Oregon History: Mixed Blessings

Industrial Workers of the World songbook
The IWW used songs and heroic imagery to promote its cause. (Image courtesy VCU Libraries)
Progressivism waned with the onset of World War I. Oregonians and other Americans began to tire of crusades. The entry into the Great War tested the resolution to continue problem-solving. Peace and commitment to its maintenance were casualties of both the war and the postwar world.
Industrial strife mounted when worker expectations remained unrealized as prosperity increased after 1900. Alienated, fearful, and distrustful of the establishment, some workers gravitated toward the Socialist Party and militant labor unions. The West Coast Shingle Weaver's Union as chartered by the American Federation of Labor and the International Union of Shingle Weavers, Sawmill Workers, and Woodsmen sought recruits. The Industrial Workers of the World grew by the thousands when disgruntled loggers and mill workers enlisted in its ranks. Known to most by its initials, IWW, the union was perceived by management as the "I Won't Work" contingent. Free speech fights, confrontations, strikes, and demands for better working conditions and higher wages became the tense legacy of workers and management on the eve of World War I.
Illustrative of the tensions were the vigilante actions of the businessmen of Bandon. In 1913, enraged by the publication of Social Justice, they seized its editor and publisher. Dr. Bailey K. Leach had used his newspaper to denounce vigilantism, the Boy Scouts of America as a paramilitary organization, and perceived thought control in the public library, which refused to accession Socialist literature. A mob grabbed Dr. Leach, placed a noose around his neck, and "deported" him from Bandon. Beaten and left barefoot on the North Spit at Coos Bay, having been compelled to kneel and kiss the American flag, he walked through the sand dunes and up the Umpqua River to the office of Governor Oswald West to complain of his treatment. An investigation mounted by the State Supreme Court led to the disbarment of an attorney in Marshfield. Leach was lucky. When IWW organizer Wesley Everest was deported in similar fashion from Coos Bay, he went to Centralia, Washington, to promote the union. In 1919 he was seized by a mob, castrated, and hanged from a railroad bridge. No one was charged with Everest's murder. To many, the rousing hymn of the IWW, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," justified violations of civil liberties and the law.
WWI soldiers wearing gas masks
As American soldiers marched through a gas shelled French town, World War I was bringing a boom-bust cycle to the Oregon economy. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Learn more about the experiences of Oregonians during World War I, both on the battle fronts and on the home front.
To counter the growth of labor unions and the Socialist Party, the federal government took control of spruce production in western Oregon and Washington. Deemed an essential material for airplane manufacturing, spruce became the assignment of the U.S. Army's Spruce Production Division. It assumed responsibilities for logging, lumbering, and filling orders. In 1917 General Brice P. Disque took command of troops who erected mills at Coquille and Toledo, Oregon, and Vancouver and Port Gamble, Washington. The Spruce Division produced 54 million board feet of airplane wing beams in Oregon and left a modern electrical sawmill and extensive railroad network in Lincoln County, which, in time, passed into private ownership.
The federal government also created the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen. Ostensibly an employer-employee union, the 4-Ls recruited thousands of workers who pledged not to strike and to help the nation in its production of war materials. The Emergency Fleet Corporation, a federal agency, contracted with yards to turn out vessels for the war effort. Shipbuilders in Portland, Astoria, Tillamook, and Marshfield produced steel and wooden-hull vessels for the EFC. Fort Stevens at Warrenton took on new life since its primary construction during the Civil War and Spanish-American War. Troops drilled and trained on its parade grounds; some departed with other Oregonians for service on the battlefields of Europe.
World War I was a mixed blessing for Oregon. Initially it stimulated the economy with the production of war materials, foodstuffs, and ships, but it set the stage for the collapse of shipbuilding and the falloff of lumber production in the 1920s. Everywhere were signs of trouble: few housing starts, instability in banking, speculation in the stock market, and migration. More than 50,000 people left Oregon following World War I. Opportunities beckoned elsewhere.
[Also see Oregon at War! World War I and the Oregon Experience, a Web exhibit by the Oregon State Archives]
In a sense, Oregon made their transit possible. Between 1911 and 1922 state, county, and local funds helped build the Columbia River Highway. The Columbia Gorge section, designed by Samuel Lancaster, an engineer brought in from Tennessee for the assignment, ran eastward with gentle grades and sensitive integration with the environment to open access to scenic waterfalls, hiking trails, and spectacular vistas between Portland and The Dalles. Modern construction techniques including steel-reinforced poured-concrete bridges created the region's first paved highway. In 1913 Oregon created the State Highway Commission. Four years later it expanded its membership and the legislature began steady appropriations to "Get Oregon Out of the Mud." The "good roads" campaign took on real life in 1919 when Oregon enacted a gasoline tax. The first state in the country to pay for roads through a gas tax, Oregon embraced the automobile age and began construction of the Pacific Highway. From its crossing at the Interstate Bridge across the Willamette, the route ran south via the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue Valleys to California. Paved in concrete, its gentle course ran through productive farmlands, crossed rivers on major bridges, wended its way up the slopes of the Siskiyous, and confirmed Oregon's commitment to good roads.
postcard of the Columbia River Highway
The success of the Columbia River Highway inspired Oregon leaders to improve other state and local roads in the 1920s. Shown above, tourists take in the panoramic view looking east from Crown Point in the Columbia River Gorge. (Oregon State Archives image, Postcards, Accession 88A-057)
Learn more about life in Oregon in the 1920s and 1930s.
Road construction led to legislation in 1921 promoted by Governor Ben Olcott to authorize the State Highway Commission to acquire rights-of-way for scenic conservation and roadside forest preserves. In 1922 the state accepted the gift of Sarah Helmick State Park in Polk County. These actions received legislative direction in 1925 with authorization to acquire lands for park purposes for waysides and natural areas. Governor I.L. Patterson in 1929 named the first State Park Commission, which worked with Samuel H. Boardman, the state parks engineer, for building a land base of state-owned park properties.
Although highway construction helped one sector of the economy, the advent of automobile traffic sounded the death knell for steamboats on the rivers and, in time, Oregon's electrical railroad system. The Oregon Electric Railway operated daily trains over 122 miles of track by 1912 between Portland and Eugene. A "No Soot-No Cinders" route, the commuter line also ran west to Forest Grove. The Southern Pacific's Red Electric began connections in 1914. It ran from Portland to Corvallis via Lake Oswego and Newberg. A branch line swung west to Hillsboro, Forest Grove, and McMinnville. For a time, travelers had the choice of ten departures from Portland and at least two from McMinnville. The efficiency of the electrics and the interurban lines was eclipsed by cars and buses. The 1920s were a time of transition. Smells of draft animals and the clacking sound of horseshoes mixed with the swift movement of electrical railroads and gasoline-driven cars and trucks. In time the familiar "Galloping Goose," the solitary passenger-mail car that ran on many of Oregon's short lines, disappeared. Residents of Friend, Shaniko, Prairie City, Cherry Grove, Bull Run, and other small towns would have to travel by road, not rail.
Wartime stress, emphasis on patriotism, distrust of German-Americans, eugenics campaigns championed by Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair, and anti-Catholic bigotry created fertile ground in Oregon for the rise of the American Protective Association, Federation of Patriotic Societies, and the Ku Klux Klan. With a combined membership estimated at more than 64,000 Oregonians, these organizations fed on the fear and distrust of residents in a period of social flux and uncertainty. Although minorities were few in number, racism and bigotry were imported ideas. They came with newcomers from other parts of the country and grew in soil that already nurtured suspicion and tendencies to vigilante action. Chapters of the Ku Klux Klan formed in Tillamook, Medford, Eugene, and Portland, and many other towns. Robed Klansmen paraded in the streets, ignited crosses on hillsides, nailed American flags to the doors of Catholic schools, and intimidated African-Americans.
movie poster for Birth of a Nation
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie “The Birth of a Nation” helped inspire a “second era” of the Ku Klux Klan in many places across the country. The Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a warm reception from many Oregon communities in the 1920s as Catholics and minorities suffered blatant and subtle bigotry. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
The Klan, FOPS, and Scottish Rite Masons sponsored a bill, passed in 1922 in the general election, to compel all children to attend public schools. The overtly anti-Catholic measure threatened to close all parochial schools and military academies. The state Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in 1924 and the U.S. Supreme Court concurred in 1925. The Ku Klux Klan found a strange champion in the Oregon legislature. Kaspar K. Kubli, speaker of the House of Representatives, happened to possess winning initials and became a rallying point for efforts to drive through the Alien Property Act of 1923. The law prohibited Japanese from purchasing or leasing land in Oregon. The legislature also passed a law forbidding wearing of sectarian clothing, namely priestly vestments or nuns' habits, in classrooms.
A number of historians have written about the flaws of the 1920s and the nation's serious engagement with public-sanctioned bigotry. While some laws were overt, more went on quietly but consistently. Oregon Indians, who became citizens of the United States in 1924, were forbidden to purchase alcohol, though some applied for a special card that certified their entitlement to drink. Oregon realtors declined to sell homes in certain areas to minorities. Oregon developers wrote into deeds restrictive covenants that prohibited holding ducks and geese and sale of the house and land to anyone of Chinese or Japanese ancestry. Large neighborhoods of Portland--Garthwick, Dunthorpe, Eastmoreland, Westmoreland--and Lake Oswego were kept "white" for decades by subtle but effective discrimination.
One of the hard-fought agendas of the 1920s was the encouragement of public power. In 1930 Oregonians approved the creation of public utility districts. The action shook some of the well-established utility companies, for they now faced the prospect that if their rates and actions were out of line with public interest, voters could set up their own company, and vie for hydropower rights on a stream or build a sawdust-fired electrical plant and offer service to consumers.
The 1920s were a period of rapid adjustment from wartime preparedness and boom to an uneven and deteriorating economy. Oregon moved from progressivism to the rise of selfish interests and secret societies that threatened liberties and promoted bigotry. Yet, in spite of following strange paths, the state laid the foundation of a fine highway system, state parks, and competitive rates for electrical power.