Peter leads a Railroad District art + history walk. Video by Sailor Boy Media. Here’s how it happened. Ashland Public Art video.
If you want to go straight to the video, click the image below. If you want to read my story about how the video came to be, keep reading.
In the video, you will meet artist Ann DiSalvo
Ann painted two of the utility boxes we will see on our video tour, including this one showing the swans that used to live in the Lower Duck Pond at Lithia Park.
In the video, you will learn Ashland history highlights
Here is one of the spots we visited during the video walking tour.
My photo essay led to this video
On February 3, 2021, I published an article about painted utility boxes in the Railroad District. I learned that in 2009 Ashland’s Public Arts Commission had initiated this project to brighten the town by commissioning artists to paint some of the drab, dark green utility boxes. It was a good story. I did research and found “before and after” photos of all seven utility boxes that were painted in July 2009. I walked the streets and took my own photos, then published the story as a photo essay. CLICK HERE to see that photo essay.
Keegan Van Hook said, “Are you interested…?” I said, “Yes!”
Videographer Keegan Van Hook read my article and was intrigued by the possibility of turning my photo-essay walk into a video walk. After asking him a few questions and seeing some of his work, I replied with an enthusiastic “Yes.”
A graduate of the Southern Oregon University Digital Media program, Keegan founded Sailor Boy Media with his friend Tripp White. They have an active website and YouTube channel that specializes in video interviews with local people on issues of the day. CLICK HERE to visit their website.
Filming the video
I met Keegan and Tripp at 11:00 am on February 24 to film the video. Keegan asked me questions and Tripp did camera work. I had notes with me, but I spoke extemporaneously at each utility box and at our historical sites. We walked and talked for two hours, including having the bonus interview with artist Ann DiSalvo.
After the filming, I sent Keegan several historic photographs that enrich the video’s Ashland history sections. Tripp and Keegan edited the two hours into an enjoyable, educational and interesting 24 minute video. Here, again, is a link to the video on YouTube. Thanks for watching, and I hope you enjoy it.
45 photos of 7 utility boxes! Outdoor painting on hot July days. Public Arts Commission at work. Ashland Public Art series.
Have you noticed the bright, colorful utility boxes around town? I love the way these gray metal boxes have been transformed into colorful works of art. This article will feature mostly photographs, including fun “before and after” photos of the utility boxes.
In 2009, after consultation with the City utility department, the Public Arts Commission (PAC) invited artists to submit designs for paintings on seven utility boxes in and near the Railroad District area. PAC’s Call for Entries document stated in part: “The theme for Phase 1 of this project is Reflections of Ashland. Artists are invited to submit designs that are suitable to the theme of Reflections of Ashland. These may include but are not limited to designs that reflect Ashland’s natural beauty, cultural offerings, history and distinctive charm.”
Artists were required to submit a two dimensional representation of what their design would look like on the three dimensional utility box. As an example, artist Zelpha Hutton submitted the design below. PAC chose six artists to paint the first seven utility boxes.
When the Public Arts Commission was created in 2003, it began with lofty ideals and no consistent funding source. Money was still tight in 2009, so funding had to be found for the utility box project. A Mail Tribune article described the supporters of this project. “In addition to support from the city government and Ashland Public Arts Commission, the utility box project was made possible by a $1,500 grant from the Jackson County Cultural Coalition and donations of paint and services from Miller Paint Co., The Party Place and Meyers Painting.”
Following this map, you can create your own Art Walk of these first seven painted utility boxes. Follow along as you read this article on your mobile phone, or get some fresh air on a sunny day after you have read it.
Box 1: North Second Street (“Dogs and Bikes”)
The first box on the map is located on North Second Street near East Main Street, in front of the entrance to U.S. Bank. Zelpha Hutton is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Dogs and Bikes.”
Hutton was an art teacher and owner of Paisley Yarn Shop in Ashland for many years. According to the Mail Tribune, the design came to her “when she noticed several dogs tied up at the nearby Agave restaurant while their owners dined. A bicycle was also outside. The scene — often repeated at cafés all around town — inspired Hutton to create a playful design featuring dogs tied to a table with a bowl of water and a bicycle nearby. The utility box she painted is in front of U.S. Bank on Second Street.”
I’ll begin with the before and after photo, share two more photos taken in 2009, and then add three that I took in January 2021.
Box 2: North Second Street (“Poppies”)
The second box on the map is located on North Second Street near Lithia Way, in front of Trinity Episcopal Church labyrinth. Kathleen Taylor is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Poppies.” This photo collection also includes the before and after photo, two more photos taken in 2009, and then three that I took in January 2021.
Along with Taylor’s poppy flower design submittal, she wrote, “I am inspired by the beautiful springtime flower here in Ashland.”
Box 3: Lithia Way (“Mountains and Trees”)
The third box on the map is located on Lithia Way at the west end of C Street. Pokey McFarland is the artist, and his title for the artwork is “Mountains and Trees.” The theme was a natural for the artist, since McFarland was a hiker, trail runner, mountain biker and skier.
When McFarland submitted his design for the utility box to PAC, he wrote: “I feel that Ashland is a unique area, naturally beautiful and hidden in among mountains and forests. I feel many come here for that isolated feeling. The natural beauty here is one of a kind, wonderful! When I reflect on Ashland, I think mountains, trees, rivers, natures’ beauty…”
In a 2011 article, the Ashland Tidings said, “McFarland previously was one of the winners of a city contest to paint drab utility boxes in colorful designs. He also makes posters for bands and music festivals, designs T-shirts and does art projects for businesses.
A staff member at the Lithia Springs Boys Home, he likes to take troubled youngsters out into nature. They sometimes team with Ashland Parks and Recreation Department workers on projects.”
Below you’ll find the before and after photo, one more photo taken in 2009 as the box was being painted, and then two that I took in January 2021.
Box 4: Oak Street (no longer painted)
Box 4 was located on Oak Street in front of the Recology Ashland office. Sadly, it is no longer there. The utility box was replaced and not repainted. Here is a photo showing how the box, painted by Kathleen Taylor, looked in 2009, and a 2021 photo showing how it looks now.
Box 5: Oak Street (“Ashland Activities”)
Box 5 is located on Oak Street near the Old Ashland Armory. Judy Bryant is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Ashland Activities.” This painting is full of detail. After the two photos from 2009, I included a number of close-up photos taken in 2021 to show some of that detail.
With Bryant’s design submittal, she wrote, “When I was giving thought to a design for Reflections of Ashland I kept thinking of all the activities we as locals get to enjoy right outside our front doors any day of the year.”
Box 6: A Street (“Clouds and Grapes”)
Box 6 is located on A Street near the Ashland Food Coop. Adrienne Bailin is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Clouds and Grapes.”
Box 7: A Street (“Return of the Swans”)
Box 7 is located on A Street near Fourth Street. Ann DiSalvo is the artist, and her title for the artwork is “Return of the Swans.” I interviewed DiSalvo, so I’ll share a little of her experience painting the utility box and some of her insights about public art. I found out that she also painted three other utility boxes around town between 2010 and 2016, so you’ll see her name come up in future articles.
DiSalvo got her degree in art at the University of Wisconsin, and has worked as an artist most of her professional life. Since moving to Ashland in the early 1990s, she has been active in the Ashland Gallery Association, including editing their annual Gallery Guide for more than 15 years.
Hot, hot, hot
She remembers the July days in 2009, when painting was done, as extremely hot. PAC rented canopies for the artists to work under, which helped a bit. The artists picked up their paint supplies (exterior acrylic paint from Miller Paints) the first morning in the Elks Club parking lot and headed for their individual utility boxes. Each box had been thoroughly cleaned by city staff in preparation for painting. Later, after artists finished their painting, city staff added a UV clear coat to prolong the life of the outdoor artwork.
DiSalvo described the challenge of working with the outdoor acrylic paint under these conditions. “Because of the heat, the acrylic paint would dry so quickly. In under a minute it would be dry, and my brushes would be caked with paint because it was drying on the brush. The metal was so hot [in the afternoon] that when the paint hit the metal, it would be stiff within seconds, and it was hard to make a good flowing stroke. It wasn’t so bad in the morning.” She added that utility box painting in subsequent years was done in the spring or fall to avoid these hot summer temperatures.
The value of public art
Ann expressed one of the benefits of creating public art on site – community members get to interact with an artist at work. “A Street is a pretty busy pedestrian street in the summer. A lot of people came by and commented, and that was nice. In addition, a neighbor brought me a cup of iced lemonade while I was painting.”
Regarding the value of public art, she added: “When I go to another city and I see their public art, it really speaks to me of what they consider valuable. Public art shows the imagination and care the community has, not just for residents but for visitors too. There is a sense of humor in much of it. If a city were a person, this would be its facial expression.” She also believes that public art, because it is visible, inspires other artists to want to live in that community. “They feel like they belong in a city that loves art.”
In addition to visual arts like sculpture and murals, I would extend Ann’s thought to include theater art, music, dance and other creative endeavors. All of these art forms, especially theater, currently attract people to both visit and live in Ashland. I think expanding public art in Ashland, because it is both very visible and freely accessible, would be one way to build our community’s economic engine.
Photos for box seven will begin with Ann’s design for the box, followed by two photos from 2009 and four that I took in January 2021.
More utility boxes
I hope you enjoyed this “walk” around the Railroad District to visit the first group of painted utility boxes sponsored by Ashland’s Public Arts Commission. Quite a few more have been painted since 2009. I will visit more in another article.
Ashland’s first Catholic Church, 1889 to 1959 Family Life Bible Church, 1963 to 2014 Horror film location, 2014 Now a fully renovated, lovely residence
Here are stories from the life of one building in Ashland’s Railroad District, with glimpses into some human lives that have intersected that building.
Ashland’s First Catholic Church
The booming gold-mining town of Jacksonville was home to the first Catholic Church in Southern Oregon, dedicated in 1858. At that time, no religious group had yet built a church in Ashland, where the population was fewer than 300 people.
By 1889, there were five church buildings in Ashland. That’s the year the Catholic Church became the sixth, located in the Railroad District at the corner of 6th and C Streets. According to the Ashland Tidings of August 23, 1889, “There will be services in the new Catholic Church in Ashland next Sunday at 10 a.m., Rev. Father Noel officiating.” The church opened with a membership of about 97 men, women and children.
The original name of the church was Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, which changed about 1915 to its current name, Our Lady of the Mountain.
Because the Catholic priest in Jacksonville had to serve all of Southern Oregon, masses at the new Ashland church were few and far between – only seven in the first full year of the church building. Ashland Catholics finally got their own priest in 1899, ten years after the church was built.
The congregation grew through the decades and a new, larger Catholic Church was built on Hillview Drive in 1959. The historic steeple bell and Stations of the Cross from the 6th Street church building moved there along with the congregation.
The 6th Street church building got new life in 1963, when the Family Life Bible Church purchased it. Virginia Carol Hudson told me she moved to 6th Street 27 years ago, when the church building across the street from her housed the Family Life Bible Church. Though the congregation was very small, she enjoyed hearing, while sitting in her yard, their rousing Pentecostal singing each time a church revival meeting was held.
The Pentecostal church moved out in early 2014. After being filled with worshipers for 120 years, the sad little church building now sat empty.
Horror Movie Location
Then for two days during August 2014, it was suddenly filled with people filming suspenseful, bloody scenes for a horror/thriller independent movie!
That’s a very different kind of energy from a century filled with songs of praise, the joys of new beginnings and the tears of losing loved ones. How did the old church become a film location?
Director and producer Brad Douglas needed a church scene for his movie Besetment. He couldn’t find the right location in Bend or in the tiny central Oregon town of Mitchell, the two towns where he was filming. Virginia Carol Hudson, the Wigmaster for the film, told him “There’s an empty church across the street from my house. That is your location, right there.” Across the street from her house turned out to be the empty church at 100 6th Street in Ashland.
Actress Marlyn Mason
I interviewed Marlyn Mason, one of the lead actors in the film. Here is how her acting was praised in a review of Besetment at the website morbidlybeautiful.com. “I first want to bow down to Marlyn Mason, who plays Milly, because she is so incredibly captivating and terrifying – everything you need in a horror movie performance. This woman was incredible, and I was terrified and amazed by her in the same breath.”
Born in 1940, Mason became a professional actor as a teenager. The website IMDB lists 113 television and movie acting credits in her long career! One highlight was her opportunity to act – and sing – with Elvis Presley in his second to last film, The Trouble with Girls.
I asked Marlyn why she moved from Los Angeles to the Rogue Valley. She replied that when she was in her early 50s, first her agent died and then her car died. Other agents she spoke with told her variations of the same story: “We don’t have work for an older actress.”
“Dead agent, dead career”
Depressed, she thought to herself: “dead agent, dead career.” Then she had a slightly more uplifting pep talk with herself. “If I’m going to be poor, I want to be poor where it’s beautiful.” As it turned out, a lifelong friend she had known since elementary school lived in Medford, and offered Marlyn a place to rent if she was interested.
She moved to Medford and found the beauty she was seeking, but she did not find a “dead career.” Quite the contrary. She is finding new career highlights. She recently won the Best Actress award at the Breckenridge Film Festival for her role in the feature-length movie Senior Love Triangle. And the day after I spoke with her, she was flying to New York to attend the Syracuse International Film Festival.
Mason has felt blessed to find talented Southern Oregon directors to work with, such as Ray Nomoto Robison. She acted in his short film noir called An Affair Remains, which showed at the 2019 Ashland Independent Film Festival, and she plans to make a follow-up with him.
Now back to the empty church at 100 6th Street – and movie “blood.” I also had the pleasure of interviewing Virginia Carol Hudson. She was Wigmaster and hair stylist for the Besetment thriller, which was filmed at the empty church across the street from her house. Hudson has had quite a career. For 18 years she worked as a principal wig maker at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Now she divides her time between smaller theaters (she will work two shows during the Cabaret Theater’s 2020 season) and private clients of her Wigs by Design business.
According to Hudson, filming of Besetment left its mark in the house. A horror movie requires lots of (fake) blood to be spattered, right? So the floor got its share, which the moviemakers left when they left. Remember this when I describe the renovation process next.
A Change of Owners
Now back to the house at 100 6th Street. If you walk or drive by the corner of 6th and C Streets now, you will see a beautiful residence – that looks like a church! Greg Conaway and Cory Ross have tastefully transformed the small church building and grounds.
The couple’s renovation won a well-deserved 2016 Historic Preservation Award given by the Ashland Historic Commission. Here’s how it happened.
In autumn of 2013, Ross was riding her bicycle on 6th Street and saw the old church for sale. The building stands out partly because the original church was designed with elements of the Gothic Revival style, as can be seen in the windows lining both sides of the house. She thought to herself, “Someone needs to save those windows!”
She and Conaway called realtor Patie Millen, toured the inside of the church, were intrigued, and started discussing the potential. By December, it was theirs.
Ross and Conaway already lived in a house they liked, so they invited friends and neighbors to an ice cream social at the church to brainstorm ideas for what to do with it. People proposed a dance studio, a music venue, a yoga studio, and more. Of the suggestions Ross told me, this one is my favorite: Open a food place called “Alice’s Restaurant” at the church. After all, Arlo Guthrie wrote his famous 1967 18-minute story-song after staying overnight at his friend and restaurateur Alice’s home, which had formerly been a church.
This song is called “Alice’s Restaurant.” It’s about Alice, and the restaurant, but “Alice’s Restaurant” is not the name of the restaurant, that’s just the name of the song. That’s why I call the song “Alice’s Restaurant.” (Excerpt from lyrics by Arlo Guthrie)
Renovation and Seismic Retrofit
In the end, Ross and Conaway decided to renovate the 125-year-old building and live in it themselves. They hired James Stiritz, owner of Dragonfly Construction, and the team at On Point Construction, with help from many others. The first challenge was to stabilize the structure. The seismic retrofit started with pouring a new steel-reinforced concrete foundation for the church. Then they stabilized the bowing walls that support the soaring ceiling. The solution was to tie them together with one-inch-thick steel rods. The old walls were also anchored to the foundation and the roof. The final effect is solid but subtle.
Conaway and Ross chose to keep the church interior, with its spaciousness and high ceiling, intact for their main living space – an open living room, dining room and kitchen. A 16′ by 16′ addition was built at the rear of the church building for the master bedroom. The Ashland Historic Commission wrote that “This new addition blends seamlessly with the original volume in design, detail and quality as if C.W. Ayres [who built the original 1889 church] had been on site overseeing each step of the construction, saw and hammer in hand.”
The Historic Commission added that “Ben Trieger [actually Jay Treiger] rebuilt and restored all the original windows, making them functional, including the huge and beautiful arch head windows that provide such a significant and classic architectural feature.”
Remember the floor? When the church’s pink carpet had been removed, all were happy to find a wood floor underneath, made of fir. During the renovation, refinishing parts of the fir floor proved to be a challenge, as there were spots that appeared to be blood stains soaked into the wood. Now that we know the history of the building, we know the origin of those “blood” stains. (In case you forgot from the section above, think horror movie, then think fake blood spattering all over the floor.) Despite the challenges, the fir floor was beautifully refinished.
The Steeple, the Bats and the Bell
As he described renovating the house and 1889 steeple, Conaway told me, “It wasn’t a project, it was an adventure.” Why? Because he found bats in the belfry, ivy vines up to ¾” thick inside the walls, 1880s glass brandy bottles next to cobalt blue Bromo Seltzer bottles in the crawl space, hidden windows behind the choir loft, and even an old wood-burning stove under the floor.
The original church had an open steeple, which Conaway and Ross painstakingly restored in 2015. Most likely some time between 1912 and 1915, the church added slats to the open steeple to keep rain out of the bell tower, but the slats made the space a perfect home for bats. When Conaway went up to start removing the steeple slats, three bats just three feet away from him slept through his hammering.
Through the decades, they left lots of bat guano there. Conaway removed 30 heavy bags of bat guano (perhaps 700 pounds in all) from the steeple! The bats have now resettled in the renovated steeple, but in a much smaller space above the new bell. They eat lots of insects, including mosquitos, so they are handy to have in the neighborhood.
As part of their dedication to a true historic renovation, Conaway and Ross found an old bell for the steeple. The bell was made in the 1870s and used to ring at a church in Illinois.
With a high, heavy bell, the rope was so hard to pull that Ross applied her sailing skills. She and Conaway set up a series of pulleys to make it a little easier to pull the rope and ring the bell. You might hear it ringing through the neighborhood from time to time. Neighborhood kids are invited over to ring the bell on their birthdays – one ring for each year they have lived. But over the age of 20, people only get one ring for each decade!
Building community is important to both Cory Ross and Greg Conaway. In terms of “animal community,” their garden has become an official Pollinator Garden. In terms of “human community,” in addition to the delights of neighborhood bell ringing, they hold occasional house concerts in their historic home (which has excellent acoustics). The lovingly renovated church-to-home is beautiful both outside and inside, a historic treasure for our town.
8th Street has simple, historic homes built in the early 1900s, lovely gardens, and several dramatic trees. It’s on the eastern edge of the Railroad Addition Historic District.
Early Ashland was Very Small
Before 1883, the city of Ashland was very small. Heading northwest from the plaza, the town extended only a few blocks to either side of Main Street as far as Wimer Street. Heading southeast on Main Street from the plaza, it became farmland after only two blocks.
Adding the first Railroad Addition building plots in late 1883 was a major increase in the size of the town. Town leaders saw the need for this when construction of the railroad south from Portland was nearly finished. The second section of the Railroad Addition, up to 8th Street, was added in 1888, after the railroad tracks connecting Oregon and California were completed.
Impact of the Railroad
Due to Ashland’s site at the base of the long Siskiyou Mountain range, Southern Pacific Railroad made Ashland both a train stop and a maintenance yard. According to the Ashland Tidings of January 4, 1889: “Ashland is the eating station for all passenger trains and a thirty minute stop is made here by every train.” Dozens of new railroad workers chose to build, buy or rent homes in the Railroad District near the train station. Mostly due to the coming of the railroad, Ashland’s population more than doubled between 1880 and 1890, from 842 to 1,784.
Now Let’s Walk 8thStreet
Let’s walk 8th Street now. We will start at the Rogue Valley Roasting Company at the corner of 8th and East Main Streets, then head north towards A Street.
The first house on the right is 92 8th Street. It was built as a rental house about 1909 for Mrs. Lou Reader, the wife of a prominent Ashland doctor.
In 1930, John and Callie Winters purchased this house. They owned the grocery store right next door at the corner of 8th and East Main Streets, so they didn’t have far to go from home to work! This corner store was later Johnson’s East Main Market, owned by Swede Johnson. Many current Ashland residents remember stopping by Swede’s store as children on their way home from Lincoln School or the Junior High School. The former small grocery is now the site of the Rogue Valley Roasting Company business.
Garden of the Month
Across C Street on your right, you will come to Ashland Garden Club’s September 2019 Garden of the Month.
Ruth Sloan of the Garden Club wrote: “By September, most gardens are starting to fade, at least, and some are downright shabby. But not Kelly and Jeff Straub’s gorgeous place at 110 8th Street. Kelly’s diligent work shows to good advantage all year. She keeps the planting areas well groomed, and always a delight to see with blooming plants.”
Ruth Sloan continued: “A special quality of this property is that the “parking strip” (the area between the sidewalk and the street) is especially wide, making the sidewalk appear to go right through the heart of the front and side yards. This does two things: It makes the parking strip more versatile as a desirable planting space and it also makes pedestrians feel a part of the garden. Being a block from a popular coffee shop also increases foot traffic, and Kelly enjoys interacting with passersby as she works in the garden. Understandably, she gets a lot of positive feedback.”
When you take a break from admiring the garden, look at the historic house. Built in 1905, it is known as the Engwicht-McMillan house.
George Engwicht, a conductor for the Southern Pacific Railroad, built the house in 1905. He sold the house in 1908 to another railroad employee, A.A. Conger. Conger lived there only one year.
In 1909, Alexander and Eva McMillan moved from Montana to Ashland and bought this house. Mr. McMillan was born in Scotland in 1850 and came to the United States as a small child. In the early 1900s, he owned a sheep ranch in Montana. The sale of the sheep ranch gave the McMillans enough money to buy 110 8th Street and retire in Ashland. Alexander McMillan lived in the house until 1932, when he died at the age of 81. Eva McMillan continued to live here until her death in 1950.
117 8th Street
Across the street, behind a hedge and lush foliage, is a hidden historic house with a large garden. Known as the Osmer and Lila Long house, it was built around 1901. Osmer Long was a brakeman for the railroad. So far in just the first three houses on 8th Street, we already know of a railroad conductor, a brakeman and another railroad employee who have lived in these houses. Yes, this is the “Railroad District.”
130 and 132 8th Street
Built about 1904, the first owners of 130 8th Street were not railroad employees. One was a painter, the second a plumber. The architecture of this house is considered to be vernacular bungalow style.
You can see similar architecture in the house next door, built – or possibly moved to this location – in 1948.
143 8th Street
Across the street is a dramatic old American sycamore tree (or plane tree), in front of the oldest house on 8th Street. 143 8th Street was built about 1890, and its best-known owner was Caleb Porter, a conductor for Southern Pacific. The Porter family owned the house for about 50 years, until 1955.
The house has been beautifully restored at some point in recent years. I enjoy the vine being trained around the front windows into what my eyes see as a heart shape.
155 and 156 8th Street
The house at 155 8th Street was built about 1903. The builders added a few Queen Anne elements to the basic vernacular style of the time.
Elmer Harrington worked on trains at the Southern Pacific roundhouse in Ashland. He built the house at 156 8th Street in 1907, but for some reason he sold the house the very next year.
248 8th Street
I like the way this tree, garden and house complement each other. It is a large, 1990s Craftsman style house that is designed to fit into the historic neighborhood. To me, the tree feels like part of the house. Take a look and see if you see this too.
8th and B Streets Yard Art
Though this house has a B Street address, the yard art along 8th Street is too good to pass by without a smile and admiration for the creative spirit.
286 8th Street
I am impressed by the healthy wisteria vine that was planted at the base of this large tree. Wisteria vines are normally trained to grow along a roofline or a fence. I have never seen one climbing a tree like this one does.
8th Street ends at A Street and Railroad Park, where you can find a lot more history. To read about the history of the railroad in Ashland, go to this article.
Many of the homes on 8th Street are at least 100 years old and have seen the march of time bring many periods of boom and bust to the Railroad District. Architects describe most of the older homes in the Railroad District as the “vernacular” style. Vernacular might be called a non-style style. Here is a more technical definition. “Its meaning is flexible according to the situation; but in essence, ‘vernacular’ means an unaffected, unselfconscious, unaccented way of building….it is the use of architectural style without being conscious of style.. .(Gowans, 1986:41)” [from the National Register of Historic Places, Ashland Railroad Addition Historic District, 5/6/1999, Section 7, page 2]
As the homes were being built on 8th Street, a business district was also built near the intersection of A Street and 4th Street, just four blocks away. By 1890, residents of 8th Street could find nearby a grocery, a stable, restaurants, lodging houses, even saloons. I will have several articles about 4th Street coming up soon at WalkAshland.com.
If you love gardens, I would encourage you to join me as a member of the Ashland Garden Club. You can learn about the Garden Club and find the link to their membership form here at the club home page.
What is the mystery of the Peerless Hotel marbles? To find out, you have to delve into the early and more recent history of 243 4th Street in Ashland, Oregon. Now the Peerless Hotel, you can see from the sign painted on the alley side of the building that this building was once the Peerless Rooms. With fourteen small 10′ by 10′ rooms and one common bathroom, Peerless Rooms was one of several inexpensive boarding houses in the early 1900s Railroad District. Its roomers included single male railroad workers, traveling salesmen, a few single women, and local loggers looking for a monthly shower plus a comfortable bed.
When Southern Pacific shut down most passenger railway service in 1927, the Railroad District fell into a decades-long decline. So when Crissy Barnett Donovan bought the Peerless Rooms building in December 1990, it had been long vacant and was falling apart. Crissy acted as her own general contractor and undertook a huge 3-year renovation project.
She was able to save and renovate the original doors, windows and most of the interior woodwork. This was important because it allowed her to have the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and for another surprising reason I will come to in a moment.
During renovation, they had to excavate a foot below the ground-level floor to meet current code for adequate space below the floor. The only historical objects found in the excavated dirt were many glass and clay marbles, the kind kids may have played with 100 years ago. Crissy theorizes that children played with marbles on the wooden floor of the front room, and some fell through cracks.
Speaking of marbles, they reappeared in Crissy’s life a few months later. The floors were back in place, but the original tall baseboard along the walls was still missing so you could see through that empty space to the floor of the next room.
Toward the end of a workday, lost in thought, Crissy assumed she was alone in the building as she walked through the downstairs rooms. She perked up as she heard the sound of a marble rolling nearby on a wood floor. She looked down through the missing baseboard area and saw, in the next room, a large marble rolling on the floor. She thought to herself, “One of the workers must still be here,” and went through the door into the next room. No worker, no one, no marble, just an empty room. It was a mystery.
Late in the renovation process, standing in an upstairs room, she got into a heated discussion with her historical consultant. Suddenly both of them heard the loud “Crack!” just like the sound of a marble that had been thrown hard hitting the floor right next to them. Startled, they looked around…and saw nothing. The tension between them dissolved in that moment. Yet the mystery deepened.
Fast forward to May 1994. With renovation complete, Crissy held an all-day open house for members of the Ashland community to walk through all the rooms of the Peerless Hotel before the first guests arrived. During the afternoon, Crissy noticed a white-haired, elderly woman who was spending a long time in the upstairs rooms. Toward the end of the open house, the elderly woman approached Crissy privately. She said to Crissy, “Do you know you have a friend?” A bit confused by the question, Crissy responded, “I hope I have a lot of friends.”
The woman chuckled and continued, “What I mean is you have a friend here in the Peerless and her name is Amelia. She is a spirit here and she told me she is very happy with what you have done with the building.” The elderly woman went on to tell Crissy that the spirit-Amelia was a young woman with red hair who had lived in the Peerless Rooms for many years when it was a boarding house.
Hearing this, Crissy was in a bit of shock. Since she had already felt the presence of the playful spirit twice through the sight and sound of marbles, it kind of made sense. Though Crissy did tell me, “I am generally skeptical and I wouldn’t believe it if it hadn’t happened to me.” Crissy assured me (as she would assure all who are reading this) that Amelia is not a scary spirit but has only been playful in all of her appearances.
Crissy has received praise for her beautiful renovation from the Ashland Historic Commission, from the National Register of Historic Places and from many Ashland friends. But the most memorable praise for her dedication to the legacy of the Peerless Rooms building has to be the praise from a 100 year old spirit and former resident named Amelia.
(This article is based on an interview with Crissy Barnett Donovan, May 17, 2019.)
A version of this article was published in the Ashland Tidings newspaper on June 4, 2019. This WalkAshland post contains additional text and historical photos.
Were you in Ashland during the flood on January 1, 1997? Heavy snow followed by warm rain flooded the Plaza and knocked out our water treatment plant. Life was inconvenient because Ashlanders had to use Porta Potties for two weeks. But Ashland wasn’t cut off from the outside world as in 1927.
Ashland was thriving in 1927. The Lithia Springs Hotel, then the tallest building between San Francisco and Portland, had just opened on Main Street in 1925 (it’s now the Ashland Springs Hotel). The downtown Enders Department Store, where you could walk indoors from one store to the next for an entire city block, was considered a wonder. Lithia Park was eleven years old and already a tourist draw, though stormy February weather would not have been ideal for taking a stroll in the park.
Then in February 1927, heavy snow followed by hours of warm rain led to “havoc.” In Ashland, though one bridge was destroyed and several damaged, there was less damage from the flood overall than in 1997. But the word “havoc” described what happened around Ashland.
The road to Medford was impassable in 15 to 20 places. Highways over the Siskiyou Mountains and the Greensprings were covered with snow. At Jackson Hot Springs, water covered Highway 99 three feet deep when Bear Creek overflowed. O. M. Franklin and his boat rescued people who were staying in cabins at the Hot Springs.
Some of the worst damage was to the train tracks both north and south of Ashland. Southern Pacific railway workers who had been with the company as long as 25 years told the Ashland American newspaper that “the storm has rendered unprecedented damage to their line” that was “the worst in history.”
With the tracks blocked both north and south, hundreds of passengers on two (or possibly four) long passenger trains at the Ashland depot were stranded in Ashland.
Southern Pacific hired 40 to 50 men to clear and repair the tracks, but it was no easy task. In some places, huge rocks weighing hundreds of tons blocked the tracks. In others, the rushing waters had washed out the grade underneath the tracks. Dynamite was used to blast rocks free. A crane attached to a railway car lifted boulders off the tracks.
Meanwhile, what to do with all the stranded passengers? The people of Ashland rose to the occasion and entertained the visitors. Ashland did have a lot to offer. There were hotels large and small, plus restaurants in both the Railroad District and downtown. Those of a scholarly bent could visit a public library and a brand new college (Churchill Hall, home of Southern Oregon Normal School, had just been completed the year before).
Several stranded passengers were home-seekers, so they had lots of time to view local real estate. One passenger was a fruit cannery man, so he could visit local orchards and canneries. Ashland growers packed and shipped apples, peaches, pears and more all over the United States. The large fruit packing plant building on A Street next to the railroad tracks is still there (currently home of Plexis Healthcare Systems software company).
I’m not sure what the Standard Oil executive or the buyer for Skaggs-Safeway stores would have found entertaining, but the railroad company tried its best for them and all the passengers.
According to Maurice Bailey, a railroad employee for many years: “Southern Pacific installed radios in each train to provide entertainment for the stranded guests. At this time, Ashland’s depot was 3 stories high with a dining room, hotel, and offices, so Southern Pacific bedded down all the passengers free, and then hired an orchestra and put on a dance each of the 3 evenings for the benefit of the passengers.”
Food, music and dancing…what more do you need? How about toilets that don’t stink? So on a practical level, Southern Pacific bought almost all the chloride of lime in Ashland hardware stores to keep the odors down in their railway car toilets.
After three days, the tracks were finally repaired and passengers could go on their way. I wonder how many of them decided during those three days that they would come back to live in Ashland? If they were anything like current Ashland residents who have told me stories why they decided to move here, I bet a few of them did.
Anon. Ashland American newspaper articles, Feb 25, 1927 Anon. Ashland Daily Tidings newspaper articles, Feb 21 & 24, 1927 Mr. & Mrs. Maurice Bailey interviewed by student Denise Atkinson in the book History of Ashland Oregon, written by 8thgrade students at Ashland Junior High School, published 1977. Teacher: Marjorie Lininger
This story describes a creative hobo begging for dinner at an Ashland home in 1898: “An Ashland lady asked a tramp who applied for assistance why he did not work at some trade, and was indignantly informed that he was a professional man. Further questioning developed that he was an after-dinner speaker, and would like to have an opportunity to practice his profession.”
(Democratic Times, Jacksonville, March 21, 1898)
I published an article in the Ashland Tidings newspaper of April 12, 2019 telling stories of the hobos in Ashland from the late 1800s through the 1920s. For those who don’t read the Ashland Tidings, I would like to share the stories here, and include some additional photos that were not in the newspaper.
In the past ten years or so, there seems to have been an increase in the number of young people begging, or just hanging out with their dogs, in downtown Ashland. Those who curse or snarl rude comments at people walking by can make both tourists and local residents uncomfortable. If we feel overwhelmed by the young “home-free travelers” passing through town now, we would definitely not want to go back in time to the 1890s or early 1900s in Ashland.
Let’s start with some history first, and then I will explain the “where” and “why” of the window in the photo above.
175 Hobos in One Day!
Here is a quote from the Jacksonville newspaper in 1893: ” Ashland, Or., Dec. 17.–One hundred and seventy-five hobo tourists came in from the north this evening on a freight train on top of box cars. The town has refused to feed them, and there is some fear they will resort to violence, though appearing to be a peaceable set of men. All are bound for the warmer climate of California.” (Democratic Times, Jacksonville, December 22, 1893)
175 hobos in one day! In addition to bringing prosperity and “welcome guests” to Ashland, the completion of the West Coast railroad line in 1887 also brought with it “unwelcome guests.” Some of the train-hopping hobos were migrant agricultural workers who followed the harvests from Southern California to Washington and back again. Others were panhandlers and petty thieves — or for the more creative ones, “after-dinner speakers” like the man quoted in the introduction to this article.
Ashland and Medford tried many strategies to deal with the ongoing hobo problem. Hobos were run out of town. They were jailed. They were paid to work. They were forced to work. They were even fed and given a place a sleep overnight.
Were the Hobos Allergic to Work?
In 1914, the Medford police chief made these complaints about hobos who refused to work: “Every hobo in the county wants to congregate in Medford,” said Chief Hittson this morning. “They all wanted to stay in Ashland last winter when they were giving them free soup there. Now there is work on the Pacific Highway, close to that city, and what do they do but come up here.” (Medford Mail Tribune, April 8, 1914)
The Mystery of the Window
Now I am ready to clear up the “mystery of the window” in the photo for those who can’t place it.
The coming of the railroad to Ashland in the 1880s caused a boom in the local economy and population. Many people built homes and began businesses near the railroad depot on A Street. Thus the Railroad District became a second thriving neighborhood in Ashland, in addition to the Plaza/downtown area where the town began.
Several devastating fires in the Railroad District caused the City Council to authorize construction of a second fire station on 4th Street just to serve this part of town. With horse drawn fire wagons, it served the area until gasoline powered fire trucks made a second fire station unnecessary.
Ashland’s second fire station at 264 4th Street was constructed in 1908 of hollow concrete block. With many single men in the Railroad District — who tended to get into trouble – and with the constant influx of hobos hopping off trains at the Ashland depot, a jail cell was added in the back of the new fire station.
The “mystery photo” shows the jail cell window. You can see it on the alley side of the building, which now houses Revive, an eclectic collection of “revived” furniture and home decor.
According to newspapers of the early 1900s, hobos grabbed clothes drying outside on clotheslines, snatched chickens from chicken coops, and generally caused a nuisance begging for food door to door. This is where the 4th Street fire station/jail came into play, but not how you might think.
This 1914 newspaper article, which calls the hobos “transient unemployed,” explains it well. “The city police department have cared for 480 transient unemployed from December thirteenth to January first and 349 from January first to the twentieth. The Fourth street fire station is used for the place of shelter and most of them come in during the night, showing up after the arrival in the yards of freight trains. They are fed on soup and bread about midnight and are started out of town in the morning in squads. Sometimes a breakfast on coffee and sandwiches is needed for those that get in after the main meal. The food is secured from the restaurant nearby and the price paid for it in bulk is very reasonable. The program is satisfactory to the unemployed and kept them from soliciting about town, which would be a large sized nuisance considering the large number passing through at this season of the year when employment is impossible.”
Ashland Tidings, January 22, 1914
Two factors in the late 1920s led to a decline in Ashland’s transient hobo problem. One was Southern Pacific’s decision to re-route most of its trains through Klamath Falls in 1927. The other was the convenience of auto travel. In 1929, the Ashland Daily Tidings quoted Phil Eiker, a director of the Oregon State Motor Association: “‘Weary Willie,’ the wanderlust citizen who formerly traveled in discomfort on the rods of a freight train, now stands by the roadside and begs a ride from passing motorists….” (Ashland Daily Tidings, September 17, 1929)
As the number of hobos declined, Ashlanders were happy to have fewer incidents like this one: “Some of [the tramps] thought to demolish Tom Roberts’ saloon at Ashland one night last week, because he refused them drink, but he made it very lively for them, wounding two or three of them with his pistol.” (Democratic Times, Jacksonville, December 8, 1893)
The Railroad District grew and thrived because of the railroad, and the Railroad District struggled and suffered because of the railroad. Let’s start with the Railroad Park, and then in future stories we’ll go on to A Street, B Street, 1stStreet, 2nd Street and more.
See below for stories and photos about:
The first train to arrive in Ashland
The “Golden Spike” of Ashland
Who was the “Apple Cider Man?”
What did kids sell to train passengers to make spending money?
Huge hotel and dining room at the depot, and what is left of it
Why are those mysterious blocks of concrete in Railroad Park?
Railroad Park signRailroad Park memorializes the history of this part of town. Before airplanes and airports, before automobiles and interstate highways, there were railroads and railway stations.
Huge Impact of the Railroad in America
How did Americans get around before the railroads? They walked. Or if they were fortunate, they rode in a simple or fancy cart of some kind pulled by horses or oxen over dirt roads. Whether it was simple or fancy, it was slow – and uncomfortably bumpy – and either dusty or muddy (take your pick).
According to the Northwest Railway Museum site, “The journey west ~ 2,400 miles and 4-8 months ~ was reduced to a mere week or two following the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.” Imagine living at the time when this huge cultural change was happening.
There was fierce competition among cities and towns across the country for a railway stop, because towns thrived when they were awarded a station as the tracks were laid.
First Train in Ashland
That is why May 4, 1884 was such an important day for the small town of Ashland, Oregon. That is the day the first train arrived in Ashland, coming in from Portland. At this time, tracks had not yet been built across the Siskiyou Mountains.
First train to arrive in Ashland (from Portland) on May 4, 1884 (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby) NOTE added September 2020: Scott Hartley contacted me because he has a beat up copy of this photo with the names of the three men written on the back. On the back of his photo it says: “Engineer D. McCarthy, Fireman James Porter, and Herber McCarthy sitting on running board of engine. About 1884”
With the arrival of the railroad came the arrival of the Railroad District. It is no coincidence that the early homes in the Railroad District were built in the years 1884 to 1888.
From 1884 to 1887, as Southern Pacific slowly built tracks across the Siskiyou Mountain range, stagecoaches continued to cross the mountains and link Ashland with Northern California for West Coast travelers. The last stagecoach carrying train passengers from Ashland to Northern California crossed the Siskiyou range on December 16 or 17, 1887.
Photo of the last stagecoach carrying train passengers from Ashland to Northern California, in the last day before the first train arrived in Ashland from the south (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby)
The Golden Spike in Ashland
The Railroad District got an even bigger boost when California and Oregon were linked by rail on December 17, 1887. Here is the plaque in Railroad Park commemorating that event.
Railroad Park, taken from the Golden Spike marker
The driving of the “Golden Spike” by Southern Pacific executive Charles Crocker brought brief national attention to Ashland, because that day marked the completion of railroad tracks around the perimeter of the continental United States.
More important to the economy and growth of Ashland, the town was now a meal stop on the busy rail service linking San Francisco and Portland. For years, up to four trains a day stopped in Ashland. In addition, Ashland was a good spot for Southern Pacific to locate many of its crew.
“75 company men made their homes here” in the early 20th century, wrote Marjorie O’Hara in Ashland: the first 130 years. I bet you can guess where most of these men lived with their families…yes, in the Railroad District. That was a lot of money flowing into the local Ashland economy.
The Apple Cider Man
Ashland Southern Pacific depot – William Powell with his apple cider cart, early 1900s (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby)
Historic photos show bustling scenes filled with travelers and peddlers around the railroad depot. William Powell was one of the most successful Ashlanders at serving the stream of train passengers. He lived at 462 A Street with an apple orchard on his property behind the house. You can still see his apple trees (or descendants of his trees) from the Peerless Hotel parking area in the alley just behind the Peerless.
William Powell had a cider press along the alley just off 2ndStreet and a confectionary shop at the corner of A Street and 4thStreet. For many years, he and his apple cider cart were a fixture near the railroad depot.
Entrepreneurial Ashland Youngsters
Old photos also show Ashland youngsters peddling locally grown fruit to the train passengers. Here is the first person story of Ashlander Albert Meyers describing his days as an entrepreneurial youngster.
Interviewed in 1978*, he stated that he moved to Ashland with his family in 1919. Talking about local fruit, he said: “My brother and I also had a lot of cherries at our old house and we used to bring them in little paper boxes and sell those to the people for 5 cents.”
Ashland Southern Pacific depot – Kids selling fruit at depot, early 1900s (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby)
But he and his brother sold a lot more than just fruit. Albert talked about their creative way to make money from the free Lithia Water. At the time, train passengers could sample Lithia water from a fountain located at A Street and 4thStreet. The fountain was enclosed within a gazebo similar to the one currently in Lithia Park near the band shell.
Albert Meyers: “My brother and I had a job delivering newspapers. We delivered down at the train station too. That was where all the activity was. Everything happened at the train station. Whenever a train came in, all the passengers would get off and drink some Lithia water, either liking it very much or not liking it at all.”
“My brother and I had a good business going. They didn’t have any cups down there and the fountain wasn’t fixed like a normal drinking fountain, so it was hard to drink from. My brother and I bought some cups from the five and dime store. Every time a train came in, we’d sell them cups for 5 cents so they could get a drink. We had a great big long board that the passengers were supposed to put their cups on when they got through drinking the water. We would set them there to dry, and then, when the next 100 to 150 people came, we would use the same cups again. We made a good amount of money in several years just using used cups.”
Ashland Southern Pacific depot – Powell’s Famous Apple Cider cart (on left) and Lithia water gazebo (on right), in front of the Ashland Depot Hotel, early 1900s (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby)
Ashland Depot Hotel
Ashland Depot Hotel, built in 1888, photo taken 1913 (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby)
The hotel, built in 1888 to serve the passengers between San Francisco and Portland, had a huge dining room to accommodate a train full of passengers eating all at once. It also provided rooms to rent and a depot for purchasing train tickets. Sadly, the hotel was torn down in 1937.
All we have left of the impressive Ashland Depot Hotel is the small, historic depot building at the corner of A Street and 5thStreet. To give you a sense of the scale of the original Ashland Depot Hotel, the surviving building (below) was originally a kitchen connected to the hotel. It is now across the street from its original location, a bit lonely without the huge hotel seen with it in the photo above.
Along with the coveted paying train passengers who would pay to eat or stay in Ashland, the railroad brought with it hordes of unwanted, non-paying train passengers – the tramps or hobos.
The havoc they caused in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was regularly described by our local papers. I will write about the hobos in another article.
What are these hunks of concrete?
Only a few concrete piers (now holding benches) remain of the dozens that used to fill this space
This small area of Railroad Park was once filled with these sturdy, square concrete piers. Most were removed when the park was created, but a few were left as bench supports and for historical interest. The photo below gives a hint of their original purpose.
Aerial view of Southern Pacific depot with water towers circled, 1940s (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby)
The numerous concrete piers served as the base for two large water towers built next to the tracks. These water towers served the Southern Pacific trains, as did the maintenance sheds and the huge engine turntable that can be seen in the photos above and below.
Ashland Southern Pacific depot – Roundhouse and turntable, early 1900s (photo courtesy of Terry Skibby)
The “Glory Days” are Gone
Those glory days for the Railroad District took a beating when Southern Pacific re-routed most railroad traffic away from Ashland over to Klamath Falls in 1927. The railway across the Siskiyou Pass was always very steep, slow and dangerous.
When Southern Pacific built a faster, safer route that bypassed Ashland, the Railroad District fell into decline. First, Ashland lost trains full of passengers stopping to stretch their legs and have a bite to eat – or to stay for a few days. Second, Southern Pacific relocated most of their crew members who lived in Ashland to other cities, so the economy and liveliness of the Railroad District took a beating with that loss as well.
Limited passenger service continued until 1955, when passenger trains to Ashland were discontinued. Since then, many have dreamed of reviving passenger train service, but so far it’s just a dream.
As we know, the Railroad District has bounced back big-time in the last 20 years, but that is another story for another day.
You might still hear a train whistle, and see the train come through Ashland once a day with some lumber or empty train cars. I happened to be at the Railroad Park one Friday morning with Terry Skibby when this Central Oregon Pacific train rolled by.
Enjoy your walking in Ashland, and sign up for the email list if you haven’t already done so.
To learn more of the fascinating history of Ashland's early years, and the Railroad District in particular, come to Railroad Park at 10:00 am on Friday mornings during the summer for a 1 1/2 hour Terry Skibby walking tour of the area.
Walking tours have not started yet for 2019.
My thanks to Terry Skibby for historical information and historical photos, the book Ashland: the first 130 years by Marjorie O’Hara, the book As It Was by Carol Barrett and the Ashland Public Library.
*The interview with Albert Meyers was conducted by 8th grade student Laura Howser, and printed in the 1978 book A Bit of Old Ashland, page 67. This book and other Ashland history books are available at the Ashland Public Library.
Photos not otherwise credited are by Peter Finkle. The Southern Oregon Historical Society is a great resource. (1) If you like history, SOHS can always use volunteers to help with research, digitizing and transcribing. Learn about SOHS here. (2) Second, I encourage you to join SOHS as a member to support their work. The JOIN link is here.