With mill closed, more than property hangs in limbo
Carrie Beal's family roots run deep in West Linn.
They traveled here via the Oregon Trail from North Dakota. Beal's great-great-grandfather settled on land he bought around 1893 from the Moore family, descendents of West Linn's founder, Robert Moore.
Her great uncles witnessed the spectacle of the 15-ton Willamette Meteorite, the biggest meteorite ever found in the United States, which was unearthed in West Linn in 1902 and put on display in a resident's yard.
One of her relatives, Adolph Volpp, was among West Linn's first city councilors when the town incorporated in 1913.
Her grandfather, Howard Moehnke, is believed to be the first baby born in West Linn after the city's incorporation.
And she still lives near the homestead her family made five generations ago.
But maybe not for long.
Beal lives in a trailer on Fourth Street in West Linn, on what until recently was Blue Heron Paper Co. property. Since the Blue Heron mill closed unexpectedly in late February and filed for bankruptcy, she hasn't been able to find anyone who will accept her rent checks.
She's worried she will soon be kicked out.
'I've lived on this property my whole life,' said Beal, surrounded by historical photos of the land her family sold to the paper industry years ago. 'I went to try to pay my rent, and no one was there. I don't know what to do. I'm handicapped and low-income, and I'm in 'floater land.''
Beal's grandmother Dorothy Moehnke and her late husband, Howard, inherited the family's 11 acres on the Willamette River in 1950.
The Moehnke saw mill, once located a couple of miles upstream of Willamette Falls, had gone out of business around 1920. Much of the family then worked as cable riggers for logging operations for Alaska Steel.
In the 1960s or '70s, the couple considered barging gravel from another family member's Wilsonville business to West Linn and trucking it from their property for construction of Interstate 205.
'But there were a lot of worries, as there always were, about how we'd get the gravel down the river,' explained Dorothy Moehnke, 93, on a recent visit in West Linn from her home in Canby. She said they would have set 'very strict restrictions' protecting the land, had they moved ahead with that plan.
But because of those community concerns, added Beal, the family 'dropped the whole idea' of bringing gravel to their property. Besides, she said, they wanted to keep their riverfront land pristine.
'That's also why they didn't do sand and gravel down there,' Beal said. 'Later, the mill promised it would use the property for something good for the environment.'
Moehnke said that's mostly true, although she remembers things a bit differently.
Environmental regulations were forcing paper mills to take greater care in treating wastewater before dumping it into the Willamette River, she said, and her property was targeted for an underground pipeline related to the treatment process at the Oregon City plant, which built a large settling pond in West Linn.
'If you didn't put your own price on it and sell it, they would condemn it,' she said of her decision to sell the property.
In 1980, Dorothy and Howard Moehnke closed the deal with Publishers Paper, which eventually became Blue Heron, for $110,000, Moehnke said.
As they remember it, the deal included a couple of undocumented conditions: Along with their land in West Linn, the Moehnkes said they traded three acres of wooded property on the coast to the paper company; and an agreement meant that family members would have continued access to the West Linn property as renters, or 'custodians,' of the land.
'It was a gentlemen's agreement,' Dorothy Moehnke said. 'My husband was very proud they shook hands on it. You don't see that often anymore.'
Evidence of the mill's underground operation remains in the form of a mysterious manhole in the field behind Beal's home. Blue Heron workers used to regularly disappear down the 'hatch,' Beal said, although those visits declined as paper operations waned in recent years.
Above ground, the area remains a popular spot for wildlife. Beal regularly sees osprey, blue herons and golden eagles. She said three beaver dams occupy a nearby creek. This past week, she watched a family of foxes frolicking near her yard.
'I've got a whole herd of deer here,' said Beal, adding that she has found multiple arrowheads while walking through the fields.
But at 50 years old, Beal is plagued by a range of health problems. In addition to type 1 diabetes, she has gastroparesis, a stomach disorder, the autoimmune disorder Graves' disease and fibromyalgia. She said she regularly struggles with issues related to her blood glucose levels and doesn't expect to live 'more than a handful of years.'
She used to work in sales for car and clothing companies but now lives off disability payments. Her rent has stayed low over the years. Beal wouldn't disclose how much she pays, but 'I would be living in public housing if I didn't have this,' she said.
If forced to leave, she doesn't know where she'll go.
'I'm really frightened about that,' Beal said. 'I just wish they'd leave me alone for four or five years. I'd just like to stay here long enough to croak - so I am in my bedroom hearing the same birds I've heard since I was a little girl.'
Peter McKittrick, a trustee overseeing the sale of bankrupt Blue Heron Paper Co.'s assets, said he is aware of one or two residential rentals near the mill's lagoon in West Linn. However, 'that hasn't been a material issue anybody has raised.'
'It's too early to say what might happen,' he said. 'They have whatever lease rights they have.'
For now, prospective buyers have mostly focused their attention on the plant in Oregon City, McKittrick said. Those early negotiations are confidential, and it's unclear when official offers might come on the table.
It looks like Beal will continue treading water until a new property owner comes into play.
In the meantime, she plans to contact environmental stewardship groups in hopes of gaining protection for the former mill's West Linn property, for both its historical and natural resources.
'My main objective is to keep this safe for wildlife,' Beal said. 'It's really concerning to me that we could lose this treasured property. But even if I leave here, as long as they keep the property intact, that meets my goals.'