Sunday, October 24, 2021

Old Boneyard Road

Our next Columbia Gorge adventure takes us back to the former mill town of Bridal Veil, or what's left of it. This time around we aren't visiting the falls, or the bridge above the falls, or the Angels Rest Trail, or Dalton Point, or any of the other usual sights; this time we're wandering down an old gravel Forest Service road at the edge of town, a place the agency calls "Old Boneyard Road". Who am I kidding, I saw the name and had to check it out. Knowing, as I do, how this always turns out in the movies -- "Blair witch, you say? Let's make a documentary!" -- I still had to check it out. So I did, and was underwhelmed, and I also couldn't find any interesting stuff to share about the place, so once again I'm resorting to the usual mix of guesswork, wild tangents, and unbelievable stories I just made up, and hopefully readers can tell which is which. I figured the name might work as a little clickbait, at least; I even held off finishing this post until late October, on the theory it might drive more clicks now than it would if posted in April, say. To be honest I mostly stopped caring about metrics years ago and will probably forget to ever check whether this theory of mine panned out. But never mind all that; we're here now, and I'll see if I can make the place seem at least a little spooky while I'm at it.

Old Boneyard Rd. - USFS road map

The usual embedded Google map up top isn't very helpful this time around, and on Street View it looks like the first couple of photos in my photoset but even less artsy, so here's a US Forest Service road map to give a better idea of where the road is at and where it goes. (That link goes to an interactive version of the USFS map, since I can't seem to embed the real thing here.)

Finding the road in real life takes a keen eye. The spot where it branches off the historic highway is marked only by an easy-to-miss Forest Service road sign noting this is road number 3000-297, and an unusually wide bit of shoulder on the other side of the highway. Surprisingly the road's not actually gated off, so in theory you could drive down it and maybe get past the muddy parts that way, but I wouldn't recommend it; your best bet is to just park in that shoulder area and walk the rest of the way, and turn around if it's too muddy since you aren't really missing anything. Past the sign, the road heads downhill into a narrow, triangular bit of land wedged between the old highway and the Union Pacific railroad, fording Dalton Creek on the way. As it nears the railroad, the road splits: A bit heading east peters out into a small meadow almost immediately, with impassable brush east of there. (A 1927 Metsker map showed the road continuing east from there and rejoining the old highway, but it was gone as of the 1944 edition of the same map.) The main road does a hairpin bend and heads west, but soon turns into impassable mud where it recrosses Dalton Creek. Maps show the road continuing west for a bit after that before dead-ending near the property line with the ODOT's rock quarry next door. Overall it gives the impression it was once an access road for something that used to be here, but gives no hints about what that was, unless maybe the name is a hint.

I first saw the name in a pair of Forest Service road studies, the 2003 original and its 2015 update. They're large (since they cover all USFS roads within the National Scenic Area) and quite dry to read, so let me summarize briefly. The 2003 report said the road was "needed by state government", while posing a "high" risk to aquatic life. The 2015 update said the need for the road was now "low" (and was merely a "low" risk to aquatic life), and proposed downgrading it from maintenance level 2 (suitable for high clearance vehicles) down to level 1 (gated off, with minimal maintenance), commenting "Consider decommissioning. This road has two stream crossings and flooding is occurring on the lower section of the road." So, reading between the lines here, whatever the state was doing here back in 2003 was causing the water quality trouble, and things got better after they stopped, but now the road's redundant. Maybe it used to be a backup quarry entrance, and dump trucks used to roll through the mud here, I dunno. Meanwhile a map titled 'Road Risk/Benefit Assessment', also from September 2015, labeled the road in green as 'Likely Needed for Future Use', so I gather the report's proposal was not a unanimous opinion. In any case the agency defaulted to not changing anything back then, and it still hasn't.

None of which explains the spooky name, which is annoying since the spooky name is the one and only reason we're here. And maybe it's not even a spooky name at all. I'm reasonably sure -- like 75% positive, ok, 51% -- that it's not actually about skeletons, at least not of the Halloween persuasion. Or at least the official old Bridal Veil town cemetery is elsewhere, due west of here over near the Bridal Veil freeway exit. The convent near Coopey Falls has its own cemetery on the convent grounds, so it's not that either; interestingly it -- according to the county surveyor's office -- is legally a "subdivision" named "Transitus". As in "sic transit gloria mundi", I suppose, which in a way follows the long tradition of naming subdivisions after things they replaced. It's said -- and never ask me how I heard about this -- that many Transitus residents return from the Other Side on the last night of each waning crescent moon for the monthly HOA meeting, which -- I'm told -- is conducted entirely in Latin and can get surprisingly heated at times, especially if they think the new groundskeeper has been edging their plots all wrong, or showing favoritism in who gets the most graveside flowers. Some propose a resolution to haunt the new guy until he quits, others remind the residents they've now done this to the last three groundskeepers, and word is starting to get out in the regional groundskeeping community that this is a bad gig, and it's lowering their property values somehow, and the phantasmagorical bickering continues for hours. But after the meeting finally wraps up, the ghostly nuns relax and play bridge til daybreak and then dematerialize back to... wherever they spend the rest of their time. Nobody really knows for sure where they go or how they get there, and it remains a deep mystery of nature (or supernature), along the lines of Atlantic eel migration. But I digress.

Anyway, my guess is that this was some sort of machine boneyard at one point, packed with mechanical bits located somewhere along the "useless junk" <==> "critical spare parts" continuum, like a larger version of my dad's garage. But what kind of machines? There's essentially nothing left now that might give us any clues about that, but I think parts for the old sawmill would be the obvious (albeit evidence-free) guess. So I can't prove it, but searching the interwebs for various logging keywords plus the word "boneyard" led me off on an interesting tangent, so I'll explain that instead for a bit. So if you don't like interesting tangents, just scroll down until you see a paragraph starting with the word "Anyway", and resume reading at that point. Which means there's only one paragraph starting with "Anyway" in the remainder of this post, believe it or not. (And yes, I added an "anyway" to this paragraph later, for ironic effect or whatever. Don't count it while scrolling down, otherwise you're liable to be here for a long while.)

This tangent takes us to a different sawmill down in the mid-Willamette Valley. The Hull-Oakes Lumber Co. operates a very traditional-minded mill near the tiny town of Bellfountain, a few miles west of the small town of Monroe. The mill ran entirely on steam power as recently as 2013, and still uses a lot of early and mid-20th century machinery, on the theory of not fixing it if it ain't broke. They even have an intact old wigwam burner, though it's strictly decorative now since Oregon banned them decades ago. Articles I've seen about the mill include a recent piece in Popular Mechanics, and an older one at OPB, plus others in trade publications like Timber West Magazine, Sawmill Magazine, and This Is Carpentry. One of the articles mentions that finding spare parts can be a big problem, so they watch auctions around the region for gear they might need someday, and sometimes end up bidding against museums. When they win an auction, the parts go to the mill's boneyard until they're needed, which is the reason I bumped into articles about the place.

At one point a few decades ago the mill helped create a unique picnic table for the nearby Bellfountain County Park, 85 feet long and cut from a single piece of wood. Some (including the county parks website) suggest it's the world's longest picnic table, or at least the longest in the "cut from a single piece of wood" category. A state historical record merely claims it "has been referred to as" the longest in that category within the US. (By contrast, the old Bridal Veil mill was best known for manufacturing the little wood boxes that Kraft Cheese used to come in.) Benton County also claims Bellfountain Park is the county's oldest park, founded way back in 1851. Although the county's only run it since 1965, and before that it was a privately-run religious campground used for revival meetings, which is not really a park in the ordinary sense.

Bellfountain's other claim to fame (besides the mill, and the park and its various amenities) is having won the overall state high school basketball championship back in 1937. If you're familiar with the movie Hoosiers or the 1954 true story it was based on, that's essentially what happened here, once upon a time. Like most states, Oregon puts schools in multiple 'divisions', organized more or less by school size and program budget, with a separate championship for each division. There were five divisions when I was in high school, and a sixth was added sometime since then, but back in 1937 there were just two. Class A for big schools, and class B for small schools. But, uniquely, if you won the class B championship in a sport, you had the right to challenge the class A champion for their trophy. Which is how a tiny K-12 school with 27 students once came to play -- and defeat -- Portland's Lincoln High School.

While we're briefly on the subject of high school sports -- briefly, I promise -- in 2020 the town of Monroe had a small cameo role in the state's endless culure wars over high school team names. It seems that they're one of several schools around the state that go by "the Dragons", including the much larger high school in the city of Dallas, OR, and in many cases the name dates back to the early 20th Century. The problematic part here is that there's a longstanding story/legend/rumor that "Dragons" is a sly reference to dragons of the "Grand Dragon" variety, and to Oregon's long history as a Ku Klux Klan hotbed, which peaked back in the 1920s (though I'm cynical enough about this state to consider adding a "so far" here). That suspicion is not helped by both Dallas and Monroe having long reputations as sundown towns. A local website in Dallas insists the stories about the name are untrue, at least in their particular case, and "Dragons" was chosen for a.) alliteration, and b.) because nobody's scared of playing a team that calls itself the "Prune Pickers", the school's previous mascot. Which, maybe. Though I'll just point out that Bellfountain proudly played as the Bells the whole time, and let the name of the town do all the intimidating.

(deep breath)

Anyway, back at Bridal Veil, the place we're actually visiting right now could've been a railroad boneyard instead, since it's right along a major (and very old) Union Pacific rail line, right where the line goes to double track through the old townsite. And I think it's also close to where the mill's old logging railroad once connected to the main line. So this place could've been for old trains and train parts, albeit on a fairly small scale. A quick search came up with examples in remote corners of Maine, New Jersey, Bolivia, and even Ukraine's Chernobyl exclusion zone, all of which are much larger than whatever could have fit here. For the same reason, I think we can rule out "aircraft boneyard" as a possibility since that requires even more space, ideally a large chunk of empty desert like the famous ones in California and Arizona.

Old Boneyard Rd. - LIDAR map

Or maybe this area used to be parts storage for ODOT's remarkably well-disguised Coopey Quarry next door. This is the source of at least some of the gravel used to constanly patch up I-84 and the old highway, and an endless need for gravel kind of implies an endless need for spare parts, especially given the agency's legendary reckless enthusiasm for dynamite. In fact the state's 2014 LIDAR map of the area (the source of the graphic above) shows some near-vertical slopes next to the highway that to me don't look entirely natural, but do look a lot like the quarry next door. So maybe some quarrying happened here at one point too. But (as with most of this post) I have zero documentation to prove that; it's just me looking at a map and guessing wildly.

PortlandMaps says the bulk of the area was last sold in 1989, so the feds haven't actually owned the place all that long. I don't know if the deals were connected at all, but 1989 was the same year that the Trust for Public Land bought the ramshackle sawmill and what was left of its company town, and after a long nature vs. historic preservation battle all remaining structures were demolished and erased. Except for the local post office, which continues to do a brisk business in novelty wedding announcement postmarks. Before the 1989 sale, much of the town (and possibly the boneyard site here) had been owned since 1964 by an eccentric ">local NASCAR driver, who (I gather) just sort of liked the idea of owning his own town. But that's a whole separate blog post I'll get around to sooner or later.

I was really hoping there would be something left over from the place's working days, I dunno, rusty old boxcar wheels or steam engine bits or something, giant sawmill blades, sized for trees it isn't legal to cut anymore, etc, but no luck. Or at least I had no luck; maybe if you're a metal detecting expert (and have the appropriate special permit), or you just have better powers of observation than I do, you might be in for a treat. I mean, I think I would have noticed if there'd been, I dunno, an intact vintage locomotive there, hidden under a big blue tarp but fully fueled and ready to joyride, and with the model number visible so you can find the right "How To Drive This Thing" video on Youtube. I didn't see anything like that, so don't get your hopes up too much. In fact the only remaining maybe-artifacts I noticed were a couple of large concrete boxes that I couldn't identify. Maybe they were the only objects that were too heavy to remove, I dunno. I took a few photos (see photoset above) in case they ring a bell for anyone.

Or maybe I've gotten it all wrong. Suppose these concrete mystery boxes are the reason for the "Old Boneyard" name, and it's all about creepy skeletons after all. Suppose a couple of late 19th century vampires were making their way west by train to Portland, nomming on unaware locals as they went, having heard the stories of other vampires living the high life in Portland's North End (present-day Old Town). A place where people constantly vanished, never to be seen or heard from again, generally without anyone noticing or caring. And on the off chance a missing person was actually missed and questions were raised, it could always be explained away as yet another Shanghai-ing, which the public just sort of accepted as a fact of life. But what if a few people here knew the awful truth of the matter; what if the vamps were ambushed when they hopped off the train for a quick midnight snack, just before they could escape into the city and the unmapped tunnels beneath it. Perhaps the townsfolk here got a hot tip about the unwanted visitors via the newfangled telegraph; it might have even been from from a rival vampire in Portland who didn't want the competition, or had a centuries-old score to settle. Bridal Veil lacked many of the traditional anti-vamp tools (garlic, rice, Catholic priests, etc. -- the nearby convent has only been here since the 1980s), but there were plenty of wooden stakes to be had, or at least cheese boxes that could be quickly broken up into stakes. But these were vampires of the type that are merely immobilized when staked, not the exploding Buffy variety, so a little quick thinking led to entombing them in concrete -- made with 0% Transylvanian soil -- while still staked, and that's where they've stayed ever since, the name being a clue to locals to leave those boxes the hell alone. But then the mill and its town went away, and the residents dispersed to all points of the compass, and certain key details about this place were lost to current generations, and sooner or later someone's going to jackhammer the things open in the interest of making the area more natural. Whoever does this will be in for a big (but brief) surprise, and yet another ancient horror will be unleashed on the world. In fact, this will most likely occur within the next few years, because that's just how the 2020s have been going so far.

No comments :