Sunday, August 29, 2021

Backstrand Road, and a small mystery

As I think I've mentioned once or twice now, one of my coping strategies during the ongoing pandemic has been to get outside when I can, while encountering as few other people as possible, ideally nobody at all. It's not just about avoiding getting sick; I've had all my shots, and will get my booster when it's available, and I've seen all the (pre-Delta) studies that say the odds of catching Covid outdoors is very low, especially if you're just passing someone on a trail for a few seconds. But people still stress me out, even knowing all of that. I also figure that even if I'm overreacting -- and I probably am, even with the Delta variant on the loose -- it's still an excuse to spend way too much time staring at maps and looking for the most obscure, least visited places I can come up with, which is a big part of the fun.

So a while back I ran across the US Forest Service Interactive Visitor Map and started poking around the Columbia Gorge on it, as one does. The key thing here is that this map shows Forest Service roads as well as trails, and a lot of these roads are either gated and closed to motor vehicles, or get so little traffic that they effectively count as trails. The downside is that they often don't go anywhere interesting, and just end in the middle of the forest at the site of an old 1960s clear cut, or power lines, or a cell tower, that sort of thing.

While staring at that map I noticed a couple of short forest roads branching right off the old Columbia River Highway just east of Bridal Veil, smack dab in the middle of the main tourist corridor, and I'd never heard of either of them. So those obviously went on the big TODO list, and now you're reading a post about one of them.

So right around the pushpin on the map above, roughly halfway between the Angels Rest trailhead and Wahkeena Falls, there's a small turnout off the eastbound side of the old highway, with a closed and dented gate and no obvious signage visible from the street. If you're like most people, you probably won't notice it at all, and if you do you'll probably assume it's private property of some sort, since that's exactly what it looks like. It sure doesn't look like a trailhead, at any rate. But this gate belongs to you, the federal taxpayer, and behind it is an old road the Forest Service calls "Backstrand Road", aka road number 3000-303. Past the gate, the road heads steeply uphill for a bit -- a back-of-the-envelope calculation and some guesswork says it's a 10% grade, within a few orders of magnitude or so -- and it then turns right/west at a corner with some old decorative rockwork, then widens and levels out for a short stretch, before petering out into dense underbrush.

At the corner where the road levels out, you can clearly see where the road once continued east as well, and a current county assessor's map shows that bit of road heading back down to the highway at a more reasonable angle. But that road has also been thoroughly consumed by the forest and you can't make any progress on foot in that direction either. So that's about all there is to do here. I didn't see any obvious side trails or other attractions. Glimpses through the trees suggest there'd be a decent view from the top of the trail if it wasn't for all the trees, but there are zero breaks in the trees so that's kind of a moot point.

So given all of that it's not surprising that a 2003 Forest Service roads assesment and its 2015 update both labeled the road as "low value" and recommended it as a high priority for decommissioning. But the reports also noted that the road wasn't a significant risk to anything or anyone if it was just left the way it is now. Which is probably why they still haven't gotten around to ripping it up in 2021. But why was the road here in the first place?

To me the road really doesn't look like your ordinary Forest Service logging road, even in its now-overgrown state. It just seemed like someone spent more money on it than the USFS likes to spend on logging roads. So I did a little digging and apparently this was private property with a house on it just twenty years ago. I know this because of four data points:

  • The PortlandMaps entry for 49666 (!) E. Historic Columbia River Highway (the honest-to-goodness street address of the lot containing the road) has a last-sale date of 2001, and the assessor history shows that property taxes were being paid on the land before that sale, which tells us it was private property just 20 years ago. The entry also says the 27.36 acre lot is still technically zoned as residential.
  • The road appears in 1961 and 1995 county survey records, the latter looking much like the current road layout. A comment on the 1995 survey refers to the road as a "driveway".
  • The Multnomah County surveyor site also has a neat feature with aerial imagery taken periodically since 1998, which unfortunately I don't see a way to link to directly. The 1998 and 2002 image sets show a structure at the west end of the flat bit of road, while the 2004 edition shows fresh dirt where that structure was, and the latest edition shows nothing as the forest canopy has now grown in by a lot.
  • I also managed to find some info about the former building, thanks to whoever had the brain-genius idea to auto-generate a "real estate listing" page for every street address in every dataset they could lay hands on, including obsolete stuff. The resulting pages are just search result-clogging SEO spam upwards of 99% of the time, but the listing for this place tells us the long-gone house was 974 square feet, built in 1958, with one bedroom, one fireplace, and baseboard heat.
I unfortunately couldn't find any news stories about the sale here. I suppose there either wasn't a press release at the time, or there was but nobody deemed it newsworthy.

That's not a very interesting story by itself, but there's a bit more history around here, and for that we have to zoom out a little. The state LIDAR map shows what kind of looks like a faint trail or service road or something heading west from where the house used to be, heading toward Dalton Creek.

Now, Dalton Creek was the subject of several OregonHikers forum threads in the late 2000s and early 2010s, several of them trip reports from people trying to sort out the "which waterfall is Dalton Falls" controversy (see my old Dalton Falls posts for more on that) and looking for additional falls on a few creeks immediately east of Angels Rest:

There were a couple of mentions of bushwhacking along Dalton Creek up from the old highway and sometimes climing all the way to Angels Rest from there, so apparently nobody realized there was a simpler and less thorny way to do the initial approach, a way that also skips traipsing along right past someone's house.

Dalton Creek is also the property line betwen the Backstrand Road property and a pair of small lots with diagonal property lines that together form a rough diamond shape totaling about 10 acres. Those property records show the Forest Service has only owned them since May 2002, and whoever owned them before was exempt from paying taxes on the land, so either another government body or some nonprofit group. I'm not positive I've found any news about that sale either, but I did find an April 2002 article that briefly mentions a possible upcoming land deal somewhere in the Bridal Veil area. It says the sale would cover 77 acres & could enable an ADA-compatible trail to Bridal Veil Falls someday, so it may be about a completely different land deal, or it might have covered the lots here and others elsewhere. The timing seems right, but there just aren't enough details to be sure.

Which brings us to the small mystery from the title of this post. A 1962 zoning map and an earlier 1950s tax assessor's map both label the diamond-shaped area as "YMCA". That got my attention, and before long I thought I had it all figured out: An April 1919 Oregonian story explained that local farmer George Shepperd (famous as the donor behind Shepperds Dell State Park) had also donated a house and land somewhere in the Bridal Veil area for a new YMCA camp. A WyeastBlog post about the nearby Bridal Veil Cemetery gives some backstory on Shepperd, his YMCA donation, and a series of strange and melancholy events in the years after he donated the falls. The trouble was that I couldn't find any subsequent news stories about the camp -- no grand tour when it opened, no vintage photos of kids doing crafts, nothing -- and a 1927 Metsker map doesn't show a YMCA camp here, or even any property lines corresponding to the camp we saw on the 1950s & 60s maps. Instead, it shows that roughly the entire area beyond the old mill town was then owned by a "Columbia Highlands Co.", including the Backstrand Road property, the future YMCA diamond, and points east all the way to Wahkeena Falls.

(Incidentally the other (and the oldest) ownership map I ran across was from 1889, and shows the whole area owned by a W. Dalton, who we met but learned nothing about in one of my old Dalton Falls posts, or maybe the Dalton Point one. He or she also doesn't figure into the present story any further, other than being the namesake of the creek here.)

Anyway, the Columbia Highlands company was incorporated in July 1915, and a brief business item the day after the big announcement noted it was capitalized at $400k and would be "a general brokerage firm dealing in real estate". Another item the following month finally explained what the company had in mind:

The Columbia Highlands Company was given permission last week by the state corporation department to plat and sell approximately 1760 acres of land along the Columbia River Highway, about 30 miles from Portland, and to construct a scenic road, clubhouse, and hotels. The company is capitalized for about $400,000, and its officers are Portlanders.
A similar Oregon Journal item also explained that the company is a consolidation of the interests of the Gordon Falls company, Charles Coopey, and Minnie Franklin.

Those names got my attention, and let me try to explain why briefly. "Gordon Falls" is an old name for Wahkeena Falls, Coopey was one of that company's founders (and namesake of Coopey Falls along the Angels Rest trail), and Franklin was the future Mrs. Charles Coopey, and the full story of the company is a whole other half-finished draft blog post I need to finish, but the short version is that the company proposed to build a woolen mill somewhere near Wahkeena Falls, to by powered by damming the creek above the falls. The mill would of course have its own company town nearby, to be named "Gordon Falls City", whose water supply would come from diverting Dalton Creek right here. It turned out the plan was not to build a new mill from scratch; instead the new mill would be a relocation of the famous woolen mill at Pendleton (which still exists today), disassembled and shipped west piece by piece. The whole scheme sounds outlandish, and it came to nothing when locals in Pendleton passed the hat and outbid the Gordon Falls investors, and found someone in town who was willing to take over the recently-closed mill. Which may have been the real plan the entire time, and the Gordon Falls City scheme was just a ruse to scare Pendleton into paying up. In any event, the company's stock was instantly worthless, and Portland-area investors who lost everything were outraged, and the whole mess ended up in court for years and years afterward.

The company's only real asset was all the land it had accumulated between Bridal Veil and Wahkeena Falls. Under modern bankruptcy law that land would go to pay off Gordon Falls creditors, but back then it just sort of quietly rolled over into the new Columbia Highlands company, just in time to try to cash in on the brand-new Columbia River highway next door. A May 1916 story announced the new business plan was to subdivide the company's holdings for summer homes and general development. The company's land extended way up into the hills and canyons above Bridal Veil, and in some alternate timeline where this plan panned out there are endless historic preservation battles around a cluster of fabulous but decaying Gatsby-like Art Deco mansions atop Angels Rest, which have proved to be prohibitively expensive to own and maintain. In our timeline, a pair of Journal stories from July 1916 note that part of the company's now-1700 acres had been surveyed and platted as residential property, and they had already sold a pair of lots totalling 2.5 acres with a prime view of (newly renamed) Wahkeena Falls, with home construction to begin shortly. Typically an item like this would be the kickoff for a long stretch of weekly or even daily real estate ads touting the area and reminding the reader that the area will be sold out soon and this may be their last chance to own a piece of the Gorge. But I couldn't find any sign that they had ever advertised Columbia Highlands, unless maybe the ads neglected to use the key phrase "Columbia Highlands", or the words were in an overly ornate Deco font that the newspaper database's OCR system couldn't parse. And what's more the Multnomah County Surveyor's Office GIS map has no trace of any of this alleged subdividing and platting ever being filed with the county, so it's anyone's guess what was really going on here. In any event, the next mention I found of the scheme was an August 1918 news item suggesting the company had changed plans again:

Following the annual meeting of the Columbia Highlands Company, held yesterday, it is announced that the directors have decided to carry forward a plan of development of their property through which the Columbia River Highway runs for nearly three miles. Trails will be developed to various scenic points, including the hanging gardens on Dalton Creek and numerous grottoes of exceptional scenic beauty. Attention will be given to lands adjacent to the highway, and steps will be taken to protect the shrubs, trees, and forest from the vandalism of thoughtless visitors.

A similar Oregon Journal article explained that the company was now just going to develop land along the highway, with the balance reserved as a privately-run tourist attraction. Hiking trails would come first, followed eventually by longer trips up into the mountains by burro or pack mule, I suppose along the lines of what you can still do at the Grand Canyon. The new board of directors listed a local judge as president of the firm, the other seats filled by familiar names, including Coopey as secretary, and Coopey's wife as treasurer. I'm reading between the lines here, but I wonder whether Coopey's presence on the board and long bitter memories of the woolen mill scheme were a hindrance to the Columbia Highlands operation, and they brought in a respectable outsider to be the public face of the struggling project going forward.

There is almost no further news about the company after that. A1922 public notice from the Secretary of State's office listed it among a large number of companies that had not maintained a current business license, or paid any fees, or made any required filings with the state over the past two years and were hereby officially dissolved. After that, the very last we see or hear of the company is a 1933 business item simply listing it under "dissolutions", with no indication of what happened during the intervening eleven years, other than the company name being all over that 1927 map. Did the 1922 notice finally get the attention of the company's lazy lawyers, who went back through the company's unopened mail pile and found the relevant "final notice" letters and somehow got back in the state's good graces? Did the dissolution order get tied up in an endless court case for a decade and change, without making the newspapers at any point? Or did various authorities just neglect to follow up on the 1922 order for all that time? July 1933 would've been during the initial burst of New Deal legislation, as it was becoming abundantly clear that 1920s laissez-faire business was on its way to the dustbin of history; maybe the state or the county figured it was time to tidy up some zombie corporations and other loose ends, before the feds did it for them. I do wish the company had at least managed to build a few of those trails before cratering, since (per the OregonHikers threads above) there still isn't a reasonable way for ordinary hikers to visit the "hanging gardens" along Dalton Creek.

That 1933 item is followed by another eleven-year gap, as we jump forward to the next historical map I could find. The 1944 Metsker map of the area is essentially identical to the 1927 one, but with the former Columbia Highlands properties now owned by a Catherine B. Fairchild, about whom I can find almost no information. The 1927 map showed the name "Fairchild" on a small lot along the highway. And if you look closely at the 1944 map you can see where someone applied whiteout in a few spots, replacing "Columbia Highlands" with the name of the new owner, suggesting this was either a recent development, or the news was slow in reaching the Seattle offices of "Metsker the Map Man"

Other than names on maps, the only news item I could find with a matching name or initials was a 1926 traffic item noted that a Mrs. C.B. Fairchild, of Aberdeen, WA, had broken a few ribs when her car flipped on a gravel road along the Washington Coast. This was part of a long list of traffic accidents and injuries around the region, so if somehow you're ever sent back in time by a century or so you might want to make a note to avoid driving or riding in cars if you can, because it sounds quite dangerous. This item was just below a group photo of the new state Republican committee, which (quite unlike the present day) had 8 female members out of 18 total. You can still tell it's the GOP, though, because the photo is 100% white, and everyone in it is scowling at the camera. Below all the traffic gore and mayhem, another item concerned a lobbying campaign to have a Three Sisters National Monument declared, which still hasn't occurred nearly a century later. The area does get National Park-level visitorship, but still doesn't have a budget or protection level to match. Or at least not yet.

But back to our story, specifically a 1952 front page story. It seems the Fairchild estate had been foreclosed upon a few years earlier for unpaid back taxes, with the land going to Multnomah County. The controversial part was that the county had then sold off large tracts of the land to private buyers -- including 600 acres in the general area we're visiting right now -- without first asking the state parks department whether they wanted any portion of the land. The county seems to have been caught flat-footed by the controversy; the head of the county land office explained that notifying the state wasn't his job, and in general the county preferred to get land back into private hands and back on the tax rolls, and besides they might have mentioned the Gorge land in passing while talking to the state about something else, so it was really the state's fault for dropping the ball. That didn't go over very well, and he ended up promising to notify the state first if any more Gorge properties ended up in county hands. Meanwhile the new owners in the area -- a Mr. & Mrs. Calvin C. Helfrich, an elderly couple who had picked up the property back in 1949 -- had already logged much of their acreage, and were talking about building summer cabins in the area, and had applied for water rights on Dalton Creek, echoing a few parts of the earlier Highlands and woolen mill efforts.

Later in October 1952, the Helfriches -- possibly stung by the recent public outcry and bad press -- donated 30 acres of the property to the YMCA to be used as an Indian Guide camp to be known as "Camp Helfrich". They also gave an adjacent half-mile of highway frontage to one of their sons, but the article doesn't specify in which direction so I don't know whether that included the Backstrand Road property or not. The article notes that both properties were still timbered, unlike much of the surrounding area. So the earlier Shepperd donation turns out to have been a total red herring, and I have no idea what happened to the land from that donation or even where it was, exactly.

Now that I had an actual name for the camp, I figured I could just put "Camp Helfrich" into Google and the library's newspaper database and the rest would be easy, just with a start date of 1952 instead of 1919. And once again I was surprised by how few results came back. First off, we have a 1953 fundraising campaign for the new camp, with a cringey photo of beaming white kids in pretend-Indian garb. And not long afterward, a 1954 classified ad offering the remaining 550 acres for sale at $40/acre. Which sounds like a good deal until you realize the 1949 foreclosure sale had privatized the land at just $8/acre. The ad may have had the desired effect though; it only ran once, and the State Parks department bought most of the land in 1955. 403 acres changed hands this time, including Mist Falls and Angels Rest, but not the land right around the new summer camp. The article doesn't mention what the state ended up paying per acre.

In 1959, a different donor gave $10k to the local Indian Guide program. A YMCA spokesman said they might use some of the money for a new longhouse building. Which, however, would be located at Camp Collins, their much better-known youth camp next to Oxbow Park, and not their supposedly dedicated Indian Guide camp further east, which wasn't mentioned anywhere in the article.

Two small Oregon Journal news items in 1958 and 1963 alerted parents about upcoming summer day camps at Camp Helfrich, along with a whole galaxy of other summer camp options. The 1958 notice said swimming was on the agenda, though it beats the heck out of me where you could put a swimming pool or a pond, or really any part of a summer camp for that matter, in this kind of terrain. Maybe it just wasn't a very good site for a summer camp, I dunno. The 1963 mention is the last newspaper item I could find about the camp, and that's where the historical record (or that portion of it that I can find on the internet for free) just sort of ends. Inconveniently none of the news items about the camp included a map of it or even gave a street address, so I don't even know how people got there from the highway, whether Backstrand Road once doubled as the camp entrance, or if the entrance was somewhere else and it's just been erased so well that there's no trace of it on the LIDAR map anymore.

The really puzzling thing about all of this is the complete lack of Google search results about the camp. That honestly surprised me a lot more than the lack of news items. I figured there would at least be a handmade web page from 2001 about a the place, or an Angelfire or Tripod site, with Boomers waxing nostalgic and swapping memories of their summer camp days, maybe even with a few teen crushes finally hooking up half a century later. But no dice. Then I checked the Wayback Machine in case those pages had been on Geocities or some other long-deleted location; I even checked Facebook in case there's a private FB group out there for camp alumni or former counselors, or just somone posting a photo or mentioning the place in any way, and I don't even like Facebook and trying to do a useful search there is even harder than getting straight answers out of 2021 Google. If nobody's nostalgic about an old summer camp, did the place ever really exist? I'm only mostly joking here. If you just tell everyone that signups are already closed, and the waiting list's full, whenever anyone tries to register their kid or to volunteer, you could probably keep a phantom summer camp on the books for a fair number of years before anyone caught on, or you got bored of the charade. I'm not sure why somebody might do this, maybe as part of an elaborate tax dodge, or as a cover story for a secret CIA sasquatch lab, that sort of thing.

Another more disturbing possibility is that the camp was 100% real, but was home to history's most successful summer camp slasher, just like in the movies but worse, and it all got covered up, and even now the few survivors are still being threatened or bribed to stay quiet. Call me a former 80s teenager if you like, but when I see an abandoned summer camp and a mysterious house in the forest next door with "666" in the street address, I can't help but draw a cinema-based conclusion or two. I mean, it doesn't strike me as the most likely real-life explanation; the camp was probably just surplus to requirements after the postwar baby boom subsided. It's just that it's hard to explain how an entire summer camp has been completely forgotten, poof, when it ought to still be within living, non-suppressed, memory of at least a few people out there.

So that's your writing prompt, o Gentle Reader(s): If you once attended Camp Helfrich and have fond (or otherwise) memories of it, feel free to leave a note below. Or if you didn't, but heard tales of what happened to the kids who did, feel free to drop that into the comments too. Or if you've been on the run from the secret CIA sasquatch lab since 1962 and want to finally tell your strange but 100% true story, I'm all ears. And while I'm lobbing questions out there, if you have any idea why the road's called "Backstrand Road", I'd be really curious about that too, since I found absolutely no info on the subject, and the name appears nowhere in any of the maps or news stories I've seen about the area.

Thx,
  mgmt.

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