by Stephanie Lile
If you've walked past the unusual "pillars" placed along the walking trail behind the Harbor History Museum and throughout Austin Estuary Park and wondered, "What is that?" you're not alone. Numerous passersby have wondered that very thing. Some have even stopped at the Mystery Museum to inquire.
The ancient obelisks of wonder....
The story, of course, is one of buried treasure and ancient architecture. And although concrete was employed by the Romans, these obelisks are not quite that old. In fact, they date to the early 1900s when a bridge was built across Donkey Creek.
These four-sided, concrete objects were actually poured to serve as pylons, or footings, for the wooden structure that formed the bridge. The same idea as the concrete footing blocks you can find at the local building supply store (only WAAAY bigger), these pylons were placed on the ground at creek level. The wooden undergirding of the bridge attached to and rested on them, so that a level roadway could be constructed. And that's how Donkey Creek was crossed for about the next 40 years. It was a beautiful view.
Donkey Creek Bridge. The concrete pylons are barely visible amidst the underbrush.
Peninsula Light Company (below) built their office building right near the bridge entrance.
For years, the tide rose and fell.
Then along came a big idea: Enclose the creek in a culvert. Bury it, and gain hundreds of square feet of usable land. So the bulldozers rolled. And the old wooden bridge was dismantled, leaving only the pylons as evidence. Culvert pieces were fitted together like dry pasta on a Christmas chain. And the bulldozers buried it all—culvert, pylons and the spawning grounds of the chum salmon who had made their way to Donkey Creek for thousands of years before humans had ever claimed the place.
Cool Clue: The remnants of the old Peninsula Light building's concrete foundation are visible under the wooden stairs by the entrance to the Harbor History Museum.
The visual evidence: Buried concrete pylons can be seen on either side of the newly placed culvert. That's pretty much where they stayed (buried beneath the roadway) for the next 60 years. Returning salmon had to make their way up the culvert to spawn.
Once the culvert was constructed, the Spadoni Brothers bulldozers went back to work. The culvert was buried and the site prepared for lots and lots of fill.
A close-up of the old bridge pylons as Rudy Spadoni uses his International TD-9 bulldozer to prep the site. The date was July 11, 1949.
After more than 60 years of "a culvert running through it," the city put plans in motion to daylight Donkey Creek and restore the salmon spawning ground. Bulldozers rolled once again, but instead of burying the culvert, they unearthed it. In the process, they discovered some long forgotten concrete "obelisks." With no use for them in modern free-span bridge building, these artifacts were nearly hauled off and destroyed, but for an intriguing idea. Instead of destruction, the ancient bridge pylons were strategically placed along the new, creekside walking trail and in Austin Estuary Park to serve a new purpose—as both historic evidence of Gig Harbor past, and bases for new historic marker graphics that will help tell the story of Donkey Creek, Austin Mill, and this place known to the Puyallup people as twawelkax. The Gig Harbor Arts Commission is spearheading this important marker project.
What questions do you have about Donkey Creek or the estuary? Share them with us, and you just might find the answer on a new historic marker!
All images courtesy of the Harbor History Museum Collection, E-96.2, GHN060, GHN084, GHN091, GHN095, Frank Shaw photographer. Present-day pylon photo, Stephanie Lile, April 2020.