Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Coalca Landing expedition

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Today's adventure takes us to obscure Coalca Landing State Park, on the Willamette a bit south of Oregon City, just off Highway 99E. This is yet another Willamette Greenway parcel (a situation I explained in my Grand Island post a while back), so I'm not sure "State Park" is part of the official name, but there's a tiny State Parks sign at the driveway into the park, so I think we'll go with that.

Coalca Landing is a long, narrow strip of land on the east bank of the Willamette, with the river on one side, and Highway 99E and a major rail line on the other side. The entrance is fairly low key and easy to miss. Heading south on 99E, look for a railroad crossing just south of the Pearson's Art Gallery (a former historic tavern), with a few mailboxes out front. The aforementioned tiny State Parks sign is right there at the turn, but it's very little help as it's so small you won't really see it until you're practically past it. Anyway, once you're across the railroad tracks, the park's oddly enormous parking lot is off to your right, while directly ahead and off to the left are some residential driveways. The description to someone's Flickr photo of the park indicates the turnoff is near highway milepost 17, and a blog post I ran across has directions plus some great photos. Or if you prefer to go by GPS, I have coordinates of about 45.307810, -122.662881 for the parking lot, if that helps at all.

The park sits at a scenic stretch of the river known as the Willamette Narrows, much of which is part of the Greenway system (including three even more obscure areas on the far side of the river, "Rock Island Landing", "Pete's Mountain Landing", and "Peach Cove Landing".) Other parts of the area are owned by Metro. The obvious potential of the area led a 2009 University of Oregon design class to dream up a few proposals to enhance the site into a full-fledged state park, but as far as I know nothing's actually in the works. As the state's recent Willamette Greenway Parklands Strategy points out, the entire greenway system has been in a sort of political and financial limbo ever since the initial burst of enthusiasm faded in the late 1970s.

This is by no means the only scenic spot along the Willamette, but Coalca Landing has a couple of unusual points of interest:

  • If you know where to look, you can spot the once-famous Coalca Pillar, our fair metropolitan area's very own balancing rock. If you look across highway 99E and uphill, you'll notice a rock that looks like it's sorta-balancing high above the highway. It might take a minute to see it; it's not quite as dramatic as the balancing rocks you may have seen in Road Runner cartoons. Still, this rock was once a big local tourist attraction, back in the days when 99E was the main road into Portland from points south. Back then the area been logged relatively recently and trees were smaller, so rock formations like this were easier to spot. And, for whatever reason, in those days motorists could actually be engrossed by a freakin' balancing rock. Which, let's be honest, just sits there and balances. It was an innocent and wholesome age, or so we're told.

    It was also an era when access to the pillar was apparently much easier than it is today. The library's Oregonian database lists numerous hikes and climbing trips to Coalca Pillar during the early part of the 20th century, but that seems to have tapered off prior to World War II, and I haven't come across any contemporary accounts of anyone visiting it.

    The rock's name comes from a local Indian legend. A circa-1898 melodramatic account of the story comes to us from a Southern Pacific Railroad guide to sights along their Shasta line as it travelled the West Coast:

    Coalca's Pillar.

    SOME three miles south of Oregon City, the Shasta Route passes below a rock-cliff, two hundred feet in height and standing out boldly toward the Willamette river. Its top is a level plateau, five acres in extent, which can be reached only by an almost impassable trail up the mountain side. Surmounting the edge of the cliff stands the wonderful stone pillar which our photographer has so successfully transferred to his camera. Coalca's Pillar is twenty feet high and weighs probably sixty tons. Its supporting stem or base is eight feet high and only thirty-five inches in diameter! While the passerby marvels at its equipoise and the geologist speculates over its formation, the chief interest in this strange monument centers in the Indian legend therewith connected.

    At the Great Tumwater, Willamette falls, once dwelt Chelko, a famed and thrifty chief of the Clackamas, who held a trust on all the adjacent fishing grounds. All neighboring tribes paid Chelko tribute for the privilege of his fishing preserves, although salmon are said to have been then so plentiful below the falls that Indians walked across the Willamette on their backs.

    Nearby lived the Molallas, whose stalwart young chief, Coalca, loved Nawalla, the only daughter of Chelko. But the daughter of a salmon king looked not with favor on the suit of a chief of an ordinary deer-hunting tribe, who lived on Molalla grasshoppers and jerked venison. Nor did her father favor the wooing of Coalca, and with the toe of his moccasin expressed energetic disgust whenever the latter appeared to pay court to Nawalla.

    Coalca was resolved to have the maiden at all risks, and at dark of one moon, when the old chief was spearing salmon, he, with three of his braves, swooped down on Chelko : s tepee and carried away Nawalla. That night there was dancing and great joy in the Molalla village over the great capture and equal lamentation among the Clackamas, when was discovered the abduction of their princess by a rival tribe. The Clackamas braves donned their feathers and war paint and the tocsin was sounded. For months waged a bitter war; Nawalla, an unwilling prisoner, died of broken heart ; Coalca's band slowly pressed back the Clackamas and finally determined to capture their village. Stealthily they trailed among the rocky cliffs and for the night camped on the plateau upon which our pillar now stands. Here, in restful security, they tarried before dealing the; final death blow to Chelko and his tribe. But they contended with an older and craftier warrior, who wearied not nor slept. Before the morn Chelko scaled the rocky pathway, drove the Molallas over the cliff, and permitted not one of them to escape death.

    The Indian legend further recites that the Great Spirit, sorely grieved at the untimely death of the beautiful Nawalla, wreaked vengeance upon Coalca and the three braves by turning the four Molalla warriors into pillars of stone and placing them at the edge of the cliff, exposed to the heat of summer and the storms of winter — that their stony forms might be an awful warning to passing Indians for all ages. But in time the heart of the Great Spirit softened to the three Molallas, who had but done Coalca's bidding in the abduction of Nawalla. Their spirits were released and permitted to go to the happy hunting grounds; three pillars were thrown to the bottom of the precipice and form now a part of the broken rock along the Shasta rails.

    The pillar sits on ODOT land, technically outside the state park proper. The state bought the land in June 1950 when Highway 99E was being widened. The linked Oregonian article indicates the state considered putting in a highway wayside near the pillar, but that seems to have never come to pass. The lack of parking might help explain why the pillar has been mostly forgotten in recent decades. I'd seen a vague mention that it was in the vicinity, but I only noticed it because a talkative fisherman pointed it out to me. Speaking of which, on behalf of him, and the few other fishermen who were there, I'd like to point out that there's absolutely nothing at all to catch here whatsoever, and you'd be wasting your time even trying.

  • To find the second point of interest, you'll need to locate the trail heading north/downstream from the parking lot, and follow it a short distance. The trail passes several mysterious concrete structures, or remains of structures. From the info I've been able to gather so far (see, for example, this 2005 survey of the Highway 99E "green corridor"), the park seems to have once been the site of a sawmill owned by the old Doernbecher Manufacturing furniture company. Logs arrived by log raft, were pulled out of the river and milled, and the milled wood was then shipped by rail to the furniture plant near Portland's Hollywood District, around 28th & Sandy. This might also explain the park's enormous parking lot, much of which is fenced off: It might have been employee parking at one time. Documentation is still lacking here and I could be wrong about some of the details, and by all means feel free to correct anything I have wrong here if you know otherwise. Whatever the concrete structures were, they're kind of spooky now, and it probably goes without saying that they're not exactly kid friendly, even for kids who are current on their tetanus shots.

Apparently the Southern Pacific Railroad once had a station named "Coalca" somewhere in the vicinity, and there's still a rail siding by that name just north of the park. I came across a bunch of railfan stuff about it while looking for info on the park, so I figured I might as well pass a few links along for anyone who's into that sort of thing: A southbound train stopped & waiting for a northbound train to pass; a forum thread about the stop and its history; and a collection of train videos filmed here.

Oregon City's historic survey includes the Coalca area in the same historic district as the Art Deco tunnel on 99E that leads south out of town. It's kind of a stretch since Coalca is several miles south of the city proper, but hey. I mention this because one of the PDFs linked there mentions that the highway was once known as the "Road of 1000 Wonders", back in the days before people rolled their eyes at melodramatic names like that. The term also comes up on the City of Canby's history page, so I suppose it must have been in common use at one point. I'd imagine the balancing rock would have to count as one of those thousand wonders, but even if it wasn't, the name was just too fun not to share.

Finally, the "Best American Travel Writing 2012" anthology includes an excerpt from "Railroad Semantics" by Aaron Dactyl, in which the author rides the rails, hobo style, up through the Willamette Valley and on to Seattle. The train stops at Coalca due to some sort of malfunction, and our intrepid correspondent has to sneak around to dodge a nosy railroad worker. The rest of the story's fun to read too, btw.


Phil said...

Thank you so much for posting such a wonderfully informative and interesting article. I stopped there for the first time today on my way home from work to check out the fishing opportunities. Going to have to try it in-spite of the talkative fisherman...might have been a rouse. I like that the trail down stream takes you right to the south end of Rock Island. There is good fishing there. I can't wait to read some of your other articles either!

Phil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

This is on the South side of the Ghost town of New Era, location of a Religious Colony that according to some of the comments in the link below, still exists.