Friday, October 4, 2019

History Along Highway 20: Waterloo, Sodaville, and Cascadia

Sodaville Store
In its day, the Santiam Wagon Road connected the towns of Lebanon and Sisters, enabling settlers to pass through the Cascades between the fertile Willamette Valley and the wide grazing lands of central Oregon. From 1865 until the opening of Highway 20 in 1939, this road encouraged development and commerce along its length. Much of the old passage is still accessible today, and some of the towns it fostered remain. Others persist as traces of their former selves, quiet and faded, their history nearly forgotten. Sodaville, Waterloo, and Cascadia are among these villages, built on hopes and dreams of employing Oregon's plentiful water to attract business and build a future. Their days of prosperity long gone, these stops along Highway 20 still hold echoes of those days of Oregon's birth. Next time you're heading out of Corvallis, take a few short detours and find some of Oregon's history along the way.

Driving east from Lebanon, the present-day highway runs close to the original wagon road. After about four miles, turn left onto Sodaville-Waterloo Road and drive about a mile to the tiny town of Waterloo. Originally known as Kees Mill, the town's name was jokingly changed following a heated land dispute. At one time several mills were located near these lovely falls on the South Santiam River, and the town boasted shops and stores as well as a hotel and livery stable. Today this spot in the road offers a sprawling, 128-acre county park on the river banks. Here you will find expansive picnic areas spread out under tall old trees, picnic shelters, a children's play area, and a year-round campground. Swimming and fishing in the river are popular pastimes, and boat ramps offer easy launching. You will also find a fenced dog park, a hiking loop, and a challenging disc golf course. Look near the park entrance to find the falls that originally attracted businesses to this beautiful area. While little remains of Waterloo's bustling past, its spacious park and campground are definitely worth a detour; in fact, you might consider spending a whole weekend here beside the river.

Head back, cross Highway 20, and continue to the community of Sodaville. This town's history began in the 1840s when pioneer Reuben Coyle discovered a pungent mineral spring on a west-facing hillside. Incorporated in 1880, the town built up around the spring, which was deeded to the public so that all could access the purportedly healing waters for free. During its heyday, stagecoaches transported bottles of the famous water to businesses in Albany, and people came from all over to "take the cure." Also known as Soda Springs or Summer Soda, the community once boasted numerous businesses, including several hotels, a skating rink, a general store, a weekly paper, three churches, and a college. Unfortunately, many of the buildings were destroyed by fire, and the spring itself petered out over the years. Sodaville has gradually faded into obscurity on its sunny hillside, but its history has not been forgotten.

Sodaville-Waterloo Road turns into Maple Street as you enter the town. Turn left onto Main Street to find Soda Springs Park, arguably Oregon's first state park. A small parking area beneath the trees provides a pleasant stop to have a snack and read the sign detailing Sodaville's history. City Hall resides on the grassy hill above, occupying the site of the original spring house. This porous hillside still produces tiny seeps of water, but the flowing spring is gone and the water is no longer considered safe to drink. Note Sodaville's "post office" in the parking lot: a pair of mail boxes, one for incoming and one for outgoing mail. Across the street the town's citizens are working hard to develop a community center park, as well as restore an old store building. A few other old buildings still stand, including a well-maintained church. Overall, this tiny town seems happy to be what it has become: a sleepy, out-of-the-way village that time has passed by.

Back on Highway 20, continue to the town of Sweet Home. This section is also close to the original wagon road; in fact, there was a tollgate just east of town. About 14 miles past Sweet Home, a left turn brings you into Cascadia Park. This beautiful place, located at the confluence of Soda Creek and the South Santiam River, was a stage stop on the old wagon road. This site also had a soda spring, and during the final years of the 1800s George Geisendorf built a sawmill and resort hotel here. In the early 1900s there were formal gardens, tennis courts, and even a bowling alley. Now the gardens and buildings are gone, but this leafy retreat is still a delightful place to spend an hour, or an afternoon; in fact, if you are lucky enough to be here during the summer, there is a peaceful, seasonal campground tucked among the tall trees.

Park near the picnic area to access the trails. Look across from the restrooms for the trail to the spring. This area is now a small, rock-paved terrace next to the creek. There is a picnic table and a drinking fountain, but sadly it only dispenses plain water (at this writing, Linn County is in the process of taking over the park, and they hope to be able to have the old pump working eventually so that visitors can sample the water that built the Geisendorfer Hotel). Climb the opposite bank; the flat spot in the trees to your left is where the old hotel stood. Traces of wagon ruts can be found in the trees; it is said that these were side roads made by travelers attempting to avoid a nearby tollgate on the main wagon road. Steep spur trails lead down the bank to the Santiam. This wide field is an excellent spot to eat a picnic and let the kids run off some energy.

Return to the parking area and look for the signed trail to Lower Soda Falls. This hike is less than a mile and is generally easy; on our last visit there were a few maintenance issues on the trail, but most people should have no trouble accessing the falls, and you definitely should see the falls. Walk along Soda Creek through the lush forest, climbing a bit at times. You may not hear this narrow waterfall from a long way off; it plummets 134 feet down a cliff face, but tiny Soda Creek slips and slides, a thin ribbon of water in a rocky crevice. It's easy to access the base of the falls for photographs. This whole hike is also a superb wildflower destination during the spring months.
Return to your car in the picnic area, but don't rejoin the highway just yet. Follow the river on Cascadia Drive to find Short Bridge, the only surviving covered bridge over the South Santiam. This spot is popular with wildlife, fishermen, and photographers. From here, High Deck Road will take you straight back to Highway 20.
Back in the days of the Santiam Wagon Road, it took four days on a good horse to get from Lebanon to Sisters; at the time, this was amazingly efficient. Now we can drive it in about two hours, but perhaps we don't have to. Perhaps we can take a little extra time to find some vestige of Oregon's history. It cascades over the falls where Waterloo's mills once stood. It seeps and trickles from a hillside in Sodaville. It ripples past the confluence where Geisendorf's hotel welcomed travelers over a century ago. We can find part of our state's history where the old road ran beside the water, and perhaps make a few memories of our own. 

South Santiam River near Waterloo Park
An ominous (but important) warning at the Waterloo Park boat launch

At the falls

Waterloo Park

Disk golf course

Sodaville Store, in process of restoration at time of photograph
The slow seepage of the springs at Soda Springs Park
A commemorative pumps stands in the park as a reminder of the town's past

Grace Bible Fellowship, one of Sodaville's maintained historic buildings

Cascadia's water pump. Currently dry, but hopefully not for long!

Approximate site of the Geisendorfer Hotel

Grown-over wagon ruts near the hotel site

Tiger Lilies

Lower Soda Falls (and the photographer becomes the photographed)

Underneath the falls (thank goodness for waterproof cameras!)

On Short Bridge

See you by the water!

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