There is coal in Polk County.

At least three times, mines have been planned or opened. But one doesn’t hear much of them today because they didn’t play out.

The first attempt to find a bonanza in Polk County’s soil came in January, 1854 when Horatio Nelson Viscount Holmes and six of his neighbors approached the Territorial Legislature. Holmes had discovered coal deposits on his homestead — at what now is known as Holmes Gap, five miles North of Dixie (now Rickreall) where Highway 99W today crosses the Willamette & Pacific Railroad track.

Holmes said he found coal deposits on his land. The neighbors owned land over which the proposed railroad would be built between Holmes’ property and the nascent community of Cincinnati (now Eola). Eola claimed to be the head of navigation on the Willamette River. So did every town between Champoeg and Eugene City. It depended upon how high the river was at the time and how skillful the steamboat captain was at avoiding gravel bars in the undredged river.

Eola also thought it might be the state capitol, but it did not. However, the town was incorporated and 20 years ago the Polk County Circuit Court held that it still is a legal, incorporated town, even thought it has not functioned as such in at least 150 years.)

They got the Legislature to charter the Cincinnati Railroad Co. to construct a railroad between Cincinnati and “the stone coal bank, lately discovered on the H. N. V. Holmes land claim.” From Cincinnati the coal would be floated to Oregon City where it could be transported to waiting ocean steamers that needed something to fire their boilers.

Cincinnati was incorporated but the railroad was never built and the coal mine was never opened. The coal apparently was found to be too poor in quality to succeed in the market.

Holmes was not a failure in all things. He made a great name for himself. He found a fossilized bone 7 feet long and 21 inches in circumference while digging for water near Salt Creek. He was a member of the Territorial House of Representatives and led the futile attempt to reenact the accidentally-repealed Oregon statute that forbade Negroes – free or slave – in Oregon Territory.

At least two coal mines actually operated in the area near the Holmes claim. Ernest Solle, one-time Polk County Dog Control officer, told me in the 1960s that neighbors to the west of his home near the intersection of Bethel Heights Road and Eola Hills Road had an operating coal mine in the 1920s. Gary Buyserie, who lived on the old Holmes claim, told me that when he was a youngster old-timers talked about wagon loads of coal brought from an undetermined location west of Holmes Gap.

The state Geologist’s office at Salem says there are no known deposits of coal in Polk County. The nearest operating coal mine was in operation from 1903 to 1907 five miles north of the town of Yamhill.

Geologists say that the tertiary sedimentary rock that lies beneath much of Polk County can produce small pockets of low-grade coal. But not deposits of any real value.

Traces of oil and natural gas have been found in three places in Polk County:

A well on the Cass Riggs property north of Rickreall that produced household quantities of gas.

Another small gas deposit 1 ¾ miles north of Dolph’s Corner.

A minor oil seep into a pond two miles southeast of Falls City on the Camp Kilowan Road.

Around 1970 several exploratory oil wells were drilled in the county. Findings were kept confidential. But pumps were never installed.

The Salem Capital Journal in October 1891 reported “wonderful developments” from newly-discovered iron fields on the Townsend farm near Lincoln. Tests showed soft crystal ore that tested 70 to 90% pure iron. The newspaper commented that with coal deposits being developed east of Salem, the state capitol very well might wind up a “great center of the iron industry.” No further comment is found on either the iron or coal adventures.

However, hope burns eternal. And people keep looking.

This Back to the Past article is sponsored by Some Things.

Some Things is located at:

745 Main St., Dallas


Tue-Sat | 10:30am-5:30pm

Information in this article is from the Library of the Polk County Historical Society.

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