Proposal: South Fork Water Works Trail

Lower falls on the South Fork Clackamas River in 1963

In 1913, the young cities of Oregon City and West Linn suffered a serious outbreak of typhoid from an increasingly polluted Willamette River, their sole source of water at the time. The incident spurred Oregon City’s leaders to appoint a “Pure Mountain Water League” and directed it to locate a safer source of drinking water.

The League settled on the pristine South Fork of the Clackamas River in the Cascade foothills. The City of West Linn signed on with Oregon City, offering to pay for one third of the cost of a new pipeline to bring the South Fork water to the two cities. A South Fork Water Board was created to carry out this ambitious project.

By the fall of 1915, the new water district had managed to lay twenty-six miles of 18” pipe from a site at the confluence of Memaloose Creek and the South Fork Clackamas all the way to Oregon City and West Linn. The new pipeline began to carry municipal water on October 7, 1915.

Main falls on the South Fork Clackamas River in 1963

In 1939 the South Fork Water Board expanded the system with the help of one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery programs, the Works Project Administration. This project extended a 24” pipeline upstream from the Memaloose Creek intake to a point upstream, above the 120-foot main falls on the South Fork. This project involved carving a series of three dramatic tunnels and a cantilevered pipeline through solid basalt cliffs.

The new intake improved water pressure downstream, and this system continued to serve as the water supply for the two cities until a new filtration plant was constructed on the lower Clackamas River, in 1958. Both systems were used until 1985, when the South Fork pipeline was decommissioned. Since then, the network of roads, tunnels, plank walkways, log bridges and old pipeline has slowly been fading into the green rainforest of the South Fork canyon.

The story might have ended there, except for the series of spectacular series of waterfalls along the South Fork and Memaloose Creek. By the late 1990s, some of the region’s more adventurous kayakers had scouted both streams, and in the early 2000s, had documented the first known descent of the South Fork by kayak.

Main falls on the South Fork with hiker in 1923

These intrepid kayakers portaged the big waterfalls on the South Fork by following the abandoned tunnels and log bridges left behind by the South Fork Water Board. In doing so, they brought renewed interest to the area, as word of a high concentration of waterfalls spread to other adventurers.

In total, there are five major waterfalls along the final two miles of the South Fork, and two along the last mile of Memaloose Creek, where it flows into the South Fork. The old water works roads and tunnels reach two of the South Fork waterfalls, including the main 120-foot falls, as well as the main falls on Memaloose Creek. The remaining waterfalls are remote, and not reached by the water works roads.

The tunnels and roads along this system are entirely intact and walkable – as several explorers have now documented. A timber bridge over the South Fork at Memaloose Creek is also intact, and is now used by waterfall explorers to cross the stream. These old roads and tunnels offer a unique opportunity for a new trail system that could build on the existing network, and offer an unparalleled blend of natural spectacle, historical artifacts and lots of insight into the history of the South Fork water works project, itself.

(Click here for a larger map)

What would this trail look like? The accompanying maps (above and below) show the sections that would follow old water works grades in yellow. All of these roads have been recently scouted, and are in good shape, and thus easily converted to trails. The six tunnels along the way (one along Memaloose Creek and five along the South Fork) are also in good shape, and easily walked, although at two are long enough that a headlamp is required.

New trails would also be needed to complete the system, and are shown in red on the accompanying maps. A new trailhead and access trail would located on the east side of the Memaloose Bridge, following the Clackamas River downstream, then turning up the South Fork canyon and joining the converted water works grade at the lower South Fork falls (this section along the Clackamas would also serve as an extension of the Clackamas River Trail, extending east to Fish Creek, and the current trail terminus).

Two trail extensions would carry hikers deeper into the canyons of the South Fork Clackamas and Memaloose Creek, beyond the water works roads. A new Memaloose trail would climb a half-mile to a second falls, upstream from the main Memaloose falls. An extended South Fork trail would continue from the final waterworks tunnel, and travel 1.5 miles upstream along the west bank of the river, passing three remote waterfalls before ending at the existing Hillockburn Trail (shown in green on the maps).

(Click here for a larger map)

Look closely at the maps, and you will also see a proposal to add a trailhead at Big Cliff, along the Clackamas Highway, with a footbridge connecting across the Clackamas River to the new South Fork trail network. The concept here is to provide a family-oriented day-use area on this scenic bend in the river that serves as the long-term gateway to the South Fork canyon. Today, this spot is an eyesore – a huge dirt and gravel expanse that suffers from dumping, shooting and other unlawful behavior. The trailhead and day-use concept would turn this blank expanse into a place for families to explore the river and nearby trails, less than an hour Portland.

Future trailhead and day-use area at Big Cliff?

In deep, rocky canyons like the lower South Fork, building new trails is complex, costly and at odds with modern conservation ethics, where blasting a trail through cliffs is no longer an accepted practice. Thus, the ability to convert the water works roads would bring hikers into a landscape that probably would never be reached with modern trails. In many ways, the canyon is an accidental version of the venerable Eagle Creek Trail, in the Columbia Gorge, where the route is famously carved into the cliffs.

The logistics for this proposal are also fortuitous. The water works area of the lower South Fork canyon was specifically excluded from the 2009 Lewis & Clark wilderness act that set aside the upstream portions of the South Fork canyon as new wilderness. This means that while the upper canyon trail must be built with wilderness restrictions in mind, converting the roads, repairing bridges and preserving the historical artifacts in the lower canyon won’t be encumbered by wilderness restrictions.

This is a project whose time has come – in part, because the word is out about the scenic wonders of this beautiful canyon, but also because the historic features ought to be preserved before they are lost to time and the elements.

Highway 26 Widening Postscript… and Requiem?

Original Loop Highway section on Laurel Hill in the 1920s, later destroyed when the present highway was built in the 1960s

As a postscript to the previous two-part article, I offer some final thoughts on the proposed widening of the Mount Hood Highway in the Laurel Hill area:

First, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) process used to gather public input on projects like those proposed for Laurel Hill is abysmal. Information on the web is cryptic, at best, and generally absent. Amazingly, there is no opportunity to comment online, nor information on how or where to comment. When I contacted project managers about making comments, I was given different comment deadlines, a full month apart. The ODOT website contains no information on comment deadlines.

ODOT posts a “users guide” to the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) process used for funding decisions, but this document manages to be more cryptic than the draft STIP document, itself, since it has been written for government workers and program insiders, not citizens. The process is also designed to buffer the Oregon Transportation Commission from public comment, with any input that does make it to the ODOT region offices collected and processed in a way that effectively buries public concerns under official recommendations by ODOT managers and obscure “citizen” commissions called ACTs. Since there is no ACT for the Mount Hood area, the comment opportunities for the Laurel Hill proposals fall into an even murkier void. In the end, this is a process that is staff-driven, and out of step with the ethic of citizen-centered transportation planning.

Second, the STIP selection process is a done deal by the time most citizens see it, since projects emerge from within the ODOT bureaucracy, not through an open solicitation of public ideas and needs, or even a long-range plan that maps out a pool of projects to draw from.

Thus, the projects in the Laurel Hill area will be very difficult to stop, since they surfaced in the past STIP cycle, and are now about to be funded in 2010 and 2011 as a “routine” final step. Since citizens are discouraged from participation in the selection phase of project funding, these projects will likely advance to a design and construction phase that makes them inevitable before any real public outreach or discourse can really occur. This was the case in the previous “widening for safety” projects in the Wildwood area, where the broader public outreach to citizens in the adjacent corridor began long after the project was conceived and funded. This left area residents with a Hobson’s choice between various widening options for “safety” as opposed to real choices for improving safety that could have been less costly and destructive.

Loop highway construction in the Brightwood area in the 1930s

Third, it is time for the Oregon Transportation Commission to pull the plug on the notion of “widening for safety”. This is a dubious loophole in the funding process the OTC sets forth for project selection, where safety benefits generally bring projects to the top of the list.

That’s a laudable goal, but it allows widening projects cloaked under the “safety” mantle to advance, unquestioned, and become the first to be funded. But as the Wildwood project details admitted, these projects are mostly about “matching the cross-section” of previously widened highway sections in the vicinity, not safety. So, this is nothing more than an highway capacity agenda, and it should be openly considered as such, not slipped under the radar of the OTC.

The stakes are much higher for the Laurel Hill “widening for safety” projects. While future generations may choose to tear up the asphalt and replant the forests that were cut away to make room for a wider highway in the Wildwood and Rhododendron sections, the Laurel Hill projects will require ODOT to blast away more of Laurel Hill’s rocky face. These changes are permanent and destructive, and it would take centuries for the area to recover, should our children or grandchildren conclude that we made a grave error in judgement in an our efforts to save skiers a few minutes driving time. The decision ought to be considered carefully in this light, not slipped through without public discussion.

Simpler days: the original loop highway corkscrewed up Laurel Hill, molding to the terrain as it climbed the steep slopes made infamous by Oregon pioneers

It is also true that ODOT has the means for a very open discussion about the projects proposed on Highway 26, and could give the OTC a true sense of public support for these proposals. For example, ODOT could simply post signs along the highway advertising the projects, and direct interested citizens to an online opportunity to comment. The agency could even use the giant electronic message sign in Rhododendron for this purpose, if meaningful public involvement were truly the objective.

I submit these critiques as one who works in the transportation planning realm daily, so it is both frustrating and discouraging to imagine what an ordinary citizen would have to overcome to be heard in this process. It is a fact that transportation planning is an arcane and difficult to understand realm, and for this reason, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) regulators are looking for more meaningful public involvement in transportation decisions at the state and local levels. The ODOT processes fall far short of what the FHWA envisions, where ordinary citizens could easily access information about projects that affect them, and make meaningful comment to decision makers.

To meet its regulatory expectations from the federal government, and its obligation to Oregon citizens who fund the very existence of ODOT, it is time for the agency to engage the public in a more meaningful way, and allow each of us to weigh in on how our tax dollars will be spent. The looming decisions about the Mount Hood Highway would be a good starting point for this needed reform.

Download a copy of the Mount Hood National Park Campaign (PDF) comments on the Highway 26 projects: click here

Download a slide presentation of the 2009 safety audit (PDF) of the Laurel Hill section of Highway 26: click here