Oregon State Parks Essay: Willamette Valley

Glacially-deposited rock sits atop a foothill in the northern Oregon coast range.
 ​​​​​​​Erratic Rock State Park near McMinnville​ tells the story of a huge rock carried hundreds of miles by a glacier. (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)
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Erratic Rock State Park near McMinnville bears witness to some of the geologic forces that shaped Oregon’s landscape. During the Ice Age, icebergs floated down the Columbia River, flooding the Willamette Valley. One of those floods swept up a forty-ton boulder from the northern Rocky Mountains, and deposited it in that spot. Sitting in solitary splendor, the rock is a testament to the awesome power of climate change.

Not far from Erratic Rock, Fort Yamhill State Heritage Area recalls a time of major social change – the United States’ wars against indigenous peoples. The first people known to live in the area were of the Yamhelas Indian Tribe, part of the Kalapooian family. By 1856, thousands of Native Americans in the Willamette Valley had died of diseases introduced by white settlers, and that year, Congress forced 27 tribes – about 2,000 people – into the Grand Ronde Agency Coastal Reservation. That March, the U.S. Army began building Fort Yamhill to protect and control Indians on the reservation, and to be a buffer between the Indians and white settlers. The army dispatched young Lieutenant Philip Sheridan to oversee construction of the fort; Sheridan served there until leaving to lead U.S. Army troops in the Civil War.

The fort included a sentry box, barracks, a hospital, general store, blacksmith shop and a block house.

The army abandoned the fort in 1866. Its block house was moved to the Valley Junction area where it was used as a jail, and later moved about 30 miles east to Dayton. The building that had housed the officers’ quarters was also moved but has been returned to its original site. Archaeologists have uncovered the sandstone foundations of most of the fort’s buildings, providing a clear picture of the layout of a pre-Civil War military base.

A waterfall cascades over rocks to a peaceful pool below. Trees with fall colors surround the area.
​South Falls at Silver Falls State Park features a Trail of Ten Falls loop trail. (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)
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In the 1840s, Euro-American emigrants gathered at what is now Champoeg State Heritage Center near Newberg to create Oregon’s first formal government. On May 2, 1843, they voted, 52-50, to form a provisional government and to petition the federal government for support. Today, several buildings, including the Historic Butteville Store and a museum, give visitors a feel for the early pioneers’ lives. A stone obelisk lists the names of the 52 men who voted to create a provisional government.

Oregon’s largest state park, Silver Falls State Park, near Salem, is on land that was originally inhabited by Kalapooian Indians, whom the federal government forced to move to the Grand Ronde Agency Coastal Reservation in 1856. Loggers then heavily harvested the forested land, and wildfires further damaged the watershed. The area became a state park in 1933, during the Great Depression. The federal government created a Civilian Conservation Corps camp at the park, where workers planted trees, cleared trails and built a lodge. Federal Arts Project workers handcrafted myrtlewood furniture for the lodge, still in use today.

Looking at the ten waterfalls at the park, few people would think, “I’d like to ride a tiny canvas boat over the biggest waterfall, with no helmet,” but exhibitionist Al Faussett thought it was a dandy idea. Faussett, bored with being a logger, had made a major mid-life career change and became a professional daredevil, specializing in plunging over waterfalls. Thousands of spectators came to the South Falls to watch him take the plunge on July 1, 1928. He ended up in the hospital but survived his trip over the South Falls in a 12-foot boat stuffed with rubber inner tubes.  

The Oregon state capitol building framed on the sides by rows of cherry trees in bloom. Daffodils in a row front and center.
​The Oregon State Capitol Park in spring features cherry blossoms and daffodils. (Oregon State Archives scenic photo)
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The twenty-one acres surrounding the Oregon State Capitol in Salem have been a state park since 2006. Park rangers guide tours of Oregon State Capitol State Park, which consist of Willson Park to the west of the building and Capitol Park, to the east. The first capitol burned in 1855. When the second capitol burned in 1935, clean-up crews simply pushed the destroyed building’s stone columns into nearby Mill Creek. Today, fragments of columns are displayed on the grounds of the third capitol, built in 1936. The grounds display fountains, carvings, and other art. These works narrate a story of Oregon’s past that omits the history of Native and non-white peoples in favor of a simplified Euro-American-centric history: art includes copies of the bronze statues which represent Oregon in Congress’ National Statuary Hall, in Washington, D.C.; Methodist minister Jason Lee’s statue clutches a Bible and a petition to Congress; and fur trader John McLoughlin’s image holds a beaver top hat, a nod to the state’s beaver trade. Thirty-six stone plaques, one for each of Oregon’s counties, list the county seats. The landscaping includes the Moon Tree, a Douglas Fir grown from a seed taken to the moon and back on Apollo 14 in 1971.

Farther down the Willamette Valley, halfway between Albany and Eugene, Thompson’s Mills State Heritage Site opened for business the year before Oregon became a state and operated until 2004. German immigrants Martin and Sophia Thompson bought the mill in 1891, and three generations of the Thompson family operated the enterprise. The mill building grew, rather haphazardly, as the family adapted the business to changing times, expanding from milling flour for local farmers to buying wheat and selling flour throughout the state, and eventually switching to producing animal feed. The mill operated on power generated from its private hydropower plant on the Calapooia River, which is channeled through a concrete tunnel under the main building. In its final years of commercial operation, the mill, having difficulty making a profit from animal feed, instead sold the power it generated to a local utility. The twenty-acre park includes the six-floor mill building, World-War I-era silos, the millkeeper’s 1906 Queen Anne family home and outbuildings.​

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