On May 12, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s popular Oregon Field Guide program travelled to the site of Warren Falls to film a story on the unique history of Warren Creek: the odd 1939 highway department project that silenced the falls, and the potential for restoring the falls to its former grandeur.
This was the second trip to Warren Falls for Oregon Field Guide producer Vince Patton and videographer Michael Bendixen. Both had joined me for a first look at the area on a particularly icy January day last winter when the Gorge was at its worst — freezing rain and sleet over a crusty layer of snow.
Our May 12 trip would prove to be the welcome opposite: unseasonably warm, summerlike conditions, with trails lined with ferns and wildflowers instead of snow. Along for the trip were PortlandHikers.org friends Adam Sawyer and Jamie Chabot, and Kristen Stallman and Andy Johnson, representing the ODOT team that is steering the Historic Columbia River Highway restoration project.
We met at the Starvation Creek trailhead at 9 AM, and loaded up our packs with OPB gear before making the short hike to Warren Falls. Along the way, the OPB team shot a few trail scenes, but were interested in getting to Warren Falls and Hole-in-the-Wall Falls while the morning light lasted.
We soon reached the massive amphitheater created by Warren Falls, where the OPB crew filmed the haunting scene of the silenced waterfall, marked only by the trail of moss that marks where the waterfall once flowed. The group spent some time here discussing the strange project that diverted Warren Creek in 1939, and the mechanics of the diversion tunnel and accompany flume that has long since disappeared.
Warren Creek had overflowed Warren Falls several times over the course of our wet winter, and there were obvious signs that a large amount of water had coursed down the old streambed. But on this day, the stream was dry, with the eerie quiet that now exists here.
We backtracked to Hole-in-the-Wall Falls for another session of shooting. Here, the rest of the group visited while Michael and Vince captured several angles of the odd, accidental waterfall.
For a good look at the bypass tunnel that creates Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, we moved to the knoll above the footbridge. From this spot, it’s easy to imagine the wood flume that once attached to the tunnel exit and carried Warren Creek over the old highway and railroad, all the way to the Columbia River. Only when the old flume disappeared was today’s man-made falls created.
Next, we hiked up the Starvation Ridge Trail, heading for the brink of Warren Falls, and the huge steel weir at the head of the diversion tunnel.
The original plan was to scramble down Warren Creek from the Starvation Ridge Trail ford for the quarter mile of bushwhacking required to reach the brink of the falls. But Kristen had been to the diversion structure a few days earlier with an ODOT engineering crew, and they had found a faint boot path that dropped more directly from the Starvation Ridge Trail.
We voted on the two options at the Starvation Creek ford: wet feet and a rock hop along the stream or pushing through a hillside of poison oak along the boot path? The poison oak option won the day!
We backtracked to the jump-off point for the boot path, descended through a manageable patch of poison oak, and soon found ourselves curving around a steep, grassy bluff hanging directly above the 120-foot cliffs of Warren Falls.
From here, a dramatic view of the massive Warren Creek diversion structure suddenly came into view, and the OPB crew set up to shoot the scene.
The diversion structure is much larger up-close than the historic drawings or a glimpse from below the falls would suggest. The tilted weir is made from sixty 20-foot steel beams laid across a 28-foot wide trench carved into the cliff. Beneath the mesh of steel rails, the trench leads directly to the bypass tunnel.
A close-up view reveals at least half the weir to be filled with loose rubble, to the extent that it is lush with a strange hanging garden of wildflowers, A thicket of willow has even become established in the upper right corner of the weir, suspended 15 feet above the diversion tunnel, below. The forces of nature are taking back Warren Creek Falls, slowly but surely.
The up-close view also shows most of the beams to be twisted and buckled with the ravages of time, thanks to rocks and debris getting lodged between the beams, and the effects of freeze-thaw cycles in the harsh Gorge winters.
Still, the overall structure represents an amazing ingenuity of design and construction detail to have lasted 73 years, but is still functioning as intended. While nature is clearly winning this battle, the persistence of the diversion project is silent tribute to the designers and builders who created these structures in 1939.
The OBP team used a compact video camera mounted on an arm to shoot under the weir. Vince found an opening at the upper west corner of the weir that gave access to the view from below the steel beams.
From this angle, Vince was shooting just below the upper edge of the weir, where a 15-foot rubble and masonry dam was constructed across the creek to elevate the angle of the weir structure toward Warren Falls. For 73 years, this design has allowed for loose debris to roll off the weir and over the natural falls, while filtering the waters of Warren Creek through the weir into the bypass tunnel that now forms Hole-in-the-Wall Falls.
Next, we moved to the top of the weir, crossing to the upper east corner of the structure. The view from the top of the weir looking over the brink of Warren Falls is impressive, as is the view toward the Columbia River. From here, Dog Mountain fills the horizon across the river.
But the fact that the river can clearly be seen from the brink makes a good case that Warren Falls was one of the “four cascades caused by small streams falling from the mountainsides” in Captain William Clark’s journal entry of October 29, 1805. The other three were presumably the nearby falls on Starvation Creek, Cabin Creek and Lancaster Falls on Wonder Creek.
The view from the top of the weir shows more wear and tear on the structure: the mortared lip of the rubble dam is badly weathered, fully exposing the ends of many of the 60 steel beams that connect to it, with only a rusty bolt anchoring them to the masonry wall.
Here, the decay of the diversion system seems to be moving close to structural failure — another argument for an orderly removal of the weir, and restoration of Warren Falls before it becomes impossible to safely do so.
The group settled in for a lengthy shoot at the top of the falls, where Michael and Vince worked to capture the setting, and the rest of the group enjoyed the sylvan scene along Warren Creek.
The OPB crew wrapped up the day’s shooting with a few interviews and reflections of the group on the diversion project, and the future of Warren Falls. We soon packed up the video gear, and started up the canyon slope for the trail.
On the trip back to the trailhead, we ran into several groups of curious hikers, all familiar with Oregon Field Guide and excited to meet the crew.
One young woman asked what we were filming, and I explained the story to her — and asked her to go to Restore Warren Falls! on Facebook. Later, she approached me at the trailhead, and asked “Why are you focusing on this when there are so many global issues facing the world?”
At the time I was somewhat startled, and replied that the project to restore the Historic Columbia River Highway provided a unique opportunity for funding the restoration of Warren Falls — a good argument, and one she seemed to accept. But I wish I’d simply said “We have to start somewhere, and right now, this is as good a place as any!”
“I wondered why somebody didn’t do something. Then I realized, I am somebody.”
(Special thanks to the Vince, Michael, Jamie, Adam, Andy and especially Kristen for another great day imagining the past and future Warren Falls)
Previous articles on restoring Warren Falls:
Restore Warren Falls! on Facebook