The land has seen age, sweat and hard labor.
Surrounded by nearby Gold Street and the busy BNSF rail line, infrastructure from the Agnew Mill ponds in Centralia is seeing sunlight for the first time in years.
Bricks, sheets of rusted metal, chains and winches of a bygone era litter the fresh-turned topsoil.
Pressed in a small divot lies what Centralia engineer Patty Page characterizes as her “favorite piece of artwork.” A large concrete cast block, perhaps weighing multiple tons, encases large piles of used metal materials mixed with rock.
If there existed a room large enough, it wouldn’t look too out of place as a piece at the Seattle Art Museum.
“They didn’t have recycling centers back then, so they just buried it and I think they poured concrete on top of it,” said Kim Ashmore, City of Centralia public works director.
The site is that of the China Creek Flood and Habitat Protection project. The $2.91 million Phase 2 project is expected to bring more flood relief to downtown Centralia and enhance fish habitats when it’s completed later this year.
When the city first started plans on the project, city officials knew of three structures that existed on the 46-acre plot. Today, about three months into the site work and with dozens of acres deforested, they’ve found remnants and foundations of at least 20 buildings.
It’s a reminder of Centralia’s bygone boom years and of the powerhouse economy that timber harvesting used to provide in Lewis County. The city plans on leaving most of the historic remnants on the grounds, and plans are in the works to build a trail for visitors to use around the area.
With flood basins formed out of the land and a concrete flow control structure formed, Ashmore said contractors are mostly finished excavating.
But the finds keep coming.
Project contractors also found multiple timber beams used possibly as log bumps that were harvested in the 1890s, as well as a 2,000-gallon riveted oil tank that dates back to the 1920s.
A structure the city knew about prior to getting boots on ground was the Third Street access concrete tunnel. For decades, the walkway tunnel was used by workers to go back and forth between the Agnew Mill and Centralia’s downtown area — without jumping train tracks.
While the Third Street access is barely visible today, this one near the Agnew ponds remains in decent condition, save for the tons of garbage, dirt and muck that have clogged the walkway and made it inaccessible.
Former Centralia Mayor Lee Coumbs, present for Friday’s tour of the site, said the mill back in its prime operated on 12-hour shifts, with each laborer working six days a week. Back then, the mill whistle was a regular timekeeper marking the hours of the shifts.
“I’d like to get an old steam mill put back in here,” Coumbs said, walking along Gold Street. “I don’t think it’s a reality, but at least we could bring the whistle back.”
Ashmore said while the foundations, piled with bricks and dirt, might not get any substantial upkeep, it’d be great to see the Third Street access tunnel come back to life.
“I’d love to see how we could make that happen, where we could fence it off and when people want to come to town and want to know the history of Centralia, and they want to walk the historic trail here and learn about the mill, they could actually walk underneath here,” he said.
The mill originally began operation in 1897, Ashmore and Page said. According to previous Chronicle reporting, the site housed part of the Eastern Railway and Lumber Company, which reigned as one of the biggest commercial operations in Lewis County for nearly 40 years until a 1937 fire.
Samuel Alexander Agnew and his Agnew Lumber Company took control of the mill in the mid-20th century. Agnew was lauded as a “baron of the Washington lumber economy,” according to previous Chronicle reports, and he employed nearly 400 people from 1941 until the mill closed in 1959. He retained thousands of acres of logging land in the state, too.
Ashmore said it’s hard to say whether or not operators of the mill were good stewards of their environment.
“I would probably say no. I mean, think about environmental regulations today versus 100 years ago — there were no environmental regulations,” Ashmore said, guiding the tour near the train tracks.
While China Creek largely remains dry during the summer months, it still serves as a pathway for fish during the wet months. The creek feeds under downtown and into the Chehalis River, which hosts runs of steelhead, Chinook and coho.
Page said contractors are installing six log jams within the 7,000 feet of creek between the first pond and the large concrete basin that serves as the flood control area. These jams — made of fallen trees — will provide proper shading for migrating fish “mostly at every major turn of the channel” and prevent erosion during the wet months.
Large sections of the land have been excavated out into a proper channel. Though it seems bare now, 70,000 plants and shrubs from about 30 or so species will be planted to prevent erosion and flooding.
Ashmore said workers are utilizing the land and existing habitat to benefit the landscape and, downstream, downtown businesses and homes.
“Nothing’s going to waste on this project. We’ve fell a bunch of trees, and there were people concerned that we were taking too many trees and that you’re really opening it up, but a lot of these trees are used in the structure itself,” Ashmore said.
The city is also installing one 10-foot diameter fish culvert at the top pond. About 10 acres or so of a flood buffer basin was opened up in the middle of the project with excavating.
The Centralia City Council originally approved the contract for the $2.91 million project back in April, with $2.3 million of the project being covered by the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority. Ashmore said they’re about $600,000 short, but they plan on covering that with a streamflow grant from the state Department of Ecology, looking at possibly using American Rescue Plan Act dollars or using 2022 funds in the Office of Chehalis Basin.
Mayor Max Vogt called the project “very impressive, extensive and pretty high tech for land engineering,” in a Monday phone call.
“I consider it a great accomplishment for our city,” he said. “It’s a great example of how government can work well for the people when it needs to.”
Phase 1 of the China Creek project, which focused on land upstream along Little Hanaford Road, proved successful this year in mitigating disastrous flooding on the creek, Vogt said, so they’re excited about the continued efforts.
The city is considering a third China Creek project on Roswell Road.