Cultural resources specialists like Chris Bell interpret the relics and ruins unearthed in the course of ODOT construction projects to document and preserve Oregon history.
One of his most recent projects is the site of the Interstate 5 Willamette River Bridge replacement, where clusters of eroding concrete and moss-covered walls are all that remains of a once-definitive structure for the city of Eugene: the millrace. Just as skyscrapers today tend to cluster in one area of a modern city, in the 19th century, mills and factories would often crop up along a same fast-moving river. These mills and factories depended on their riverside location for power, because before the harnessing of steam and electricity, industry ran on water.
Through disuse and that same awesome power of water, the once-essential concrete channels have partially disappeared. As part of the OTIA III bridge program, ODOT will help to preserve the structures that were of vital importance in the city’s transformation from a small pioneer settlement into one of Oregon’s largest cities, and set up signs that explain their role in history.
“The millrace was to Eugene what the Bonneville Dam was to Portland,” said Bell, ODOT cultural resources specialist. “It was a vital catalyst for economic growth.”
Hilyard Shaw, an early Donation Land Claim settler who lived along the banks of the Willamette River, originally constructed the Eugene millrace in 1851 by connecting two sloughs, with the intent of powering a single sawmill. At that time, the millrace relied entirely on natural fall to sustain itself. Over the next 30 years, more than a dozen additional mills and factories sprang up along Shaw’s millrace, seeking hydropower for their operations. From a population of 861 in 1870, Eugene reached 9,009 inhabitants by 1910. While other factors contributed to population growth, the millrace was one of the primary catalysts because it supplied cheap power to factories processing the abundant crops and timber found in the area.
The millrace changed hands several times in the 19th century, and the various owners made changes such as deepening and widening the channel. From 1890 to 1902, a series of floods altered the river’s channel so drastically that the millrace’s capability to provide power was threatened. To sustain the necessary flow of water, the millrace’s owners had to construct a concrete wing dam in the Willamette River to divert more flow. The millrace provided the city’s commercial interests with hydropower for more than 70 years, but as water-powered industries turned to electric power, industrial development along the millrace declined, and the last water-powered industrial user on the millrace closed in 1928.
Despite waning commercial interest, recreationalists still found many uses for the millrace. Even when the waterway was at its industrial prime, university students and townspeople ice-skated over its frozen top in the winters and boated down its streams during the summer. The millrace continued to experience heavy recreational use for most of the 20th century. It became such a pivotal aspect of student life at the University of Oregon that in the 1940s and 1950s, students helped spearhead the effort to save the then-dry millrace. They succeeded in 1958, with the university and city deciding to restore the millrace’s flow by installing pumps. Until 2009, the University of Oregon maintained the pumps to use water from the millrace to cool its heating plant.
Today, the millrace’s concrete remains rest directly under the replacement bridges, to the east of the Willamette River Bridge project and along the river’s southern bank. As a historical artifact, the Eugene millrace is distinguished by the continued existence of a diversion dam and intake — arguably the most important aspects of a millrace’s operation. These aspects of the millrace are no longer functional, but they elevate it to the status of “industrial archeological site,” with the remains meeting the National Register of Historical Places’ requirements.
As with any of its highway projects, ODOT surveyed the proposed construction site before beginning work on the Willamette River Bridge. Given the significance of the millrace, the agency then commissioned research and a report on the millrace from specialty subcontractor Heritage Research Associates, whose historian Bill Willingham is, according to Bell, “a guru of millraces” and brings a lot of knowledge about the fairly undocumented 1850s.
“This concrete rubble is a significant indicator of the history of Eugene, and we are taking every measure to make sure its legacy lives on in the community,” Bell said. “We’re planning to install interpretive signage or even small replicas of the millrace to make these historically significant ruins more obvious and understandable to the Eugene public.”