Oregon History: Rapid Developments

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A veteran and his wife look at plans and dream about their future in their new home financed by a GI Bill loan. (Oregon State Archives image, Folder 14, Box 37, Defense Council Records)
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Postwar Oregon prospered. Although housing was short, residents made do. The GI Bill provided funding for a generation eager for higher education but blocked from the opportunity because of the Great Depression and World War II. College enrollments swelled as returning veterans and recent high school graduates settled down to earn degrees and pursue civilian careers. The state's college campuses grew in response to the increasing numbers of students. The legislature appropriated funds for new facilities at La Grande, Monmouth, Eugene, Klamath Falls, and Corvallis. From its beginnings at Vanport College, Portland State University emerged as a new urban campus in the state's largest city. In addition, the state's private colleges and universities likewise grew in enrollments and transformed from their sectarian origins to independent liberal arts institutions.
Savings that had accumulated during the war, low-interest FHA loans, and dramatic population growth in California fueled a booming logging and lumbering economy. Between 1945 and 1990 the state became a national leader in manufacture of forest products. For decades, Coos Bay held the title as the world's largest lumber shipping port. Oregon sawmills' wigwam burners belching smoke and sawdust cinders and heavily laden log trucks were icons for a thriving industry.
The infrastructure of roads, guard stations, and ranger stations--a legacy of labors by the CCC--improved forest access. The shift from custodial care of the national forests to full-scale harvest of timber was the most dramatic factor in the growth of logging and lumber manufacturing. Court rulings to take back the O&C Railroad grant in 1915 brought 2.3 million acres and an estimated 50 billion board feet of timber to federal control. In 1919 recapture of the Coos Bay Wagon Road grant brought back another 96,000 acres of virgin forest and 2.5 billion board feet of timber. The Stanfield Act of 1926 set a formula for the revenues, later revised in 1937 and 1953 by Congress. The final distribution called for 50% of the timber receipts from O&C and Coos Bay Wagon Road lands to go to western Oregon counties, 25% to the federal treasury, and 25% to the U.S. Forest Service or the BLM for reforestation. The demand for lumber and the vested interest of Oregon counties in securing income from the sale of trees from federally managed forests helped drive the boom in this segment of Oregon's economy.
logging truck from 1950s
Gyppo loggers exploited smaller, more accessible stands of timber during the 1950s. (Image no. HSTC146, courtesy Salem Public Library, Special Collections)
Learn more about postwar developments in Oregon.
Logging and lumbering enterprises were highly competitive. Small operators, known as gyppos, struggled to hold together their businesses while they moved from contract to contract, cutting logs, running small mills, and seizing a share of the market. Some, like Kenneth Ford of Roseburg Lumber Company, persevered and became major figures in the industry. Many more ran small operations, employed several dozen workers, and, when fortunes changed, closed out their operations. Outside capital flowed into Oregon after 1945. Weyerhaeuser Corporation, Menasha Corporation, Evans Products, and Georgia-Pacific were among several firms with national connections that turned to old timber holdings or purchased unlogged forests from Oregon companies. These larger firms embraced new technologies and products, developing plywood and particleboard in addition to dimensional lumber. They created cost savings through greater efficiencies and research and development.
While some enterprises were thriving, others struggled. The salmon catch and pack in Oregon canneries peaked in the 1890s and headed steadily downward. Efforts to check the trend, especially in the Columbia River, led to construction of the state's Central Hatchery in 1909 at Bonneville and in 1926 to abolition of fishwheels. The hulking fishwheels, turned by the river's current, had scooped up tons of fish. While horse-drawn seine nets and mesh fishtraps at the river's mouth may have taken a greater toll on the salmon, the fishwheels were a visible symbol of overharvest. After 1950, Oregon's fish canneries steadily diminished; the last closed in 1979. The great silvery horde of fish no longer filled the streams. Conservation of remaining stocks dictated sharp restrictions on commercial and sport fishing.
truck with farming chemicals on back
The use of chemicals in farming accelerated in the postwar years, leading to increased production. (Oregon State Archives image No. OAG613, Agriculture Dept. Records)
Dam construction, an enduring commitment of federal investment in Oregon, moved steadily forward. It took a tremendous toll of anadromous fish, but so did logging, urbanization, and agricultural activities. During the 1950s and 1960s the Army Corps of Engineers had oversight of massive new projects--The Dalles, John Day, and McNary Dams on the main stem of the Columbia, several more dams upstream, and Oxbow and Brownlee Dams on the Snake River along Oregon's eastern border. Federal projects also checked the Willamette. Pre-1940 Corps projects included Fern Ridge, Cottage Grove, and Dorena Reservoirs. Postwar construction, financed by multimillion-dollar congressional appropriations, built Detroit, Big Cliff, Green Peter, and Foster Dams on the Santiam forks; Lookout Point, Dexter, and Hills Creek Dams on the Middle Fork of the Willamette; Cougar and Blue River Dams in the McKenzie watershed; and Fall Creek Dam near Eugene. By 1960 these facilities had largely tamed the Willamette River, checking floodwaters and generating electricity.
Federal improvements touched Oregon in other ways. Beginning in the 1870s, renewing in the 1890s, and proceeding regularly through the 20th century, Congress made appropriations in the Rivers and Harbors Act for major construction in Oregon. Projects included jetties at the mouths of the Columbia, Yaquina, Coquille, and Coos Bay. Congress also funded the Celilo Canal and Locks, 1906-16, a complicated transportation system blasted through basalt to provide ship passage around Five Mile Rapids and Celilo Falls into the upper Columbia River. Congress regularly renewed or funded start-up projects that dredged channels, removed rocks, and led to construction of new jetties on most of Oregon's coastal estuaries. Singularly significant in the postwar era was the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. Billions of federal dollars began flowing back to the states, allowing construction in Oregon of nonstop freeways--I-5 running north and south through western Oregon valleys between Washington and California and I-84 running east and west from Portland to Boise, Idaho. These projects created not only payrolls but significant contributions to the state's economy through efficient shipment of commodities.
1950s tourists at Mount Hood
Part of a growing tourism phenomenon, young tourists enjoy a sunny day in their convertible with Mt. Hood in the background. (Oregon State Archives image No. OHD2982)
Postwar changes swept through Oregon agriculture. While cattle-raising and wheat production remained mainstays in eastern Oregon, specialized crops of alfalfa, sugar beets, and potatoes drew farmers to focus their energies on lands watered by turn-of-the-century reclamation projects. Farmers in the Treasure Valley near Ontario, the upper Deschutes watershed, and the Klamath Basin tapped irrigation water to embark on these ventures. On Oregon's southwestern coast cranberry production, founded in 1887, became important as Ocean Spray diversified its product line to include ruby-red juice fortified by Oregon cranberries. Walnuts, filberts, and turkeys created income for farmers in Yamhill and Washington Counties. Pear, peach, apple, and cherry production prospered in the Hood River and Rogue River Valleys. Slowly but steadily, grass seed and nursery products grew in acreage in the Willamette Valley. Rose bushes, irises, grafted fruit trees, and ornamental shrubs grew in the valley's fertile soils. Workers dug, baled, and shipped these specialty products to national markets. Venturesome investors cleared old prune orchards and forested hillsides, planted vineyards, and constructed wineries. A new industry found a good market for Oregon wines.
Tourism emerged as a major industry. Oregon's scenic beauty of mountains, forests, deserts, and Pacific shoreline proved an irresistible attraction. Good roads, one of the largest state park systems in the country, restaurants, and hotels and motels facilitated the annual surge of visitors. Millions traveled Highway 101, exploring the cheese factory at Tillamook, gift shops in Lincoln City, and the Sea Lion Caves. They toured sawmills at North Bend, rode a mail boat on the Rogue River, or purchased salt water taffy, carved myrtlewood, seashells, and cranberry candy. Others flocked to the Shakespearean plays in Ashland, marveled at Crater Lake, went bow-and-arrow hunting for deer at Hart Mountain, skied at Mount Bachelor, stayed overnight at Timberline Lodge, took a jetboat into Hells Canyon, or visited the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Those who came to visit bought meals, lodging, and keepsakes. They added to the state's prosperity.
photograph of Senator Mark Hatfield
Senator Mark Hatfield introduced federal legislation to help the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. Learn more about Hatfield. (Image courtesy senate.gov)
Postwar Oregon was a troubled time for the state's Native Americans. Douglas O. McKay, former governor, had been appointed as Secretary of the Interior in the Eisenhower Cabinet. Believing strongly in economy in government and seeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs as an anachronism of inefficiency, McKay joined others in pressing to sever ties with tribes. House Concurrent Resolution 108 in 1952 stated that it was the sense of Congress that the federal government should set free American Indians. Between 1954 and 1960, Congress terminated all government-to-government relationships with the Klamath and every tribe and band west of the Cascades in Oregon. The program required sale of reservation lands, issuance of deeds for individual trust lands, and curtailment of all BIA and Indian Health Service benefits. Then the momentum waned. Thousands of Oregon's native peoples had fallen into limbo as "terminated Indians." Finally in 1977 Senator Mark O. Hatfield introduced legislation to amend the situation for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. On a case-by-case basis the terminated tribes sought and won by 1989 the restoration of their federal relations. The road back was, for some, a frustrating journey of years of waiting, petitioning, and documenting their ongoing tribal life.
Elements of boom and bust coursed through Oregon in the years between 1945 and 1990. Booming conditions drove new construction and business prosperity in many small towns. Tens of thousands of new residents moved into the state. Yet not all was well in Oregon. The measures were visible: diminishing runs of fish, a vast checkerboard of clearcuts on the sides of mountains, a Willamette River so fetid that only the foolhardy dared to swim in it, spread of cheat grass, Russian olive, and other invading species like shad, bass, and squawfish. It was time to consider the consequences of rapid development.