Welcome to Skippin' Rocks

I originally Started a blog to run off at the mind on politics, hopefully witty and humorous ramblings, and just random thoughts. But, I'll make a new one for that and stick to short stories here. I hope you liked what you've read so far.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I Love Ghost Towns

When I was a kid I would lay if front of an old black-and-white television set. We had maybe two channels that would come in just barely enough to watch. When the wind blew, one of us would have to go outside and turn the antenna to get the signal back. The screen was always ‘snowy’ and would have ‘ghost’ images.

As I laid there at night, I would watch old westerns, one after another. I became fascinated with ghost towns. You could see the empty buildings from the unkempt dirt streets with the tumbleweeds rolling to the other side of town. There was something about the emptiness of a ‘once thriving community’ to the now, utter desolation. I always thought; someday I’ll go to a real ghost town!

Several years ago I stumbled across a book of Oregon ‘Ghost Towns’. I was surprised to find that the community I grew up in and the one that I live in now (4 miles away) were listed as ‘ghost towns’ (Hoskins & Kings Valley, Oregon). How can that be? I ain’t no ghost! But, then again, I used to watch The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, too; so who knows? The point is: There is history behind wherever it is you live.

I could do some research and find the history of Fort Hoskins (a Cavalry era military fort), and tell you what’s been written. But, from what I understand, it was established to maintain peace between the Siletz Indians and the settlers coming in from the Applegate Trail, settling land disputes, and securing the boundaries of the reservation. (Don’t quote me on that! I got a ‘D’ in History. It would have been an ‘F’ if my history teacher could have stood seeing me in his class for another semester). In class, I would scuff the floor with the heels of my shoes and stare out the window.

After the fort was disbanded, the Franz family bought the old fort property and built a sawmill in Hoskins. It then became a logging community.

As the years went by, the logging activity went further upstream on the Luckiamute River toward the Siletz Valley Basin.

In 1919 the Valley & Siletz Railroad was established for the transportation of lumber. It meandered its way from the town of Independence to Valsetz.

The town of Valsetz was a ‘company town’ owned by the local sawmill and named from the combination of the words: ‘Valley’ and ‘Siletz’. It was a thriving community for a number of years with a population reaching 1200 or so, at one point.

The V&S railroad was the most economic way to transport lumber (and passengers in the very early days) because Valsetz was located deep in the coastal range of Oregon.

The railroad company would fire up the engine around 4:00 AM in Independence (in the Willamette Valley) and then travel the 40, or so, miles to Valsetz. They would pass by Pedee first, then Kings Valley, then Hoskins (where the railroad shops were located), and switch out the boxcars at Valsetz. On the way back they would switch out cars at the Moser mill in Kings Valley and the mill in Pedee and then end the day back in Independence, connecting with the Southern Pacific Line.

One time, my friend Alan and I contacted the Superintendent of the V&S railroad to get permission to ride the caboose for the day. It was granted and we set out early one morning for our adventure. As a teenager it was easier to stay up until 3:00 AM then it was to get up at that time. We showed up at the railroad station (very tired) and boarded the caboose.

The interior of the caboose was rustic. It had a wood-planked floor with dingy wood-paneled walls and ceiling. There was wood a stove near the middle of the port side of the car and a neatly-stacked rick of firewood to the right of it. On top of the stove there was an antique wide-bottom coffee pot. At the leading end of the caboose sat a solid old wood table and two chairs where the brakemen’s old fashioned metal lunch boxes were placed. The door at the rear of the car led to a small porch where the brake wheel was. There were ladders in the middle of both sides of the caboose that led up to the observation turret where the brakemen would watch for wheel problems with the cars and other such problems. I don't remember a time when, at a crossing, the brakemen wouldn't be at their posts, watching diligently, and waving a 'neighborly wave' as the train passed by.

There were two seats on each side of the turret facing both directions, forward and aft. (The caboose would be set off on a side track and go back in the same orientation it went up in). There was a warm and welcoming feeling about the caboose and the men that worked for the railroad.

We helped get the woodstove fired up and settled in for our ride. Once the empty boxcars were hooked up, then the caboose, we were on our way to Valsetz.

The train chugged its way up the coast range toward the Siletz valley basin in the dark hours of the morning. If I remember right, this was when I fell in love with the sunrise.

As the darkness slowly turned to daylight, one of the brakemen snoozed in the seat of his side of the turret. I brought him a hot cup of coffee and he let me take the brakeman's post for a time. From the seat of the turret, I watched the cars twist and wind their way up Luckiamute River valley. I was a railroad brakeman for a day. I even waved at the folks stopped at the crossings.

I would hear the engineer sound the horns at the crossings, hear the clickety-clack clickety-clack sound of the steel wheels rolling over the rails, and feel the sway of the train as it made its way to our destination. Just as the brakeman, It all made my eyelids heavy, as well.

The train eventually slowed to a stop at the mill in Valsetz. Alan and I hopped off of the caboose and headed for the general store/post office on Main Street.

There, I bought a bottle of ‘Nesbitz Orange Soda’ for 10 cents (3 cent deposit) and a nickel candy bar. Alan got a candy bar and a bottle of Cream Soda (I could never figure out why anyone would ever drink that stuff). We sat on the old wood porch of the store, enjoying our treats, giggling like teenaged idiots, and waiting for the train crew to make their return trip.

After the railcars were switched, the crew set off on their way back to the valley. The engineer slowed the train so we could board the caboose and we were on our way back home.

As we neared Hoskins, all I could think of was jumping off the moving train and walking home. I was very bored by this time, but this was our day trip and I stuck to it all the way back to Independence. It was a long 12 and a half hour day.

There are many stories I could share about this railroad and the times I remember about it.

In the 1980’s, Boise Cascade (the owner of the Valsetz mill and town at the time) decided to close down.

Internet research will tell you that the mill was shut down due to the depletion of old-growth timber. Bull$h!t!!!....The mill in Valsetz was a veneer mill (the plywood walls in you home could have came from Valsetz). You could turn any straight log from whatever size down to a 4” peeler core without retooling (when pressure treated, they make great fence posts). I don’t know the particulars but, it’s my opinion that the very secluded nature of Valsetz and the cost of operating and maintaining the railroad was the main reason. The company couldn’t turn the profit they needed and that had to have been the basis for their decision.

Anyway, between the early to late eighties the mill, town, and railroad became all but just a memory. The mill was burned to the ground, the town razed, the railroad was pulled up, sold for scrap, and the railroad’s right-of-way property sold off.

Even the log pond where huge German Brown Trout were caught by local anglers was drained and now there is almost nothing left.

My friend Ted and I were in a conversation the other day about the old days, then got together and took a drive up the old railroad grade to what used to be the town of Valsetz. I had to print out maps and satellite images from Google Maps to get our bearings right. We found the foundation of an old storage building, asphalt chunks from the sawmill lot, and remnants of the old dam. That was about it! The trees growing up where Main Street used to be would be peeled at the mill today, if it was still there.

If you didn’t know where you were going or what you were looking for, you’d never know there was ever a town there at all.

Other than the Holy Spirit, a ghost to me today, is but a memory of a lost loved one and the dreams of an era past.

click on image to enlarge
V&S Railroad Caboose (painted with Boise Cascade green & white)


aA said...

I haven't been to ENOUGH ghost towns, but I like 'em too! Great read, C-man, especially for a kid who stared out the window in history class.

aA said...

Wow, I just followed the links, that's kinda sad. Very sad. I see how you like the place. And the caboose.

Good job, you get an "A", or rather a "aA" on this project!

charleyd said...

Thanks aA, yeah, it was very sad. Not just for the folks in Valsetz but, all of us in the timber industry and those of us that grew up along the V&S. Just like a ghost town, it was the end to one of the last remaining 'old days' lifestyles. I was fortunate to grow up here.