Society of American Foresters

Northwest Regions

The Mills That Built Coos Bay and The Men Who Made It Happen

By Bill Lansing

Bill LansingThe discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains above Sacramento in 1848 sparked huge demand for construction lumber as the population of San Francisco exploded. Up to that point, construction lumber for the California market mostly traveled 13,000 miles from the pine forests in the east, around Cape Horn and into the Bay Area. It was easier to ship lumber by sea than to haul it down from the western slope of the Sierras. Timber entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to turn the forests of the Pacific Northwest into lumber to feed the burgeoning California markets. Sailing ships at the time were relatively large with deep drafts so the search was on for western rivers with deep harbors and massive nearby forests.

Towns like Hoquiam, Aberdeen, Port Angeles and Seattle were perfectly suited to capture the demand for lumber. Within ten years, two dozen sawmills were built in Puget Sound and early sawmill pioneers in that region were Andrew Pope, Frederic Talbot, and William Renton.

Timber entrepreneurs of Washington were not alone in their vision to build a forest industry along the West Coast. Two young ambitious men saw the opportunity to participate. One came from Maine and the other from Pennsylvania; their names were Asa Meade Simpson and Henry Heaton Luse. Simpson had a background in building sailing ships and Luse had built a small sawmill in Yreka, California. Each thought finding a harbor with adjoining timber that was closer to San Francisco than Seattle would give them a competitive advantage.

Sawmill pioneers of Coos Bay

In 1855, Luse and Simpson built sawmills on the shores of Coos Bay— five years before Oregon was admitted to the Union. Each competed to be the first to cut logs into lumber and send them off on shallow-draft sailing schooners to San Francisco. Luse won the race due to Simpson experiencing a tragic accident. He had purchased the old Sutter’s sawmill, which included a muley, or sash saw, that reciprocated vertically.

Simpson hired the schooner Quandratus, loaded the sawmill machinery aboard at San Francisco, and called upon his brother, Louis to accompany it to Coos Bay. When the Quandratus tried to cross the Coos Bay bar in a storm, she struck a sand bar. With the seas sweeping over her decks, several men lost their lives, including Asa’s brother who drowned while trying to row a woman passenger and her child to shore in a small skiff that flipped over. Asa recovered most of the machinery, but the delay made him come in second place.

Luse and Simpson were creative in solving logistic problems of sawmilling. In 1875, the Morning Oregonian reported a delay in the construction of a new lumber schooner at Luse’s shipyard for the want of a large centerboard. Luse immediately lengthened the carriage in his sawmill to handle logs that were 60 feet in length. Two years later, in the summer of 1877, Luse installed a gang edger in the mill. The edger had seven circular saws that ran on one mandrill, and the distance between the saws could be adjusted by moving a single lever. In 1867, Simpson hired master ship builder, John Frederick Edward Kruse, to build sailing ships to carry lumber from Simpson’s expanding sawmilling empire. In total, Kruse built 31 ships for Simpson at Simpson’s shipyard in North Bend, Oregon. Being a ship builder himself, Simpson was particular about matching the vessel designs to the products to be carried. In total, 60 sailing ships were built at his shipyard, 34 wrecked crossing the rough bars along the west coast and many of which were lost trying to cross into Coos Bay.

Asa Simpson and Henry Luse were two different types of entrepreneurs, Asa was always looking for ways to expand his lumber trade geographically, while Luse stayed in Coos Bay, expanding his timberland ownership along the bay. Simpson kept his milling and shipbuilding operations in Coos Bay growing until his death, turning his empire over to his oldest son Louis J. Simpson, while Luse sold his Empire City sawmill operations and timberlands to a company from New England.

Next to arrive in Coos Bay in 1867 were the Pershbaker brothers. They came to the area to operate the Eastport Coal mine, but later built a steam-powered sawmill on the banks of Mill Slough. Five years later, Pershbaker sold the sawmill and timberlands to Elisha B. Dean, who was the first mid-westerner to invest in Coos Bay. With Dean’s sawmill located near the middle of Marshfield (name changed to Coos Bay in 1944) locals began complaining about the ash and smoke generated from the open slabwood fires next to the mill. Dean got angry and moved his mill away from the town center. This became known as the E. B. Dean & Co. Mill.

For the next 30 years, these three sawmills operated along the shores of Coos Bay, each producing ten to fifteen thousand board feet of roughsawn lumber per day.

The era of the “Big Mills”

C.A. Smith "Big Mill" at south Marshfield
The building of the C.A. Smith "big mill" at south Marshfield in 1907. 
The first log went rhough the mill on February 15, 1908.
Photo courtes of Oregon State University

In 1883, a new company from New Bedford, Massachusetts purchased the Coos Bay Military Wagon Road lands, which spanned 100,000 acres located between Coos Bay and Roseburg, and built a world-class steam powered sawmill on the western arm of Coos Bay at Empire City. Called the Oregon Southern Improvement Company, this “big sawmill was the first of an investment wave by Midwest capitalists to build huge sawmills in Coos County. The mill was built with top and bottom circular saws each measuring 60- inches in diameter. On the “long side” of the mill, logs up to 120-feet could be sawn. The mill changed hands several times until it was dismantled in 1987.

Next to make a major investment in Coos Bay was one of the biggest names from the timber industry in Midwest, Charles Axel Smith. Smith was a unique individual who started with nothing in Minnesota, and worked as a clerk in Governor Pillsbury’s hardware store. With the help of Pillsbury, he built one of the largest sawmills in the country in Minneapolis. As the supply of pine timber dwindled in the upper Mississippi River watershed, Smith looked west to Coos Bay. In 1907 he amassed 180,000 acres of timberland in southwestern Oregon along with building, arguably, the largest sawmill in the world on sixty acres in south Marshfield.

Smith expanded his empire in Oregon and California into multiple corporations, all headed by himself as the president. From 1900-1914, he formed over 15 separate companies, but became over-extended financially and turned his company over to the courts; this resulted in the creation of the Coos Bay Lumber Company.

The era of wood products diversification

Port Orford Cedar Helps the War Effort

A little-known fact about the forest products industry in Coos Bay was the part Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) played in the growth of the region. As the development of the automobile and other modes of mobile transportation grew (ships, tanks, submarines and airplanes, etc.), the need for batteries blossomed. While working with various types of wood to perfect his effort in protecting automobiles being shipped in rail cars from Detroit, Edward S. Evans became acquainted with the person who invented wooden battery separators. Until 1927, Evans had never heard of battery separators. But with Evans’ previous connections to the auto industry, his introduction to this new business avenue would lead to a major investment by his firm at Coos Bay.

Port Orford Cedar battery separator
This is an actual submarine battery separator used in
Allied submarines during World War II.
Photo courtesy of Bill Lansing

The battery separators were placed inside the battery case to separate the positive and negative metal plates from touching, while still allowing the acid to circulate and thereby create an electrical charge. During the early days of automobiles, these wooden slices were indispensable—as car batteries at that time required fifty or more separators per battery.

Battery separators were essential to the operation of many means of transport, such as submarines—where stored and instantly available energy was required.

Through the end of WWII, the major sawmilling operations in Coos Bay included the Coos Bay Lumber Company, Evan Products Company, the Southern Oregon Company and the old Asa Simpson operations. Following the war, the timber industry around Coos blossomed again. This time with plywood, hardboard, pulp and paper and huge piles of wood chips for export to Japan for making paper.

Outside capital flowed into Coos Bay and names like Weyerhaeuser, Menasha, Willis and Wylie Smith and Georgia-Pacific were among several firms with national connections. In the 1950s Georgia-Pacific was on an aggressive acquisition mode, and in 1956, acquired all the assets of the Coos Bay Lumber company including the timberlands and the “big mill” complex at Bunker Hill.

Alongside these national companies were small “gyppo operations” who operated small sawmills throughout the West. This name had many meanings, some stem from derogative connotations, while others are more romantic and suggest these operators were simply gypsies moving from place to place. Whatever its meaning, the gyppo played an integral part in manufacturing the timber growing throughout southwestern Oregon into rough-sawn lumber.

It was during this era from the 1950s through the 1970s that Coos Bay attained the moniker as “The World’s Largest Lumber Shipping Port.” True or not, the forest products industry drove the region and provided family wage jobs for anyone wanting to work. Unions had a strong foothold on the industry.

The 1990s were a sobering decade for Coos Bay and throughout the Pacific Northwest for dozens of small towns and the thousands of men and women involved in the logging and lumbering industry. The economic boom ended in the forest products industry in Coos Bay. Gone were the smokestacks that punctuated the sky around the bay. Logging camps were a thing of the past. Family wages jobs were replaced by franchised retail employment. School funding spiraled downward and the social fabric of the community switched from blue-collar to a retirement income.

Where once there were dozens of various forest products mills dotted around Coos Bay, today there remains only two mills operating on its shores. Coincidentally, those sawmills are owned and operated by Jason Smith, the grandson of C. Wiley Smith of Coos Head Timber Company who came to Coos Bay in 1933 to manage the Sitka Spruce Pulp and Paper Company mill.  

Bill Lansing, a 50-year member of the SAF, is the retired president and CEO of Menasha Forest Products Corporation. This article is based upon an excerpt from The Mills That Build Coos Bay and The Men Who Made It Happen, published in 2020. Lansing can be reached at bill@billlansing.com or https://www.billlansing.com/.

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