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Water wheel evokes roots of lumbering

Sun., July 31, 2011

It was a good match.

The upper half of a replica 14-foot-diameter water wheel was lowered precisely into place – all 3,000 pounds of rough-hewn Douglas fir and heavy steel hubs – so that nuts slid easily onto large bolts, just as planned.

“Comin’ down easy, real easy,” barked Pat Slawson, expertly manipulating the large Clark Public Utilities boom lift donated for the 90-minute task. His crew mate, Mike Brown, gave careful instructions as he held a thick guide rope.

By mid-August, the standout addition to the old Vancouver Fish Hatchery grounds should be fully installed to serve its purpose: to honor the birthplace of lumbering in the Pacific Northwest, as practiced by Euro-Americans.

Mounted atop twin 9-foot concrete pedestals near Columbia Springs’ west parking lot, the water wheel lies a short distance from where Dr. John McLoughlin had Hudson’s Bay Company workers build the region’s first water-powered sawmill in 1828.

The historically accurate water wheel, which might someday revolve over an active water fixture, is a meaningful addition.

“The story of the birth of lumbering right here in our backyard, in this urban setting, is pretty exciting,” said Richard Johnson, veteran member of the Columbia Springs board of directors.

“It’s a good story to be told, especially to the young. They learn about the biology of the neighborhood; we wanted them to learn the history, too,” he said.

Johnson, 68, a state fish and wildlife employee for 37 years who’s now retired, played a lead role on the project.

He did much of the sawing and fitting and bolting of the large, treated fir slabs supplied by a Battle Ground lumber firm. He did some of the work at home but assembled most of the pieces on the center grounds. The team followed blueprints drawn up by Portland architect Richard Bixby.

“There’s a lot of monkey work, a lot of sweat work, to get this up and secure,” Johnson said Friday.

Center officials hope to finish up – 24 wooden paddles, or “buckets,” must be completed and attached – in time to show off the large wheel during the Hooked! fundraising event Aug. 18.


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