Sunday, April 25, 2021

Crusher Creek Falls

Ok, so somehow we're four months into 2021 already, and most of April has been unseasonably warm in Portland, with several days over 80 degrees. It occurred to me that maybe I ought to hurry up finish up a few draft posts I have about seasonal waterfalls before they dry up entirely for the summer, so they might be useful to someone now instead of waiting until the next wet season. Frankly I have no idea whether any of my posts are useful to anyone; over the years I've sort of accepted that the niche this humble blog has settled into is around having the top search engine result on all sorts of peculiar things nobody on earth will ever search for, and few will stumble across by accident. Which would've been a terrible business model if I'd ever had any notions about this thing being a going concern; but it's just a hobby, and one that continues to amuse me after fifteen years, so I'm going to go ahead and keep doing this thing I keep doing.

I didn't want to be a complete shut-in during this global pandemic, so I had a sort of guideline that it was ok to go places where I could be reasonably certain I wouldn't run into a single other human being, or failing that, at least minimize the number of people I was near, or downwind of. Which meant lots of research, lots of avoiding popular places in favor of second-to-fourth rate alternatives that nobody's ever heard of, and in short doing the thing I do here anyway, except now as a responsible civic-minded public health measure, and obviously for self-preservation.

All of which brings us to the subject of this post, an obscure little Columbia River Gorge waterfall you may have glimpsed briefly (if you live around here), but that you've almost certainly never heard of. If you're heading east from Portland on I-84, shortly after the Corbett interchange you'll pass Tunnel Point, where the freeway veers around a rocky outcrop, and the adjacent rail line passes through it in an old tunnel, hence the name. If you look to your right just before the west end of the tunnel, you may catch a brief glimpse of a small waterfall tumbling down the bluff just beyond the tracks Unless the creek has dried up for the season, or the falls are obscured by vegetation, or you blinked while whooshing by at some multiple of the legal speed limit. If that brief glimpse caught your fancy for whatever reason, and you wanted to get a better look at that waterfall, you can do that from the Tunnel Point scenic viewpoint, but it's only accessible to westbound traffic, so your best bet is to turn around at one of the upcoming exits -- Rooster Rock, Bridal Veil, Multnomah Falls etc. will all do the trick here -- head back west, and pull off at the un-numbered exit labeled simply "Scenic Viewpoint". And yes, the viewpoint is pretty scenic (albeit really noisy due to the freeway), but you can't quite see the little waterfall from the viewpoint itself. To do that you need to walk west another 200-300 feet; there's enough ground between the freeway guardrail and the Columbia River that you can do this safely, maybe even enough space to set up a tripod for proper waterfall photos (which I obviously didn't do), though you may wonder whether it's really worth doing thanks to all the noise and freeway garbage and so forth. Once you get to the falls you can take your photos and hopefully get a few without cars or trains in them, and impress your friends, and internet randos too, as if the two things are all that different in 2021.

Your friends may politely ask some followup questions, like how tall it is or what it's called, either out of genuine curiosity or because they like you enough to continue humoring your weird hobbies. I don't have an official height number for you, but I tried measuring it with the state LIDAR map and came up with something around 45' in two tiers. I've found I tend to come up with somewhat larger numbers this way than the official numbers, when there are official numbers, so let's say it's somewhere in the 35'-45' range. As for the name, it honestly isn't impressive enough to have an official one, or to have picked up an unofficial one, but at least we can apply a common rule of thumb here: If a creek/stream/river/bayou/etc. is named X, and there's only one waterfall on it, and the falls don't already have a name, they are automatically X Falls, more as a unique description than a name. The rule applies here because -- weirdly enough -- this little creek goes by Crusher Creek, which has been its 100% official, US Government-approved name since 1986, although the entry insists this spot is somehow part of Clackamas County. Despite the 1986 date, the name is not a reference to everyone's least favorite TNG character; the USGS page references an earlier State of Oregon water resource map from 1964, before even TOS had hit the airwaves. Instead, there's a clue elsewhere in the USGS database, in a 'locale' entry for "Crusher (historical)", which points at a spot just on the other side of Tunnel Point from the creek and falls.

Strictly speaking those coordinates are out in the river, which seems unlikely. But transcription errors do creep into the database now and then, and if you just tweak the 2nd digit after the decimal point in the entry's latitude, that puts you on dry land near the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Which is important because the USGS database entry references a 1916 Union Pacific timetable as a primary source, by way of the 1996 book "The Railroad Stations of Oregon" by Lewis L. McArthur (who you might remember from the Wiesendanger Falls post a few months ago) and Cynthia B. Gardiner. The book isn't available online, and it's out of stock at both Powells and Amazon, so I don't have a definitive answer on what sort of locale we're talking about here. But going by the name my guess is that it was the site of a literal rock crusher, producing gravel for the railroad, and not a long-lost town by that name. There's a Rock Crusher Creek located in a remote corner of Coos County as another example of what I think happened here. From the look of it, rock crushing machinery produces a lot of dust, and it's good to locate your operation near a convenient source of water for dust control. So the creek was named for a long-gone railroad facility it might have provided water for, and the falls are quote-unquote named for the creek, and it's not really history's most thrilling origin story, is it?

Updated: Ok, I tracked down a 1915 county survey map that confirms it was a rock crushing operation, not a town. The map shows it had a rail siding and a dock, a main building that I imagine was for the crusher operation, plus a few outbuildings that might have been employee bunkhouses or something along those lines, so maybe it depends on how you define "town". It was just west of another creek now known as Rainbow Creek. So it's possible the name "Crusher Creek" used to apply there and sort of migrated over time, as names tend to do, especially when the name isn't very important anymore and nobody's paying close attention.

So for the sake of argument, let's suppose the last paragraph was completely wrong, and the mid-river location from the USGS is accurate. Suppose that was once the site of a notorious enchanted wandering rock, cousin to the Planctae and Symplegades of Greek mythology, united by their hatred of ships and boats of all kinds. As with all wandering rocks down through the ages, opinions vary as to whether the rocks wander of their own volition, or only do so after the captain's had an extra flagon or two of seafarers' grog, as with the Exxon Valdez. 19th Century settlers couldn't pronounce the millennia-old name local tribes had given it, and instead simply called it "Crusher", the bane of paddlewheel steamboats and riverboat gamblers and that whole milieu for the few decades when that was a thing here. Turns out there was a railroad station nearby, also named Crusher, at a spot where Portlanders of the era would come to picnic and watch boats try to run the gauntlet, and gamble on the outcome. After a few decades of this, the Corps of Engineers finally showed up and broke the curse with more dynamite than was strictly necessary. They'd intended to completely demolish the rock but ended up merely driving it ashore, where it remains to this day as present-day Onion Rock, located along the riverbank maybe 1/4 mile upstream of Tunnel Point, and it either learned its lesson or it's merely licking its wounds and biding its time and could resume its predations any day now, geologically speaking. To mark the day of the great dynamiting, a local poet who claimed to have gone to college Back East was commissioned to write the usual Victorian epic poem on relevant mythological themes (and how those myths would have turned out if the heroes had had modern explosives). We won't get into whether the epic poem was any good, since the last time I criticized somebody's poem I got an angry email from a descendant of the poet, outraged at my mild insult to his long-deceased ancestor. After the events of the big day, reporters filed breathless wire stories for the big eastern papers.... and the entire East Coast laughed at us, and how we bragged on and on about successfully bullying a magic rock, and it was all very embarrassing, and it instantly became one of those episodes we all agreed to never speak of again. Somehow no photos of the dynamiting have survived, nor have any of the rock preying on innocent steamboats, and no copies of the epic poem have survived either, and the boring cover story about a rock crusher has fooled almost everyone for the last 150 years or so. But only almost everyone. So you can take my word for it, or not, that's entirely up to you.

If all of this has left you wanting a better look at the falls than what I've got here, there's unfortunately no easy and straightforward way to do that. If you lift the "easy and straightforward" limitation, it looks like there's might be a way, though I haven't actually tried it and can't recommend it. Look closely at a terrain map of the area (like the LIDAR map linked earlier), or at old photos of Tunnel Point like the one on this state history page, and you can see a steep old road down the west side of the point, south of the tunnel, starting up on the bluff at (I think) a wide spot along NE Reed Rd. and ending up somewhere near the base of Crusher Creek Falls. I don't know whether this was an old road down to the river from before I-84 went in, or it's simply a railroad service road, maybe for tunnel maintenance. Either way, the whole thing seems to be on railroad-owned land now, so if you really want to do this your options seem to be, in order of difficulty: a.) trespassing successfully, b.) contacting the railroad somehow and asking nicely for permission, and (I assume) at minimum promising not to get on the tracks or walk through the tunnel or touch any of their equipment, c.) convincing the railroad to hire you into some sort of job that takes you here officially, or d.) making like most civilized countries and nationalizing the railroads, which (among other things) would make this spot public property. This, in turn will most likely involve either winning a few elections or somehow awakening class consciousness in the US proletariat. But hey, I didn't say this was going to be easy.