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History of the hatchery: How Tip Hill built, and rebuilt, the Rock Creek hatchery

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For over 120 years, a series of hatcheries have sought to maintain fish stocks in the North Umpqua River for the enjoyment of current and future generations.

The most recent incarnation of the Rock Creek Hatchery, built in the 1950s, was obliterated by the Archie Creek Fire. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is now evaluating options for its reconstruction. It won’t be the first time.

In 1898, the lack of protection for salmon prompted the Oregon Legislature to pass an innovative salmon law. Among other things, it created new regulations for fish canneries, collected angling fees to fund conservation projects, sought to remove in-stream fish barriers and authorized the construction of fish hatcheries throughout the state. Almost immediately, a local man in the Glide area lobbied the state to fund a hatchery on the North Umpqua River.

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Courtesy of the hill family

Tip Hill poses for a photo with a line of fish.

Tilmon “Tip” Hill’s life was consumed with the enhancement of the salmon and trout fisheries of the Umpqua. In the years preceding the 1898 salmon law, Tip and other recent settlers formed the “Ohio Fruit Colony” — a sort of collective horticultural endeavor on 2,000 acres of leased land on the old Tipton ranch in Glide. A year after bringing their families back from Ohio, the colony lost everything to pay the loan on seed and rent of the land. Most of them returned to Ohio. Tip simply moved further upriver.

Just as he won state approval for the construction of a hatchery, his 28-year old wife, Hattie, died shortly after childbirth. On June 12, 1900, the Roseburg Review reported that Hattie “leaves a husband and four small children, besides her other relatives, to mourn her early death.”

Care for the Hill children was assumed by Hattie’s father, William “Old Bill” McMillen, who had homesteaded west of Rock Creek. Tip spent the next two years building the hatchery near Steamboat. In 1901, Tip’s hatchery captured 169 female salmon and produced 858,000 eggs.

When he wasn’t hatching or catching fish, Tip visited his children at the McMillen homestead and built a small cabin on nearby land to “prove up” his own homestead claim near the aptly named Hill Creek.

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A self portrait of Tip Hill, overlooking the North Umpqua Basin, circa 1930.

In 1903, part of Tip’s Steamboat hatchery burned. It was hastily relocated elsewhere in the Steamboat area and managed to hatch 2.8 million eggs in 1904. During the peak of hatchery work that year, death again struck the Hill family. Tip’s 4-year-old son and Old Bill McMillen’s youngest daughter died within nine days of each other. In September 1904, the Roseburg Review printed a short story titled “Two Deaths in One Family,” and wrote that “so sudden was the death and so great the shock that Mrs. McMillen was completely prostrated.” Tip and his father-in-law buried their children in the Oak Creek cemetery beside Tip’s wife and Bill’s daughter, Hattie.

The tragic deaths in Tip Hill’s family intensified his commitment to the propagation of fish in the North Umpqua River. The month following the loss of his son, Tip petitioned the state for enlargement of the Steamboat hatchery — including $4,000 for a dam that would allow him to collect the eggs of steelhead, chinook and coho salmon. The paper reported that such an appropriation would “bring this hatchery up from its present inferior state, with little better than make-shift facilities to one on a level with other state hatcheries.”

For the next several years, Tip continued on as the superintendent of the Steamboat hatchery and dutifully reported monthly progress and accomplishments to the paper. But something changed in 1908. He sold his homestead, gathered his children back from their grandparents and moved to Roseburg. He operated a small paint and wallpaper shop and built a home on Mosher Avenue. A steelhead fisherman like Tip could not remain in the city long before he found his way back up the river. In 1919, he sought approval from the state game department for the construction of a new trout hatchery at Rock Creek.

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The reconstructed Rock Creek Hatchery, circa 1960.

In 1921, approval was granted and Tip built the first hatchery at Rock Creek, on its east bank at the juncture with the North Umpqua River. For 10 years, Tip served as superintendent of the hatchery, where his son and grandchildren lived with him and even operated the Hoaglin post office.

In 1923, Tip told The News-Review that the Rock Creek Hatchery would be the largest and most important in Oregon.

In the final years of his life, between 1939 and 1941, Tip Hill authored a semi-regular newspaper column called “Fish of the Umpqua River.” He believed that humans were having a serious impact on fish.

“Trout were ruthlessly destroyed to satisfy the killing lust of game hogs. Later the streams were polluted with sewage, chemicals and waste from cities, factories and farms ... it became apparent to the far-sighted that the fish were fighting a losing battle,” he wrote in May 1939.

For Tip, the hatchery was part of the solution.

“Wildlife suffers most from civilization and without the aid of Conservation it would soon be destroyed ... artificial propagation (of fish) has prevented the total extinction of a few select species,” he wrote.

He also believed that public awareness about the fish of the Umpqua — their life cycle and needs — was the surest “answer to the prayer of Conservation.”

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courtesy of the hill family

The original hatch house at the Rock Creek Hatchery, circa 1920.

“The welfare of the fishes in the Umpqua is of vital importance to every one living in the Umpqua Watershed ... every individual of all generations should be well acquainted with fish and fishing,” Tip wrote in his column.

When the 2020 Archie Creek Fire swept through the modern successor to Tip’s hatcheries, it left one building standing. The Rock Creek Educational Building — colloquially known as “Rock Ed” — was built in 2013 with wood donated from local mills. It has hosted the fisheries education of thousands of students, including those at Eastwood Elementary in Roseburg who have helped rear Rock Creek’s fish for years. After the fire, 700 juvenile coho salmon were transported from Rock Creek to Eastwood where they were raised and released into the South Umpqua River earlier this spring. /

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