Through the warm summer months that breeze quickly through the Willamette Valley college town, there is so much to do. With over 20,000 of its year-round residents back at home without the ache of school weighing over their heads, the local Corvallis residents get a chance to explore the history and charm that come out during those three short months. Farmers markets, baseball games, floating the Willamette River, hiking Bald Hill, and watching sunsets from Mary’s Peak, are just some of the many fun summer activities to do with friends and family.
During my time spent here for a Corvallis summer, my boyfriend and I got into a Saturday morning habit of driving downtown, trying a different local coffee shop in search for the perfect iced caramel macchiato, and walking down to the farmer’s market to see what local tasty treats awaited us. One specific Saturday in the middle of July felt truly special, like there was something different in the air, maybe something different driving down the street? While walking back up Monroe street to find our car, we turned right on 4thstreet and I was immediately mesmerized. There, in front of the Benton County Courthouse, was a bright green antique trolley car, complete with wood sidings and all the bells and whistles, literally. My curiosity was immediately sparked and I needed to know more. As we walked closer I overhead someone on the trolley welcoming everyone on to the “Historic Trolley Tour” where they would be driving around Corvallis learning about the city’s most historical buildings and homes. Known as the “Chicken Tour” to Christie Weigel, the Visitor Services Director at Visit Corvallis, her favorite part of the tour is seeing all the old poultry buildings and what they have become today.
The city itself, has so much dense history that many visitors do not know about. For example, the city of Corvallis can be dated back more than 10,000 years ago when the ancient ice dams near Missoula, Montana collapsed and released enormous flood waters. When the floods finally reached the coastal range, years of water and earth debris settling had gone by, and the rich soil of the Willamette Valley floor was beginning to form. When the water eventually receded, the Willamette River was formed.
Ages later in the early 1900’s when concrete was first being used to replace wood and brick as a failing road infrastructure, the sidewalk industry was booming. In Corvallis, as contractors were being employed to lay the new sidewalks, the hardworking men would stamp their signature and date when they were done to show off their block of the city. Over 150 stamps have been recorded in the city, and all have been dubbed as historical landmarks.
Corvallis’s founding dates back 1845 when J.C. Avery claimed land in what is now the south side of downtown Corvallis. It was there, along the Mary and Willamette Rivers, where Avery built the first home in Corvallis. This included12 acres around his home, meant for some of the first town lots. The very next year, William F. Dixon claimed land just to the north of Avery’s, staying along the fruitful Willamette river. These are just some of the meaningful historical landmarks that make Corvallis the city it is today, and it’s important that we recognize and learn where the city started and how it became home to the best college town in the PAC-12.
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The Historic Trolley Tours put on every summer by Preservation WORKS, Visit Corvallis, and the Benton County Cultural Coalition, aims to educate locals and tourists about the rich historic neighborhoods and architectural landmarks that live within our city.
The trolley tours have been in operation since 2007, when heavy advertising was used to attract people near and far to come see this beloved city in a whole new way. Today, Weigel says that absolutely no advertising is needed, and almost every tour fills up immediately at the beginning of the summer. With this hot commodity as a new summer activity gaining more and more popularity, the people behind the Historic Trolley Tour needed to come up with new material to keep people interested. As part of Corvallis’s sesquicentennial celebration, a second version of the trolley tour was developed. This version, “The Chicken Tour” that Weigel was joking about, focuses on the old poultry department at Oregon State University and in the city of Corvallis. One of the stops seen on the tour are the Poultry and Incubator Buildings located at 800 SW Washington Avenue. Described in the booklet that is handed to guests upon stepping onto the trolley, the Incubator House was built in 1907 as the poultry departments first building, specifically made for Professor James Dryden. Originally home to the Horticulture and Photography majors, the Poultry Building was moved in 1911, and then moved again to sit next to the Incubator House. Even after being moved five times, the Poultry Building still retains its original glass windows, and the Incubator House retains its exterior venting tubes, roof ornaments, and massive brackets after three moves.
Sitting down with Weigel, I was able to learn more about her experience with the trolleys, who her favorite tour guides are, and which stop is her favorite. In regards to tour guides, she said, “Each guide brings their own sense of passion, and they all put their own spin on the script we give them. It’s especially fun to hear all the scuttlebutt each guide has on all the stops along the way.” Picking just one tour guide to be Weigel’s favorite seemed too hard of a task as there was a long pause and much hesitation when it came to answering the questions. Not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings she decided to instead compliment each of the guides and praise them for their dedication.
With over 35 homes and buildings on the tour, it is hard to pick just one as a favorite, but Weigel had a clear winner. Stop number 33 on the route, the Willamette Valley and Coast Railroad Depot located at 700 SW Washington Avenue, is her absolute favorite building throughout the tour. When I asked her what about the building made it stand out so much to her, she replied with, “It’s unique in how it’s been developed into a meeting space now and there is an executive suite almost hidden inside itself. It’s a really neat space if you ever get the chance to go inside of it because it is open to the public.” This building was erected in 1885 and still has many of the original architectural elements today. The Depot was built with hopes that Corvallis would be a popular railway stop, encouraging boats to anchor at Yaquina Bay just west of Corvallis, instead of Portland because of it’s more southern location. However, after the railroad was already built, it was realized that Yaquina Bay is not deep enough to house the large ocean vessels that would eventually be docking at the Bay. The railroad still stands and is still in operation today, but was never used for its original intent.
Weigel then explained to me that some of the homeowners might not even know that their historic home is being recognized in this manner. The trolley tours do not stop outside the homes and allow people to go inside because of liability issues, however they will slow down, usually hold up traffic for a minute or two, in order to allow trolley-goers to look at the architecture and take pictures if they wanted. Some homeowners have picked up on this information, after many summers of watching an antique trolley cruise slowly by their houses, but some are still unaware.
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Being in a city full of so much historical information, it can often feel like many people are trying to live in the past and remember the good things about what started it all. People might see all this historical preservation as trying to hold on to the founding’s of the city, and remember the people who built this from nothing. But I believe there is a difference between living in the past, and educating yourself on those who came before you. People should know the story of how Corvallis was founded and they should know who J.C. Avery and William F. Dixon are. Avery and Dixon are names that are thrown around this town left and right, but does anyone ever ask who they were or how they started everything surrounding us?
The next time I am driving down Jefferson street, and see all the enormous and beautiful trees cascading their shadows down upon me, I will look up and know that Oregon Agricultural College professors, neighbors, and friends, planted those London Plane Trees in 1910 with the goal of being the “best treed street in the city.” Over 100 years later, I am sure they would love to know that their trees still stand tall today, in memorial of everyone who took the time to make Corvallis a beautiful place to live. Without the addition of these trolley tours, and taking a deep dive into the past that Corvallis has built for itself, residents and visitors alike may take our small town for granted. The trolley is bringing the history of our town back to life by giving guests a first-hand experience at picturing what this town first looked like many ages ago. “I just think the whole experience of being on the trolley itself, makes it a special adventure that is unique to Corvallis and helps bring alive the copious amounts of history tucked away in this little town.”