Historians say well, well, well

Jerry Elfendahl examines the uncovered well opening on the border of Pritchard Park and the Wyckoff superfund site.  - Sean Roach/Staff Photo
Jerry Elfendahl examines the uncovered well opening on the border of Pritchard Park and the Wyckoff superfund site.
— image credit: Sean Roach/Staff Photo

A ‘forgotten’ building turns up at Pritchard Park.

It took a stroll in the park to jog historian Jerry Elfendahl’s memory about an obscure concrete bunker on the border of Pritchard Park and the Wyckoff superfund site.

“We had a walk through with the (park) advisory committee recently and this thing was observed,” Elfendahl said. “And I remembered this building. I was documenting these buildings when the (Environmental Protection Agency) started tearing them down, but this one was overgrown and inaccessible.”

The concrete structure would hardly be considered eye candy. Almost reclaimed by ivy and blackberries, it is little more than a two concrete rectangles placed on top of each other and set into the hillside.

However, this small building, and the open well below it, is the last remaining original structure from the Wyckoff creosote facility, most likely dating back to the early 1900s when the wood treatment plant was first built.

Its history and purpose is a mystery, and poses questions about the presence of an open well in a public area.

Elfendahl first noticed the structure back in the 1990s when he and other community members were scurrying to save historical buildings on the site from destruction.

“The EPA was tearing this place apart as fast as they could,” Elfendahl said. “We wanted to save the historic resources. The only way to get the destruction stopped was to make a historical record.”

The group took five months to gather as much information as they could on the significance of the creosoting plant to American engineering. Elfendahl compiled their findings onto a video and sent it to the National Park Service, hoping they would help in documenting the remains of the creosoting plant.

The NPS agreed that the site was a good candidate for a Historic American Engineering Record, a heritage documentation program established in 1969 by the NPS, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Library of Congress. The program documents historic sites and structures related to engineering and industry.

Federal historians descended on Bainbridge and completed the HAER in December 1996, archiving less than a third of the original buildings that had once existed at the plant.

One of the biggest questions may be why this concrete structure, and the open well beneath it, was never mentioned, documented or even destroyed in the years of research and cleanup of the Wyckoff creosote plant.

“When parks got involved I thought, I don’t have to document this, they will,” Elfendahl said. “When we found this thing on the trail the other day I went back to the report and it wasn’t listed, it wasn’t documented. No one ever bothered to do it.”

Returning this weekend with the tools necessary to assess the structure, Elfendahl and two partners spent an hour ripping out the vegetative cocoon that had hampered previous documentation efforts.

Their cleanup revealed pipes, valves and two large openings to a lower chamber filled nearly 12 feet deep with water.

The discovery of open wells were alarming to Elfendahl, since the building is highly visible and situated less than 10 feet from a Pritchard Park trail that skirts the EPA’s cordoning fence.

This week, it was unknown if the city or the EPA are aware of the well.

Blueprints obtained from the Library of Congress show that the concrete structure was acknowledged and documented once - on a 1939 map drawn by the General Appraisal Company for the Pacific Creosoting Company.

That map designated the concrete structure as a well that pumped fresh water to an undistinguished location inside the skeletal outlines of the old creosote plant.

However, HAER mapping and analysis documents do not mention the well, or it’s purpose at the facility. Natural inquisitiveness has led Elfendahl on a hunt to find what the building was and why it was spared from destruction.

“I talked to the oldest employee I could find who worked here. He said, ‘this thing pre-dates me, you know, maybe my dad knew about it, but I don’t know about it,’” Elfendahl said.

“It’s a substantial find, a 16-foot- high concrete structure visible from the trail, with open wells,” Elfendahl continued. “I’m not the one to ask them, but it does raise a few questions.”

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