Company Town

A smoke stack maybe 500 ft or taller, reaches to the sky above a single story building below.
The smokestack at the old Edward Hines Lumber Company mill in Hines. The company established several Oregon lumber towns, including Westfir, Dee, and Seneca. (Oregon State Archives, 2014) Enlarge Image
Many of Oregon’s ghost towns were “company towns” - communities where housing and most or all businesses are owned by a single company. The company is also the town’s main (if not only) employer. Popular in the 1800s, these pre-planned communities housed workers in hard-to-reach locations. They were typified by extraction industries, especially lumber, mines, and manufacturing. Companies tended to run their towns as monopolies and tolerated no competition.

While most were simply residences and a mill, they often featured schools and amenities like churches or recreation centers. Some grew and became regular towns, while others died when the company closed shop. Most of these towns benefited from “corporate paternalism.” In this system, business owners provided a standard of living for their workers. In exchange, owners demanded hard work, general sobriety, and the promise of not unionizing. The system had its drawbacks, and many company towns suffered from a history of worker exploitation and a severe lack of democratic representation.

A coin with the words "Good for 1.00 in Trade" printed on the surface.
A 1900s one dollar Kinzua Pine Mill company town coin. (Courtesy of Oregon Department of Forestry)
By the 1920s, most company towns were either gone or in decline. Car ownership in particular ended the isolation of most company towns, as workers no longer needed to live on-site. Americans also began to see paternalistic “welfare capitalism” as demeaning. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal dealt a major blow to these companies by raising the minimum wage and pushing hard for working-class home ownership.

At their peak around the beginning of the 1900s, over 2,000 company towns housed around 3% of the U.S. population. Over 30 of these towns operated in Oregon, mostly east of the Cascades. Nearly all were centered on logging or lumber production. As they disappeared, most were replaced by tree farms growing new acres of Douglas firs.