Oregon Economic Mainstays in the Late 1800s

A steam tractor and farm equipment
Advances in technology, such as this steam-powered tractor, helped Oregon farmers put more acreage into production. (Image courtesy Salem Online History)

Railroads transformed the Oregon economy in the late 1800s by bringing more people, cheaper shipping and more efficient technology to many existing industries. During this period, farming remained a mainstay of the economy as the acreage and productivity climbed. Other industries were dominated by distant companies seeking to extract as many products as cheaply as possible. Thus, lumbering, mining and fishing created local jobs for workers who found themselves at the whim of the boom and bust economic cycles that plagued the nation. Moreover, once the lumber, ore, or fish were extracted, the companies would often abandon the area for new opportunities, leaving both communities and the environment to fend for themselves.

Farming and Ranching

A Cream of Wheat trademark label
Wheat farming boomed in eastern Oregon after railroads provided access to the Columbia Plateau. Shown above is a trademark label for cream wheat produced by Oregon's Marion Ehrinan & Company in 1887. (Oregon State Archives trademark image no. 217) Enlarge image.
Despite the inequities and corruption brought to some farmers by railroads, farming generally grew and prospered in the last decades of the 1800s. Railroads carried heavy and bulky equipment such as horse-drawn cultivators and steam-powered threshers from factories in the East and Midwest to Oregon, allowing farmers to greatly expand the number of acres in production. Large portions of the original 320 and 640 acre land grants from the 1840s and 1850s that many farmers previously held in reserve were now falling under the plow in an increasingly mechanized and specialized market. Western Oregon saw the planting of a wider range of crops such as hops for beer brewing, flax for making linen and hemp for rope and paper. Thousands of acres were dedicated to orchards producing prunes, walnuts, filberts and other fruit and nut crops. Footnote 1

The 1889 Umatilla County Courthouse
Tax money from wheat farming and cattle ranching helped finance this 1889 Umatilla County Courthouse. (Oregon State Archives image no. OAE0026)
Eastern Oregon farmers also saw growth based on the railroads. Hoping to capitalize on a captive market, some farmers followed gold miners to eastern Oregon in the early 1860s, only to suffer when the mines played out in the late 1860s and 1870s. But with the construction of the railroad through the Columbia Plateau in the late 1870s, a booming wheat farming region took root. The climate, soil and proximity to the railroad all favored growth. Soon branch line railroads added further access—Umatilla County alone boasted more than 200 miles of track in 1893. Other areas of the wheat belt also benefited, stretching west to the Sherman County wheat farms surrounding Grass Valley, Shaniko, and Moro. The large and flat or gently rolling farms of the Columbia Plateau showcased the potential of new agricultural machines. By the 1890s most wheat in the region was threshed by steam-powered machines that were transported from farm to farm by commercial operators. New towns developed to serve the local farm families and a growing number of transient farm and ranch laborers with stores, grain warehouses and saloons. Footnote 2

A photo of Peter French
Peter French
With more farmers, ranchers and sheepherders moving onto the public land of central and eastern Oregon, conflicts were bound to arise. In the 1860s cattle ranchers moved into eastern Oregon to provide meat for the thousands of gold miners. But by the early 1880s, sheep ranches were setting up on land the cattle ranchers previously had to themselves. Claiming the sheep ruined the grazing land by cropping the grass too short, many cattle ranchers routinely shot sheep on sight, a practice that obviously raised tensions. In the last years of the century, owners of huge ranches in Harney County quarreled with new small farmers and ranchers over the right to use the land. The large ranchers claimed the newcomers were destined to fail in an environment naturally suited for large ranches. The small farmers and ranchers countered that the cattle barons were monopolizing more land than they had a right to.

Extraction Industries

A postcard image of Bridal Veil Falls logging camp
A postcard image of Bridal Veil Falls logging camp. (Image courtesy iinet.com) Enlarge image.
Logging, mining and fishing experienced increased mechanization in the late 1800s. Although not approaching the heights of production the industry would see in the 20th century, logging productivity grew as steam locomotives moved down new narrow-gauge tracks into previously inaccessible areas. Stationary engines with winches, called steam donkeys, were used to yard logs from the stump to the railway where they could be hauled to a steam-operated mill. Increasingly large lumber mills used expensive new equipment designed to rationalize the process and boost production, running multiple band saws all day long to cut the huge old growth timber. By the 1890s, Oregon was shipping a large portion of its export timber by railroad as opposed to steamship. The lumber provided building material for a rapidly growing U.S. population, including the midwestern centers of Denver, Omaha and St. Louis. But new industrial techniques favored clear-cut practices in which nearly all trees were removed or damaged. The bare hillsides were left to the ravages of erosion. Moreover, the clear-cutting removed riparian cover, causing stream temperatures to rise dangerously high for fish. Likewise, splash dams that were used to float logs out of forests damaged salmon runs by blocking access to spawning grounds and scouring important habitat. Footnote 4

A water cannon blasting rocks from hillside for gold mining
A water cannon blasts rocks from hillsides for gold mining. (Image courtesy Online Archive of California) Enlarge image.

Gold discoveries in eastern Oregon's Blue Mountains beginning in 1861 brought boom times as tens of thousands of miners streamed into the region hoping to strike it rich. Auburn, now a ghost town, grew almost instantly to 5,000 people. Canyon City ballooned to 5,000 people as well. Baker City, spurred early on by mining and later by the building of the railroad, gained a reputation by the 1890s as the "Denver of Oregon." During this period, it was one of the more colorful towns in the Pacific Northwest as miners, ranchers, cowboys and sheepherders mingled with gamblers and dance hall girls. By 1900 it was the trading center for a vast region and the largest city between Salt Lake City and Portland. As the placer or surface mining waned, new and more expensive equipment was needed to extract gold ore efficiently. In the process, lone prospectors were replaced by mining crews working for large companies. While creating great wealth for some, mechanized mining used techniques that were disastrous to the environment. Hydraulic mining washed away entire hillsides and sent massive amounts of sediment into previously pristine streams. Mercury used in the mining process poisoned streams. Meanwhile, miners stripped hillsides of trees that were used to shore up mine shafts. The denuded landscape allowed tons of debris to run into streams. Footnote 5

A postcard image of a fishwheel on the Columbia River
A postcard image of a fish wheel on the Columbia River. Fish wheels were so efficient that they depleted salmon runs. (Image courtesy iinet.com) Enlarge image.
Salmon fishing and canning also took advantage of new machinery and techniques in the last decades of the 1800s. While salmon canneries operated on the Umpqua, Nestucca and other coastal rivers, the most production came from those along the mighty Columbia River. After a modest start in 1866, cannery production quickly ramped up to serve markets in the eastern U.S. and Europe. By 1883 there were 55 canneries operating on the lower Columbia River alone, all profiting from the fact that canned salmon could be shipped long distances and sold at prices attractive to working-class families. Feeding the canneries were several efficient methods of "mining" the fish from the river during the annual salmon runs. Equipment included fish traps, seines and gill nets, but the fish wheels proved to be the most ingenious—and destructive. These were water-powered nets that automatically scooped up salmon and funneled them into the wheel before dropping them into a holding bin. The methods were so efficient that catches of the valuable Chinook salmon peaked by 1883, presaging the massive declines of salmon generally early in the next century.Footnote 6

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  1. Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon Blue Book 2007-2008, Oregon History Section by Prof. Stephen Dow Beckham (Salem, Oregon, Oregon Secretary of State, 2007) 358.
  2. David Peterson Del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003) 102.
  3. Ibid., 103-104.
  4. Ibid., 100, 106-107.
  5. Oregon Secretary of State, Oregon Blue Book 2007-2008, Oregon History Section by Prof. Stephen Dow Beckham (Salem, Oregon, Oregon Secretary of State, 2007) 359; David Peterson Del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003) 100-101, 106.
  6. "The Oregon History Project : Political and Economic Culture, 1870-1920: New Salmon Markets," Oregon Historical Society Web Site, viewed July 19, 2007. <http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/narratives/subtopic.cfm?subtopic_ID=53>