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Voices of Spencer Creek

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Coal Mine and Grandfather Fir

By Lois Barton

Posted on May 5, 2003

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The history of Spencer Creek drainage includes an unusual item. Would you be surprised to learn that there once was an operating coal mine at the southwest edge of Eugene? Roger Houglum recorded the story which was originally printed in the spring, 1980 issue of the Lane County Historian. His information was based on personal experience as he tells us in this excerpt from his article, "Early Mining In Eugene–Almost:"

When my grandfather, Jefferson H. Irish, purchased a 20 acre ranch just west of Chambers Road in 1911, he soon learned from neighbors of the previous operation of a small coal mine located on the sloping ground just south of his ranch. When he mentioned its existence at dinner one night, I was immediately eager to visit the site the very next day. (At the age of eight I had never seen a mine of any kind.) Grandfather Jeff was at first reluctant to take me, feeling that the abandoned mine was a very dangerous place for small boys to be, especially if they returned later without adult supervision. Eventually he relented and next afternoon after the chores were done, we set out together.

It proved to be only a 15 minute walk. First southeast through his wood lot over the boundary fence; then down the grassy slope following a shallow ravine for perhaps 100 yards. Suddenly we were there! He pointed out the important features. A tunnel, perhaps a hundred feet in length, had been driven northward into the hill. It was obvious that this tunnel had entirely collapsed, leaving a deep trench partially filled with lumps of soft brown coal and yellow shale. A small stream of water flowed through the trench and then downhill. Across the ravine was a wooden structure that perhaps held a windlass. Heavy planks loosely covered an opening which proved to be that of a vertical shaft about 5' x 5', and at least 40' in depth. It was partially filled with water. Grandpa cautioned me about standing on the planks. "They might be rotten," he said, "and if you fell in, no one could ever get you out alive."

I asked him how they dug the coal, and how they got it to the nearest road. He said it was mined with pick and shovel. loaded into a wheeled cart or car that moved on wooden rails. nd then carried across the narrow valley of Spencer Creek to the old Lorane Highway (now known as Crest Drive). It was there loaded into horse-drawn wagons and hauled to Eugene for sale.

It was in March, 1918 Roger made that first visit. He visited the sight at least 15 times in the next ten years. His chemistry partner, Victor Kaufman, at Eugene High School collected specimens of coal and checked them for ease of ignition and burning time. Vic concluded the coal was a poor grade of "lignite". It was hard to ignite and burned poorly.

Roger said coal was scattered around in every direction. A typical specimen would be black streaked with gray or brown and was rather soft and crumbly,

Roger's aunt, who lived in Newport, sent a recollection as follows: "The mine was abandoned before we moved there in1911. The Rutherfords (then living on the old Lorane road at its intersection with Chambers) told Harrison that two men worked the mine. It took nearly all morning each day to pump the water out. They had one old mule that they used to haul out the coal. It must have gone to the Lorane Highway (now Crest Drive). It would have been closer, and downhill. There was no gravel on Chambers until Dad (Jeff Irish) had some put on it."

The only access to Eugene in those days was over the "old Lorane road" that generally followed the route of the present Crest Drive. It was extremely rough, Roger said, "and its jagged rocks posed a real threat to the fabric automobile tires of that period. A trip from the ranch to Eugene in Jeff Irish's Chevrolet always took at least 35 minutes. When a horse drawn team was used it took nearly 3 hours.

The mine was located about 0.3 of a mile west of Chambers. Plenty of coal still lay on the ground in 1928. Recent real estate development on east to west streets through the area confuse modern location of the site.

One wonders who burned the coal and with what success in Eugene in those days. So far as I know this was the only commercial mining operation in Lane County short of the gold mines in the Bohemia district more than 60 miles away.

Grandfather Fir

by Lois Barton

Grandfather fir, towering stalwart and reassuring
over your corner of the meadow,
how steadfast you stand, exuding strength and serenity.

Your burly branches furl protectively around your sturdy trunk,
disdainful of passing gusts.

In formative years you leaned into the light
of the open field,
outstripping your fellows in the woodlot behind.
They were harvested thirty years ago, but you were spared to save the fence at your feet.

Now your bole shines red-gold at sunup
against the backdrop of new growth behind you.
The tips of those newer trees barely reach
the lowest of your branches.

What tales you could tell from the passing years:
storms of rain and snow; the bear that climbed you;
the deer laid low at your feet by an excited boy
on his first hunt;surveyors marking the section corner
where you stand; generations of children hiking
to and from the school bus;animals that grazed the pasture; playful
squirrels racing up and down your great length;motor traffic and sled riders
in the snow.

I salute you, thankful for your presence there.
a symbol of continuity in a changing world.

March, 1990

June, 1990 post script:
Now you are gone, felled for lumber to build a house.
How great was your fall! The thud of your landing
rattled our windows a quarter-mile away.
Now I sense your presence in that hole in the skyline,
and grieve.

Writer and historian
Lois Barton
Lois Barton is an 84 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil. Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

Visit the Sunnyside of Spencer Butte Section in our new format for more of Lois' stories. See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By online magazine's archives:

Visit the Heron Rookery

Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The Midwife - The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

Books by Lois Barton

History and stories of the peoples of the Northwest.

© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By

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