The History of Silver Falls State Park

 

Who were the first visitors to Silver Falls country? Perhaps a Kalapuya came upon Silver Creek as he tracked a deer to add to the berries and camas his wife had collected. Did a voyageur discover it on a trip down from Hudson Bay Company in search of the scarce beaver pelts? Pioneers certainly explored it as they surveyed the new frontier for the most promising home-sites. One hundred fifty years ago Silver Creek Canyon probably looked very much the same to them as it does to us now, except that the trails are wider and wooden bridges make the stream crossings safer. The deer are still here if you look in the shadows for them, and the beaver are still gnawing the young alders along the creek. Even the Indian trails are still discernible if you have the patience to pore over the old boundary surveys to locate them. And descendants of the pioneers still farm the rich country surrounding the park-lands.

 

And yet much has happened in 150 years which has left its mark on Silver Falls. Natural events like fires and floods have left scars which have been healed over in the natural process of forest regeneration. Human events like prosperity and depression, migration and urbanization can all be measured in the history of Silver Falls.

 

Beginnings: Silver Falls City

 

Despite what its name suggests, so far no one has struck it rich mining silver in Silver Creek, though there have always been rumors to fire men’s dreams.

 

The early homesteaders had hopes for prosperity, but they were generally of a more practical mind. One of them, John Minthorn of Newberg, is said to have made plans for a great city right next door to South Falls. He called it Silver Falls City and promoted it to investors as “ the Greatest opportunity in the West.” Minthorn surveyed and plated the future city, reportedly with the aid of his nephew Herbert Hoover.

 

Much of the present Day Use Area, back in the 1880’s was the homestead of James Fordyce. His neighbor, William T. Eaton, claimed the adjoining 160 acres. In 1883, Fordyce sold his claim for $800 to E.J. Dawne and nine associates, one of whom bought an additional 20 acres from Eaton. After Eaton’s death, his remaining 140 acres were sold to the highest bidder, T.C. Smith, for $177. This became the town site for Silver Falls City, recorded on March 16, 1888.

 

This photo shows the men of one of the temporary Silver Falls Timber Co. Railroad logging camps.

 

The city actually got off to a promising start: a Congregational Church, Watson’s store, a blacksmith shop, a few homes, and even the eight room Arnold’s hotel. Arnold and Watson erected the first water-powered sawmill on the bank of Silver Creek just south of the county road crossing. Logging was done by hand using the cross-cut saw (loggers call it the “misery whip”) manned by two stout woodsmen who balanced on springboards wedged into notches cut into the trunk. In this way, they could get a straight-grained cut and avoid the thick butt of the tree.

 

Springboard notches are still visible on some of the large cedar stumps in the park. Ox teams hauled the lumber out of the woods on skid roads. When the dirt roads were reasonably dry, a four horse team with two wagons would take the lumber to Salem, taking two days for the round trip.

 

Silver Creek was a favorite recreation spot for Marion County people for more than fifty years before the first land was deeded to the state for a park. In summer and fall when the roads were finally free of mud, hundreds of people traveled by foot and by horseback to Silver Falls, sometimes using the mill teams to haul their gear. Many of the citizens of Marion County can tell you of their Silver Creek trips, long before the comforts of paved roads and cars. Trout were plentiful, game was abundant. Even bears were numerous enough to lure hunters and their dogs to the nearby hills.

 

Families came here to camp and picnic, pick the luscious huckleberries and blackberries, hike, swim, and play baseball in the large open field near South Falls. Arnold’s Hotel was always filled with weekend guests, and the overflow spilled over into neighboring homes. The more hardy simply camped out on bough beds under the firs.

 

Silver Falls Becomes a State Park

 

Local people had always known very well what a treasure they had in their backyard, but it took the lobbying of a few civic leaders and the special persuasion of Silverton photographer June Drake’s magnificent pictures to convince the State to begin acquiring property in 1931. Fortunately the State Parks Superintendent at the time was, Samuel H. Boardman, a charismatic figure whose far-sighted planning earned him the title “father of Oregon State Parks system.” Boardman engineered the purchase of 100 acres including South Falls for $10,000 from D.E. Geiser. Another 40 acres at North Falls was bought from the Silverton Lumber Company for $2,000. These and other acquisitions totaling 700 acres were the nucleus of Silver Falls Park which today covers 8,302 acres.

 

The piecemeal business of land acquisition which proceeded over a period of more than 30 years afterward is the subject of a letter from Sam Boardman to his successor Chester H. Armstrong. In Boardman’s words, the history of park development is far from dull.