Many of us have been to Earthworks park, enjoying the peaceful hills of interesting land sculpture, the nature trails and the events periodically held there. But do you know what it was before it was our beloved Earthworks Park?
Before white settlers arrived in the White River valley, Native Americans from the Coast Salish tribe lived and hunted where we now call home. The first white pioneers arrived in 1853. The land which would one day become Earthworks Park, would become a lumber mill in 1883.
Peter Saar was a pioneer, originally born in Germany who came to the United States with his family when he was sixteen. Eventually he ended up in Kent where he homesteaded. You may have seen the cemetery he founded next to Winco, near to which was where he built his home. In 1883, Peter founded the Peter Saar and Company Lumber Mill in Mill Creek Canyon. He built a pond to hold logs and a skid road to slide the logs down into the pond from up on East Hill. They would haul the logs out with oxen.
The skid road for the Saar Lumber Mill
In 1886, Peter sold his mill to his son-in-law, Albert E. Smith and Albert’s father Lysander Smith. The mill ran down what is now Smith Street to the Northern Pacific Line. They claimed to be the largest mill between Seattle and Tacoma at the time. Eventually the mill became part of the Kent Mill Company who logged off much of East Hill. When the mill burned to the ground around 1889, a new and larger mill was constructed at a site along the Cedar River, eight miles upstream from Maple Valley. It would eventually be called the town of Barneston.
Mill Creek Canyon was left to nature for the most part. The only two things worth going up the canyon was to visit the Hillcrest Cemetery or the dump. Surprisingly the town of Kent used the canyon as a town dump for years, up through the 1950’s. They put old cars, washers, dryers, anything that needed disposed of at the end of Maple Street (now S. 257th St.) into the canyon. Eric Reitan remembers tons of fruit jars being dumped in the late 1940’s. People stopped canning because you could buy canned goods so cheaply then. The city or county pushed dirt over the garbage once in awhile which pushed it further into the canyon.
It might surprise you to know our little Mill Creek used to be full of fish! They would come up the creek to spawn and kids would dig for worms and fish in the ponds. On hot days they would go for a swim too, the canyon was a nature playground for local kids. In the 1970’s the city would host Fishing Derby’s where Mill Creek park would be packed with kids and their Dad’s, trying to catch the big one.
Mill Creek Park 1910
Mill Creek Park was officially dedicated in Kent on October 1973, when the city purchased the last 10 acres. They had some grand plans for the park, but it stayed mostly natural until the 1980’s when the city was faced with erosion and flooding problems. It was decided, as part of a larger project called “Earthworks- Land Reclamation As Sculpture,” to transform the storm drainage project into a large scale artwork creating a lovely passive recreation area. The Earthworks project was proposed in the 1970’s as a movement to take eyesores, like old gravel pits, and change them into beautiful, usable landscapes.
Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer designed Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks. It is capable of holding 460,000 cubic feet of water if required. On September 1982, the 2.5 acre Earthworks land sculpture project was completed with a large ceremony including a Seattle Symphony performance.
Building Earthworks, Valley Daily News, May 21, 1982
Many of us have fond memories of attending events at Earthworks over the years. One that stands out was the medieval Canterbury Faire that was held every summer from the 1980’s until 2005. Many small children and parents have also enjoyed the summer concert series held in the amphitheatre, the park’s programming usually aimed at kids.
In April 2008, Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks Park was designated Kent’s first Historic Landmark by the King County Landmarks Commission. This was followed by the Bereiter House, the Saar Pioneer Cemetery, and then the Historic Mill Creek Neighborhood.
Since Earthworks was done about twenty-five years ago, the same issues that necessitated building it has intensified. Regulations have increased from a 100-year storm event to a 10,000-year storm event. Also, fishery regulations have made it difficult to remove vegetation impacting the look of the art work. This is due to general successes in restoring salmon runs. The Kent Arts Commission asked a University of Washington studio to collaborate with Kent Public Works to address these issues.
The entire canyon park is about 100 acres, and the large part past the amphitheatre is full of hiking trails, some more challenging than others. Local volunteers have started improving the unmaintained trails. They’ve started a Facebook page called “Mill Creek Canyon Trial” if you’d like to contact them and help in this endeavor. Surprisingly, signs of deer and river otters have been spotted along the trails! The Green Kent Partnership have also done some cleaning up and improvements in the park.
The plan is to keep Earthworks a work of landscaped art while improving the amount of water it can hold. What that will look like will be the next installment of this piece of land’s varied history.
-by Michelle Gehlman-Teeter
Cameron, C. (1978). History Kent Washington USA and It’s Heritage. Ballard Printing & Publishing.
City Council Finally OKs Mill Creek Land Purchase. (1968, Oct. 23). Kent News-Journal .
Clay, G. (1979, July). King County’s Earthworks Symposium Breaking New Ground with Land Reclamation as Sculpture. The Arts , 7.
Early-Day Sawmills Dotted Hill From Auburn to Renton. (1968, Nov. 6). Auburn Globe-News .
Earthworks Complete. (1982, Sept./Oct.). Kent Arts .
Johnson, Y. (1979, July). Earthworks: Combining Environmental & Land Issues. The Arts , 8 (7).
King County Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture. (n.d.). Retrieved Dec. 2016, from King County: http://www.kingcounty.gov/depts/records-licensing/archives/exhibits/earthworks.aspx
Loux, C. (n.d.). Research Assistance.
Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks. (n.d.). Retrieved Ded. 2016, from Kent, Washington: http://www.kentwa.gov/residents/parks-recreation-and-community-services/arts/earthworks
Reitan, E. R. (2007). Mill Creek Canyon Park. Kent, WA.
South King County Genealogical Society. (2011). A History of Saar Pioneer Cemetery and It’s Inhabitants.
Stein, A. J. (n.d.). Barneston- Tumbnail History Essay 2489. Retrieved Jan. 19, 2011, from HistoryLink.org: http://www.historylink.org/File/2489