackson County.

In typical early 1900s fashion, Ina’s exploits were reported almost anonymously on behalf of her husband: Mrs. John Olwell, in Pendleton, and simply Mrs. Olwell in the Tribune.

In the early morning hours of August 21, 1908, 24-year-old Ina Enola Olwell got behind the wheel of her REO passenger car. Her husband began rapidly turning the starter crank until their engine roared to life, and the couple with three passengers raced out of Medford toward Crater Lake.

Just one of a group of five cars, the dusty caravan was on its way to meet Edward Harriman, head of the Union Pacific Railroad. They hoped to convince him to add his support and some of his money to the construction of a Crater Lake road.

Harriman was vacationing with his family at his hunting lodge near Klamath Falls along with Oregon Governor George Chamberlain. The two men had agreed to meet at the lake with the road committee of the Medford Commercial Club to discuss their proposals.

Ina led the procession on its 83-mile journey. The road to the lake was little more than a wheeled cart trail, twisting between the stumps of fallen pines and often covered with shifting pumice left over from the long-ago eruption of Mount Mazama volcano.

Not stopping in the raging flood waters of Union Creek, he bounced safely over the rocks at a furious speed. No one, except Ina, believed she could pull it off.

Water had washed as high as the floor in the REO, and County Commissioner William Colvig, a passenger, called out that his “field glasses” had been swept away. A following driver discovered them lodged on a rock half a mile downstream. It turns out that Colvig’s “field glasses” were actually a whiskey still and the cap had fallen off or was open when the water washed it away.

When they reached the foot of the caldera and looked up, night was approaching. No one had thought to bring any light sources, including the carbide for the REO headlights. Ina said she wasn’t worried and that she was climbing.

It was then that Commissioner Colvig, “of the sterner sex,” lodged his protest, saying that he had no life insurance and that it would be more than foolhardy to attempt to climb the mountain path without lights.

The “little woman behind the wheel” yelled, “Well, let’s go to Crater Camp tonight or we’ll bust all the tires on my machine! … No rocks left on Uncle Sam’s roads.” But, of course, there were.

With her foot on the ground and each of the engine’s two cylinders revved by Ina’s confident determination, she peered fearlessly into the darkness, around bends, stumps and rocks. After driving almost continuously for 10 and a half hours, Ina had marked her place in history: the first woman to drive an automobile to Crater Lake.

The railroad, Harriman, had suddenly come down with an attack of rheumatism, and remained at home. However, he sent his wife and the governor a message accepting the Commercial Club’s offer of a seat on the Crater Lake Road Commission.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “To Live and Die a WASP, 38 Women Pilots Who Died in WWII.” Contact him at


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