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Mill's riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

Blue Heron Beginnings: Commentary on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project -


In the riveting view from the McLoughlin Promenade down into the Blue Heron site, a particular building looms discordantly from the surrounding jumble of mill structures.

Photo Credit: PHOTO BY: JAMES NICITA - After 131 years, Mill C has retained its basic form of a taller north half and a shorter south half.It looks like a grain elevator, swept up from the empty Kansas plains — as if by the tornado in the Wizard of Oz — and plopped out of the sky into an urban paper mill complex. A quest to discover its beginnings yields a fascinating result: it began, in fact, as a grain elevator.

Mill C ranks as one of the most significant of Blue Heron’s edifices. Its origins, in 1880, stretch back a quarter century prior to those of any other one standing. Its history embodies both flour milling and paper-making legacies: until 1908 as the warehouse and grain elevator for the Imperial Mills, and afterwards as the Hawley and Publishers’ sulphite mill. It escaped the trustee’s salvage process: the three-story, cylindrical pulp digesters endure intact as on-site machine artifacts of paper making in Oregon City.

Yet Mill C remains tantalizingly, and frustratingly, obscure. No detailed initial construction accounts exist, primarily because few 1880s editions of the Oregon City Enterprise survive; we must stitch a story together from various other sources. Enticing leads reach evidentiary dead ends, and result in historical maybes. Even the pulp digesters have always lurked hidden behind Mill C’s walls; few in Oregon City, aside from former mill workers, know what they are or what they look like.

The first historical maybe concerns the site itself. A researcher pursuing a reference to the Imperial Mills in the Oregon Historical Quarterly’s index receives a shock when encountering the actual subject matter of the reference, in steamboat captain and flour milling entrepreneur James D. Miller’s autobiographical “Pioneer Narrative”:

“Some time in the winter of 1849-1850, General Joseph Lane, governor, Joseph L. Meek, Dr. Robert Newell and a few soldiers went into the Umatilla country and arranged with the leading chiefs of the Cayuse Indians to give up the murderers of Dr. Marcus Whitman, to be tried before the United States court in Oregon City, which was to be held in April or May. The tribe gave up five Indians, said to be the leaders of the murderers...It took one week to try them, at which time, the jury brought in a verdict of murder in the first degree; so the judge sentenced them to be hanged on June 3, 1850. People from all parts of the Willamette Valley came to Oregon City that day... The scaffold was put up near the site of the warehouse of the Imperial mills in Oregon City. At the appointed time, the Indians, five in all, were taken to the scaffold...”

The Imperial Mills would not be constructed until 1863, and the warehouse not until 1880: Miller used the warehouse as a contemporary spatial reference at the time he wrote his memoirs. His account of the location of the execution, if verifiable — and accounts vary — would place it within the boundaries of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project. If the project’s consulting Native American Tribes found it appropriate, a transcendent memorial in the vicinity, perhaps beside the placid waters of a restored Basin, might resonate profoundly.

John McLoughlin’s house, was in fact standing in 1850, almost adjacent to the site described by Miller, which became part of McLoughlin’s Oregon City land claim, and subsequently part of his platted Mill Reserve. His son-in-law Daniel Harvey, who first built the Imperial Mills and who served as the executor of McLoughlin’s estate, deeded the bulk of the Mill Reserve to the People’s Transportation Co. — which held an effective monopoly on upper-Willamette River steamboat traffic — in 1865, “together with all water rights and privileges appurtenant,” as part of the transaction that led to the construction of the steamboat basin.

When the P.T. Co. folded up shop in September 1871, after losing its competition with the Willamette Falls Canal & Locks Co. for state funding to construct the Willamette Falls Locks, it sold all its assets — the Mill Reserve Property, the water rights, the basin, the horse railroad, and the steamboat fleet — to the railroad monopolist Ben Holladay, who for the purchase formed a company called the Willamette Transportation Co. Holladay brought his Oregon & California Railroad (later the Southern Pacific) through Oregon City in 1869, and in 1870 bought the competing railroad that ran on the west side of the Willamette. Holladay’s P.T. Co. purchase caused the Enterprise to fret, “Mr. Holladay has now the people — merchants and farmers — at his mercy, and should he be so disposed, he could exercise his power to their injury.”

In December of 1871, Holladay as W.T. Co. president, and John D. Biles as secretary, signed a deed that carved out a lot from the W.T. Co. property and transferred it to Holladay as an individual. The lot fronted 125 feet along the east side of Main Street, just south of the McLoughlin house — by that time the Phoenix Hotel — and stretched back to the right-of-way of the O.&C.R.R. The deed also included a major water right: namely, the right “to take from any part of the basin...sufficient water to be conveyed from said basin to said premises in a race or flume to create at all times forever fifty horse power with a twelve foot head...”

Why would Holladay be interested in such a water right? Another historical maybe, this one almost certainly myth, concerns a story told by the historian Ellis Lucia, in his 1959 biography of Holladay entitled “The Saga of Ben Holladay.”

Lucia claims that Holladay, panicked that the imminent opening of the Willamette Falls Locks would undermine his railroad and steamboat monopoly over the upper Willamette Valley, hired “armies of men” that raced to dig out — but ultimately did not complete — a competing canal and locks on the Oregon City side of the Willamette River. But no newspaper article, or scar on the Oregon City landscape, corroborates Lucia’s story.

A more plausible explanation comes from the Enterprise of Feb. 2, 1872, “that the property adjoining the Phoenix Hotel, in this city, has been purchased by J.D. Biles and Ben Holladay Jr. from the W.T. Company, and they propose to erect a large barrel and tub factory thereon.” It appears, however, that they ultimately decided to build the factory elsewhere. They completed the factory by July 1872, before the November 1872 fire that destroyed the original Woolen Mills building. Yet a photo taken after the reconstruction of the Woolen Mills shows no such factory on Holladay’s lot. In 1876 the West Shore identified the location of the “Tub and Pail Company’s Factory” behind the Woolen Mills, along the Willamette River.

Holladay kept the lot through the 1870s, even after the collapse of his empire after the Panic of 1873. The 1870s photo of the Woolen Mills and the Imperial Mills appears to show use of the lot associated with the railroad: an elevated wooden plank ramp leads from the railroad (in foreground, out of sight in the picture) to two small sheds, a drop down to ground level and a path to the rear entrance of the Imperial Mills. Very likely, wheat was a key commodity being unloaded off this wooden ramp. The Enterprise wrote on September 12, 1873, “The freight trains of the O.&C.R.R. Co. are running daily, carrying from 250 to 300 tons of wheat per day — a large quantity of which is being ground into flour at our mills, and the remainder transported to Portland, where it will be shipped to European markets.”

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: CLACKAMAS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - 1870s: The Holladay lot in front of the newly rebuilt Oregon City Woolen Mills had a wooden ramp leading off the Oregon & California Railroad track (foreground, out of picture), dropping to ground level to a path to the Imperial Mills. By 1880, a railroad warehouse replaced the railroad ramp. In July 1879 Holladay sold the property and water rights, to the steamboat captain George Marshall, who had been Captain Miller’s partner in the Oregon City Flouring Mills until 1876. Now, Marshall made a brief comeback to the flour-milling business. In November 1879, Marshall entered into a deal with D.W. Burnside for a half interest in the Imperial Mills. Marshall deeded a half interest in the Holladay lot to Burnside for $1,500, and Burnside deeded a half interest in the Imperial Mills to Marshall for $15,000. The new firm, D.W. Burnside & Co., made a major investment the following summer.

On July 9, 1880, the Oregonian reported, “Chalmers & Holmes of this city have about finished the stone foundation of a large warehouse to be connected with the Imperial Flour Mills at Oregon City and which will be convenient to the track of the O.&C.R.R. at that point.” On Oct. 1 of that year, it further reported, “The new warehouse of the Imperial mills, Oregon City, has had a side track constructed so that wheat can now be received from points above on the railroad.”

Soon after completion, the warehouse was accommodating a busy traffic. On Jan. 14, 1881, the Oregonian wrote that the railroad warehouse was “full to the roof with wheat.” Later that year, Marshall sold the entirety of his interest in the Imperial Mills and its warehouse back to Burnside for $37,500.

On the Historic Oregon Newspapers website, one solitary, lonely edition of the Oregon City Enterprise survives for the entire year 1882: Jan. 12. But that single edition records the existence of the elevated iron conveyor that carried wheat from the warehouse and above Main Street across to the Imperial Mills itself. The new railroad warehouse and conveyor complemented the existing delivery of wheat by steamboat, and opened up a new era of efficiency and productivity. As the Oregonian would later state:

“In the matter of receiving grain no town in the Northwest enjoys opportunities in this direction than does Oregon City. The track of the Southern Pacific railroad is sufficiently elevated above the town to allow the ‘shooting’ of grain from their cars down to the level of the warehouses below, and after this wheat is ground into flour the elevation of the mills is such that the sacks can be again ‘shot’ down to the boats in the river.”

Burnside took the next step. The Willamette Farmer wrote on Nov. 3, 1882:

“The foundations for the new warehouse for the Imperial mill at Oregon City, will soon be under way. It is alongside the old one. Messrs. Ballantyne & Chalmers have the contract for the stonework and already have a number of stone masons on the ground.”

The Oregonian reported, in more detail, on New Year’s Day 1883:

“The Imperial Mills — Of Oregon City, one of the oldest flour mills in the state, built in 1863. Since then additions have been made from time to time until it is now one of the largest mills on the coast. Its brand of flour is well known both in eastern states and also in Europe. Owing to the excellence of flour manufactured, its export trade has increased to 100,000 barrels in 1881. This amount will be shipped this year. The proprietor, Mr. D.W. Burnside, has always worked to keep pace with the times, has been adding new and improved machinery to the mill, and also for increasing his facilities for handling wheat. He has in connection with his mill a warehouse with capacity for storing 100,000 bushels of wheat, and is now building another warehouse or elevator to receive wheat from railroads, in bulk or in sacks. Capacity of the new warehouse will be 200,000 bushels. The water power of the mill and warehouses is supplied from the noted Willamette Falls...

This last sentence, “The water power of the mill and warehouses is supplied from the noted Willamette Falls,” combined with the fact that the warehouse lot had its own appurtenant water right, evokes perhaps the most maddening and elusive mystery of Mill C’s 19th-century beginnings: did the warehouse and grain elevator use mechanical power from water supplied through a flume, or otherwise, from the nearby Basin?

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: CLACKAMAS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - 1880s: The newly constructed warehouse (1880 front) and grain elevator (1883 rear), railroad side track, and iron conveyor over and above Main Street.Did a water turbine power the cleaning machinery and wheat separator denoted in the warehouse and elevator in the first 1880s Sanborn maps? Or drive the “power belt” or “three conveyors” in the elevator, or the “two conveyors” in the warehouse, shown in the 1900 Sanborn map, to lift grain to storage bins? Or turn a long spiral auger along the elevated iron conveyor to push grain from the warehouse across Main Street to the Imperial Mills?

Alternatively, might the water right have enabled the extra flow of water from the Basin into the Imperial Mills building itself to drive extra gears to turn the “shaft” the 1900 Sanborn map shows crossing over and above Main Street along the elevated iron conveyor? Might the shaft, upon reaching the other side, have propelled a Rube Goldberg-like array of additional gears, wheels, shafts and belts to power, in turn, the machinery in the warehouse and elevator?

Or, was the Oregonian just wrong? The 1892 Sanborn map does show several of the flumes and water turbines, but does not show any associated with either the Imperial Mills warehouse or grain elevator. In the 1880s, was the lift in the elevator provided by manual pulleys, the wheat conveyed above and across Main St. by hand-pushed carts, and the machinery in both structures turned by hand cranks? Was the “power belt” in the 1900 Sanborn map powered by electricity tapped off the power lines that after 1888 ran right in front of the elevator and warehouse from Station A just on the other side of the Basin? Was the Holladay water right never developed, at least not in the 19th century?

An anecdote from the Flood of 1890 might be evidence that the water power of the warehouse and elevator came from the Imperial Mills itself. The deluge broke the Basin breakwall, and damaged the warehouse: “Almost immediately drift began to accumulate from the [Woolen Mills] factory to the Imperial mill warehouse,” according to the Enterprise’s account of Feb. 6, 1890. “Huge logs striking the Imperial mills warehouse broke the south wall,” the paper reported. “Holes have been battered into the walls of the Imperial warehouse and that building is threatened.” Aside from this damage, though, the flood knocked the Imperial Mills itself out of operation, and after the flood had receded, an Oregon Courier report of Feb. 23, 1890, seemed to suggest that the shutdown necessitated an alternative temporary power source for the warehouse and elevator:

“As the Imperial mill will probably not be able to grind until June on account of the destruction of the basin and breakwater, a steam engine was planted at the foot of the warehouse of the mill, and Saturday morning the elevator pulleys were attached to it for the purpose of raising the wheat from the lower bins to the floor on a level with the railway track, where it is sacked and loaded on cars for transfer to the [Portland Flouring Mills Co.’s (PFM)] Albina mill. The engine was run continuously until late Sunday night, and during the week to air wheat by elevating it from one bin to another.”

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: CLACKAMAS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - 1890s: Newly painted Imperial Mills, warehouse, and grain elevator after the Flood of 1890. Note new covered flour conveyor inclining to top floor of warehouse, power poles from Station A, and horse drawn wagons behind Imperial Mills and in front of grain elevator. By the time of the Flood of 1890, the Imperial Mills had passed from Burnside to PFM, and through this company’s substantial resources, the Imperial Mills and its warehouse and elevator recovered in short order. Towards the end of 1890, the Oregon City’s elected officials granted the company’s petition to construct across Main Street a second conveyor.This one was covered, and inclined from the Imperial Mills up to the second floor of the warehouse. Whereas the original conveyed wheat from the warehouse to the Imperial Mills building, this second one in turn conveyed flour from the Imperial Mills building to the warehouse for shipping by rail.

A photo from the 1890s shows the Imperial Mills, warehouse, and elevator at their peak under PFM, redolent in a new coat of paint, framing either side of a plank road constructed after the flood had scoured out the area around the basin. It is the picture of the zenith of Theodore B. Wilcox’s wealthy, global flour empire, when the Imperial Mills shipped flour east to Liverpool to west to China — even while farmers were still delivering wheat to the mill by horse-drawn wagons, one of which can be seen in the photo at the rear entrance of the Imperial Mills, and another within the shadow in front of the grain elevator.

After the turn of the century Wilcox provided financial backing for Willard Hawley’s acquisition of the Imperial Mills; and of the warehouse and grain elevator that would become Mill C. They were about to enter the era of sulphur, and, while retaining their basic form, would transform almost beyond recognition.

Oregon City resident James Nicita is a former city commissioner.




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