A mysterious wagon wheel, uncovered from deep beneath the riverbed in the Sandy River Delta this summer, has finally found a new home.
The Troutdale Historical Society picked up the wagon wheel Tuesday, Dec. 13, from the Oregon Department of Transportation, which had stored the wheel at the construction site for the new Interstate 84 bridge.
Len Otto, a Troutdale Historical Society board member, said the wheel is stored in a cold place and is wrapped in plastic to prevent any more moisture from escaping. Since the wheel was pulled from the riverbed in August, the wheel has dried and has shrunk in size about a quarter inch, he said.
'We're in the process of trying to figure out how to preserve a wooden wheel once it has been soaked (in fresh water),' he said, adding that he's been consulting with preservation experts and doing Internet research.
A backhoe operator with the Interstate 84-Jordan Road project in Troutdale discovered the wheel, buried about 12 feet below the riverbed, on Aug. 10 while excavating the east side of the Sandy River for a bridge piling.
More than 4 feet in diameter, the wheel has a metal outer rim and a wooden inner rim, which is missing a section. The wooden wheel spokes were hand-tooled to fit into slots on the wooden rim, but some of the spokes have pulled away from the rim as the wheel has dried.
The wheel's steel rim and bands are rusted, and hardened mud clings to parts of the wheel. Small stones were lodged in the crevices of the wheel, and a large gray stone is firmly lodged in the wheel's hub.
The origin and the age of the wheel are unknown. Given its depth below ground and its location downriver from a pioneer wagon road, the construction crews surmised that it might have come from an Oregon pioneer's wagon, which could make it up to 150 years old.
The wheel was found downriver from the landing site of a ferry that helped wagons cross the Sandy River (near where Lewis and Clark State Park is now located). Up the river, The Dalles-Sandy Wagon Road passed through the area.
Other wagon ferries and trails also passed through the Sandy River Delta area.
'The wagon wheel has some mystery surrounding it, such as how it ended up 12 feet below the ground underneath the sand, the gravel and the muck,' Otto said. 'Who knows what else is down there?'
Otto hopes to get the wheel ready for display in a future museum exhibit, planned for mid-2013, which focuses on the people who built the Historic Columbia River Highway, which will have its 100th anniversary in 2016.
'I think it presents an interesting contrast between old and new' forms of transportation like pioneer wagons and cars, Otto said.
As for determining the wagon wheel's true age, Otto said it would probably have to be cleaned up before an expert could study it.
The discovery of historic artifacts in the Sandy River Delta and the Columbia River Gorge is not unusual. Crews have discovered remnants from old Model T cars, household products, fine China and old milepost signs from the Columbia River Highway, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.
However, items that are the size and age of the wagon wheel are rare, according to department officials.