Friday, May 31, 2024

Jack Falls

A while back we paid a visit to Beaver Falls, a now-obscure waterfall that used to be a scenic highlight of the old Lower Columbia River Highway. Which was the predecessor of today's US 30 between Portland and Astoria, and the continuation of the famous Columbia River Highway that meanders through the Gorge. It's not widely known anymore that there's anything worth stopping to see along the road to Astoria, but in this post we're going to visit another one.

This time we're near the small city of Prescott (pop. 55), which is on the Columbia River just downstream from the former Trojan nuclear power plant, the inspiration for The Simpsons' Springfield Nuclear Plant. I mention that just because nobody knows where Prescott is. I honestly didn't either until I went looking for waterfalls nearby. The town (and plant site) are on a rocky area that was probably an island once, now connected to the "mainland" by a large swampy wetland area, bordered by east-facing steep bluffs. Present-day US 30 runs along the base of the bluffs near Prescott and then climbs a steep grade to the community of Lindbergh and the city of Rainier a short distance past there.

There were two basic obstacles to using the present-day route, When the old road first went in, the average 1920s passenger car could not have handled the steeper parts of the present-day highway, and instead the road used to climb the hill on a gentle continuous grade from the intersection with Graham Road (the main road to Prescott) up to the top of the hill over the course of about a mile. There was no obvious way to expand this route to four lanes, so the after the current route opened the old way uphill was simply abandoned to the forest. And it's remained that way ever since, surprisingly intact in most places, beneath a protective layer of moss and decades of fallen leaves. It's going to be our trail today.

Abandoned along with the old road was any official access to two waterfalls that until then had been scenic highlights of the road to the coast. Jack Falls (here) and Little Jack Falls (just down the road) were either a.) both named for a child of an engineering manager on the construction project, or b.) one is named after the kid and the other after his dad, and they were never renamed with native-sounding names of dubious origin like they did throughout the Gorge. In this post we're looking at Jack Falls, since it's the one you encounter first if you're coming from below, i.e. the Prescott end of the road. The link above goes to the companion post about the other waterfall.

But first you have to find the old road that takes you to them. A 2017 OregonWaterfalls post explains how to get there: Turn off US 30 at Graham Road and park in a turnout near the intersection. The road is on a levee between two wetland areas, and any other vehicles parked here will most likely be birdwatchers. Rather than joining them, go back to the US30 intersection, wait for a gap in traffic, and carefully cross the highway. You'll need to hop over a guardrail on the other side, ideally near where the metal guardrail turns into concrete barriers. Initially you're looking for a plain old unmarked trail heading into the forest. When I was there, there were several fallen trees and assorted other debris right when you walked into the forest, and it would be easy to conclude you were going the wrong way. If you keep going, pretty soon it opens up and it looks like, well, a leaf-covered road with the occasional fallen tree across it, and patches of ivy here and there. If you clear away the debris layer, you'll find there's still a mostly-intact asphalt road down there, and traces of painted lane markings are still visible in parts. Ok, there are occasional hidden cracks in the pavement that you could easily wedge a foot into, which would be a fun way to break an ankle if you aren't paying attention, and if anything trips you, you might fall onto devil's club or maybe poison oak. But generally you can just follow an existing boot path through the ivy for decent footing and ways around whatever debris is on the road. In a couple of spots some anonymous volunteer has obviously sawed up a lot of the debris to remove blockages. So any masked individuals with chainsaws you might encounter along this stretch of abandoned road are most likely friendly and benevolent local community members.

Anyway, now that you've found the road, finding the waterfall should be easy enough. Look to your left and uphill. If you see a waterfall, you're there. If you don't, but it's late summer and you're standing on an old HCRH-style stone/concrete bridge over a dry creekbed, you're also there, most likely. Otherwise continue walking forward and do this check again in a few minutes. Check your GPS coordinates against the map above. Seriously, I found it with no trouble and so can you. Once there, you can do some advanced influencer yoga poses for the 'Gram (watch out for gravel), or dance a jig for TikTok, or go off on a spittle-flecked conspiracy rant for X (formerly Twitter), or whatever your content creation routine happens to be in the year 2024 AD. And after that you can either turn around and go home, or keep going to Little Jack Falls. Which is a whole other blog post, because of a rule I made up years ago. If you hit a point where parts of the road have fallen away and it narrows to roughly trail width for a short distance, you've gone too far and wandered into the other blog post, and if the road fades out entirely and beyond it is nothing but dragons, it means I haven't hit 'Publish' on that other post yet.

But you're still here, so: Congratulations, you're at Jack Falls, and the odds are pretty good that you don't know jack about it. But that's about to change, thanks to this brief but inevitable dump of facts about it:

  • It's about 75' tall by most estimates, a whopping 5 feet taller than Little Jack Falls just up the road.
  • Except that the little in the name isn't about which is taller, but because the construction manager for this stretch of highway had a young son who went by "Little Jack", which I think means Jack Falls is named after his dad. I'm not sure, though; the old Oregon Journal article I got this factoid from doesn't mention Jack Falls at all and doesn't address how that name came about.
  • In fact, as far as I can determine no Portland periodical has ever printed a single word about Jack Falls. The only news items I've ever seen about it were in the Saint Helens Mist, a long-vanished periodical of the early 20th century:
    • An October 1916 issue of the St. Helens Mist - county appropriated money to build present-day Graham Rd. to connect to the old highway, which was there first apparently. so the road into town is where it is because of the abandoned old highway
    • A July 1917 issue of the same paper seems to indicate there was a local road here before the full highway, which would have been some kind of narrow gravel road. That sounds a little too exciting, if you ask me.
    • And regarding the general perception that the old highway was a bit... unsafe, an October 1922 personal injury court case relating to a car crash on the stretch of road past little jack falls on the way to rainier.
  • Oh, and before anyone asks, as sketchy as it may look, we are doing this 100% legally. The state hung onto the right-of-way for the old highway route after closing it to traffic; they seem to do this a lot in rural or natural areas, I guess to keep all their future options open. On top of that, Columbia County GIS says the City of Prescott owns the falls, which they'd originally bought as a sort of miniature Bull Run watershed, as I understand it, though they aren't currently using it for that.
  • A circa-2018 mention of Jack Falls on reddit, OP was looking for hikes near St. Helens, one reply mentions the falls and notes someone had rigged up a hose & ball valve to it for some reason. I didn't see any amenities like that when visiting, so it may be long gone by now. Unless maybe someone's very determined that Jack Falls needs a hose, for secret reasons, and clandestinely installs new ones as needed. Either way, there either is or isn't a hose and/or ball valve like this right now, and it may or may not be there at whatever time you visit.
  • The Google Maps entry for includes seven photos, mostly of the right waterfall, while elsewhere on the interwebs I came across six Flickr photos, three Instagram posts, and one mention (with a photo) at Recreating the HCRH.
  • Also we've got two dueling oral histories to consider, both interviews with local oldtimers. This one was recorded in 1961 and mostly recounts the history of sawmills at Prescott; the town's brief heyday as a cosmopolitan seaport, exporting products overseas directly from the local mill; the town's contribution to the war effort in WWII, etc., and we're told in passing that there was a school somewhere around Little Jack Falls really early on, before the present-day town really got going. A competing history relays the facts differently:
    Ed: Before Prescott there was a town and a mill up by Jack Falls. It had a school and some vacant buildings. A gang of crooks were supposed to be holed up there and were killed in a shootout. The money was never found.

    Ok, that's more like it. If you're a gang of crooks, and you're holed up near a waterfall, odds are you aren't doing it for the scenery or the relaxing white noise. No, the only reason you're likely to do this is if you're hiding something behind the waterfall. Could be the legendary lost treasure that "Ed" mentioned, could be an escape tunnel for avoiding shootouts, could be lots of things. It's just that nobody knows anymore which falls this happened at. My money's on Little Jack since it just looks better for concealing things, though the main drop of Jack Falls up toward the top of the bluff might be viable too. Either way, any henchmen who died in the shootout (not having been told about any secret escape tunnels) are probably still there as angry ghosts skulking around haunting whichever falls is the right one.

Naturally there's another, larger Jack Falls in Oregon, located along the Umpqua River east of Roseburg. And even more naturally there's a Fall(s) Creek Falls relatively close to both falls named Jack Falls , because you're never very far from a Fall(s) Creek in the wet parts of the Northwest. Thanks again, unimaginative pioneers!

The Fall Creek Falls in Columbia County is right in Clatskanie just off OR 47, behind the park with the baseball diamonds. It's very much privately owned, and the current owner is trying to make a go of it as an event venue and does not welcome visitors outside My personal preference is always going to be that scenic places ought to be public places, open to all and sundry with little or no red tape. But given the small population of the county, and the usual rural Oregon aversion to paying taxes for anything, this may be the best realistic outcome. I mean, Columbia County has had at least three waterfalls on the books as county parks (Beaver Falls, Lava Creek Falls, Carcus Creek Falls) for over a century now without doing much of anything with them, so if they came into possession of another one now it would probably just end up last in line behind the others. And if the county doesn't have the money, chances are the city of Clatskanie doesn't either. I'm telling you all this now because the only way I'm likely to end up with photos of Clatskanie's Fall Creek Falls (and thus the only way you get a post about those falls) is if someone out there needs a junior assistant wedding photographer and you don't really care whether my photos of your most cherished moments are any good -- which is a legitimate possibility since I've never actually done wedding photos before. And you also don't care that I shoo everyone out of frame a few times so I can just get undisturbed photos of the falls and nothing else. If asked by curious guests, I would just say that my creative process requires it, and not elaborate further. That's usually enough to end conversations and not become a distraction on your special day. So yeah, if you want to see a "Fall Creek Falls (Clatskanie)" post here someday, and you're up for helping make that happen, all you need to do is find your soulmate and get together, choose this specific place as your venue, invite me (as explained above) and somehow convince me the invite isn't some kind of weird scam or kidnapping attempt or timeshare presentation, and afterward remind me a few times so the post doesn't get lost in Drafts for ages.

And while we're talking about potential future events: The thing that really struck me on this trip was the old highway and its current conditions. I am just barely old enough to remember that long stretches of the old Columbia River Highway in the Gorge used to look just like this, back before present-day restoration efforts got going. You don't have to be a TED-talking, outside-the-boxing think-o-brain visionary to wonder if the same thing would work here too. The Portland bike community is forever making noise about needing at least one less-unsafe route between the city and the coast; maybe a "Historic Lower Columbia Highway State Trail" is the way to make this happen. It would inevitably be a bike-centric trail (vs a hiking one), even more so than the HCRH trail. The scenic highlights are usually separated by long stretches of just farm country and no nature to speak of. A lot of the work is just putting up signs marking the original route, and sharing the road on still-in-use rural backroads, and probably redesigning some intersections with present-day US30 since the meandering original route crosses back and forth over the current route quite a few times. ODOT could turn a few four-way stops into freeway intersections, which they're pretty good at and are always up for. Also throw some money at local scenic and natural attractions and hopefully persuade a few people to stop off along the way and spend some money in Saint Helens, Rainier, Clatskanie, and the other old river towns along the way. So that's in general; for the segment of road we just visited, that would be restored like some old HCRH parts: Reopened just to bikes & pedestrians, maybe with a safer way for people to get across Highway 30 at both both ends, and more parking at the lower end of the route. Maybe a crosswalk, maybe a skybridge, depending on how likely you think drivers will be to stop at the new signal. Maybe combine the old existing right-of-way with Prescott's old watershed area and declare it a new state park. If possible include the other nearby road segments to the logical east/physical south. Replace the Little Jack Falls bridge, maybe not an exact replica of the one that failed, seems like they built it too close to the falls for effect.

Anyway, that's Jack Falls. Stay tuned (or keep walking) for the Little Jack installment of this exciting adventure...

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