Oregon History: Emerging Economies

Farming and stockraising were mainstays of the Oregon economy in the late 1800s. Shown above are cattle in a field near St. Paul. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Natural resources drove economic development. A popular song said: "There'll be apples on each branch in Oregon; there'll be valleys filled with golden grain. There'll be cattle on each ranch in Oregon; and there'll be plenty of sun and rain." Farming, stockraising, mining, fishing, and logging became mainstays. Land became the target. The trick was to find, coax, extricate, and harvest everything useful the state had to offer, provided it was possible to get it to market.
Farmers took their oxen with plows and harrows into the prairies of the Rogue, Umpqua, and Willamette Valleys to turn the sod and sow crops. They raised wheat, oats, barley, corn, and potatoes. Swampy lands at Cipole, Gaston, and Lake Labish produced fabulous onions. In time experimentation led to specialty crops: hops for making malt in the brewing business, flax for linen manufacturing, hemp for paper and rope, and grapes for wine. Oregon farmers by the 1880s went wild for prunes. Thousands of acres of hillside lands were opened and groomed as orchards. Investors erected prune dryers and flooded the world market with more prunes than could be consumed. Some directed their energies next into filberts, walnuts, turkey raising, and hog production. The agricultural potentials of western Oregon were varied.
Stockraising attracted a number of investors. Dairy farmers began their workday before sunrise and were still milking cows after sunset. Their cows grazed on the meadows surrounding Tillamook Bay, Nestucca, Salmon River, Coos Bay, Coquille River, and in the Willamette Valley. The sprawling hinterlands of Oregon--two-thirds of the state laying beyond the Cascades--became cattle, sheep, and horse country in the 19th century. The dramatic rise of livestock production occurred between 1862 and 1882. It responded to the presence of hungry men in the mines of the Blue Mountains, transcontinental railroad connections in Nevada with boxcars and refrigerator cars to haul meat to major cities, woolen mills demanding material for their spindles, and land amenable to pastoral labors. Pete French, Ben Snipes, David Shirk, John S. Devine, W.B. Todhunter, Dr. Bernard Daly, and others became barons of the ranges. By strategically gaining control of springs, streambanks, and lake margins, they were able to run their vast herds on the public domain without competition. David Shirk's herds ranged up and down Guano Valley. Devine and Todhunter ran the Whitehorse Ranch in the Pueblo Valley. Pete French, whose kingdom lay at the base of Steens Mountain, was gunned down by an angry homesteader in 1897. The jury trying the alleged murderer ruled that French had died of "natural causes"--a bullet in the head. There was no conviction.
long barn near Frenchglen
The long barn at the sprawling P Ranch along the  Donner und Blitzen River in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Frenchglen. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Smaller producers also came into Trans-Cascadia. Some tended herds of sheep--as many as 5,000 in a flock--in lonely labor. The work entailed months driving the sheep to summer range at high elevation, backbreaking days of shearing and wrestling wool bales onto wagons, and marking and doctoring the critters. Sheep and cattle raisers did not mix. Angry words sometimes led to gunshots that felled livestock and nearly plunged Central Oregon partisans into a cycle of sheep and cattle wars. Basque and Mexican shepherds brought their skills to Jordan Valley, Catlow Valley, and Treasure Valley. Some filed on homesteads. Donato Uvernaga and Simon Acordagoitia, Basques who settled on the Owyhee, hand-dug canals and built a hulking waterwheel. The steady current lifted metal buckets of life-giving water from the river to nourish the fields these immigrants cleared of sagebrush deep in the canyons below the Mahogany Mountains.
Mining shifted rapidly from placer deposits to lode claims. In that transition, the mining moved from an individual to a corporate enterprise, for shared capital and risk were usually necessary to open adits, erect a shaft house, install a stamp mill or flotation table, and hire the crews necessary to operate a mine. Cooks and flunkies produced the grub served in the mess hall. Miners rode the ore buckets or climbed rickety ladders into the mine. The company engineer or mine manager directed the flow of ore through the processing plants. Oregon's 19th century ventures included gold mines in the Bohemia District of the Western Cascades, Siskiyous, and Blue Mountains. Much of the gold and silver produced in Oregon and farther east in Idaho flowed through Portland, stimulating the development of the state's largest city. Between 1864 and 1870, for example, $29.8 million in mineral wealth passed through Portland. Between 1852 and 1964, Oregon produced an estimated $136 million in gold and silver. Approximately 73% came from the mines of Baker and Grant Counties.
Quicksilver mines tapped deposits in Lane and Douglas Counties. Brave miners engaged in the risky business of smelting the ores to fill flasks of mercury at London, Nonpareil, Milltown Hill, and other small communities that grew up at the mine portals. In the 1880s Will Q. Brown opened nickel deposits at Riddle in the South Umpqua Valley. Over the next 90 years this mine produced more than $1 billion in nickel while generating an important payroll for Douglas County.
The need for fuel for steam engines drove Oregon's coal mining industry. Steam schooners, locomotives, donkey engines, and mill equipment depended on cheap, plentiful coal. The mines at Coos Bay opened in 1853 and for nearly a century the coal fields of the lower Coquille River and Coos Bay fired Oregon industry and helped heat San Francisco. The Beaver Hill Mine, one of the largest on the coast, had shafts reaching nearly 1,100 feet below sea level. The Coos Bay, Roseburg & Eastern Railroad moved coal from the mines to the bunkers at Coos Bay where it was loaded on steamers that would take it to distant markets.
photograph of horses being used to haul in fish
Horse seine fishing on the Columbia River. (Oregon State Archives No. OHD1296)
Salmon annually filled the rivers. Some say the runs were so thick that it was possible to walk dryshod across the streams! Robert Deniston Hume grasped the potential. His brothers were pioneer cannery operators on the Sacramento and, starting in 1867, on the Columbia River. In 1876, Hume settled at the mouth of the Rogue River. By bravado and cunning, he carved out such an empire that, in time, he was referred to as a "pygmy monopolist." Hume gained ownership of both banks of the river from the Pacific upstream to the head of tidewater. This holding made it impossible for any competitor to land a boat or draw nets filled with fish without trespassing on his land. In time Hume constructed a company town--Wedderburn--where he ran a cannery, store, race track, and cold storage plant. His vessels, the Alexander Duncan, Berwick, and Mary D. Hume, transported his catch to markets. Hume became a pioneer in the hatchery business when in 1877 he began experimenting with raising fish on Indian Creek near the mouth of the Rogue River.
Canneries at Coos Bay, Umpqua River, Kernville, and the Nestucca River processed the runs on the coastal streams. Canneries lined the banks of the Columbia between The Dalles and the sea. Samuel Elmore, Ben Young, Frank Warren, and Frank Seufert were major players in the salmon canning business. The trick was to move quickly when new technology gave advantage. Laborers caught the fish in traps, seine nets, set nets, and at fishwheels whose paddles scooping with the current pulled salmon, sturgeon, eels, and steelhead from the river and dumped them into fish boxes headed for a cannery.
Transportation systems were central to the future of most investments and profits in Oregon enterprise. Packet service and schooners carried passengers and freight along the coast. Sternwheelers picked up and delivered milk on the estuaries and carried commerce and passengers on most of the larger streams. Steamboats plied the Willamette, transforming landings into sites for warehouses, grist mills, and small towns. Steamboats traversed Upper Klamath Lake and Goose Lake, taking children to school and tourists or shoppers to specific destinations. Investors constructed steamboats above the Cascades for water travel on the Columbia east to The Dalles and also on the upper river above Celilo Falls with connections to the mouth of the Snake and on to Lewiston, Idaho.
Packing companies and teamsters responded to the needs of mining communities and residents of distant communities. Outfitted with mules and horses, they carried the food, clothing, and tools demanded by the miners in Canyon City, Auburn, and Baker City or the farmers along Crooked River and Ochoco Creek. Teamsters like Henry H. Wheeler braved blizzards in winter and scorching heat in summer to carry mail, passengers, and freight across the Columbia Plateau and into the mountains of eastern Oregon.
photograph of stagecoach carrying mail
Overland transportation was often rough and dirty. Shown above is Ed Campbell Stage carrying mail from Wapinitia to Prineville in 1896. (Image courtesy Jefferson County Historical Society Museum)
Railroads heralded the most significant advances in transportation. Between 1855 and 1862 Joseph Ruckel and Harrison Olmstead laid the foundation. They hired men, secured a right-of-way, and constructed roadbed and trestles for a horse-drawn cart to travel their "railway" along the Oregon shore at the Cascade Rapids of the Columbia. They were locked in bitter competition with Bradford & Company, competitors on the north bank. Pressing against both firms was the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, which had developed in the 1850s a significant hold on steamboat service on the lower Willamette and Columbia Rivers. In 1860 Jacob Kamm, John C. Ainsworth, and other investors in the OSN Company incorporated and in rapid steps bought out the Bradfords, Ruckel, and Olmstead. Holding the critical sea-level portages through the Columbia Gorge, they were ready to craft a major transportation system. Within months they accomplished their goal.
The OSN Company, one of the state's first large corporations, developed an intricate system of steamboats, portage railroads, and freight lines that gave it a hold on much of the commerce of the Pacific Northwest. It also built Oregon's first railroad. In 1862, as word of rich mines in the interior hit the front pages of newspapers, Ainsworth was in San Francisco purchasing rails and a small locomotive, the Oregon Pony, for shipment to the Gorge. Within a few months, workers transformed the old cart-rail system of Ruckel and Olmstead into Oregon's first railroad line--a five-mile route from Tanner Creek to the head of the Cascades. Other crews had taken on the bigger task of building a railroad for 14 miles from The Dalles to Celilo. Although its investors sold a major interest to the Northern Pacific in 1872, they bought back the shares following the Panic of 1873. They finally sold out in 1880. Those who held stock in the OSN Company were worth millions. Their daring and commitment had played a major role in helping anchor Portland as a hub of commerce and trade in the Pacific Northwest.
photograph of Ben Holladay
Ben Holladay was a major force in the development of stage and railroad transportation in Oregon. Learn more about Holladay. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Railroads provided critical links to Oregon towns. In many instances they created towns. In 1880 Henry Villard headed a group of investors who bought out the OSN Company. Their firm, the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company, built a railroad along the south bank of the Columbia east to the Umatilla River. In 1883, having gained control of the Northern Pacific, Villard created Oregon's first transcontinental link with the OR&N. His Oregon Short Line Railroad ran southeast over the Blue Mountains to Huntington and in 1884 joined a connection into Idaho to the Union Pacific. This provided a second transcontinental connection for the state.
Construction of the Oregon & California Railroad, a north-south line to run from Portland to the Sacramento Valley, was a long-desired goal but its completion proved frustrating. Driven by a fabulous land grant of nearly five million acres from Congress, rival companies vied for the right to construct the route. Ben Holladay, operator of the Overland Mail and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, ultimately prevailed. He formed the Oregon & California Railroad Company, sold bonds, and began building. The line reached Roseburg in 1872 and then stopped. Bad times in national finances were part of the problem. Poor potentials for returns on exceedingly expensive construction into the Rogue River Valley and over the Siskiyou Mountains were another. Construction resumed in 1882 and ultimately linked the line into the Southern Pacific system in California.
The primary lines of the OR&N to the interior and the O&C through the western Oregon valleys encouraged logging, lumber manufacturing, export of wool and livestock, and sale of fruit, cereal crops, and other agricultural commodities to a vastly expanded market. The primary lines also encouraged two generations of smaller operators such as T. Egenton Hogg to dream of connecting units or even of new transcontinental linkages. Hogg managed in the 1880s to build a line from salt water at Yaquina City over the Coast Range and east via the Santiam as far as Detroit. The route of his Oregon Pacific Railroad appeared on maps in the 1890s but it never reached the Deschutes or the Harney Basin, where speculators laid out towns in anticipation of its arrival.
The pieces were mostly in place by the latter 19th century for the state to sustain steady growth. Oregon had a resource-dependent economy driven by exploitation of fish, timber, minerals, and agricultural lands. The state had steamboats, stage lines, pack teams, and railroads to serve residents of small towns as well as emerging cities. Oregon's population grew steadily. At statehood in 1859 Oregon had 52,465 residents. The figure more than tripled to 174,768 in 1880, and reached 413,536 in 1900.