A State of Change: Oregon After World War II

In Search of Peace and Prosperity

A truck with chemical spray
The use of chemicals in farming accelerated in postwar years, leading to increased production. (Photo no. OAG613, Agriculture Dept. Records, OSA)
Enlarge image
Oregonians looked forward with great anticipation as World War II drew to a close. They endured over 15 years of the Depression and war and wanted nothing more than to live the "American Dream" so long postponed. While they faced significant challenges, most Oregonians found their much desired peace and prosperity in the next 15 years. After a few early sputters immediately following the war, the economy grew along with the population. Faith in American ingenuity and technology fueled much of the growth as mechanization and economies of scale helped the state's farms and factories reach unheard of productivity. New chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides combined with improved irrigation and farm machinery to revolutionize farming. Likewise, chainsaws and logging trucks, along with bigger and more efficient lumber and plywood mills drove big gains in the wood products industry. These advances, coupled with rapid highway and power system expansions, helped Oregonians build a relatively stable prosperity through the 1950s.Footnote 1

Changes Down on the Farm

The focus on bigger, more mechanized farms accelerated a demographic shift from rural to urban that had begun decades earlier. The process became a vicious cycle for many small farmers who could not compete with larger farms that used huge tractors and combines and applied significant amounts of chemicals to their crops. Most small farmers couldn't hope to afford or get loans for the new technologies. Worse, profits proved elusive as prices for many farm products fell with the increased productivity brought by mechanization and farm chemicals. Many small farmers sold out to their larger neighboring farms or to the increasingly prominent corporate farms. Some went to work as employees of the larger farms but most found new ways to make a living. Those farms that survived the modernization trend generally prospered during the period. Overall farm acreage increased, largely a result of vast new stretches of irrigated land in eastern Oregon.

2 women stand in a field watching farm machinery harvest the field.
Farm machinery increased in size and number in the 1950s. With fewer farm laborers needed, many rural Oregonians migrated to towns and cities. (Photo no. 3040, Highway Dept. Records, OSA) Enlarge image
The drop in rural farm population caused problems for some small communities. Larger farms supported only a fraction of the laborers previously needed as dozens of men and horses could be replaced by one large tractor and operator. Moreover, other forces conspired to drain away the population as wide gaps between farm and non-farm incomes drove many farm children to leave for brighter horizons in towns and cities. From 1950 to 1960 many Oregon farm towns lost residents. For example, Scotts Mills dropped 28.1%; Yamhill lost 21.1%; and Brownsville lost 26.4%. Some communities closed their local schools to district consolidations and watched their children ride off in buses to larger schools miles away; others lost banks, stores, and cafes as fewer customers came to town for services.Footnote 2

Booming Timber Industry

Timber industries saw dramatic change in the years after World War II. Increased demand resulted from the unprecedented housing boom of postwar America. Millions of people across the country applied their considerable war savings, G.I. Bill loans, and other resources to owning their own homes. The phenomenon was good news for those making their livings in Oregon's forests and mills. As earlier seen in Wisconsin, Washington, and elsewhere, timber companies first depleted the resources of an area and then moved on to virgin territory. Logging operations shifted from the largely consumed stands of old growth timber in northwestern Oregon to the south where Lane, Douglas, and Coos counties offered thick forests of Douglas fir and other desirable species stretching over the horizons. With these new stands available, timber production grew sharply through the late 1940s and early 1950s, before stabilizing at about nine million board feet per year. Technology was at the heart of much of the production gains. Chainsaws slashed the time needed to fell and cut up trees. Tractors and other equipment helped to move the cut logs to loading sites quickly. And bigger equipment cut thousands of logging roads to rugged and remote locations making for easy access by log trucks.Footnote 3

A piece of road making equipment like a tractor sits on a gravel road.
Road graders and other heavy equipment cut thousands of new roads into Oregon's forest lands in the 1950s, providing unprecedented access for legions of loggers. (Separated Photographs, Forestry Dept. Records, OSA) Enlarge image
There was plenty of work for large and small timber and mill operations during the period. New logging roads meant an end to dependence on logging railroads and large scale camps needed to house loggers, which required huge investments. Instead, small operators, known as "gyppos" commuted to work on smaller, more accessible tracts of timberland. Their investment was relatively modest, often consisting of a small inventory of log trucks, tractors, chainsaws and related equipment. Considering the money to be made, local bankers were more than willing to loan money to most gyppos. Small lumber and veneer mills thrived during the period as well, often sending semi-finished products to larger mills or specializing in niche markets such as railroad ties.Footnote 4

But by the late 1950s, these small operators were beginning to feel the pinch. New and more expensive harvesting and milling technologies were needed to compete. The smaller stands of timber available to the gyppos became increasingly hard to find. Lumber markets became more consolidated, often to the detriment of small operators. And new government regulations began to drive up the cost of doing business. Small wood products operators were being marginalized just as small farmers had been.

Photo of truck with trees loaded on the back sits on a dusty road. A shack type building is in the background & telephone poles.
Gyppo loggers exploited smaller, more accessible stands of timber during the 1950s. (Image no. HSTC146, courtesy Salem Public Library, Special Collections)
Enlarge image
Meanwhile, large corporations, such as Weyerhauser and Georgia-Pacific, were applying vertical integration techniques to the timber industry. The companies bought huge stands of timber, employed armies of loggers and log truck drivers, and operated massive mills with hundreds of workers. These operations dominated the economies of many small communities, and they brought prosperity--as long as the timber supply held out. However, the decline of the gyppos and the domination of the highly concentrated corporate interests made trouble for timber communities in the coming decades. Still, new technologies were developing to postpone the decline. For example, pulp and paper, plywood, and hardboard mills began making better use of lesser quality wood and wood waste materials that previously would have been burned. During this time, Lebanon became home to the largest plywood mill under one roof in the world.Footnote 5

Transportation Growth Triggers New Development Patterns

Transportation developments, while generally spurring on economic growth, delivered a mixed bag for many Oregon communities. By the late 1940s, the pent-up demand for automobiles caused by curtailed wartime production was finally being satisfied and motor vehicle registrations climbed. Even more than before, cars, and the mobility they provided, took a central place in American social and cultural trends. Encouraged by governments on every level, old roads and highways throughout Oregon were improved, with many being widened, straightened, or paved for the first time. New roads, highways, and bridges moved from the drawing board to construction as the number of miles of state highways and county roads shot up sharply. Many of these took commuters to new suburban developments and subdivisions, especially in the booming areas around Portland. Beaverton grew by over 165% from 1950 to 1960; Milwaukie shot up over 72%; and Oswego ballooned by nearly 168%.Footnote 6

Photo of a 4 lane highway with 1 car traveling away from us.
Federal aid fueled construction of freeways across the country in the decades after World War II. Shown here is Interstate 80N near Mayer State Park along the Columbia River. (Photo no. 6624, Highway Dept. Records, OSA) Enlarge image
The federal government played a central role in developing Oregon's road and highway system. Congress extended federal road aid to urban areas beginning in 1944. And it raised the percentage of federal contribution to highway construction in the 1950s. But the big change came in 1956 when Congress authorized the interstate highway system and contributed 90% of construction costs. The rise of these four lane limited access highways transformed growth patterns. Depending on the alignment of the freeway, some towns boomed while others busted. New businesses such as service stations, cafes, and motels sprang up around interchanges. Meanwhile, many small downtowns began to decline, unable to compete against bigger towns and cities with more varied and lower priced goods. Some farms and communities were bisected by the freeway as people who formerly drove a mile down the road to see their neighbors, now found themselves driving 10 miles to the nearest overpass.Footnote 7

Tourists Flock to Oregon

New roads and highways catered to the wanderlust of Oregonians and tourists from around the country. New cars, cheap gas, smooth roads, and beautiful Oregon scenery brought record numbers of tourists to the state during the 1950s. Even before the end of World War II, Governor Snell and the Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission saw the value of drawing visitors to the state. And John Kelly, executive director of the commission, claimed in 1948 that "the tourist business in the Pacific Northwest can be developed into the Number One Industry." He offered advice for how to improve the industry:

2 men & woman in their 20's pose for a photo in their car as another woman with a camera stands outside the car. Mt. Hood behind
Tourists enjoy a sunny day in a convertible with Mt. Hood in the background. (Photo no. 2982, Highway Dept. Records, OSA) Enlarge image
Throughout the 1950s, increasing numbers of Oregonians and out of state tourists visited the spectacular state parks along the coast, marveling at the crashing waves, hurtling down the sand dunes, and strolling on beaches. Others explored historic Highway 99, stopping at every tacky amusement park after succumbing to earnest pleading from their children. New or improved highways provided better access to the Cascade Mountains with fishing, camping, and other recreational opportunities. The centennial of Oregon statehood in 1959 attracted visitors from around the country as local communities from every corner of the state staged colorful festivities commemorating the event. Many Oregon men grew long beards and dressed in period costumes to help set the mood for the celebrations.

Dam Construction

In addition to a massive infusion of money for highways, the federal government contributed to Oregon's development in other ways. Jetties were built or extended along the coast and rivers were dredged for better navigation. But no federal investment compared in scope or impact with the dam construction on the Columbia, Willamette, and other rivers in the state. Development was driven by a powerful mix of political and business forces. Perhaps the strongest force behind the building of dams in the 1950s was the general mood of the times. With the undeniable power of the United States on the world stage, many Americans believed the nation was destined to succeed, that progress was inevitable, and that science and technology were the way forward. They harbored a belief that man could, and should, shape nature for the betterment of all. And most people were impressed with the results of earlier projects, such as the Bonneville Dam, that were built on the Columbia River in the 1930s.

Drawing of Detroit Dam with water flowing over the top & evergreen trees on the backs of the river.
An artist rendering of the Detroit Dam and Powerhouse on the North Santiam River east of Salem. Boosters promoted the huge amounts of electricity gained from such projects. The dam was completed in 1952. (Photo no. OWR0046, Water Resources Dept. Records, OSA)

Proponents released reams of studies, reports, and analyses--all very scientific--to bolster their arguments. Among other points, they hailed the ability of dams to control floods, citing the millions of dollars of damage regularly caused by rivers rampaging through towns and farms. They welcomed the millions of kilowatts of electricity to be generated while arguing that if Oregon didn't develop the power, someplace else would, leaving the state at a competitive disadvantage. One memorandum from 1944 promoting hydroelectric power argued, "it is very important to the Willamette basin to have this power program progress on an economic basis instead of letting our neighbors of Puget Sound, Spokane and Los Angeles force upon us some system which will deprive us of our natural economic advantage." Proponents also trumpeted the improvements to navigation that could follow the dams. Certainly barges on the Columbia River were to benefit from more full development of the river, but one optimistic suggestion saw projects "carrying navigation up the [Willamette] Valley as far as Eugene...." And, supporters pointed to opening up vast amounts of new and productive farm land through irrigation made possible by dams. For example, one projection claimed that "The [Willamette] Valley could easily be made to produce from $100,000,000 to $200,000,000 of dairy products if we could irrigate pasture and feed lands during the dry months." Further arguments focused on the recreational potential of large reservoirs created by dams.Footnote 9

Dozens of cars lined up on the bank of Detroit lake. Some with boat trailers attached to the back.
Boaters and campers flock to the edge of Detroit Reservoir in 1955. Dam proponents pointed to recreation as one of many reasons to build more. (Photographs, Box 1, Water Resources Dept. Records, OSA)
Despite the onslaught of pressure to build dams, the massive development of Oregon's rivers was not a foregone conclusion in the postwar years. Conservation groups, commercial and sport fishermen, Indian tribes, and others fought several dam proposals during the late 1940s. Among others, opponents tried to block the proposed McNary and The Dalles dams as well as the ambitious Willamette Valley Project that envisioned numerous dams on the Willamette River and its tributaries. Opponents railed against the loss of scenic rivers, the destruction of communities, and damage to fish habitat and migrating salmon. Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argued in 1946 for a ten-year moratorium on dam building on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers. But then the devastating 1948 Columbia River flood wiped Vanport off the map, leaving 15 people dead and 18,000 homeless. The disaster turned public and political opinions even more in favor of building dams to protect against future floods.Footnote 10

2 men, one holding a child, wade through water up to their waists. Cars flooded up to their windows stand in their way.
For many, the Vanport Flood in 1948 underscored the need for dams to aid in flood control.
Into the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers, despite ongoing protests and lawsuits, oversaw massive new dam building projects on both the Columbia and Willamette rivers. These included the John Day, McNary, and The Dalles dams on the main stem of the Columbia River as well as the Brownlee and Oxbow dams on the Snake River at the border with Idaho. The Willamette River and its tributaries were largely tamed during this period as well. The Middle Fork of the Willamette River saw the construction of Dexter, Lookout Point, and Hills Creek dams. And Congress appropriated tens of millions of dollars for Foster, Green Peter, Big Cliff, and Detroit dams on the forks of the Santiam River. Officials originally planned to build a huge dam on the McKenzie River but its reputation as a world-famous trout fishing stream saved it from being flooded by a reservoir. Testimony at Portland hearings about the proposed dam pointed to film actors, famed writers, and other notables who regularly fished the river. In an unusual victory for those who stood in the way of development, the Corps altered its plans and instead completed work on the smaller Cougar and Blue River dams along tributaries of the McKenzie River.Footnote 11

Related Documents

"Memorandum for Eric Allen Re: Columbia Basin Inter-Agency Commission," by John W. Kelly, April 28, 1948. Columbia Basin Folder , Box 1, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA. Includes a discussion of tourism issues.
Memorandum from W.D.B. Dodson to Clay Cochran, June 19, 1944. Columbia Dodson Folder , Box 3, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA. Includes discussion of various claimed benefits of dam construction.


  1. David Peterson del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003), Page 214.
  2. Oregon Blue Book, Oregon Secretary of State, 1961-1962, Pages 326-328.
  3. Gordon Dodds, Oregon: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1977), Page 210; David Peterson del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003), Pages 221-222. 
  4. David Peterson del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003), Pages 222-223.
  5. Ibid.; Gordon Dodds, Oregon: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1977), Pages 212-213.
  6. Oregon Blue Book, Oregon Secretary of State, 1961-1962, Pages 326-328.
  7. Gordon Dodds, Oregon: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1977), Page 216.
  8. "Memorandum for Eric Allen Re: Columbia Basin Inter-Agency Commission," by John W. Kelly, April 28, 1948. Columbia Basin Folder, Box 1, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA.
  9. Memorandum from W.D.B. Dodson to Clay Cochran, June 19, 1944. Columbia Dodson Folder, Box 3, Postwar Readjustment and Development Commission Records, OSA.
  10. "Oregon History Project: Postwar Readjustment," Oregon Historical Society website, viewed June 28, 2006.
  11. Oregon Blue Book, Oregon Secretary of State, 2005-2006, Page 359; "Oregon History Project: Postwar Readjustment," Oregon Historical Society website, viewed June 28, 2006.