Silver Falls - History Con't

According to Millie Thayer in her book “Silverton Country History”, the first white man to see the falls was George Hunt. The year was 1847 and he had just arrived in the Oregon Territory with his family. His father, John, had taken a Donation Land Claim in the Waldo Hills area south of Silverton. George was sixteen years old and was on a hunting trip when he happened on one of the falls.

“After a successful trip to the California gold fields…..” George returned in 1851 and married Elizabeth Smith. They took their children to see the falls in 1862. Their first child was named Melancthon Wright Hunt, after the father of Orville and Wilbur Wright who was a pastor of the United Brethren Church in Sublimity, Oregon. Mrs. Thayer asserts that Elizabeth Smith Hunt and her children were the first white woman and children to see the falls.

The first land occupant in the area is thought to be a man named Fordyce in 1864 on the site of the present day park facilities. Some sources say that a Donation Land Claim was taken later, but the claimant apparently did not stay long enough to ‘prove up’. The Metsker Maps do not show an owner of a DLC in the direct area of the falls.

Land did change hands and by the 1880’s there was a small town established in the area of South Falls. It was named Argenti, a Latin derivative meaning ‘silver’. It has been said that Silver Creek was named for James “Silver” Smith who is reported to have arrived in the Silverton area with a saddlebag full of silver coins. The other ‘legend’ of how Silver Creek got its name came from an unconfirmed tale of a horseman, trying to ford the creek with saddle pockets full of silver. The horse lots its footing, spilling the rider and the silver into the creek.

The Argenti post office was established in 1884 and was closed in 1904. According to Lewis McArthur in “Oregon Geographic Names” there was a local story about Herbert Hoover, who was living in Salem at the time, being on the survey party that laid out the streets for the town of Argenti.

Silver Falls City was the other town in the area of South Falls. In an article from the Silverton Appeal, dated Oct. 14, 1904, the headline read “New Town Platted on Silver Creek”. The Salem Abstract and Land Co. owned a large piece of land near Silver Creek Falls and was having it platted into city lots. The article states that already a number of lots had been purchased by people planning to build summer cottages. At the time of the article Silver Falls City already had a sawmill, hotel, church and one store. It would eventually grow and have a post office, a school and two lumber mills; it would even have a ‘honky-tonk’. It succeeded as a town for nearly fifty years. Two hundred to three hundred people called it home. It even had a park, 200 x 400 feet called Silver Falls Park. Perhaps the townsfolk had a vision of the future.

“Lumbering and wood cutting were the sources of revenue for most of those who lived within the area”. It’s hard to imagine the work entailed with logging those steep canyons and hills by oxen. In the early days, that was the only option. The lumber was then hauled to Salem by teams of horses. It was later, in the 1900’s that the logs were moved by railroad down to Silverton mills.

The falls has always been a popular recreation site. In the days before good roads, people would travel all day just to have a picnic. The Fourth of July would see a big crowd celebrating the holiday with dances and fireworks and ball games. People paid money to see cars pushed over the falls.

In 1928 a daredevil named Al Faussett went over the falls in a canoe. He survived with a few broken bones but no money. His co-partner ran off with the money made from bets that were taken on whether or not Mr. Faussett survived. An annual Al Faussett Days is held at the Park in celebration of his derring-do.

The man most responsible for helping preserve the falls was June Drake (1880-1969). He was Silverton’s main photographer and historian from 1900 through the 1940’s. It is thought that the first photos of the falls were taken by a Wm. H. Jones who came to Silverton in 1880. His photo of South Falls hangs at the Silverton museum but it was Drake who campaigned and lobbied the state legislature with his photographs, writing letter after letter, urging the falls be preserved as a park for future generations. His efforts were rewarded in 1933 when Silver Creek Falls joined the Oregon State Parks system. He had hoped for National Park status but because of the fire and the logging, forestry officials recommended against it.

It was later, at Drake’s suggestion, that “Creek” was dropped from the official title and it has been called Silver Falls State Park ever since.

To this day, it continues to be a place of beauty . A survivor of fires and logging it is one of the crown jewels of Oregon Parks; a place to hike, bike, camp, picnic or to just stroll on a warm summer day.

Sources include “A History of Silver Falls State Park” by Paul Sisney; “Silverton Country History” by Mildred Thayer;, and from articles archived at the Silverton Country Historical Society and Museum.

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