As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Dungeness River Audubon Center being incorporated as a nonprofit, its volunteer board is raising funds to ensure the River Center is ready for the next 25 years. The project will enlarge the building and construct a new road and parking lot.
Now is a great time to take a look at the history of “one of this county’s true gems.”
Trains first traveled the bridge across the Dungeness River in 1915. Called a Howe Truss Bridge, it was built by the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, later called the Milwaukee Road. The bridge had a 70-year history of both freight and passengers crossing it until the rail company went bankrupt in 1985, removed the rails and ties, and began selling the right-of-way. Possibly only one other working bridge of this design still exists in Washington, today.
Beginning of a museum, park
In 1984, Annette and Mark Hanson gathered volunteers to build the Sequim Natural History Museum in a vacant room in the old Sequim High School building.
With the help of local artists, they constructed an entire model watershed, from mountain to sea, filled with specimens of the appropriate flora and fauna in floor-to-ceiling dioramas. Mark was a Sequim Middle School science teacher and hobby taxidermist who contributed most of the specimens, some of which are still on display today. This was the beginning of the flora and fauna collection now housed in the River Center.
Also making significant contributions to the current collection were Claude and Edna Ritze, who retired to Sequim from his career with Boeing.
Scores of elementary classes were guided through the museum by volunteers for years, until the high school needed the return of the room in 1993. The museum contents then went into storage, while the search began for a new home.
In 1990, when the bridge and right-of-way became available, a group of concerned citizens and organizations worked together to purchase the bridge and a half mile right-of-way as Railroad Bridge Park and the first piece of the Olympic Discovery Trail in Clallam County. Those organizations included the Trust for Public Land, Peninsula Trails Coalition, Sequim Aquatic Recreation Center and Sequim Natural History Museum.
Peninsula Trails Coalition volunteers contributed hours and hours of work to make the bridge easier to access and to be enjoyed by visitors. They replaced the railroad ties, planked the deck of the former railroad bridge and trestle, and built a ramp structure to provide easy access by physically challenged visitors. They paved the half-mile trail and added parking on Runnion Road.
Combining museum with Railroad Bridge Park
With amazing foresight, volunteers associated with the museum — led by Annette Hanson — applied for grant funds to buy additional land next to the bridge, build a paver trail, install interpretive signs and construct a natural history center.
They were successful in raising $400,000 in state and grant funds in 1993, but then their government sponsorship fell through. Needing a new sponsor, they approached the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.
The tribe’s reaction was positive: Chairman W. Ron Allen said, “What a legacy for our grandchildren — 10 acres on the Dungeness River.”
The tribe assumed responsibility for the awarded grants and ownership of the land and buildings, expanding the park by 10 acres on the east side of the river to provide a new home for the Sequim Natural History Museum.
To manage the expansion of the park and develop an educational center, museum volunteers formed a nonprofit organization. To make it official, Annette Hanson and Clare Manis applied for and received incorporation as a 501(c) nonprofit organization in 1994. Once called the Rainshadow Natural Science Foundation, the organization is now named the Dungeness River Audubon Center.
The bridge is designated on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also part of the Olympic Discovery Trail, a nationally significant, non-motorized, multi-use trail across the North Olympic Peninsula.
The Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society and National Audubon Society joined the partnership in 1997. The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Dungeness River Audubon Center and Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society jointly manage the park and the center.
The center and park bring together three organizations with compatible goals in an exceptional setting:
• The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe always has been deeply involved with the well-being of the Dungeness River and the restoration of the salmon.
• The Sequim Natural History Museum needed a permanent home for its displays and a facility for educational programs.
• The Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society benefits from an interpretive center for its work to promote birding and conservation.
Building the Park
Between the time the organization was formed and the center was opened in 2001, classes, festivals, lectures, field trips and summer camps were held outdoors.
Broad pathways of paver-stones laid by volunteers led to the RiverStage, an open amphitheater with seating for 75, and the RiverShed, a timber-frame shelter with picnic tables and benches.
Oct. 21, 2001 marked the grand opening of the River Center building and its multi-purpose space for scientific exhibits, hands-on displays, physical specimens and classroom study aids that still are used today for educational classes. Community members also hold meetings there.
Rebuilding the 100-year old Bridge
The Sequim Gazette of Feb. 6, 2015, provides the next part of the history:
“Two pilings underneath the bridge Friday at Railroad Bridge Park have come loose and park officials have closed a portion of the bridge until repairs are made.
“Powell Jones, Dungeness River Audubon Center director, said he’s not sure what caused the two pilings to come loose, but with both pilings linked to the same support structure it was clear the bridge should be closed.”
In its article, “Building a better bridge,” the Sequim Gazette of Sept. 2, 2015, updates the story:
“After obtaining all the necessary permits and with the use of the design and engineering done by Otak, forward steps were taken toward a more modern, environmentally friendly river crossing aimed at replacing the damaged trestle. ‘In my entire career of surveying, I’ve never seen such a fast turnaround on a project like this,’ Rob Johnston, owner of Johnston Land Surveying, said.
“On Monday, Johnston began the preliminary surveying to build the 750-foot bridge. Following Johnston, contractors with Nordland Construction NW will begin their work.
“The work to replace the trestle that was damaged during a storm in early February will include the removal of 38 creosote timber pile bent supports from the river bed to allow the river to move more naturally through this reach and create high quality salmon habitat, according to tribal officials.
“Funding of the $1.53 million for the replacement project came from a Recreation and Conservation Office Salmon Recovery Funding Board grant. Several other sources of funding also will be used for the project, including tribal insurance proceeds, tribal transportation funding, a Bureau of Indian Affairs grant, a Floodplains by Design grant and a contribution from the Peninsula Trails Coalition.
“Additionally, during construction the 150-foot, historical Dungeness Howe Truss Railroad Bridge will be re-decked utilizing a First Federal Community Foundation grant of $100,000.
“Along with the engineering firm Otak, an advisory group consisting of representatives of the tribe, the Dungeness River Audubon Center, the River Center board, the Peninsula Trails Coalition, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the North Olympic Salmon Coalition, and the North Olympic Peninsula Lead Entity for Salmon and Clallam County, chose the preferred alternative.”
Looking Forward: Expanding the River Center
River Center volunteers now are looking to enlarge the building to better accommodate the popular educational activities and meetings that now jockey for space in the River Center building. An Inspire Wonder Capital Campaign kicked off publicly in 2018 to raise funds to build an addition, remodel the existing building and construct a new access road and parking lot.
The new road and lot are the first two parts of the first phase of the project. Ground-breaking for the road and lot is expected in summer 2019.
The next phase is to construct an addition to the current building. The current building will stay open during the construction to avoid any disruption in activities. The beautiful new entrance to the addition is designed to echo the Railroad Bridge truss and will be built with natural materials.
After the addition is complete, the current building will be remodeled. This expansion and renovation will add 5,000 square feet of education, office and meeting space.
The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe has contributed and pledged more than $714,000, including the purchase of 4.5 acres east of the center to make possible the new road and parking lot.
As of Feb. 24, 2018, the center has received $1,309,557 in contributions and pledges, thanks to the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s donation, contributions from board and River Center members, local businesses and individuals. Grants already have been awarded with work underway on more.
A Capital Campaign Committee is pursuing a variety of methods to raise the additional funds, including a golf tournament set for June 15.
Donations to the campaign may be made through the Dungeness River Audubon Center’s website: dungenessrivercenter.org/ourstory/support-us. Inquiries also may be made by calling 360-670-6774 or 360-681-4076.
Center staff and campaign volunteers are available to give a program about the project to large and small groups.