Community, Cottage Grove

Off the beaten path: Alleys still provide easy access

Somewhere along the way, alleys picked up a bad reputation. “Don’t get caught in a dark alley,” is a saying many can picture in their mind as a thing to avoid, having a clandestine, shady, or even dangerous aspect. They have been around for a long time and their history has something to do with this dark view of this utilitarian and useful passageway.

From the Chinese Zhou dynasty to the ancient Greece, many other cultures incorporated narrow passageways in addition to streets as they laid out their cities.

The name “alley” comes into our language through Middle English, which has in turn its roots in Old French and Latin. “Alee” from the verb to walk, aller, names these paths less traveled. 

The heyday for alleys came in the 1800s as America expanded and new additions were added to existing cities, the so called suburbs. 

The main source of transportation of that time, the horse and buggy, came with certain requirements. Large deliveries of hay, the stabling of said beasts, and the disposal of the by-product, manure, all made it advantageous to having all of the operations at the rear of the dwelling. Alleys down the middle of the block made good horse sense.

Other useful functions of alleys included delivery of coal, wood, and tradesmen with food stuffs. With household trash, it was more desirable to put it out back than in front of the house. It could be collected easier there too, serving houses on both sides of the alley at once. Here is a little gem from the March 16, 1907 edition of the Cottage Grove Leader: “A part of the alley lying parallel with the Main street and third street, we wish to call attention to. In its present state it is a regular germ breeder and should typhoid fever or other sundry disease break out in the neighborhood, it might be easily surmised that it was caused by filth lying there from which stench arises on a sunshiny day. It is utterly impassible by pedestrians and even horses shed tears when their drivers turn them down into that route.”

Ah, missing the good old days. 

As utilities began to be provided, alleys provided an easy way to conceal wires, meters, and other unattractive gadgetry. And an alley down the middle of a block made a handy way to lay pipes for water and sewer service for houses of that block as well as the wires for the new Cottage Grove Electric Co.

I found this out the hard way when doing foundation work as I decided to replace my leaky sewer pipe. I excavated the pipe right up to the bathroom. I expected to find the end of the pipe at some point, but it kept right on going past the exterior wall. Well, I crawled out from under the house and started digging up the yard, and the pipe was heading for the neighbors next door. After some head scratching, I called the city engineer. They came out and took a look and did some scratching too, but after flushing some dye down the neighbors’ toilet we discovered our two households were in a symbiotic relationship. That put the sewer project on hold for a while as the city checked the maps and and tried to come up with answers.

After research and phone calls it turned out alleys were at the bottom of it. Seems like the main sewer lines went down the numbered streets. I was hooked up to the 2nd Street line. All the houses on the north side of Adams were hooked up to line that ran down the alley behind those houses. So that left the two houses in the middle of our block. One got hooked up to me and the other one to my opposite corner neighbor. Oh well, nothing to do but more digging and pipe work. I took it to the fence and tunneled under to find the next joint. I hooked up the new pipe there and left my neighbor to figure out what to do on their side.

I am sure some other blocks with alley access also have their sewers there as well. If there are no alleys, chances are your utilities lie under the street.

Before I knew about the use of alleys for utility placement, I had discovered them as an attractive way to take a walk. In the historic district they run parallel to Main Street on both sides. It is a great way to see another side of the area, either on foot or on bike. In many of the older neighborhoods there are alleys that run in various configurations. Some are a bit overgrown, some have leaves and other debris dumped into them. Residents often have a gate for vehicle access to their backyards. Some have garages at the rear of the house with alley access. I would take my neighbor’s dogs for walks occasionally, and found alleys were a great way to go.

I was curious as to why some areas had alleys and others did not. Obviously modern additions to the city don’t have them, but in older parts of town it seems sort of random which sections have alleys and what parts don’t. 

That question took me to the City Planning Department.

Speaking with city planner Amanda Ferguson I wanted to know if it was a requirement to include alleys when a piece of property was subdivided into lots. To her knowledge it was not. Ferguson showed me a 1909 map of Cottage Grove. While many of the parcels laid out in lots had alleys, others did not. She told me that even now city code allows for alleys to be included in subdivisions but they are not required.  

“Alleys in cities have always had utilitarian purposes, but after WWII, things started changing. Typically alleys are 10 feet wide. With the big push for post-war housing and upgrading infrastructure there were changes in the rules. It was decided that it was not a good idea, for instance, to have water and sewer lines side by side. The new rule was that you need a 10-foot separation between the two, ruling out placement in alleys, so now most of our utility placements are under the street,” Ferguson said.

The change over to the automobile also played a hand with the demise of alleys. Instead of needing to keep your horse out back it became desirable to display your shiny new ride in front as a status symbol and it was easier to park it out front anyway, especially since cars required no hay or scooping.

Garages started appearing out front, even being built right into the house.

One thing I still wanted to know that hadn’t been answered: When was the last subdivision in Cottage Grove to be recorded with alleys. This quest took me to the Lane County Clerk’s archive library. I made an appointment and went in. The nice employee who helped me get started let me know that I was on my own and wished me luck. My experience in my first post-high school job in the Tax Assessor’s office came in handy. I started looking up the historical neighborhoods in Cottage Grove. The oldest one I could find was McFarland’s Addition, recorded in 1885. It showed alleys on the plat. There were four more plats that were recorded under the McFarland name and together they make up the Ash, Birch, Cedar, and the lettered streets part of town (Slabtown), all with alleys.

All of the recorded plats included some language to this effect: “Hereby dedicate to the public and for public use all the streets and alleys marked and designated as such on the annexed plat.”

Thus legally the alleys became public property. As such they cannot be blocked off or access denied without a legal action known as vacating the said alley or street by the City.

“There are only a few cases of alleys in Cottage Grove being vacated. For example, when Kelly Field went in, it cut off access through the alleys it covered, making them “alleys to nowhere,” so those were vacated. “But now with the new House Bill 2001 and Senate Bill 51 allowing additional dwelling units (ADU) to be added to existing lots with dwellings, those alleys are a real boon. This allows for a rear entrance to the ADU. And as infill becomes a viable solution for the housing shortage alleys are becoming a real asset,” Ferguson said.

With my limited access to information it was difficult to tell if some parts of the city were recorded as subdivisions. If there was no subdivision name on the Lane County Tax Map then I couldn’t look it up from the indexes. But of all the ones I could identify the latest recorded subdivision with alleys in Cottage Grove was recorded in 1902. That is not a definitive answer, just the best I could do under the circumstances. When things open up more I plan to head back to the courthouse and do some more research.  

One reason for not dedicating alleyways is the expense of surveying, marking and maintaining them. So for the small pieces that were cut up and recorded around town, I can imagine the developer deciding to forgo putting in alleys. It also made the lots a bit bigger.  

Here are some places that you can do some alley wandering on foot or bike in Cottage Grove: 

McFarland’s Additions (north of Main Street, west of River Road), Currin Park Addition (west of 1st Street between Harrison and Jefferson Avenues), Georgetown (South of Main Street between Bohemia and Coiner Parks), and, of course, both north and south of Main Street between the River and Highway 99.  

There are a few other bits and pieces of alleys in the Grove. Remember that while they are public right-of-ways, be respectful of those who are lucky enough to live with an alley at their back door.

Have fun exploring and imagine you were on your horse. 

Write to Dana at [email protected].



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