A short stream runs through South Corvallis that helped the original town of Marysville find its roots. Many people see it every day without realizing its past significance or thinking about its current role. This stream, known simply as the Mill Race, flows under a bridge on Highway 99W by SE Lilly Avenue and Corvallis Furniture. Until recently, I had no idea that it was significantly restructured 165 years ago to provide power to businesses. This fact gives the Mill Race the distinction of being the oldest constructed feature used in the settlement and industrialization of Marysville (2).
Before settlers came in and remodeled the landscape, South Corvallis was mostly a wet prairie. The Marys River overflowed its banks in times of high water and spread out over the South Corvallis prairie, forming corridors of wet prairie as the water drained away (5). One of these seasonal waterways crossed the land from the Marys River near where the golf course is today to the Willamette just upstream of the mouth of the Marys. In the mid-1800s, Joseph C. Avery included this drainage corridor in his land claim because of its industrial potential (3).
In the fall of 1850, Avery and his business partner, Solomon K. Brown, had Chinese laborers deepen the natural corridor by hand and dammed the Marys River to divert water into the mile long ditch (1). And so the Mill Race was born. The term “mill race” is defined as a current of water that turns a waterwheel. The flowing water provided power for Avery’s sawmill, which was built near the confluence of the Mill Race and the Willamette River and was the first mill in the area (2). “Avery’s Dam,” made of stone and logs, washed out twice within the next two winters, but was rebuilt both times (1).
In 1855, Avery added a grist mill to the property to grind grain into flour. Corvallis was the head of steamboat navigation on the Willamette River and Benton County flour was in high demand. The grist mill was sold twice before burning down in 1873, but the convenient location and power provided by the Mill Race were too significant to be ignored. In 1875 a new mill, named the Corvallis Flouring Mill, was operating at the site of the old grist mill (2). Chinese laborers were hired again, this time to straighten the Mill Race with horse-drawn equipment (3).
By 1880 Henry F. Fischer had bought all shares of the Corvallis Flouring Mill. Fischer was an early Corvallis mega-businessman. He was born in Germany, immigrated to Illinois with his family at age 4, and learned how to make flour at his father’s wind-powered flour mill. He brought his family west with him to Benton County in a railroad freight car in 1877 (4). Under his management, in 1891 the mill was producing 125 barrels of flour a day (2). He also farmed land on Fischer Island, across the river and to the northeast of Willamette Park. When Henry Fischer died in 1902, his sons took over the business and managed the properties (4).
In the 1900s, development of the area and the mill continued. By 1912, a brick building several stories high was built over the Mill Race to house three water-powered turbines (3). A boat house had been built in the creek just south of a railroad spur that led to the mill, and a concrete overflow flume channeled the millrace from the mill into the Willamette (2). Even with all this industrial growth, the Mill Race and lower Marys River were still used recreationally. Residents canoed and rafted down the Marys River, sometimes sliding down the dam or diving into the pool below.
The Fischers were forced to close down the flour mill in 1920 during the depression that followed World War I (4). The mill was restructured and reopened in 1924, producing feed and seed rather than flour. The mill was renamed Valley Milling Company in 1938, and produced livestock feeds and flour under the brand name Snoflite. In 1942, like Avery’s mill before it, Fischer’s mill burned down after 65 years of almost continual operation (2).
Yet another factory, Chapman Manufacturing, was built by 1947 at the previous Fischer mill site. Ralph Chapman invented and produced “Chapco Board,” a type of paneling made from wood chips (2). The dam at the headwaters of the Mill Race was rebuilt again for Chapman’s plant, and included a fish ladder (1). Other businesses opened up southwest of the old mill property near where Crystal Lake Storage is located today. In 1947 the Western Milling Company, managed by Stanley Wilt, was producing feed and seed there. On the same site Lester Harvey operated the Dog Face Lumber Company, using water from the Mill Race for a log pond (2).
The area that had been occupied by mills for so many years is currently home to Hollingsworth and Vose (H&V), producers of specialized glass microfiber. H&V was known as Evanite Fiber Corporation until 2012. In 1978, Trichloroethylene (TCE), a carcinogenic solvent, spilled at Evanite. TCE contamination in the soil under Evanite was found by a contractor installing a culvert for the Mill Race in 1985. Contaminated soil was removed and a 0.7 acre concrete cap was placed over the spill site (6). Hollingsworth and Vose continues to work with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Cleanup Program to remediate soil and groundwater contamination found at the plant. DEQ is accepting public comments until June 1, 2015 about a newly proposed environmental cleanup strategy. Click here for more information about the TCE cleanup (7). Evanite is not the sole source of TCE contamination. Several other TCE locations have been identified in South Corvallis; however, not all responsible parties are known. DEQ continues to monitor and has an open investigation.
We hope the information presented here piques your curiosity and entices you to attend The Mill Race Tour on May 30th from 1-4 pm. The tour can be taken by bicycle or by trolley. Contact Heath Keirstead for more information or to RSVP for the bike or trolley tour. And if you would like to see the inlet and outlet of the Mill Race, a paddle tour down the Marys River is scheduled for June 13th from 1-4 pm. Contact Dave Eckert for more information about the paddle tour.
If you’d like to read more about the Mill Race, the tour’s planning team has collaborated to present a series of blog posts on the subject. The blog posts are titled:
- Industry Generated by the Corvallis Mill Race
- Southtown’s Mill Race: Community Benefits
- The Mill Race: Community Interest on the Rise
- Ditch: a Mill Race poem by Abby Metzger
Special thanks to Dr. Phil Sollins for all of his enthusiastic research on the history and hydrology of the Mill Race. Here is a link to a slideshow about the Mill Race created by Dr. Sollins and a link to an article on the Marys River Watershed Council website with a bit more info about the Mill Race.
- Chapman, Floyd Adare. Reflections or Stories of My Life.
- Gallagher, Mary K. and Teresi-Burcham, Lisa (1994, June). Oregon Inventory of Historic Properties, Historic Resource Survey Form. City of Corvallis, Benton County.
- Munford, Kenneth (1991, April 1). Ditch Gave S. Corvallis a Boost. Corvallis Gazette Times.
- Munford, Kenneth (1991, April 8). Fischer Built Mill’s Prosperity. Corvallis Gazette Times.
- Marys River Watershed Council (2014, spring). The Mill Race Series: Early History, Wetland Rivulet Dug Out For Flour Power, Chinese Laborers Dug Channel and Built Dam (pgs 1,3).
- State of Oregon, Department of Environmental Quality (2013, August 12) Proposed Renewal of a Hazardous Waste Permit for the Former Evanite Fiber Facility ORD 009 023 466 (pgs 1-3, 8, 38-40, 55, 71).
- State of Oregon, Department of Environmental Quality (2015, May 1). Proposed Environmental Cleanup of Evanite Fiber Site in Corvallis.