Monte Chamberlain picks his way up a steep trail strewn with fallen branches, damp leaves and blackberry vines. The 88-year-old is relatively spry with the help of his rabbit-handled walking stick ― but like him, the path isn’t in quite the shape it used to be when he was a young boy growing up here, a few miles north of the dam that cleared this land of people.
“I killed a lot of rattlesnakes up here,” Chamberlain says. He’s had a broad smile on his face since getting out of the truck a few hundred feet back on the Elk Creek Trail.
He grasps the arm of Emily Grimes, whose careful eye on him and familiar manner seem to imply that she’s family, though she isn’t. Chamberlain’s daughter and granddaughter are below, helping his wife, Linda, up the same difficult hill.
When Grimes and Chamberlain reach the first flat area, they stand and wait for the others, observing a jumbled pile of bricks and stones ― all that’s left of the house Chamberlain’s father built half a century ago. Grimes does some scouting around the fallen chimney, but there’s not much there.
“Nice memories,” Chamberlain says as the others catch up. “But it’s changed so much.”
Accompanying the group exploring this long-abandoned stretch of land is Joyce “Joya” Szalwinski, an interpretive park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who granted their vehicle access to this part of the 1,500 acres of backcountry owned by the federal agency.
As they explore, Chamberlain tells story after story about his childhood passed on a homestead just down the overgrown road. Szalwinski takes notes and asks questions. Chamberlain’s and Grimes’ family histories have brought them all out to Elk Creek this morning, and even their simplest stories pique Szalwinski’s interest.
The story of Elk Creek, meanwhile, has been anything but simple.
Before it was earmarked to hold the final reservoir in the Rogue River Basin Project, the land was home to some of the valley’s earliest migrant settlers; before then, Takelma people lived there. And the creek remains spawning and rearing habitat for threatened wild coho salmon.
Severe floods in 1955 and 1964 spurred the three-dam project to prevent such widespread damage from occurring again. Dams were completed at Lost Creek and the Applegate River, but the Elk Creek dam, due to its environmental impacts, ran into opposition.
The debate went back and forth for several decades: Congress granted the Corps permission and funding, and construction began in 1986.
A court injunction halted construction in 1988. After increasing pressure from environmental lawsuits centering on water temperature regulation and turbidity, construction never continued. The third of the dam that was built up was notched in 2008 to allow steelhead and coho salmon movement into the upper basin. It still stands, but isn’t accessible to the public.
The Army Corps spent $113.9 million to ready the area and build the dam, $7.9 million to notch it and an additional $2 million to restore the stream channel, according to past Mail Tribune articles.
These days, the area is populated mostly by runners, horseback riders and swimmers taking advantage of the swimming hole and trails.
There’s one part of the story in particular, however, that Szalwinski thinks needs further telling: the experiences of families whose properties the Corps bought in 1971 to pursue a dam that never was completed.
“People got booted not for what they thought they were getting booted for,” Szalwinski says. “And some of those people were not thrilled about it.”
Szalwinski has been with the Corps only since the fall, after working for the Bureau of Land Management. As an interpretive park ranger, her job is to take in all the information about the landscape, its resources and history, and make it identifiable, personal and relevant to visitors.
Here at Elk Creek, Szalwinski sees the chance to probe an essentially unanswerable question: What if?
“What if the climate keeps changing? What if we decided water storage is a good idea?” she says. “On the other hand: What if the idea of a dam at Elk Creek was never anything — what would that look like right now? I’m thinking there would be an am/pm (convenience store) up there.”
The sites of the old homesteads have fallen into varying degrees of disrepair, as land that was cleared to pasture cattle and sheep sprouted many non-native plant species. Only foundations remain where houses once stood.
Further north from the notched dam, almost reaching the seven-mile swimming hole, the group stops at the site where Emily Grimes’ ancestors, the Wittinghams, settled. A few gnarled apple trees straddling Alco Creek mark the former site of an orchard.
Grimes is a meticulous record keeper ― she’s brought family photos going back to the first of her relatives to arrive in Oregon, clippings from historical journals that mention great-great-grandparents.
“It’s just kind of cool to walk in the footsteps of your family,” she says. “It’s cool that there’s still family sticking around, trying to remember you so you’re not forgotten.
“It’s just a little bit sad that those families were replaced,” she says.
Neither Grimes’ nor the Chamberlains’ relatives lived in the Elk Creek area by the time the Army Corps began acquiring properties, but Szalwinski asks them more questions anyway. She’s listening for notable events, directions to buildings the Corps may not have records of, and names of neighbors whose relatives she might be able to track down for more information.
The result, she hopes, will be an interpretive exhibit that traces the history of the area, including accounts from those families affected by the Corps’ plans to construct a 240-foot-high dam and submerge what was once their property under 100 feet of water.
Szalwinski sees it as a missing — a human — element in the story of an area that has been analyzed extensively for its environmental impacts and its effects on water management nationwide.
“The history is going to teach us some lessons going forward,” she says. Besides, she adds, “It’s not like we can hide it — there’s a third of a dam out here that’s notched.”
Anyone with information about homesteaders in the Elk Creek area, including photos, diaries or personal experience, is invited to reach out to the Army Corps. The Lost Creek office can be reached at 541-878-2255.