Imagine a Columbia County with no roads. It’s easy if you try – I grew up with family members older than that. In 1899, E. Henry Wemme, a German-American businessman based in Portland, brought the first car to Oregon.
Before the roads came, newcomers traveling by boat and wagon built a small mill on the banks of the Columbia River between Goble and Rainier. A community formed around the mill employees. By 1898 a railroad was completed, connecting the little town to both Portland and Astoria. In 1907 the Beaver Lumber Company built a larger mill at the site, soon employing over 300 men, and the town grew. It was renamed “Prescott” and came to have a post office and a school. (History of Prescott)
In 1913 work began on the Columbia River Highway, and by 1915 it had reached Columbia County, finally allowing our cities to be connected by automobile. It started as a mere graded dirt road, but between 1917 and 1920 the highway was paved for the first time.
The stretch of highway near Prescott passed under two pretty waterfalls, the 75-foot-high “Jack Falls” and the 70-foot-high “Little Jack Falls”. Due to these falls and great views of the Columbia River, the locale became a minor tourist spot. There were even postcards made.
The prosperity of the region did not last. In 1945 the mill was closed down and the employees left. In 1948 the highway was shifted to a new lower site, pulling it away from both the waterfall and the pretty views of the river. The city of Prescott shrunk to its current size of 50 residents; forest reclaimed the old highway. No longer a destination stop, most modern-day travelers passing by are unaware a town exists there at all.
But the city of Prescott still owns the land, and Jack Falls and Little Jack Falls are still there, and if you creep close enough you can still see an old, old highway nestled within the trees.
Matt and I approached Jack Falls after parking safely on a side street. We shouldn’t need to emphasize that one must be incredibly careful whenever crossing Highway 30 – I recall more than one fatal accident on this stretch. We won’t recommend any particular place to cross – the area next to the road is a mess, knee-deep in flooded marsh and head-high in blackberry bushes. There is no developed access and it is a fight to get through no matter where you try.
It’s a bit surreal when you manage to burst through the vegetation and step up onto Old Columbia River Highway. It breaks the slope and displaces the surrounding forest. You can’t see the road itself after 72 years of neglect, just the clearance of its path snaking across the forest sidehill.
The forest Matt is looking off towards there is young, but has a beautiful understory dominated by sword fern in some places, vine maple in others.
A short jaunt down the ancient road brought us to Jack Falls. In autumn when we visited there hadn’t been a great deal of rain yet, so the falls were more pretty than impressive. At times in late summer they can dry up completely.
I advise against climbing near the falls – as with most relatively untraveled areas the rocks are loose and the logs are rotten, both giving way easily on the slope. It would not be fun to sustain an injury and then have to climb down the hill and fight your way back out the mess below.
Matt and I made use of our visit to survey the habitat for amphibians. We have been here three times yet have been unable to find the prized local species that favor waterfalls, such as torrent salamanders, giant salamanders, and tailed frogs. Our hypothesis is that the muddy, silty water, the result of clearcuts and development up above, has wiped out the more sensitive species which otherwise be found in this habitat.
Still, we did locate a smattering of the more common, mud-tolerant creatures:
In time we moved down the road towards Little Jack Falls, 1/3 of a mile to the north. The old highway is generally easy to walk, you can feel the security of flat pavement deep below your feet. But in some areas it has crumbled away, been encroached on by landslides, or blocked by fallen trees. It’s not the sort of place I’d bring young children.
At the last turn before Little Jack Falls we reached the point where the culvert once funneled the water below the highway. Another victim of neglect, it failed many decades ago. Here the highway has begun to collapse. narrowing the route.
Then the falls were upon us, just as presented in that century-old postcard. There’s no way to cross. This section of the highway that bore early cars towards Rainier is now gone, a victim of the tenacious force of Oregon rains.
The falls continue below at a steep incline, but it was difficult to capture their entire extent from our vantage point. With no easy way to continue, we returned to our starting point.
I imagine it would be popular if the city (perhaps in collaboration with PGE?) took the initiative to create access to the falls. Parking could be built off of Little Jack Falls Road with a cleaned-up trail leading down to follow the Old Columbia River Highway. A footbridge over the missing section at Little Jack Falls would be necessary, of course. But with the expense and worrisome questions of liability, I doubt we will see that.
So Jack Falls and Little Jack Falls remain the experience of only those who wish to fight through marsh and blackberry to view a forgotten relic of our past.
Jack Falls and Little Jack Falls at a glance
What: waterfalls, Columbia County history
Where: Approximately 4 miles south of Rainier off Highway 30, roughly opposite of the City of Prescott
Hiking: Less than half a mile of ancient overgrown highway
Notable Wildlife: woodland amphibians
Property status: City of Prescott