THE HISTORICAL RECORD OF OAK CREEK BENTON COUNTY, OREGON
By Patricia Benner
Fishery Limnology, Department of Fisheries & Wildlife, OSU
Oak Creek originates within McDonald Forest in the foothills northwest of Corvallis in Benton County, Oregon, and flows approximately eight miles down onto the Willamette Valley floor through the western section of Corvallis before it joins with the Marys River (Figure 1). The Benton County area through which Oak Creek flows was settled in the 1840’s by pioneers who found the land to be rich in resources and beauty. In the 140 years since settlement by homesteaders the natural resources, including the creeks have been exploited and the area has been greatly altered in appearance.
The purpose of this paper is to give the historical record of Oak Creek for the post 1840 mill—related activity, and the record of significant areas of creek channelization. From this record the biological implications relating to the use of the creek and creek channel changes are hypothesized.
The sources of information proved to be varied for this paper. A baseline, or background knowledge of the county as well as the creek’s location and appearance was required to understand and analyze the historical data and this knowledge was acquired in part by traveling around the county and by hiking in and along Oak Creek from Harrison Boulevard to Gill Coliseum and in McDonald Forest. The scouting of the creek sections was done in May, 1984. A library search collected a variety of primary and secondary source material. The Benton County Historical Museum, Engineers Office and Courthouse all were important sources of historical records. Old maps such as the original land survey maps, Donation Land Claim and land ownership maps, and fire insurance maps were helpful as were aerial photographs that dated back to 1936 for this area. Conversations with individuals who have lived in this area for some time were also sources of leads for bits of information. It was sometimes difficult to determine if secondary or more distant sources of information were accurate, and it was time consuming or difficult to trace back to primary material that would support the data. Visiting the sections of the creek in some cases helped document the written material and was an opportunity to discover new clues as well as to give a better perspective on each piece of the puzzle.
GENERAL HISTORY OF THE BENTON COUNTY AREA
In 1846 the small town of Marysville was established near the confluence of the Marys River and the Willamette by J. C. Avery. In 1853 the town’s name was officially changed to Corvallis so as not to be confused with a California town of the same name (Fagan, 1885) When the pioneers first settled in the Benton County area the Willamette Valley was predominantly in prairie-like grassland, and large stands of vegetation were confined to the river and stream corridors and up on the hills (Towle, 1982). It appears from the pioneer accounts of this area that this vegetation pattern was the result of the valley dwelling Kalapuya Indian resource management practice of periodically burning the valley vegetation to maintain the prairie habitat and to concentrate prey (Sprague, 1946; Towle, 1982). The only trees which typically survived the burnings were the fire resistant oak (Quercus garryana) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga taxifolia) or the stands of vegetation along the protective river and stream bottomlands and higher up on the hills. As a consequence of the burning, the settlers found gallery forests (Towle, 1982) of varying widths along most creeks. The Willamette River is estimated to have had as much as seven mile wide bands of vegetation along its banks, and according to Towle (1982), Muddy Creek, which is only about five times the size of Oak Creek in May, had greater than one mile corridors of woody vegetation (Figure 2).
There was little incentive for the pioneers to clear woodland for farming; they found it more practical to farm the already open grasslands. Families or single men often established homesteads along the woodland-grassland interface where a variety of resources were readily available. A number of homesteads were built near Oak Creek upstream of present day location of Harrison Boulevard where the land was probably less marshy. The Biddle family, for example, staked a land claim in 1853 near where the Oak Creek labs stand today (Munford, 1984). Oak Creek School was built near the west bank in 1860 (McDonald, 1983). The Federal Government encouraged settlement of Oregon by an 1850 Act of Congress that made donations of land to homesteaders. These Donation Land Claims gave married couples 640 acres and single, white men 340 acres of land. Benton County was first surveyed in 1852 and 1853 to document land availability and to facilitate donations of land. Figure 3 and Figure 4 are xeroxed sections of the 1852—1853 original survey maps. Note the claims along Oak Creek marked on the maps. It is interesting that the surveyor was only able to accurately document the location of Oak Creek whenever it intersected a transect lines and elsewhere on the map-the position of the creek was sketched in with approximate, unsure wiggles.
As the Indians had before them, the settlers found the Willamette Valley attractively abundant in natural resources. The soils were well suited for certain crops such as wheat, and the grasslands well supported domestic animals including sheep. Local mills were quickly built to provide services such as flour grinding and lumber cutting. Some of the earlier settlers apparently had rough first winters when there was little food and no way to conveniently process the wheat that they did have (Skjelstad, 1980). As the market grew in the west and transportation networks improved local products were exported to other regions.
MILLS ON OAK CREEK
There were only a few mills on Oak Creek, though mills were commonly built all over the valley on other, though somewhat larger streams such as Muddy Creek, the Calapooia and Soap Creek. The availability of abundant, flowing water in Marys River and the Willamette might have made Oak Creek less attractive for mill related uses downstream near Corvallis, especially because of a probable seasonally variable flow. However, there is well documented evidence (thank goodness , for the sake of this paper) that there were three, and possibly four mills that operated on Oak Creek at one time.
F. A. Horning arrived in Corvallis in 1850 (Fagen, 1885) and probably began homesteading west of Oak Creek soon after. It was possible to acquire donation land claims retroactively on land that was homesteaded earlier than 1850, and this is what Horning might have done because in 1870 he and his wife were deeded two 320 acre parcels of land in the area that is now west of 35th Street, approximately south of Harrison and north of Western. Sometime between 1850 and 1869 Horning and his partner, Groves built and operated a carding mill south of the railroad tracks on the west side of Oak Creek (Figure 1). Fagan (1885) reported that in 1869,
“.. Horning and Groves had a carding mill destroyed, but undeterred in 1869, the premises were rebuilt and supplied with new machinery.”
It was not determined for how long the mill operated after 1869, but the 1880 Corvallis Business Directory did not list a carding mill (Martin, 1938). More searching in other areas such as the tax records might better document the time span that the mill was operating. In 1880 Horning was 56 years old and was apparently a wealthy and influential farmer who had largely engaged in fruit farming (Fagan, 1885).
A lithograph of the mill and Horning’s residence are in Fagan’ s book (Figure 5). It shows a water wheel powered mill with a water diversion canal and flume travelling to the mill. The residence pictured is still standing and is on higher ground back from the creek. There is no evidence of the mill or flume. The 1885 picture doesn’t appear to be accurate in the direction in which the water would flow if it were coming from Oak Creek. Water from the mill did come from the creek as it is the only available water in that immediate area, and the creek was dammed just downstream from the railroad tracks about 300 feet upstream from the mill. The canal probably ran from the dam and a break in the western bank that was noticed during the stream hike might have been the point where the water was diverted from the creek.
According to Jackson (not dated), in the 1890’s there were as many as eleven sawmills in Benton County including a large sawmill located at the north end of Corvallis. After 1900 the logging industry increased in importance because of an increasing market for lumber in other areas coupled with an improved railroad network.
Marvin Rowley, the Forest Properties Manager for the McDonald Dunn Forests does not know of any records of any mills in McDonald Forest prior to 1900, but there is evidence of three lumber mills on Oak Creek that Rowley feels cut wood sometime around or after the First World War (Rowley, 1981) (Figure 6 & Figure 7). There was a mill on each branch of Oak Creek and a third at the junction of the two forks. The mills were each in operation for about three years and sawed logs harvested in a short radius of about one—half mile or less around the mill. It was difficult to haul the logs over long distances so the mills were constructed near the timber along a water source (Jackson). The three mills were steam powered, and each probably had a dam on Oak Creek to pond and store creek water and to create a holding area to float the logs as they were fed into the mill. Mill pond remnants are still visible at the creek branch junction site and fire bricks and a flywheel are sitting at the west branch creek site. Evidence of an old trail and a piece of a pipe are the only evidence that Rowley (1984) has found at the north branch mill site.
What is perhaps the most surprising was the existence of a wooden flume that ran from probably the west branch mill down Oak Creek to a holding pond at Waters Siding on Reservoir Road near the present location of Brand S Plywood (McDonald, 1983; Rowley, 1984). The flume transported cut lumber down to the valley for export by train. Jackson gives the year 1915 as the date on some plans for the flume.
DAMS ON OAK CREEK
There are currently two dams on Oak Creek that are a current chapter in the ongoing history of water use and diversion from Oak Creek. One dam is a concrete structure located just downriver of Harrison Boulevard, and the second is a metal dam downstream of the 35th Street bridge. Both are for irrigation purposes. There is also a small boulder “dam” of unknown, if any purpose that is approximately 100 feet upstream of 30th Street, and a natural wood debris dam about 150 feet downstream of the bike path culvert bridge. Evidence of beaver was found up in McDonald Forest where a beaver dam had been built across the north branch, and was found downstream of the railroad tracks in the form of cut trees.
Very little building of structures or roads occurred along Oak Creek in the 1800’s and before the 1940’s in the marshy areas in the Valley (Figure 8). The land along the creek in this area was low, wet and especially prone to flooding. The reach downstream of Harrison Boulevard to the Marys River was originally braided. The 1929 and 1962 Metsker Maps of Corvallis (Figures 9a, 9b and Figures 10a, 10b) document the channelization of the creek, especially in the area of the coliseum and on downstream. The 1936 aerial photographs confirm the original multiple channel morphology, and the 1956 photographs show the beginnings of channelization. Munford (1984) believes that the land adjacent to Oak Creek, especially between 35th Street down past Western may have been filled in at one time which may partially explain the high banks along the creek at the coliseum. According to Walt Hite at the Planning and Development Office at Corvallis City Hall, Oak Creek is still basically following its historical course, but is now channelized and stabilized in downtown Corvallis.
Creek braiding has also been restricted in the agricultural areas in the Valley along Oak Creek along the Oregon Sate University land, and the gallery woodlands that historically must have been along most of the creek are now very narrow in the Valley.
ECOLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES OF HISTORICAL ACTIVITY ON OAK CREEK
There have been numerous impacts on Oak Creek since the mid-1800’s, some of which were pulled from the historical record and the activities outlined earlier in this paper. An environmental /ecological assessment on Oak Creek might include,
*1. The removal of water from the creek, either for short distances or for consumptive use of the water.
2. The construction of dams across the creek and the ponding of water.
3. The removal of vegetation from along the stream corridor.
*4. Channelization of the creek and the reduction of stream “distance” by removing braiding.
5. Water quality degradation , especially from agricultural activity.
6. Increased runoff of water into the creek because of non—permeable ground.
* 7. Length of time any creek related events took place; are there after effects.
Though all of these factors play a role and interact in modifying what was historically the natural stream system, the remainder of this paper will focus on the probable consequences of mill activity and creek channelization.
Reduction in Flow
The seasonally variable flows of Oak Creek make it more challenging to imagine a twelve month industry or flume operation along the stream. Though no information was found to support this hypothesis, the flume, however, might not have operated year around. The carding mill conceivably might have processed wool during and just after the shearing season when creek flows were adequate. A steam powered lumber mill could have operated even during periods of fairly low flows because of the more conservative water needs and by ponding the available water.
Regardless of the proportion of the year that each mill and the flume might have been operating, the stream flow and water volume was altered whenever the creek water was used. The flume would have had the greatest impact on the creek because of its consumptive use of fairly large amounts of water Considering the size of the stream in McDonald Forest it is logical to assume that close to 100% of the creek’s flow was diverted into the flume and Oak Creek tributaries supplied whatever water flowed past Corvallis. The flume might have diverted water only for ten hours of each working day, but even if the creek had been dewatered for only a portion of each twenty—four hour period some stream community members would not have survived. Pockets of water in pool areas would have provided temporary habitat for some aquatic species if water temperature did not excessively increase. Riffle dependent forms and prey species as well as the larger fish would have been more vulnerable.
The carding mill ponded and diverted water upstream, then probably returned the water to the creek downstream of the mill. This non—consumptive use of Oak Creek water substantially reduced flows along only a short section of stream, but this flow reduction would have created a physical barrier between the upstream and downstream reaches for some organ sins.
The low-head dams at the carding mill and at the lumber mills also created physical barriers to movement of materials and the migration of small aquatic organisms. Sediment, particulate and dissolved organics would have collected in the ponds and insect drift patterns would have been modified. The impact of a small dam on a small stream can be relatively similar or proportional to the impact of a larger dam on a larger flowing system (Klingeman, 1981). The dams would not have been a barrier to the cutthroat trout, the major migratory fish in the creek.
The ponds in association with the timber cutting along the creek created a second important modification of the stream. The lumber mill ponds were at the mill sites where timber cutting permitted the direct sunlight to reach the creek and the ponded water. The stream temperature of this naturally shaded first order stream would have been increased, especially in the shallowly impounded sections. An increase in the water temperature would have lowered dissolved oxygen concentrations in the stream, and increased the rate of processing of organic material (Cummins, 1980) and rate of some life cycles. There would have also been a reduction of organic allochthonous input.
Channelization of Oak Creek
Dunne and Leopold (1978) list channel instability, downstream degradation or aggradation, and esthetic degradation as several of the costs and disadvantages that result from channel modification. Lower Oak Creek appears to be undergoing bank degradation in some areas, and to be esthetically modified. A number of bank sections have been reinforced with erosion resistant material. Channelization of Oak Creek has created new habitat but has reduced the diversity of the stream edge habitat. The removal of the multiple channels and floodplain lowland areas with its riparian vegetation reduced the creek’s reservoir capabilities and makes the present day flow regime flashier. Increased runoff of precipitation from city pavement and other low infiltration land further aggravates the situation.
Alterations of a stream or river that change the flow regime, or change the thermal regime can be predicted to produce major restructuring of flowing water communities (Cummins, 1980). Modification or containment of the channel, dams, water diversion and vegetation changes along Oak Creek all have, at some time, modified the physical and biological system. The mills and flume along Oak Creek operated for only a brief period of time relative to the creek’s geological history, and for a significant period of time relative to some biological life cycles or other organism needs. However, after the mill sites were abandoned, the dams were broken, and a replacement vegetational community was established, the reestablishment of the original stream community probably occurred. The lower Oak Creek channel will be permanently modified as long as the town of Corvallis borders its banks.
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