Wooden Beams and Railroad Ties: The History of Oregon's Built Environment

Sawn Lumber and Greek Temples, 1850-1870

Sawmills and Agricultural Structures

The sawmill was a defining symbol of Oregon for more than a century, and the mill was an iconic institution in hundreds of Oregon communities. The products of the mills went into building the communities’ houses and shops and schools, and through export sales they eventually supported the development of ports and railroads. Oregon became an economic colony dominated by the timber industry.

The sawmill at Fort Vancouver in 1827 was the forerunner of that colonial empire. The rapid influx of American settlers that began in the late 1830s precipitated a demand for sawn lumber and shingles. Ewing Young, an itinerant trader and adventurer who had settled on Chehalem Creek near present-day Newberg, was an early supplier. Young had achieved local prominence as one of the principals of the Willamette Cattle Company, which brought more than 600 head of cattle overland to Oregon from California in 1837 to supply the settlers with livestock. In 1838, Young began operating a small water-powered sawmill on his farmstead and selling the lumber to his neighbors.

Other mills came soon after, including one on Willamette Falls at Oregon City in 1841 and Hunt’s Mill east of Astoria on the Columbia River in 1844. By 1850, dozens of mills were producing lumber and shingles in the Willamette Valley. The mills supplied not only local needs but also a developing export trade, notably to the Sandwich Islands—now Hawai’i. The California gold rush began affecting Oregon as early as 1848, and in the ensuing decade California’s voracious appetite for lumber was heavily fed by Oregon sawmills.

In the Willamette Valley, the discovery of clay that was suitable for brick-making led to some early experiments with brick construction. George Gay built a two-story brick farmhouse near Hopewell, not far from the Rev. Lee’s first Methodist mission, in about 1842. Two years later, George Abernethy built a brick store in Oregon City, and the Catholic church in St. Paul was constructed of brick in 1846. By the 1850s, small one- and two-story brick commercial buildings could be found in Portland, Salem, Jacksonville, and other towns. Brick was used to build woolen mills, churches, and public buildings such as fraternal halls and courthouses, but brick residences remained rare. Brick construction still required the substantial use of milled wood for interior supports, roof beams and trusses, floors and roofing, stairs, and interior walls. The sawmill was supplemented by other Oregon manufactories that transformed wood into shakes and shingles, balusters and newel posts, picture rails and baseboards, and decorative moldings.

Mining—especially of gold—was a significant Oregon enterprise beginning in the early 1850s in southern Oregon and in the 1860s in the northeastern part of the state. The first gold-mining activity at places such as Jacksonville and Auburn was in “placers” that required little in the way of buildings but that still demanded much construction work. Placer mining washed gold from river gravels, which often required moving stream channels to get to the gravel. A tremendous amount of pressurized water was needed for hydraulic placer mining, which left valleys denuded of soil and vegetation, heaped with miles of gravel rubble piles known as tailings. The hillsides were scarred with networks of hand-dug canals and tunnels that brought water from many miles away.

Lode mining of gold began in the 1860s, involving tunnels to remove ore, stamp mills to crush the ore, and concentrating works to begin the refining process. The need for imported heavy mining equipment helped make the fortunes of Oregon’s first major industrial enterprise, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, which established a transportation network from Portland east to Lewiston, Idaho. The company rapidly constructed a fleet of steamboats, two portage railroads, and a network of wharves and warehouses at Portland, the Cascades, and The Dalles.

Self-sufficiency was often a goal of early Oregon farmers, but turning wheat into flour required milling. Mills required a sizable investment in a building, the water system to supply a waterwheel, specialized stones for grinding, and machinery. These gristmills also ground grains such as corn and oats, both for home consumption and for livestock feed. Gristmills soon dotted the Willamette Valley, for they needed to be constructed near farmers in order to minimize the wagon haulage over dirt roads. Small communities often developed around such mills. At Oregon City, Ashland—originally Ashland Mills—and Salem, the mills became the nucleus of a small city. At other places, such as Mulino and Boston Mills, the community remained small even though the need for the mill endured and it remained visually prominent on the landscape.

© Richard H. Engeman, 2005. Updated by OHP staff, 2014.

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Drawing of Fort Vancouver // OrHi 83437
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This hand-colored lithograph of Fort Vancouver was based on a sketch drawn by Henry James Warre in 1845 or 1846. The British government sent Warre, an army lieutenant, and another officer to the Pacific Northwest to ascertain the status of American settlement in the Pacific Northwest. They visited several forts …

George Gay House near Hopewell
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The photograph above, taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1934, depicts the brick house built for George K. Gay near Hopewell in Yamhill County.

The George Gay house was once an Oregon landmark that was notable not only for being the first brick house in the Oregon Country, …

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Hydraulic Mine Operation, Jackson County

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Lithograph of Fort Vancouver // CN 008519
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This 1854 lithograph of Fort Vancouver was originally drawn by Gustavus Sohon while he and the U.S. Pacific Railroad Expedition and Survey team conducted a survey for railroad expansion from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.

Prior to occupation by Euro Americans, the flat and mostly treeless plain — visible …

Mother Lode Mine, Baker County
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This photograph shows the flotation mill of the Mother Lode Mine—also known as the Poorman/Balm Creek Mine—located about twenty miles northeast of Baker City. As the name suggests, the Mother Lode Mine was a lode mine, which means that underground shafts were used to follow veins of valuable minerals.

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Mulino Flour Mill, 1920
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The photograph above depicts one of Oregon’s earliest flour mills, built in 1851 by Richard R. Howard on the banks of Milk Creek, a tributary of the Molalla River on the east side of the Willamette Valley. An isolated rural industry, Howard’s mill was in business for nearly a century, …

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This 1867 photograph, taken by Carleton Eugene Watkins, shows Oregon City and the Willamette Falls soon after the first portage railroad was built there. Oregon City had been incorporated in 1844 and was the first official city established west of the Rocky Mountains. The earliest non-Native settlers near Willamette Falls were …

View of the Aurora Colony // OrHi 57220
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Outposts, Farms, and Missions

The commerce-oriented exploration of the North Pacific Coast by European and American sea captains became active during the 1790s. The 1792 incursions into the mouth of the Columbia River and upstream by American trader Capt. Robert Gray, soon followed by a party from the English expedition of Capt. George Vancouver, mark the beginning of many changes to Oregon’s built environment. Driven first by the commercial value of the sea-otter fur, European and American traders soon found other opportunities in another pelt, that of beavers.

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Town Beginnings

The Oregon landscape of the 1840s had a number of scattered Indian communities, and other small settlements of diverse population at places such as The Dalles, Astoria, and Salem. Most of the immigrant population that had come from the Midwest was engaged in farming, especially in the Willamette Valley. But a number of immigrants brought with them skills and trades that were suited to city life, and towns and cities began to develop in Oregon at a very early date.

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This entry was last updated on March 17, 2018