A Brief History
The Opal Creek Forest was first inhabited by Native Americans. Points and lithic scatter dating back at least 2,000 years have been found across the watershed. The site that is now Jawbone Flats is believed to have been a summer camp for the Santiam Molalla Indians. The Whetstone Mountain Trail, which crosses the valley, is believed to have been a commonly-used route by area tribes.
Part of the forest has survived two forest fires, estimated to have occurred around 1550 and 1835. Forest fires in old-growth forests are rarely totally devastating. At Opal Creek, many of the big trees survived, particularly those located in cool, wet places along the area’s hundreds of streams.
In 1859, miners arrived in the valley and discovered gold. James P. Hewitt and his Amalgamated Mining Co. began building the Jawbone Flats mining camp in 1930, where they processed lead, zinc, copper and silver. Some of the mining roads and the Gold Creek Bridge were constructed in 1939 under President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Mining at Opal Creek was never very profitable, and by the time snow damaged the Jawbone Flats buildings in the 1950s, operations had all but ceased.
In 1944, James Hewitt’s daughter Dolores had married future Oregon governor Vic Atiyeh, fatefully introducing the Atiyeh family to Opal Creek. Through the 1960s and 1970s Vic’s nephew George Atiyeh managed the Shiny Rock Mining Company, living part-time at Jawbone Flats with a small contingent of miners and their families. Shiny Rock Mining Company was one of many private landowners in the area based on old mining claims.
In the 1970s and 1980s, plans to log old-growth stands at Opal Creek began to stir up local activists who saw that Opal Creek was one of the last of a very special kind of ecosystem. Friends of Opal Creek was established in 1989 to secure permanent protection of the watershed by increasing public awareness of the natural and cultural resources, scenic beauty, plant and animal diversity, and ecological complexity of this extraordinary area. In 1992, mining ceased and the Shiny Rock Mining Company gave Friends of Opal Creek a land gift valued at $12.6 million. Included were 151 acres of land: Jawbone Flats and a stand of old-growth forest.
Local and statewide efforts culminated in October 1996 with the establishment, through federal legislation, of the 20,827-acre Opal Creek Wilderness, the 13,538-acre Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area and a 3,066-acre Wild and Scenic River designation for Elkhorn Creek. Except for Jawbone Flats, the Opal Creek Act required that all privately-owned lands be returned to public ownership. The Opal Creek forest has received international attention and is enjoyed by more than 20,000 visitors each year.
About Jawbone Flats
Jawbone Flats is a 15-acre private inholding bordered on the north by the Opal Creek Wilderness and on the south, east, and west by the Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area. Many of our buildings are original to the 1930s; we rely on generous support from local foundations and individual donors to maintain a historic atmosphere while offering our visitors a comfortable and high-quality experience.
During the months of April, May, June, September, and October, Jawbone Flats is bustling with schoolchildren enjoying one of the most unique outdoor school experiences in Oregon. Our solar-powered commissary provides classroom and laboratory space, while the lodge across the road and the bunkhouse across the bridge provide dormitories and dining. Many weekends from April through November will find adult and family workshops focused on anything from amphibians to yoga, mushrooms to photography. During the summer, families from across the west coast enjoy the peaceful solitude of a Jawbone Flats vacation, while our intrepid young Expeditions backpackers head deeper into the wilderness for weeklong trips.
The buildings at Jawbone Flats are a combination of program facilities, public rentals, and private residences. We welcome hikers to enjoy the picturesque scenery but ask that visitors respect the privacy of our guests and staff. On summer afternoons, please stop by our company store to purchase maps and merchandise, or just to ask questions about the area or our work as an education center.
Jawbone Flats exists entirely off-the-grid. We produce our own electricity, pipe in water from Flume Creek, access the Internet by satellite, and have no phone. This allows our guests to truly turn off and drop out—but it also means that we face unique challenges on an almost daily basis.
Hydroelectricity has been a fact of life at Opal Creek since the first miners arrived in the 19th century. As you hike up the Battle Axe trail towards Ruth Mine, you might see the debris of old water chutes that marks the path to a miner’s water wheel.
Today we use a Pelton wheel to produce most of our energy. Unlike a traditional water wheel that extracts energy from the weight of the water passing through it, the Pelton wheel is an impulse turbine, extracting energy from the force of the water’s movement. This means in low water years we’re sure to experience power outages in the summertime when camp is full and demand is high, but we often find ourselves with more power than we need in the wintertime, when the creeks are high but camp is empty.
Solar panels were added to the commissary during its renovation in 2006-2007, and they now produce about 15% of our electricity at Jawbone Flats. A generous 2015 grant from the Oregon Community Foundation allowed us to purchase a back-up propane generator, so when the power does go out, we don’t have to interrupt our programs and guests while we find a fix.
Jawbone Flats sits at the confluence of Battle Ax Creek and Opal Creek, forming the Little North Fork of the Santiam River, which meets the North Santiam in Lyons, OR. Together with the main trunk of the North Santiam, the Opal Creek watershed helps provide drinking water for ten cities from Detroit, OR, west to Salem. The protected forest surrounding the headwaters of Opal Creek and Battle Ax Creek means that the water is cold, clear, and pristine, excellent habitat for many sensitive species and clean enough that Jawbone Flats residents drank it straight from Flume Creek for decades.
Today, state regulations mean that we can no longer pipe untreated water into the Jawbone Flats buildings. Thanks to generous support from the Collins Foundation, we now operate our very own treatment plant on-site. Surface water from Flume Creek is passed through a slow sand filter and purified by a biological layer of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and aquatic insect larvae called the schmutzdecke. The purified water is then treated with a minimal amount of chlorine before being pumped into the buildings.
In addition to careful monitoring of the treatment plant, relying on a surface water supply produces a myriad of fascinating challenges—screens clogged with leaves at the head of the pipe, pipes broken by downed trees, pipes freezing in a heavy winter as the water makes its way from the head to Jawbone Flats. All in a day’s work for our hardworking facilities crew.