Learning on the job
When it comes to the Butte Creek Mill in Eagle Point, those familiar with its history will have to get on their hands and knees to fully appreciate the attention to detail a local high school class put into at least one phase of the mill’s reconstruction. And even then, they may not notice.
Six students from Eagle Point High School armed with torque wrenches, power drills and metal saws installed wrought iron railings in front of the mill’s main entrance Thursday afternoon, just a small sliver of the estimated $3.1 million effort to restore the structure to its original glory following a 2015 Christmas day fire.
The students’ goal was to replicate the original railings as precisely as possible with concessions made only to conform to modern building codes. They took their job very seriously, according to Eagle Point High engineering and manufacturing teacher Daniel Langston — right down to the era-specific square-headed bolts used to fasten the railings in place. Those bolts may have been the standard when the mill was built in 1872; in the 2020s, however, they’re anything but.
“We actually had somebody that solicited a company to manufacture them for us,” Langston said. “It’s authentic, and realistically somebody’s going to come by here that has a little time on them and say, ‘I remember those (bolts).’ That connection is just really huge. That feeling — if we could give it to 10 people it would be worth looking for those special bolts.”
The students — 10 of them worked on the rails — were charged with managing the project, from planning to design to manufacturing and finally installation. In ordinary times, the four-month job would have required only a few weeks to complete, Langston said. But COVID-19 restrictions on in-person class time dragged out the process.
The Butte Creek Mill Foundation, the nonprofit in charge of the rebuilding effort, approached Eagle Point High with the idea last October. Langston decided students from two classes, metals fabrication and engineering metals, were ready to take on a project he estimates would have cost the foundation about $10,000 had it hired professionals to do the job.
After taking measurements on site, the students designed the rails on Autodesk Inventor, a computer-aided design application. Parker Edwards, a senior, said it was crucial to nail the math right from the start to determine how long each piece needed to be and how many pieces they’d need.
“We cut them all at the very beginning so we’d have plenty of pieces, and started assembling them,” said Edwards, who’s also a receiver and linebacker for the Eagle Point football team.
Edwards said he, Brenden Monroe and Bella Camarena handled most of the manufacturing, assembling the rails by hand in the school’s metals fabrication lab with a wire-feed welder.
“It’s fun,” Edwards said. “That’s probably my favorite part about it.”
Camarena, another senior and a certified welder, agrees. No surprise there. When she’s not building cars for a local auto body shop, Camarena relaxes by building her own car for fun. It was that side project, in fact, that led Camarena to Langston.
“Mr. Langston kind of introduced me to (welding), and I guess I was just pretty good at it,” she said. “I practiced a lot and I got certified in it, so that’s why he brought me onto this project. A lot of welding involved, and fabrication.”
Welding is labor intensive, Camarena said, and requires a certain level of concentration and attention to detail.
“So basically you gotta grind all the metal down, then set up your welder, turn on your gas and you just weld around every seam where you don’t want there to be a gap or anything,” she said. “You just weld and it just fills metal and it melts the metal around it.
“You wear gloves and a jacket and a hood and everything. You can go blind from the light. It’s pretty hard work, but when you get an outcome like this it’s super awesome for the community.”
As its former owner, Bob Russell knows all about the mill’s connection to the community. He’s also well versed in its history, including that “cold-cold” winter morning when he, at exactly 4:10 a.m., received an automated call from the alarm company letting him know that a sensor in the mill had been tripped. He assumed it was a bat — that had always been the culprit before — so there was no reason to panic as he put on his shoes and headed down the stairs of his house, located right down the street from the mill. That’s when he noticed the walls in his living room glowing orange from the reflection of the flames.
“(The flames) were 50 feet in the air,” he said.
Russell was on hand Thursday to watch the students install the rails. He said he and his wife installed railings when they bought it in 2005. The students’ work Thursday was a full-circle moment, Russell said.
“It just warms my heart,” he said, “it really does.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or email@example.com.