At ten o'clock in the morning of a day that held much promise, the mill whistle suddenly sounded and extended into a long drawn-out, apprehensive howl. Perhaps half a dozen people in Brookings knew what the whistle meant. Most of the townspeople and workers in the big California and Oregon Lumber Company (C&O) mill simply wondered.
Within minutes they knew.
The C&O whistle on June 18, 1925, sounded the end of hopes, plans and operation. The mill machinery stopped with a jolt. Not another wheel or roll ever turned again. A redwood log lay sprawled halfway up the slip. The carriage jerked to a standstill just before it came up the slack band saw. Fires died under the boilers. Ships at the long dock rocked idly, short of cargo. Crane arms pointed at varying angles. Cedar, spruce and redwood in the pond remained undisturbed as green lumber warped in the yards. This was it ...
L.P. "Vern" Cross was one of the men who (had come) up from "San Berdoo" (San Bernardino, Calif.) to work at the new mill. He ran one of the logging locomotives on the wood grades. He remembered the day in 1914 when the mill opened and the future was bright. After the closing blow he was one of the few who stayed in town.
"We had a lot of good years," Cross said, "And never a hint that things weren't going right with management. Henry Nutting was woods superintendent and James H. Owen was mill manager. John Brookings' son, Walter, was sales manager in the San Francisco office. I brought in many a trainload of logs and there were ships in here all the time. The company owned -- the Brookings, Quinault, South West, Stout and others. They carried rough lumber to the finishing plant at C&O yard in Oakland. Frank Stout held the controlling interest after 1920 and Mr. Gray was manager then. It was all too good to be true, I guess. I was just braking down for the mill with 28 cars of logs when that mournful old whistle started. Figured something unusual was going on. Didn't take long to find out I had no job."
Why did the mill close down, and so abruptly? The ostensible reason was lack of markets for the company's 60 million feet of redwood lumber stacked in its yards. Company president W.C. Ribbeneck denied reports that dissension among the C&O's directors was behind the closing. He told the Curry County Reporter:
"There is no dissension among the directors over the conduct of the company's affairs ... The Brookings shutdown was entirely due to the lumber market."
Yet rumors persisted that personalities that clashed, combined with conflicting policy viewpoints, were the real reasons.
Nothing New About Brookings Shutdown
Mill Entirely Closed Down Tuesday
Electric Lights Cut Off
Report Lumber Shipments to Cease
There are no new developments in the shutting down of the California and Oregon Lumber Company's projects at Brookings and Smith River.
Contrary to general expectations, the mill at Brookings was closed down completely Tuesday at 10 o'clock a.m. after the day crew had been at work two hours, advices and orders to this effect coming from San Francisco.
There has been a general exodus of men and their families until one fails to see a resemblance to the condition that has prevailed for some years past. The business men, however, are keeping a stiff upper lip and are quite hopeful that the highway and bridge work that will soon be in progress in that locality will not only take up the slack caused by the shutdown, but will place the men in far better financial condition, for they will make from $4 to 4.50 per day, whereas they have made a possible average of around $3.50 in the mills. The Brookings Bulletin, June 26, 1925
Whatever the reasons, Brookings was soon desolated. There was no power nor lights, because the only generating plant was shut down along with the mill. People began moving away; within six months five to six hundred had gone. Many houses were boarded up. The town became dilapidated. Cleared areas rapidly reverted to grass, vines and brush. The hospital was closed three months later. Brookings seemed destined to become another coastal ghost town.
Sometime after the closing, the mill was dismantled by a machinery company from Portland. The people who had stayed helped to remove the machinery and were given free rent and utilities. Some of the discarded items were used in summer homes in the county. Much was shipped away -- to the East Coast, to South America, even across the Pacific to the Orient. In 1936 the railroad was taken up and the rails sold as scrap iron to Japan. The long wharf apparently rotted and disintegrated. A few remnants of it might be seen on the beach between Tanbark Point and Chetco Point.
In 1933 the county fire commissioner issued a permit for the supervised burning down of the old mill buildings. They were rapidly deteriorating and increasingly hazardous. For some time afterward rumors persisted that an arsonist had been at work. This was not the case. Elimination of the buildings, however, did reduce taxes on the property.
For nine years after the mill closed, residents used lamps, candles and lanterns for after-dark lighting. Then, in the fall of 1934, Peter M. Grigollo secured a small electric plant purchased from Port Orford. As told by Emma Grigollo Nye, former curator of the Chetco Valley Museum:
It supplied power to Mr. Grigollo's residence at the corner of Chetco Avenue and Fern Street, also to the building once occupied by Larry's TV. That building was then a garage, operated by Mr. Grigollo.
A Mr. Hogan, who with his wife lived just south of what (in 2001) is the Oregon Specialties store, was the first customer and a Mr. and Mrs. Steeves were next to receive service. They lived in the little Red Shoe store, and ran a service station (in the Old Fashioned Fantasy's location) so that was hooked up at the same time. The Bud McVay residence was next, corner of Fern and Spruce Street. Hirshel and Luella Weter of the old Brookings Laundry were next. Theirs was a two-story building located between the corner of Chetco Avenue and Spruce Street and the Redwood Theater.
Early in 1935 the system was over booked, so Mr. Grigollo purchased and installed a 10 KW plant in the garage building. Existing power poles around town were bought from W.J. Ward.
More customers were added in rapid succession until, in 1936, another unit was added, then another. In 1937, all the small units were traded in on a 75 H.P. diesel unit which served a growing community, with lines toward Gold Beach to the William Crissey (Crissey Circle) place, and almost to the California-Oregon state line and then up the Winchuck about one mile.
Mrs. Nye explains further that in later years, a 120 H.P. unit was installed, and that the two-unit system was in operation until 1938 when Pete Grigollo was fatally injured in an auto accident. In 1945 the Brookings Light and Power Co. was sold to the Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative Company.
Before 1925, the C&O operation of the sawmill and logging had provided an era of prosperity for both Harbor and Brookings. The sudden unannounced withdrawal brought immediate unemployment and depression, affecting both communities. Harbor, however, was a farming and ranching area and Brookings was not. Harbor was able to survive and develop much better than Brookings for many years. The growth of the bulb industry helped keep Harbor and Brookings alive until, in time, several small sawmills were built in various places around the area and logging again began to flourish. As people began moving in to supply the needed labor to operate mill and logging operations, the empty houses in Brookings again became homes and its quiet streets again came alive.