History Under Eugene’s Streets

There’s a rich and rocky story beneath Willamette Street. Historical streetcar tracks and basalt paving stones exposed during repaving delayed heavy construction for a week and a half while the city sought an archaeological excavation permit to remove them, and the incident has city staff thinking about a new approach to digging up Eugene’s buried tracks. Eugene’s transportation history includes both electric and horse-drawn trolleys, which ran until 1927.

Andrew Fisher, president of the Historic Review Board and a Friendly Neighborhood resident, says he’s looking for more communication about historic preservation with the neighborhood and the review board. “On most typical road projects, this probably wouldn’t be an issue, but Willamette is arguably the most historically significant street in Eugene, and it merits thoughtful consideration and a careful process,” he says. “We can’t rely on passersby to alert us to historic discoveries, and it’s not the job of the work crew to identify and recognize them.”

In the past, the city hasn’t been required to obtain permits, says Doug Singer, who took over as project manager in the construction phase. As the buried railways age, that’s changing. “From what we understand from talking to the archaeologist, the rail is becoming, in some areas of town, 75 to 100 years old,” he says. “Now it’s becoming considered historically significant.”

Singer says the city will come up with a plan to display the stone and rail it unearthed, preferably near Willamette Street. In the near future, he says, city staff will develop a program or policies and procedures to prevent similar delays, including researching the age of tracks prior to construction.

Review board member and archaeological preservation consultant Sara Palmer says that historical preservation has well-established environmental and economic worth. Public transportation and its history are important to the story of early Eugene, and the tracks are important to the story of Eugene’s early black population — the first documented African-American Eugenean, Wiley Griffon, was a horse-drawn trolley operator. “It continues to be something that is really captivating for people,” she says. “To have the physical remains of those histories stick around, you do have to make sure that you preserve them.”

Palmer says she hopes the city can use the Willamette Street incident as a learning experience. “There’s a real need to be more proactive about saying that one of our community values is that we’re not going to just knock stuff down,” she says. “They certainly knew that the streetcar tracks were there, and they knew they were historic, and the city wrote demolition of them, apparently, into the construction contract, which is unfortunate because they really are important part of Eugene’s story, they’re an important part of our city’s history and an important part of African-American history.”