Blue Heron beginnings: Commentary on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project

In a dramatic January 1908 press dispatch, Willard P. Hawley announced a change in the course of Oregon City’s history that would steer it towards its 20th-century destiny as a major center of paper manufacturing:

by: M. RIEDER, LOS ANGELES, FOR HOWELL & JONES, OREGON CITY - This penny postcard postmarked 1908 shows Imperial Mills, its grain elevator and the flume running between them on the Oregon City side of the Willamette River.“Oregon City is to have a new industry in the form of another paper mill, capitalized at more than a half million dollars and providing employment for at least 300 men.” The dispatch said that Hawley, who had arrived in Oregon City in 1893 first as the superintendent then as the resident manager of the Crown Pulp & Paper Co. across the river in West Linn, “has formed a corporation and has purchased the Imperial and Brick Mills of the Portland Flouring Mills Co. and the old station A of the Portland General Electric Co.”

Hawley first approached the owners of the Oregon City Woolen Mills, but negotiations fell through. As alternatives, though, it is hard to think of industrial buildings as storied and significant in Oregon City’s history as these three:

1. Daniel Harvey erected the Imperial Mills in 1862-1863 as the replacement for his father-in-law John McLoughlin’s flourmill.

2. W.W. Buck constructed the Brick Mill as the Pacific Northwest’s first paper mill in 1866, and by 1881-1882 it became the focus of W.S. Ladd and Sibson & Church’s Oregon City launch of the Portland Flouring Mills Co. (joined by the Imperial Mills in 1883); now through Hawley the Brick Mill came full circle back to papermaking.

3. Edward L. Eastham generated the nation’s first long-distance transmission of electric power from Station A in 1889.

by: CLACKAMAS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - This 1885 photo of the Imperial Mills comes out of a 1916 Oregon City directory and shows a section of the Hawley pulp and paper mills.Hawley did have some appreciation for history, even historic preservation. As part of his land acquisition for his paper mill, he purchased the lot on which stood the McLoughlin House, and allowed the community to move the house up to its present location. He did not acquire his three industrial buildings due to their historic significance, however, but rather due to the same attractive force that had drawn John McLoughlin a lifetime earlier: abundant water power from Willamette Falls. Each came with ample water rights, and he could perfect further as his mill grew. The dispatch continued, “Since last fall Mr. Hawley has had a desire to re-enter the business and decided to start a new mill on the East Side of the river, where there is an immense amount of water power coming from the basin, that is not utilized.”

Also in 1908, the Portland Railway, Light & Power Co., under the direction of legendary hydraulic engineer T.W. Sullivan, completed the dam that stretched around the brink of Willamette Falls like a big concrete horseshoe. In September, during low late-summer flow, the Oregonian reported somewhat ruefully: “Willamette Falls have been bottled up, and for the first time in history the magnificent cataract of water has ceased to be.” As part of the project, the company had in 1907 straightened the formerly curved north end of the basin with a new concrete wall, giving the basin its present appearance. The dam diverted water to the west into the mammoth 1895 Station B power plant (today named for Sullivan) that eclipsed and replaced Station A by 1897, the Locks, and the West Linn paper mills. Hawley could claim water flows diverted to the east.

Not only water flows, but also capital flows, came with the two Portland Flouring Mills (PFM) buildings. Remarkably, Hawley’s key financial backers were none other than William Meade Ladd and Theodore B. Wilcox. W.M. Ladd had incorporated the PFM Co. with Sibson & Church, his father W.S. Ladd, and others, and Wilcox had built his own fortune — and augmented that of the Ladd family — by creating PFM’s global flour empire based on the China trade. Wilcox even became the Vice President of the Hawley Pulp & Paper Co., and the 1916 Sohns & Woodbeck Clackamas County and Oregon City Directory lists him as such. When Wilcox died in 1918 the paper company flew flags at half-staff. The Oregon City Courier reported “...the day of the funeral, no whistles were blown by the mill here, and for an hour during the services, the machinery ceased to operate — the employees standing at their place of duty during the time.” Hawley eventually bought out the interests of Wilcox’s estate in the paper company in 1922 for about $1 million.

While Hawley benefitted from the investment capital of Wilcox and Ladd, they in turn latched on to Hawley’s rising entrepreneurial star. By the turn of the 20th century, the PFM empire peaked and began its descent, because Chinese brokers were importing American milling equipment to begin their own flour-milling operations. By the 1890s PFM shut down the Brick Mill for a period of seven years, and in 1902 closed it permanently. And while the Imperial Mills remained a mainstay of PFM operations through the turn of the century, by 1908 it too went through a number of years of operations during which it shut down for several months per year. During these shutdowns Willamette Valley wheat bypassed Oregon City altogether and continued on to PFM’s much larger and more modern Albina mill. The investment in Hawley’s enterprise provided Wilcox and Ladd a dynamic new opportunity for profit.

Therefore, while 1908 marked the end of flour milling in Oregon City, Hawley Pulp & Paper Co. represented the continuity of the flour-milling economy that began with John McLoughlin. Daniel Harvey built the Imperial Mills as the replacement for, and almost certainly — at least in part — with the wealth generated over a generation by, McLoughlin’s own mill. The Imperial Mills in turn became physical capital for PFM, and generated financial capital that Ladd and Wilcox reinvested into a new commodity, paper. The Imperial Mills thus linked the Hawley era, and what followed, back to Oregon City’s founding era and founder McLoughlin. We see the physical expression of that continuity when we look down today from the McLoughlin Promenade into the Blue Heron site.

Imperial Mills became the flagship of Hawley Pulp and Paper Co.: it housed Hawley’s pride and joy, the 126-inch Paper Machine No. 1. He had toured the eastern U.S. in search of this first machine, and spent two weeks with a firm in Milwaukee, Wis., on its design. The Enterprise reported, “Mr. Hawley will have the first paper machine in the world for the formation of a perfect sheet at any speed.” It would have a capacity of 30 tons of newspaper and 20 tons of manila paper every 24 hours. Just as George LaRoque and D.W. Burnside had expanded the Imperial Mills in an earlier era, for Paper Machine No. 1 Hawley now expanded the building along and beyond its west side with a long wood frame annex — in retrospect a fateful materials choice — stretching a full 200 feet from the basin. A 1911 Sanborn map shows “shafting and machinery” and a machine shop on the first floor, and the paper machine itself on the second floor. The first floor of the original Imperial Mills building housed pulp beaters, the second floor contained paper cutters and a finishing room. Hawley named the complex Mill B as part of his letter-based naming of mill buildings.

The two other acquisitions clustered with Mill B at the falls and basin provided inputs for Mill B’s paper production. Station A became Mill A, in which Hawley installed a sawmill and ground-wood pulp machines. In the Imperial Mills grain elevator, constructed by Burnside in 1882-1883, Hawley placed his first two giant three-story cylindrical sulphite digesters for the production of sulphite pulp, and he named it Mill C. Hawley painted these three mills in a signature dark paint with white lettering.

By early 1909, the new enterprise came together. The basin that once filled up with steamboats belonging to what historian Randall Mills has called the “Wheat Fleet,” bearing sacks of wheat from the Willamette Valley, now filled up with logs floated down from the forests surrounding the valley. The company set a date for opening, but in its eagerness underestimated the readiness of the sawmill. The Hawley workers stepped up. “Not to be thwarted in their determination to turn out paper by the time decided on, the men went to work with crosscut saws and axes and sawed and split the logs by hand for the grinders,” wrote historian Claude Adams. The company produced its first paper, on schedule, on Jan. 6, 1909. Two months later, on March 12, 1909, it produced its first sulphite paper.

Later in 1909, Hawley purchased the 116-inch Paper Machine No. 2 from a firm in Wilmington, Del., for the production of lightweight papers like tissue and water marked wrapping paper. He installed it in the Brick Mill, and, in contrast to the wood-frame annex built for Mill B, Hawley constructed a reinforced concrete addition measuring 45-by-60 feet to the Brick Mill. This complex became Mill D.

From that point on, Hawley Pulp & Paper experienced a kind of explosive growth reminiscent of the first decades of PFM. In 1913 Hawley added Paper Machine No. 3 to produce toweling and fruit and bottle wrapping paper. He constructed a long 40-by-300-foot concrete and steel building for this machine along the Willamette River front between 3rd and 4th streets, adjacent to the Brick Mill. In 1917, he added Paper Machine No. 4, for additional newsprint capacity, in an enormous new building on the east side of Main Street south of 3rd Street.

In contrast to the diffuse growth of PFM — with flourmills, grain elevators and warehouses spread throughout Oregon and Washington — this intense growth of the Hawley Pulp & Paper Co. took place in a concentrated area of the south end of downtown Oregon City, and it changed the city in many ways. A large industrial working class developed, and the first — unsuccessful — attempts at unionization of the mill workers in both Oregon City and West Linn culminated in 1918 in a bloody street brawl at the corner of 7th and Main at the foot of the Arch Bridge. The transformations extended even to Oregon City government. In 1923 Hawley endorsed the movement to convert Oregon City’s charter from the mayor-council structure it had since its founding. Hawley and other business leaders successfully argued that a City Commission form of government — where the elected representatives each had responsibility for specific departments (like Portland has today) — along with a city manager would provide “increased efficiency in management.”

Scrolling through microfilms of Oregon City newspapers in the summer and fall of 1923, the heated charter change campaign features prominently in the headlines. Other major stories include a rash of fires set by an arsonist dubbed “the Clackamas firebug.” Hawley grabbed print in his “clash of the titans” battle with Oregon City Woolen Mills president Ralph Jacobs. Hawley was undertaking a major expansion of the Paper Machine No. 4 building, and wanted the City to vacate the 3rd Street stub east of Main St. so he could construct the expansion into that space. Jacobs opposed the move, because Woolen Mills workers parked on 3rd St. After a “hot session” of the Oregon City Council where the vacation ordinance was tabled, Hawley made none-too-veiled threats to move his whole paper company out of Oregon City. He dangled offers he claimed had been made by numerous other cities to help relocate his paper mill.

Then, in the Oregon City Enterprise of Oct. 9, 1923, appears a headline startling not only for its topic but also for its large font size reserved typically for declarations of war and presidential assassinations: “$750,000 FIRE GUTS PAPER MILL”

It was the end of the Imperial Mills.

“Oregon City’s epidemic of disastrous fires came to a flaming climax Monday night with the complete destruction of the Hawley Pulp & Paper Company’s mill B...

“The fire started with an explosion caused in the dry wood dust in the beater room caused when a drive belt slipped and threw sparks from the friction. A.J Brady, working in the beater room, first discovered the slight flare and called C.N. Smith, his foreman. The fire spread so rapidly, however, that they could do nothing, and the crew in the room fled for their lives, leaving their clothing behind and jumping through windows...

“Mill B of the Hawley plant was the first unit of the big mill and was of frame construction throughout...The principal damage was by the complete loss of one paper machine valued at $100,000, the first one the Hawleys installed...”

Oregon City urgently sought help to extinguish the Mill B blaze, and a company of Portland firefighters responded, “breaking all speed records” as it raced down the new east side highway with its sirens screaming. Miraculously, the article reported no loss of life as a result of the fire. A few days later, the Enterprise printed a photograph of Mill B ablaze near midnight on Oct. 8, the night of the fire.

Hawley quickly set out to replace Mill B, including its Paper Machine No. 1 annex, with modern — and fireproof — concrete and steel buildings: the Hawley Building, and the Paper Machine No. 1 Building, both completed in 1924 and which stand today at the foot of the basin. He prevailed in the 3rd Street vacation fight, and to this day looking down from the McLoughlin Promenade one can see the Paper Machine No. 4 extension into what used to be 3rd Street Hawley Pulp & Paper continued to construct mill buildings until taken over by Publishers’ Paper Co. in 1948.

Of the three other original Hawley “letter mills,” only one has survived. Citing damage from the 1964 flood, in December 1965 Publishers’ Paper announced that it would raze Station A / Mill A. The Brick Mill / Mill D survived enclosed within the expanded Paper Machine No. 2 building until the early 1980s; its basalt stone foundation and a few segments of brick wall are all that remain. However, Mill C, the Imperial Mills grain elevator and warehouse turned Hawley sulfite digester complex, after undergoing countless expansions, remodels and reconstructions, still looms with the form of a big grain elevator as one drives south up Highway 99E out of downtown Oregon City. It perseveres as the sole physical legacy of the Imperial Mills.

The historic, physical and economic legacy of the Imperial Mills, its builders like Daniel Harvey, and its workers like A.J. Brady, persists to this day, and the Willamette Falls Legacy Project presents an opportunity to recognize that legacy. That discussion can take place through the remainder of the visioning process, during the Planning Commission and City Commission hearings on the master plan this coming spring and summer, and over the long term by the “Community Champions” the project is recruiting. The Imperial Mills legacy permeates the Blue Heron complex, and it will occasionally inform future installments of this column.

Oregon City resident James Nicita is a former city commissioner.

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