Sunday, June 22, 2008

Rumors on the Rocks: Elk Rock Island’s mysterious and mischievous past

“When you’re a kid, you’re a sponge and you’ll take anything someone tells you as gospel”.

I agreed with Milwaukie Police Officer Ron Glenn during a recent conversation and told him my generation’s legend is about the ghost of Elk Rock Island, famed to walk on its knuckles and drag its feet around the island in search of human bait.

At a recent back yard campfire in my old hometown of Milwaukie, I asked some childhood friends if they remembered the stories about the ghost of Elk Rock Island. Jennifer grew up about a block from the park's entrance and nearly fell over in her lawn chair squealing when I brought up the ghost, she’d nearly forgotten the story.

On night, when Jennifer and I were in our early teens we took a boom box, a flashlight, and an Ouija board down to the banks of the Willamette River, just south of the Island and north of the Lake Oswego train trestle. We turned the flashlight on and sat it on top of the radio and placed our fingertips gently onto the heart-shaped planchette and after several bouts of giggling, calmly asked the oracle for any spirits present to make themselves known. And we asked again, and again, and again.

Finally, in the dark silence, the flashlight rolled of the radio and hit the power button; we jumped with the blare of white-noise coming at us. One of us quickly flipped off the radio and from the darkness we heard the muffled shout of a voice nearby. We abandoned the radio, the board and maybe even the flashlight and started running back to the house. When we finally caught our breath safe inside, no one could recall the words that were shouted or if the voice was that of a man or woman. I was certain it was the ghost of Elk Rock Island.

In Officer Glenn’s multiple years with the Milwaukie Police Force, he has been called out to the island at all hours of the night and has never once felt scared.

But as a kid, Glenn was also told a story about the waters surrounding the Island. Back in the late 70s when Glenn was a young teen, a strange metal shoot use to stick out a rocky structure just below the island. During his annual boat trip with Portland Parks & Recreation to the island, two guides who took children from around the city on a river tour and stopped their boat near the Milwaukie waterfront to tell the kids the story of a Duke and Duchess that once lived in a castle above the shoot. The story told of an upstairs torture chamber that had a guillotine hanging in its doorway. Heads would roll from the bedroom, down the shoot and into the waters of the Willamette.

“They were trying to portray this as actual history” Glenn now says with a sardonic tone in his voice. But even to this day, Glenn is careful not to go down while water-skiing near this site.

The mysterious and mischievous Elk Rock Island is located just South of Milwaukie on the Willamette River. The island came to life 40 million years ago as an under-sea volcano larger than the current Mt. Hood. The Waverly Basalt lava flows created the large jagged rocks seen on the island today, which may be the oldest exposed rocks in the Portland area. As the prehistoric sea receded, sediment settled atop the rocky outcrop, and eventually, the volcano eroded down to its current position.

Native Americans are said to have run elk off a cliff on the opposing side of the river, floating their carcasses down towards the bank where they could gather them for food. This story claims to provide the area with its namesake.

With easy access to the river, the area surrounding the island became a logical site for early settlement. The land was part of the original donation land claim of Milwaukie pioneer Lot Whitcomb, and naturally, was known as Lot Whitcomb Island in the 1860s. At this time, Whitcomb utilized the island as a steamboat landing.

In the early 1900s, the island took on a more practical business venture and became home to a dancehall owned by the Rock Island Club. Officer Glenn said the rumor around the water cooler at the Milwaukie Police Department claims that the Oregon State Police eventually had to come down to the island and bust the partygoers for gambling and prostitution.

So it seems the good-times rolled just like heads at the Duke and Duchesses castle downstream, until grain exporter and Portland businessman, Peter Kerr, purchased the land in 1910. At that time, the dancehall went vacant and the land saw no further development.

88 year-old Bob Hatz didn’t actually dance in the famed dancehall, but when he was a teen in the 1930s and the dancehall was abandoned, Hatz took his roller skates out onto the island to roll around the dance floor.

Hatz spent a considerable amount of time on the island doing various recreational activities, but found the dancehall most interesting. “It was in such shape that we would take the shingles off the roof and use them to start fires for weenie roasts on the beach.”

It’s been a long time since Hatz has been out to the island, but he recalls a couple of one-room cabins on the island, that his friends rumored to be “houses of ill repute." In other words, the rumor was some prostitution went on down there.

In his long life as a Milwaukie resident, Hatz also hasn’t had a single ghostly experience on the island. However, when I asked local resident Mary Avalon, a self-proclaimed freelance environmentalist and Elk Rock Island enthusiast who spent four-years on the island doing restoration projects, what she thought about the ghost on the island she said, “Just one? I’ve heard there are a lot of ghosts!”

If its not already obvious, there are a lot of rumors about Elk Rock Island’s past. But the island has a ghostly existence itself, since it is only an island some of the time. It is actually a peninsula and only an island when the waters of the Willamette are high. Visitors can get to the island by crossing a wet and rocky area that connects to the mainland. Sometimes you have to wade through the water in this area in order to get to the island and other times you can tiptoe safely across or jump from rock to rock.

Today, Elk Rock Island and the adjoined Spring Park are preserved natural areas with large trees and a diverse bird population. In fact, a bald eagle pair that has been nesting on the island for years has decided this year, to nest in a Cottonwood on the shoreline.

Island Station Neighborhood resident Charles Byrd said it’s unusual that the pair don’t have offspring yet and that some residents of the Island Station Neighborhood believe that trains idling nearby are impacting their breeding habits. According to Byrd, the eagles use to nest on the island in order to better snatch up the young Blue Heron from their nests. Recently, the Heron’s have not been making their annual return to the island and Byrd believes the eagles have relocated to the shore to gain a better vantage point for hunting.

The eagle pair can be seen from the one and only street-level entrance to Elk Rock Island, behind the house closest to the parks entrance located on the corner of SE Sparrow Street and 19th Avenue.

Strange bedfellows maintain the protected area. In the 1940s, Portland businessman Peter Kerr gave the park to the City of Portland with the requirement that it maintain its natural state. In order to get onto the Island, a Portland City Park, visitors have to cross through Spring Park, which is maintained by the City of Milwaukie.

The park has no facilities, not even a parking lot, so visitors park on the street. Nonetheless, this island of rumors provides visitors with a quiet retreat from the city. Visitors to the island can see the fiery barks of the Pacific Madrone and a variety of succulents along the shores. But the best way to experience the island and it many features is to find a quiet and comfortable spot and watch the island unleash.

But be forewarned, during summer months, motorboats in the Willamette River somewhat detract from the serenity of this protected natural area. But if you’re into boating Officer Glenn says there is a perfect inlet to pull a boat into on the backside of the island, complete with creepy concrete stairs carved right into the rock where the dancehall use to be.


Zyclon said...

This is a great article. Elk Rock is a special little place of nature almost magically situated just a short walk away from the workaday world.
I was on the island last night with a couple of friends, and we had some uncertainty about the origin of the name. Thanks a lot for the historical clarification.
I had not heard specifically of any ghost stories, but am not too surprised that they exist. It can be kind of spooky at night. That's part of the fun.
There are a few ominous trees in the center of the woods. One or two look like they would make a perfect setting for dark occult ceremony of some kind.
Also, I recall hearing some 10 years ago of the occasional white supremacist gathering being held there. Not sure if that still goes on.
By the way, I hear August 14th there is a controlled burn planned to reduce fire danger and to kill off invasive grass species.


ChelsiaAnn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ChelsiaAnn said...

Thanks for the comment. I really enjoy walks on Elk Rock Isl. and before I left Portland, I went back to have one last go and the water was too high for me to cross (and I wasn't willing to get wet that day).
I've spent many evening on the island - mostly around high school keggers or running from the Milwaukie Police - and the island always seemed to have more eyes than those we were aware of. Maybe that is because of it's rich history. Such great stories abound around the Island.
As far as the white supremacists go, Milwaukie has a plentiful history of racism as well. When I was attending Milwaukie High School in the mid - 1990s, kids saluted each other in the halls with the 'hail hitler' gesture. That wasn't long before they white supremacists showed up on campus with recruitment flyers, complete with a Bronco with and a Dixie flag strapped across the hood. Also, MTV featured our school on a 'Rock the Vote' commercial about race-wars once people-of-color started moving into the Portland suburb.
However, that's another story for another time...
Thanks again for the update, Bill.

Zyclon said...

Oh yes, I was Milwaukie class of 92. Too bad you're not in Portland any longer. I was this close to asking you out for a drink... shucks.

Lindsay said...

Hi there! I liked your blog post - where did you get learn all the history behind it?

Lindsay :)

Lindsay said...

*Hangs head* Delete the word 'get', and all will be well.