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Remembering the Eastside Lumber Mill in Sellwood

by: COURTESY OF THE SMILE HISTORY COMMITTEE - A view of the Eastside Lumber Mill in 1925, looking north. Stacks of finished lumber were laid on drying racks until they were ready to ship by rail.Lush forest, and an almost unlimited supply of trees – that was how Oregon timber was viewed a hundred fifty years ago.

Timber has played an important role in the development of Portland, and Inner Southeast was a major contributor.

The town of Willsburg, once located south of Sellwood, began milling timber as early as 1849, when George and son Jacob Wills built their first sawmill along the banks of Johnson Creek -- which was then known as Cedar Creek, for its abundance of cedar trees growing along the stream.

Entrepreneurs like the Wills and the Luellings envisioned making a fortune by providing timber and fruit to California miners during the Gold Rush days. Henderson Luelling and William Meek shipped produce from their orchards, located at present day Waverly Golf Course greens, via ship to the various wharfs in San Francisco. Apples sold for $1.00 each and the pair made a considerable profit on the venture.

Likewise, George and Jacob Wills loaded rough-sawn timbers, cut at their sawmill, aboard schooners that were docked along the banks of the Willamette – near the small settlement that later prospered into the briefly-incorporated town of Sellwood. The Wills were so successful that George built a bigger and better sawmill, securing an iron planer that came around the horn, making his finished lumber more desirable and easier to use. George ran his mill until 1888, when early winter floods tore the structure to pieces.

Timber continued to be an important commodity when the Schindler Furniture factory opened in 1878. Using ash and maple wood from the Oregon forest, the firm began producing school desks, tables, and hotel furniture, all of which were transported by train to their showroom on the west side of Portland.

Many other family-owned sawmills in the area made use of Johnson Creek or the local roads, then narrow and rutted, to transport their products to market. However, the major waterways offered an easier route for merchants. Lumber businesses and sawmills began popping up along the Willamette replacing the old pioneer mills that were located along streams and creek-beds.

Historian Gail Wells elaborated, in an article for the Oregon History Project, that “In 1849, eighteen water-powered sawmills were operating” along the Willamette and parts of the lower Columbia River. Three years later, local residents and newcomers could count over 100 sawmills in operation.

Log rafts of virgin timber spread across acres of water along both sides of the Willamette, including at Ross Island. Loads of new-cut lumber could be found stacked 10 feet high along a two and three block section between Spokane and Tacoma Streets.

Sellwood’s first sawmill was established in 1890, near the foot of Spokane Street, by N.P. Sorenson and Jasper E. Young. From reports in the Oregonian at the time, the mill was furnishing close to 80,000 feet of lumber, and employed 20 men.

Spruce lumber cut at the mill was used in the construction of housing along Hawthorne and S.E. 6th. Timbers from the facility were used to replace the worn-out railway ties and weak trestles of the Eastside Railway Streetcar, and mounds of sawdust left over from planed lumber helped power the steam engines of the Sellwood Ferry. (The Sellwood Bridge was not built until over three decades had passed.)

The Sorenson and Young mill lasted about 11 years, and when Sorenson retired in 1893 Jasper, with the help of his brothers, dismantled the old water-powered machinery, replacing it with a new steam sawmill. Timbers were hauled by barge from a logging plant that J.E. Young owned on the Columbia River.

In 1903, ownership of the company was transferred to John P. Miller, and it was given a new name: The Eastside Lumber Mill. It was then employing about165 men. The Oregon Water Power and Railway extended tracks from its Clay Street rails over to the mill in Sellwood, so that lumber could be easily and cheaply shipped out by train.

Owning the adjoining land just north north of the Eastside Lumber Mill, the owners of the OWP & Railway had the wild notion of building an amusement park next to the mill to provide a public destination and increase ridership on their railcars.

Thus, in 1905 “Oaks Amusement Park” officially opened, attracting over 30,000 people during its first ten years under the oak trees that hung over the covered grounds.

When George C. Tichenor and E.J. Burkhardt established the Oregon Door and Sash Company just south of the Eastside Mill in 1909, John Miller was the one who helped subsidize their investment.

Burkhardt announced that the Oregon Door Company would be one of the largest factories of its kind on the West Coast, and the company specialized in everything for the home builder – from doors and moldings to windows and floors, and even the fancy trim and bric-a-brack needed in the construction of a Queen Anne style house.

Miller was successful, and expanded his operations, creating an exclusive line of fruit packing boxes which was produced by the Eastside Box Company. Crates for apples, citrus fruit, cantaloupe, and lettuce, were manufactured and shipped out for use along the West Coast and for the small produce farms in the Hood River Valley.

Success didn’t last for these timber mills. Lumber manufacturing steadily declined in the late 1920’s, when orders for home building and commercial construction began to slow. As did many of the other lumber mills along the river, John Miller had to face the prospect of lying off workers, or closing the mill altogether. Twice, fires broke out at the Eastside Mill caused by flying sparks from the operating machinery, or from worker carelessness.

Work continued for a time, but early in the 1930’s, the Eastside Lumber Mill was unable to survive a devastating fire that was started late in the evening. “I was about 4 or 5 when my father saw some bright lights on the north side of the bridge,” recalled Sellwood resident Ray Hyde. ”We followed groups of neighbors over to the Sellwood Bridge and watched the flames and smoke coming from the lumber mill”; then the police arrived, and they ordered the curious crowd off the bridge for safety reasons.

The rebuilding process, aging equipment, and declining timber market proved to be too costly for Miller, and the mill was soon closed for good by the 1940’s.The Oregon Door and Sash Company remained profitable for a while, continuing on well into the 1950’s. The last remaining building from the Eastside mill, the Mela Building through which a support pillar for the Sellwood Bridge was thrust, was torn down in 2011 to make way for the new Sellwood Bridge.

SMILE’s Sellwood-Moreland History Committee would be interested in knowing if there is any surviving evidence of the Eastside Lumber Mill still around. Perhaps a slab of lumber with their company name on it is hidden in the walls of your home? Or maybe a resident has squirreled away one of the fruit crates once manufactured by the East Side Box Factory. If so, it would be fun to share your souvenir at the next Sundae in the Park, on the first Sunday in August in upper Sellwood Park, at the committee’s history booth.

The 2013 Sellwood-Moreland Historical calendar, highlighting the Eastside Lumber Mill and other interesting places and people, is now available. Sponsored by the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League (SMILE) neighborhood association, this wonderful keepsake of the community is for sale at various local merchants.

For only $10.00 the historical calendar can be a special Holiday present for relatives, friends or to keep for your own personal pleasure. Your purchase will help support the history committee, and help it to preserve the photos, oral history, and collected written stories from past residents.

It’s available at Branch’s Unique Card Shop, Schondecken Coffee Roasters, Wallace Books, New Seasons Market in Sellwood, and Stars Antiques Malls – or order it by mail, by making out a check for $13 and sending it to SMILE ($10 for the calendar, plus $3 for shipping).

Mail it to SMILE, 8210 S.E. 13th Avenue, Portland, 97202.