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Fortune, Festivity and Fiasco in the 'Lowell of the Pacific'; Blue Heron Beginnings commentary by an Oregon City historian on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project

In a 1961 New York banquet speech, Reed Hunt, president of Crown Zellerbach, traced the history of West Coast papermaking. Regarding Oregon City's short-lived Pioneer Paper Mill, first in the Pacific Northwest, he offered a trenchant observation. "It appears," he said, "that the backers [of the mill] neglected one of the primary requirements of paper manufacturing — to have an experienced papermaker in charge."

While this insight seems an essential truth, all prior histories of the mill, including Hunt's, have missed a key element: that originally the mill project did in fact include a trained papermaker, a young Pennsylvania Quaker pioneer, Edwin T. Garrett. In 1865 Garrett, with W.W. Buck and William Barlow, incorporated the Oregon Paper Manufacturing Company, and Garrett planned to serve as the "experienced papermaker in charge." The company shipped a used paper machine out from the East. Garrett's papermaker brother Sylvester also came west to assist. But the firm abruptly collapsed: it built no mill, the Garretts returned to Pennsylvania, and the paper machine only reached San Francisco. (See part one of this three-part History of the Pioneer Paper Mill, "The Quaker Papermaker," Clackamas Review/Oregon City News, May 31, 2017.)

In what would shortly prove a remarkable irony, immediately upon his return to Pennsylvania E.T. Garrett became a successful papermaker. In 1866, while Buck was superintending the construction of the Pioneer Paper Mill, Garrett was superintending the construction of a paper mill in Newtown. Later, in 1872, he bought a mill in Landsdowne, which he ran as the Darby Paper Mill almost up to his death in 1908.

The 'Lowell of the Pacific'

Buck and Barlow persisted, perhaps buoyed by prospect of fortune in the rising tide of Civil War-era industrial development located at the base, and driven by the water power, of Willamette Falls: the Imperial Mills (1862-1863), the Oregon City Woolen Mills (1864-1865), and the steamboat Basin and Works of the Peoples Transportation Co. (1865-1866). See photo:

The Lowell of the Pacific: This composite of two 1867 Carleton Watkins photos shows the Pioneer Paper Mill, left, shortly after it closed, near the other Civil-War-era industrial developments at Willamette Falls: the Woolen Mills, the Imperial Mills, and the Basin and Works of the Peoples Transportation Company.

The press had come to label Oregon City "the Lowell of the Pacific," after the Massachusetts industrial town. The paper mill would be the next font of prosperity. The Salem Statesman of Feb. 19, 1866 announced the new venture:

PHOTO CREDIT: OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY. - William Wentworth Buck, first president of the Oregon City Paper Manufacturing Company.  "An Oregon Paper Mill.—We take pleasure in announcing another step in the onward march of the State. Articles of incorporation have been filed during the past week incorporating...'The Oregon City Paper Manufacturing Company' [OCPM]. Incorporators—Arthur Warner, William Barlow, W.W. Buck, Samuel Miller, Jacob Wortman, and Thomas Charman."

In April the stockholders chose directors: Buck, Wortman, Abram Myers, John R. Ralston and James D. Miller. The directors in turn elected Buck president and J.D. Miller secretary and treasurer. Warner, Barlow, Wortman, Charman and Ralston were Oregon City merchants. Buck, a contractor, and Samuel Miller, a millwright, also owned sawmills. Myers, the son-in-law of the Ohio inventor James Leffel, manufactured Leffel's Double Turbine Water Wheel at the Oregon Iron Works in Portland.

J.D. Miller, Samuel's nephew, played key roles in the OCPMC and the mill's subsequent history. Born in 1830 — like Garrett, a generation younger than Buck — he grew up in Indiana and worked in the lumberyard of his father Joseph Miller. The Miller family came to Oregon City overland in 1848.In 1849, J.D., his older brother, and his father struck a rich claim in the California gold fields. Joseph died there and his sons buried him near the claim. In 1850 J.D. Miller operated a flatboat on the Willamette above the falls, and brought grain down to Oregon City's flour mills. After steamboats put him out of business, he farmed his donation land claim on the Tualatin River. In 1855 he began his own long steamboat career on the Hoosier. A decade later, as Miller himself wrote, "I had by this time accumulated some money and was induced to take stock in the Oregon City Paper Manufacturing Company."

The OCPMC's more robust roster of promoters was one reflection of the lessons the firm's leadership had learned coming out of Garrett's more modest 1865 effort. A second: capitalization. Garrett's company had set a target of $8,000 in capital stock; the OCPMC, $20,000. A third: raw materials. The Oregonian had claimed that Garrett's venture failed due to "the scarcity of raw material from which to manufacture the article."The OCPMC made early, proactive efforts to procure inputs. Straw paper often consisted of a mixture of rag and straw fibers,and beginning in May 1866, notices urging people to save their rags for the paper mill appeared in newspapers around the state.In August, J.R. Ralston, now vice-president, toured the Willamette Valley and purchased 200 tons of raw materials.By autumn the OCPMC was shipping from San Francisco input stock such as rags, rope and old ships sails. The firm owned a hay press in Butteville, so French Prairie farms were the likely source of straw inputs.

By contrast, the OCPMC, in retrospect, compounded its error of proceeding without its precursor firm's experienced papermaker by purchasing the used paper machine the same papermaker had left stored in a San Francisco warehouse upon his return to Pennsylvania. In mid-April 1866 the Oregonian wrote, "We are informed that the Company has already purchased its necessary machinery, and that it is now in San Francisco."It is unclear whether anyone from the firm saw the machine prior to its purchase, and if they had, it seems unlikely that they possessed the technical expertise to assess its adequacy for the planned paper mill.

Nevertheless, beginning in May, Oregon City watched with anticipation the progress of its next great industrial enterprise. Buck superintended the construction. The chief architect and millwright was Alwin M. Harding, an 1852 pioneer from Vermont who had built two flour mills on Clear Creek in rural Clackamas County, and who had helped erect the Imperial Mills. He patented a water wheel in 1869."The machinery for the new paper mill has reached Oregon City, and the building has commenced," wrote the Oregonian on May 19. By early June, masons had completed the foundation. A notation "H. Baker" in a company schedule of liabilities suggests that the basalt foundation stones may have come from the Horace Baker quarry on the Clackamas River, which later supplied stones for the Locks.The source of bricks remains unknown.

Also in June, the OCPMC obtained the deed for the land upon which it was already constructing the paper mill — Lot 5 of Block 2 on the north side Third Street between Main Street and the Willamette River — together with the water rights to provide the mill with water power. The sellers, a partnership that included the steamboat man George Marshall, also owned — and retained — Lot 6, immediately north. They planned to open a machine shop behind the paper mill, and kept half of the water rights. The deed required the OCPMC to run the water north from Third Street along the east wall of the paper mill basement, then west along the north basement wall to provide the machine shop its half, then finally out the tailrace.

The OCPMC built one of the most fascinating artifacts of Oregon City industrial history: an underground barrel-shaped flume of yellow fir lumber, "banded together with large iron hoops."It ran north from the Basin, gradually crossing from the east side of Main Street to the west side until it reached Third Street, where it made a roughly 45-degree left turn down to the mill. A half-century later, Samuel Miller's son Thomas recalled excavating the flume's trench. The 1867 Leffel & Myers catalogue described a complex array of water wheels: "Paper mill—Oregon City, 20 inch wheel, 18 1/4-inch wheel, both with partial gates, small wheel, 18 feet head driving machine; 20 inch wheel, the Engines and all other machinery."

An early Clackamas County mechanic's lien reveals that a local blacksmith, John W. Lewis, performed a major part of the construction work. Lewis was no ordinary blacksmith. He opened his first shop in Oregon City in 1857 to manufacture plows, then expanded to carriages and wagons. Through the 1860s he built his reputation by regularly taking first place premiums at county and state agricultural fairs, culminating in his 11 prizes at the 1869 Oregon State Fair. His plows had names such as the Union, Webfoot and Kangaroo Gang Plow, and he patented both a plow and a plow roller cutter.

In his mechanic's lien, Lewis described an ongoing contract from Aug. 7, 1866, to the time the mill closed in July 1867. Through 1866, he furnished wood, iron and steel, and undertook the iron work and blacksmithing in erecting a building "composed of stone, brick, wood and iron," and in "making, repairing, and putting up the machinery and works in said building." After papermaking commenced he continued to perform repairs and maintenance on the building and machinery. He does not state where the iron, steel or wood came from, although one might suspect that the initial lumber supplies for the mill came from the Clackamas River sawmill of W.W. Buck and his son Heman. A separate mechanic's lien indicates that after the end of September 1866, some of the mill's lumber came from the Basin sawmill co-owned by Samuel Miller.

"The building for the paper factory will soon have its walls up," the Oregonian reported on Aug. 3. "The race designed to convey water to it has been commenced." On Aug. 24: "The second story of the brick building for the Pioneer Paper Mill of Oregon is now completed at Oregon City, and the machinery is all in readiness to be placed in position so soon as the third story is up, and the structure sufficiently advanced." A Civil War veteran, Capt. W.H. Smith - who for years served as a machine tender in Buck's later Clackamas Paper Mill - began his paper industry career by installing the Pioneer Paper Mill's roof. On Sept. 2, the Daily Herald in Portland wrote, "We noticed on the wharf yesterday evening a boiler and other machinery for the Oregon City Paper Mill Company." The paper mentioned neither their manufacturer nor their provenance, but said, "The boiler is intended for drying purposes." On Oct. 10: "We learn that the new paper mill in Oregon City is nearly completed," the Oregonian announced, "The floom has been finally closed."

The mythic machine and the downfall of Buck

The year's excitement and anticipation culminated with a Grand Dedication Ball, scheduled for Oct. 11. The ball hearkened back to the one given for the Woolen Mills' opening in 1865 (see, "The most magnificent festivity ever witnessed," Oregon City News, Aug. 13, 2014), including a specially scheduled steamboat to accommodate a large contingent from Portland. The Oregon City Brass Band, led by Samuel Miller's son Thomas, would provide the evening's entertainment. The Oregonian chimed, "Let's all go, as this will be a most attractive scene."

What supposedly happened that evening has become the stuff of myth, recounted in its fullest expression by historian W. Claude Adams in 1951:

"A story is told of the grand opening of the mill. The gala occasion was celebrated by a banquet and dance in the mill, with a brass band and all the flourishes. The purpose was to get the people there and to sell stock; a demonstration of the paper machine was to follow. The dance lasted all night, and by morning the machine mechanism began to falter and at last stopped entirely. The promoters offered $2,500 to anyone who could make the machine run, but no one volunteered, so the whole event proved a fiasco."

The story is certainly myth, because no account from the era - newspaper or otherwise — relates its core elements, namely the planned demonstration of the paper machine, and its breakdown, during the ball. The Oregon City Enterprise reported, "Dedication Ball.—By permission of the directors on Thursday evening, the 11th inst. the new paper mill building was opened to the Oregon City Brass Band, and dedicated by a public ball, which passed quite agreeably, notwithstanding the storm which raged outside." Portland's Daily Herald said, "The dance continued into the small hours of the morning, when all went home well satisfied with the evening's entertainment." The Oregonian quoting Lord Byron's poem "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," wrote, "Notwithstanding the rain, about forty couples 'chased the glowing hours with flying feet.'" These are hardly accounts of a "fiasco."

Adams cites neither these nor any other contemporary accounts. His only source instead is William Welsh's "A Brief History of Oregon City and West Linn, Oregon," published without any footnotes or bibliography in 1941, 75 years after the fact. Further, the myth's narrative changes depending on who is telling it: Reed Hunt, for example, places the Dedication Ball and paper machine fiasco at the actual commencement of papermaking in January 1867.

The story as a myth might have value, as myths exist to convey an inner truth. But what exactly was the truth being conveyed here? That the crafty Pennsylvania Quaker papermakers duped the frontier rubes into buying, sight unseen and at a high price, a dud used paper machine? Or, alternatively, that the paper machine, if not exactly state-of-the-art, would have been adequate for the job if installed and operated by "an experienced papermaker in charge"?

The months following the Dedication Ball provide evidence to support either proposition, and do relate, albeit more gradually, a fiasco. Indeed the Oregonian may, inadvertently, have presciently anticipated the approaching debacle in quoting lines from a portion of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" that describes happy youth at a ball dancing away while oblivious to an imminent calamity, the conquest of their town by an invading army. And, the subsequent events appear to have led to the downfall of W.W. Buck.

The latter half of 1866, into February 1867, witnessed an almost comic revolving door of aspirants for superintending papermaker. They seem transient, and have left almost no archival trace. In August there was one W.R. Campbell, "late of Ohio," who expected to have parts of the machinery in operation by the middle of October. The Enterprise referred to a Thomas K. Clifton in late October. On Dec. 15, the Enterprise quoted, then gave a retort to, an Oregonian story regarding the next candidate:

"'The Paper Mill.—Maj. Davenport of this city has been employed as foreman of the work at the paper mill at Oregon City.—Oregonian.' His term expired on the day following. The 'Coming Man' has not yet arrived from San Francisco."

The latter turned out to be J. Carroll, described in January as "a gentleman recently from California and reputed to be thoroughly conversant with the business." In January and February, news articles mention a Thomas J. Carl as superintendent.

Amid this chaos, the OCPMC strained to complete the works and begin the manufacture of paper. The optimism of the spring and summer was giving way to skepticism. The firm had originally predicted that the mill "would be completed by the 1st of September." The Enterprise, in its Oct. 27 grand inaugural issue, had to content itself with an article describing how papermaking would occur once the mill did begin operations. See inset:

Article on the Pioneer Paper Mill from the inaugural issue of the Oregon City Enterprise, Oct. 27, 1866.

The press was excruciatingly silent on the mill in November.

Thursday, Dec. 6, 1866, proved a decisive date in the history of the Pioneer Paper Mill. It should have been the day history would remember for the Pacific Northwest's first papermaking. It should have been the day W.W. Buck would take a well-deserved bow for his leadership, tenacity and ingenuity. "The paper mill at 'Lowell' is ready to start today," the Oregonian of that date could at last exclaim. "We reckon the lint will fly now."

Instead, Buck's downfall began. On Dec. 8, the Enterprise reported, with seemingly impossible tact, the end result of the papermaking attempt of Dec. 6:

"The Paper Mill.—Mr. W.W. Buck, who has acted in the capacity of Building Superintendent and President of the Pioneer Paper Manufacturing Company, during the erection of their fine mill in this city—last Thursday completed his work, and turned it over to the Company. He still retains the position of President, however."

On Dec. 12, the Oregonian, with perhaps less tact, revealed more details:

"Oregon City Paper Mill.—This mill was supposed last week to be in readiness to commence work, but upon trial, there were found some things in the machinery and fixtures which had to be altered, having been put up by persons who had not had sufficient experience in such matters. The required alterations may require a delay of ten days or two weeks when it is hoped that everything will be in trim for a successful start."

One begins to perceive that the fiasco related in the Dedication Ball myth — the paper machine breakdown, or something like it — actually occurred on Dec. 6 or thereabouts, and that the respective events of Oct. 11 and Dec. 6, in their constant retelling over the decades, merged into one story received as oral tradition, into the 1940s, by the likes of historian William Welsh.

The embarrassing revelations rolled on, as if off that cylinder-wire paper machine. "We hear it rumored that the machinery is not what was expected," The Daily Herald wrote in January 1867. "It is unfortunate that in an enterprise of such magnitude as this, such a grievous mistake was made in the selection of the machinery."

Buck's own liability for the selection of the paper machine, as well as its flawed installation, likely led to the denouement of his fall: the end of his tenure as company president on Jan. 3, 1867, precisely one week before the Pacific Northwest's inaugural manufacture of paper. One might say of this date — sorry, can't resist — "(the) Buck stops here." He disappears from any further mention in the press in relation to the Pioneer Paper Mill during its brief operating life.

As he would soon captain the steamboat Enterprise, J.D. Miller now assumed from Buck command of the papermaking enterprise. Miller would spend the first half of 1867 heroically trying to patch too many leaks on a slowly sinking ship. That odyssey will be described in the third and final installment.

James J. Nicita is an Oregon City-based historian.

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