Friday, May 31, 2024

Little Jack Falls

Next up we're visiting another obscure waterfall along the lower Columbia River. Little Jack Falls is a short distance from Jack Falls, on an abandoned stretch of the old Lower Columbia River Highway, outside of tiny Prescott, OR, where the old Trojan nuclear plant used to be. The state still owns the old stretch of road, and it's still largely passable with one big exception we'll get to shortly (or you'll just see in the photoset here).

Getting to the falls involves simply walking along the old road for a bit, and you can start at either the bottom or the top. I've only been there via the lower sorta-trailhead so far, and that route involves parking somewhere near the US 30 intersection with Graham Road, then crossing 30 when it's safe, and looking for a trail starting around where concrete barriers turn into metal guardrails. From there, follow the old highway uphill until you get to Jack Falls, first. Have a look at the falls, and the cute little historic bridge that the creek goes over, then keep going uphill until you get to Little Jack Falls. You can't miss it, or I hope you can't, because sadly the original LCRH bridge that was here is completely gone now, and absentmindedly falling into the gap would mean a long tumble down a steep slope to the edge of the present-day highway.

If the way here, and especially the area right around the falls, look a bit less natural and magical than similar spots in the Gorge, it might be the invasive ivy currently overrunning the vicinity. The airquote-fun detail about this situation is that it was intentional, at first. A 1915 Oregonian article concerning a long drive from Portland to Astoria in a shiny new Reo automobile mentions that the original landscaping around the base of Little Jack Falls included decorative plantings of ivy, for a complete dumbass reason. A 1920 state highway report includes some photos of the ongoing roadwork along this stretch of the highway, then under construction, and the whole area had obviously been clearcut shortly before the road went in. So to make it look less bare and desolate here, they planted one of the rare few things that isn't an improvement over bare dirt.

The ivy situation really complicates things here, if the state ever decides to renovate this stretch of the old highway. The ivy isn't just a nasty invasive plant, it's also an important part of the historical context and built landscape around here, and that would make it illegal, verging on sacreligious, to ever tear it out or let goats nibble on it, or otherwise prevent it from spreading as it sees fit. So that ought to be an especially fun series of angry public meetings.

Also, Little Jack Falls is almost certainly haunted, if you believe in that sort of thing. As noted in the Jack Falls post, there used to be a collection of abandoned buildings either here or at the other waterfall, depending on which oral history you believe, and that spot became a hideout for a gang of outlaws, but they all died in a shootout and their loot has never been found (and is presumably still around here somewhere). Couple of additional strange incidents happened here, decades later, which makes me think Little Jack is the waterfall with the outlaw ghosts and the hidden treasure: In August 1922, an intercity bus was driving along through here when a man randomly shot two fellow passengers just as they passed Little Jack Falls, killing one of them. Then in 1947 a duck hunter parked at the falls, intending to go hunting in the nearby marshes (close where the nuclear plant would be decades later), and was never seen again. Ok, that or he turned up uneventfully after the media lost interest and lived happily ever after, possibly under a new name. Most likely it was one of those things or the other, at any rate. If a lost hunter from 1947 somehow encountered sci-fi atomic radiation from 1997 and became a kaiju-sized ravenous man-duck hybrid, you'd think someone would have noticed by now. Unless maybe he's not ready to burst forth from underground yet, in which case he'll probably show up in 2047 after marinating in bad swamp mojo for a century, and comic-book radiation for the second half of that century. But it wouldn't hurt to keep a closer eye on the area in 2027 and 2037 in case I got the math wrong somehow.

On a more cheerful note, I think you said earlier that you wanted to know where the name came from. And to that end we have a 1915 Oregon Journal article that explains the falls are named for the young son of District Engineer Thompson. The article does not explain whether Jack Falls is also named after the kid and the "Little" describes the falls, or maybe the kid was "Little Jack" and Jack Falls is named after his dad. Some future historian with access to more sources will have to figure that one out for us.

One feature of the upper route (and thus not pictured here) is the old Prescott Point Viaduct, which was considered an engineering marvel of its day (though bridge pedants would like to point out that it's technically just a half-viaduct). Some photos on that page show another reason why they used this route and not the current one, namely that the present-day route was either part of the river, or a river-adjacent swamp, back then, and the route only became buildable after levees went in, around 1938-39. The half-viaduct here and another elsewhere cost $5k in 1918 dollars.

Unlike Jack Falls down the road, the creek is apparently not part of anyone's water supply. The eponymous Little Jack Falls Water System -- the local utility for a handful of area residents -- draws from a nearby spring and not the creek itself. I know this thanks to their 2001 state licensing form (if you're curious what one of those looks like), which also tells us the current operators (as of 2001) had owned & run it since 1976. This factoid is not really relevant to much of anything; it's mostly that while researching a different waterfall post I realized that small water utilities were effectively unregulated in Oregon until the early 1980s, and what came out of your tap could be a real crapshoot, scatological pun intended. And yes, that was a transparent attempt to get visitors to go read a second post here, even though I don't make a penny off this weird little blog either way.

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