Parks Gone Wild


"Listen closely, for I have a story to tell," the creaking voice of the lone teeter-totter seemed to say as Sharla and McKenzie Vallee rocked up and down on the forgotten playground toy Monday afternoon.

The weeds at McFadden Park had grown waist high, and they mingled with blackberry brambles. The mother and daughter from Napavine drifted in a sea of wheat-colored grass while Sharla, 49, listened to the voice of the teeter-totter and told her own tales of playing as a child in this now-abandoned Chehalis park.

"It seems like every time I was up here, we saw deer," the woman told her 10-year-old daughter. "It was wild, and so cool."

When Sharla was a child, her parents would drive from their home on Tower Avenue in Centralia to the hilltop park with its view of Chehalis and Coal Creek. The children, Bob, Larry, Cheryl and Sharla, would play on the toys and explore the network of trails winding through McFadden's upper 18 acres.

"Don't you take your bikes up there," Sharla remembers her mother saying when the kids would all head for Devil's Slide, a set of steep switch-backs that were part of the trails at neighboring John Dobson Park. "But my brothers would always take their bikes up there."

City records tell another story about McFadden Park: It's not the only abandoned park in town. Chehalis, it turns out, owns more wild parks than does any other city in Lewis County.

To balance that, however, Chehalis also has some of the most active community volunteers around — individuals, neighborhoods and associations that have kept more than one Chehalis park from fading into oblivion.

All it takes is a will, and often cities will find a way, said Andy Sennes, properties division manager for the city's parks department.

Alexander Park

Recent activity at the city's Alexander Park, 5½ acres of land within a bend of the Chehalis River, is an example of what citizen interest can do.

The Chehalis Foundation, a nonprofit organization of local citizens, has taken the wild park in hand. Volunteer work began in earnest at the riverside park this spring, and by now most of the clean up is nearing completion, project manager Connie Small said.

Alexander Park, donated to the city in 1906, has been closed since 1988. Vandalism and flood damage made the park a burden to Chehalis' parks department. In the first half of the century, however, the park was a hub of activity, with its two covered kitchens, six picnic sites with fireplaces, horseshoe pits, play equipment, swimming beach, wading pool, bath houses and concession stands.

The Chehalis Foundation plans to replace the fence, renovate one of the old buildings, install bathrooms and clean the place up, Small said.

"We want to keep as much of the park natural as we can, down along the river," Small said.

The "ultimate" plan, she said, is to have a ·-mile asphalt track, a sports court with basketball hoops, horse shoe pits and volleyball. Parking will be for 40 to 50 vehicles.

And once the city reopens the park, the foundation won't just abandon the project.

"We will set up a fund for maintenance, so it doesn't become a burden for the city," Small said.

McFadden Park

McFadden, 28 acres on the hilltop above Chehalis, was closed nearly 15 year ago when city leaders decided it was too costly to keep making repairs every time damage was done by vandals.

A 1973 article in The Chronicle stated the city paid thousands of dollars each year to repair damage at McFadden where vandals continued to smash picnic tables, pull siding from the covered kitchen and destroy the fireplace.

For many years, city leaders tried to keep the park open just during summer months, but even that effort ceased years ago. The city does little if any maintenance up there now, sometimes trimming back the brush and grass to prevent wildfires. And police infrequently patrol the gated entrance to the park on neighborhood sweeps, getting calls most often for underage drinking and people trespassing on the two radio towers, former Interim Chief Dennis Dawes said.

Despite the remote and wooded location, transient activity hasn't been a problem, Dawes said.

McFadden Park was established in 1912 in honor of Judge Obediah B. McFadden, a pioneer Chehalis resident and delegate to Congress from the Washington Territory more than a century ago. A memorial plaque dedicating the park to Judge McFadden stands at the top of the hill, near the old playground, gathering moss and collecting bullet holes.

"It just kind of makes me sick," Sharla Vallee said Monday as she and her daughter, McKenzie read the plaque again. "McFadden had a summer home down the hill, and myself, I think the city should move the plaque down there where people could see it."

History motivates a large part of Sharla's interest in the well-being of the old park. And history, she believes, is being lost. City leaders haven't talked about these lost parks in much detail since 1996, when the community services department took city councilors on a tour of the parks and recreation system.

The plan for McFadden and John Dobson parks are the same now as they were then. No plan.

"We're not looking at revitalizing those parks at this point," said Sennes, the city's properties division manager. "The major issues would be maintenance at the remote locations, roadway improvements and parking."

The city would also look into community interest before reopening the parks, Sennes said. And the neighbors might not want them reopened. For one thing, the residential roads on that hillside were not built to handle renewed recreational traffic, he said.

Recent logging on the hillside near McFadden Park alarmed Sharla, but Sennes said the timber removal was on private property right next to the park, not in the park. And the city has no plans presently to log in the park itself.

John Dobson Park

John Dobson Park, 26 acres of land adjoining McFadden Park on the hilltop to the west, was closed at about the same time as McFadden Park and for the same reasons.

The history of Dobson Park is not as well documented as McFadden and Alexander parks. The land was donated to Chehalis in 1905 by the Dobson family. John Dobson was one of Chehalis' first business owners in the late 1800s.

Sennes said Dobson, Alexander and McFadden were the city's primary parks once upon a time. Now Recreation Park, with its swimming pool and closer location to Interstate 5, and Stan Hedwall Park, with its ball fields, are the most used parks in town.

McFadden and Dobson parks are still remote for all that they perch just yards from some of Chehalis' higher-end housing developments and not even out of sight of downtown. The laughter of children enjoying the wilderness has been replaced by the lonely sound of the wind and the birds in the urban edge of a hilltop forest that runs eastward almost unbroken until it reaches Morton and state Route 7.

It's almost like the secluded Seminary Hill Natural Area, near downtown Centralia, but it's not looked after by any "friends of the park" group, as is Seminary Hill.

The parks department urges people to use caution if they go exploring in that area, since it is not safely maintained, but it's not illegal for citizens to enter the property at McFadden or Dobson, and many neighbors use the old roads as walking or jogging trails.

Gated entrances to the parks are at the tip-top of Park Hill Avenue, but parking is a challenge. From Park Hill, the gated entrance to the right, or southeast, leads to the old McFadden Park. The entrance to the left, or northwest, leads to the old site of Dobson Park.

Saved from the Brink

Parks are always a challenge for cities. It costs money to mow grass on hundreds of acres, to clean up from events and to repair damage caused by vandals.

This year, Chehalis parks employees are working with $900,000 for park operations and property management. But this money isn't just for the recreational parks. Parks employees are responsible for maintaining the outdoor swimming pool, the central business district in downtown, the police and fire services buildings, inside and outside the library, city hall and the rose garden.

Yet despite the odds and the hard financial facts, Chehalis has managed to hold onto a few parks over the years that threatened to go wild.

Westside Park, a fl-acre piece of land located on West Street, needed a major renovation many years ago. The city joined with neighbors and service groups to get that project done. This park was once the playground of an elementary school that was demolished after the 1949 earthquake.

Millett Field, at Chehalis Avenue and 3rd Street, floods every year and was passing out of existence when neighbors took an interest and fixed it back up. The field was once home of the Chehalis semi-pro baseball team from 1906 to 1949. It was replaced as the city's major ball field when Stan Hedwall Park was constructed in the 1970s.

And Duffy Park, located within city limits off Crestview Avenue, is a park that has completely fallen off the maps. But it is still open.

Duffy Park, 4.6 acres deeded to the city in 1902, was logged in 1993. The site was replanted by the Boy Scouts as an Eagle Scout project. The city had hoped it would become a learning forest for school districts and other organizations to use in lessons about how a forest grows.

"But it hasn't really worked out that way," said Sennes, the city's properties division manager. "It's harder and harder for schools to get transportation funding to go out for these half-hour trips on a regular basis."

No signs show the entrance to the park or mark the trail. Parks employees go out yearly to try and maintain the trail, Sennes said.

"But it's a low priority with the other challenges out there," he said.

Facing Change

Not long ago, Sharla Vallee rediscovered McFadden and Dobson parks, Chehalis' "hill-top parks," with her daughter. She was disappointed to see the wild state of the parks she remembered from childhood, but she was glad they hadn't disappeared altogether.

"It's the park I remember — all grown up," she said.

Swings, benches, picnic tables, covered kitchen and bathroom. All of these have gone, but for the solitary teeter-totter and a few benches. A tall pole that may have once born a flag stands unadorned and watches the birds, squirrels, deer and occasional cougar pass through this once-popular park.

To one side, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and Bonneville Power still maintain their two radio towers. But the valley view is blocked by tall trees on all sides now. And just down the hill, enclosed in security fences, are a couple of city water reservoirs.

The hill has nearly reclaimed the site, and the wilderness is running things up there now. The paved access roads are breaking down into gravel and dirt.

"As you get older, you don't like to see the changes that happen, but they do happen," Sharla said. "That's what this is about for us. It's about the history and how things change."

A love of local history is their common bond. And she has enjoyed sharing this personal history with McKenzie, she said.

"We like to go on these adventures," the single-mom said. "But this one really struck my heart strings."

One of the first times Sharla and McKenzie climbed the hill to visit the old parks, the daughter got ahead of her mother on one of the trails.

"Then I heard her call out, 'Mom, you gotta see this. There's a sign up here that's so cool,'" Sharla said. "She had found Devil's Slide."

Dian McClurg covers city government in Centralia and Chehalis, and health issues for The Chronicle. She may be reached at 807-8239, or by e-mail at