Brookings: A new town across the Chetco

April 13, 2001 11:00 pm
The first known photo of the Brookings townsite, about 1913, features Moore's Hill. (Courtesy of Pete Tierce).
The first known photo of the Brookings townsite, about 1913, features Moore's Hill. (Courtesy of Pete Tierce).

BROOKINGS, A LIVE COMMUNITY, MARKS ONCE BLEAK SPOT OF DREARY DESOLATION

From the Oregon Sunday Journal, May 3, 1914:

The converting of an utter wilderness in the southern part of Curry County into a lumber producing town which is now in progress at Brookings, Oregon, is probably one of the biggest undertakings of the past year in the southern part of the state.

Brookings is the name of the town being built by the Brookings Timber & Lumber Company. The sawmill is nearly completed and will be operated this summer. Other development work will follow.

Brookings is located north of the Chetco River on a big plateau overlooking the ocean, and is about seven miles from the California line. It was formerly about as far out of the line of transportation as any point on the coast. In order to locate a sawmill at this spot it required the building of a town, the construction of a logging railroad, the making of an ocean harbor, the securing of water supply, the building of an enormous log pond, and in fact the creating of everything needed for modern work.

The Brookings company owns a string of lumber yards in California. Having completed manufacturing in that state, the interests sought other fields, and for six or seven years have been buying timber in southern Curry County. For the manufacture of this timber into lumber the site of Brookings was selected as the place to build a mill because it combined natural resources in the way of shipping facilities with possibilities for a townsite and nearness to the company timber.

The company owns about 30,000 acres of land in Curry County and of this 27,000 is timber land located mostly between Pistol River and Chetco River. A logging railroad now extends from Brookings four miles into the timber where the first camp is being opened. Eventually it will require 60 miles of railroad to reach and bring to the mill all of the timber.

The locality furnishes a natural harbor on which a larger sum of money will be expended to develop, but which, under present conditions even, affords satisfactory shipping facilities. The coast line at this point turns in so that it extends east and west for a short distance. A series of big rocks protect the harbor on the northwest so that there is deep water in which a vessel can anchor when surrounding water is rough. The loading and unloading is done by means of a cable system. Later, however, the company will build a wharf extending out 1,200 feet, on which will be double tracks. The lumber will then be run out on cars and loaded onto the vessels. The cable system will be extended 600 feet farther out so that tramp steamers can also be loaded without coming to the wharf.

Ocean boats cannot enter the Chetco River so this waterway cannot be used in bringing any of the material. The derrick and machinery to be used on shore for the cable system was taken through the breakers so it could be set up on shore.

Five months was spent by a force of men in cutting the brush and clearing the land for the mill and townsite. All of the machinery, lumber, railroad iron, supplies and material of every kind was brought on vessels and carried ashore by the use of cable.

The town is really only started. The houses and buildings going up are of the permanent kind and all conform with a city plan which was laid out by Architect Maybeck of San Francisco. The residences are being built of shingles and are of an artistic design. Each one will be different, so that there will be no suggestion of company houses. They will be occupied by men of family. Splendid provisions are made for the unmarried men.

There is a first-class hospital in charge of Dr. Saunders, who also has charged of the sanitary conditions in the town and in the logging and construction camps. Church services are held and a church building soon will be erected. There is a social hall for the use of the people and a band is being organized. Next month the Bank of Brookings will be established with a concrete bank building. There is in the town a school with two teachers and 67 young people of school age and the district has bonded for $5,000 for school purposes. There are now 175 men working in the town and about 350 persons residing in the town and camps. Some of the residents are residing in tents, but homes will be provided for all. It is expected that in the course of three or four years Brookings will have a population of 1,200 people.

A first-class water system ample for a large manufacturing town has been installed. A big reservoir is being constructed and the water from the mountains is piped to the houses and for manufacturing and fire protection purposes.

One of the biggest pieces of work attempted by the company was the construction of a log pond for the storage and sorting of logs at the mill. It will require a dam over 1,000 feet long, and the pond will hold 10,000,000 feet of logs. The work of making this pond is done by hydraulic force. The logging railroad will bring the logs from the woods and dump them into the pond at the mill.

The lumber mill, which is nearing completion, will be one of the most modern on the coast. It will be driven by electricity and over 50 individual motors will be used. Adjoining the mill is a large manufacturing plant. Later a creosoting plant will be added. The lumber mill is a double mill. The machinery for one side is now being put in, and will cut from 125,000 to 140,000 feet of lumber a day. When the other side is added the mill will have a capacity for cutting 250,000 feet a day. All of the lumber will be shipped from Brookings to California markets.

The company owns 3,000 acres of agricultural land near the town and this will later be sold to actual settlers. It will be subdivided according to its adaptability for fruit growing, dairying or other lines of farming. The company now maintains the largest store in the southern part of the county and will carry goods to meet all demands.

J.E. Brookings is president of the company, Robert S. Brookings, vice president and Walter DuBois Brookings is secretary and treasurer. W. J. Ward is chief of forests.

The establishment of Brookings has done much to develop southern Curry County. It has created a market for the farmers and has made a center of activity for a district which was formerly far out of the way of general traffic and business.

The Brookings Company

This model industrial townsite, designed for the Brookings Lumber & Box Company of San Bernardino, California, did not begin overnight.

During the late 1890s the Company, owned by Robert S. and John E. Brookings, had logged the pine forests of those mountains. They owned and operated their own logging railroad, sawmills, planing mill, box factory, and also ran nine retail lumber yards in Southern California cities. A display caption in the San Bernardino County Museum notes that "Perhaps the largest lumber operation (in the San Bernardino Mountains) was conducted by the Brookings Lumber Company."

Always enterprising, the Company began looking northward. In 1906 it hired William James Ward, a Cornell University graduate in civil engineering and forestry, to come to the southern Oregon Coast and survey its lumbering potential. After timber cruising the Chetco and Pistol River areas for several years, he recommended that the Brookings people begin extensive lumbering operations here and secure a townsite for a mill and shipping center. They quickly agreed, but they responded cautiously. In 1907 they bought a small water-power sawmill about 12 miles up the Chetco River. It had been operated by John L. Childs of Crescent City, California, since 1900.

In 1908 the Brookings Lumber and Box Company began acquiring a tract of some 30,000 acres of Douglas fir timber in southern Oregon. Meanwhile W. J. Ward was seeking a suitable townsite for the proposed operations. According to a story in The Pilot:

"The original choice of sites was tentatively located at either Mack Rock, 14 miles north of the present Brookings, or mouth of the Chetco River. However, the site at the mouth of the Chetco was selected because of the possibilities offered as a port for coast-wide shipping. (1)

"The Mack Arch Rock site was on ranch land owned by William Crook. According to his grandson, Ron Crook, Ward first chose the Mack Arch Rock site. Papers were drawn up, but when Crook raised the price by $10,000 Ward said (literally or in effect) "Go to hell!" and bought land on the north bank of the Chetco instead. (2)

"According to Leo Lucas, the Brookings townsite was first owned by Augustus Miller, one of the original settlers, until his death in 1881. When West Duley married Miller's widow, he acquired the property which was later bought by Crucius and Lauff of Crescent City. They leased 2,900 acres to Leo's father, Lester Lucas -- all the land from the North Fork of the Chetco River to the old Ed Ransom farm north of town. Lucas grazed sheep, cattle and hogs over the area.

"A garbled account of the Brookings' early history appears in the Curry County Reporter of January 17, 1924:

That the town of Brookings owes its being to a refusal of the Crescent City officials to grant Jim Owens a water right he desired was the statement of West Duley, chairman of the Del Norte County supervisors ... Mr. Owens made application for the water rights in connection with plans to start the big mill of the C&O Lumber Company (Successor of the Brookings Timber and Lumber Co.). Mr. Duley and another favored granting it but three stood out against it. Mr. Owens became chagrined and finally selected the original townsite of Brookings and built it up.

Mr. Duley formerly owned the Brookings townsite, having taken it up about 40 years ago when he settled at the mouth of the Chetco River. He sold it about 35 years ago to the late R.D. Hume of Rogue River fishing fame, who sold it to a Eureka man named Miner. The latter sold it to the Owens and Brookings interests.

How does one reconcile such conflicting accounts? Part of Duley's statement is obviously in error, since it was the Brookings Lumber & Box Company that started the mill, not the C&O, which later bought out the Brookings interests, and W.J.. Ward rather than Jim Owens certainly chose the original townsite.

The Town's Name:

A related question: For whom was the town of Brookings named? About that, opinions differ. Peterson and Powers in their 1952 book, A century of Coos and Curry, wrote that "The town apparently received its name from the Brookings Lumber Company." Four years later, The Pilot newspaper ran a photograph of John Brookings, captioned "an official of the Brookings Box and Lumber Company, for whom the city was named." The 1974 edition of Oregon Geographic Names, edited by Lewis A. McArthur and published by the Oregon Historical Society, states that:

The post office was named for Robert S. Brookings of St. Louis, Missouri, about 1913. He was the largest stockholder in a lumbering enterprise that started the town.

If McArthur is correct, it seems odd that in Robert Brookings authorized life story, Brookings: A Biography, no mention is made of Brookings, Oregon. Robert had grown up in Baltimore and moved to St. Louis as a young man; there he lived for 50 years until his death in 1932.

To be sure, he was a figure of national importance: a philanthropist who gave over a million dollars to Washington University in St. Louis, built its Medical Center and created the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.; an administrator who headed the World War I War Industries Board and the Price Fixing Committee; and also was an advisor to Presidents Wilson, Harding and Coolidge. Perhaps in view of such achievements his biographer lost sight of the little Brookings town, or chose to ignore it, even though presumably it had been named in his honor. The book's only mention of Oregon is in reference to a telegram from Washington, D.C., asking Brookings to head the War Industries Board:

The telegram pursued Brookings to Oregon where he had gone to feel the pulse of his drooping lumber interests, and caught up with him in camp with his brother in Glacier National Park. To his brother's disgust, Brookings mounted his horse, rode 40 miles to the railroad station and took the next train to the capital. (3)

Writing in 1926, W.J. Ward recounted that:

"In 1912 the Brookings Company started construction of the town, named it Brookings, and developed the lumber manufacturing plant and harbor. (4)

The weight of the evidence seems to indicate that the town was named for the company generally, rather than for Robert Brookings specifically.

BROOKINGS TAKES SHAPE

In any event, in October of 1912 a crew of lumber workers arrived from California. They had been Brookings employees. Among the married couples were Mr. and Mrs. J. Arthur Driskell, Mr. and Mrs. Herschel P. Weter and Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Cross. Driskell had been the company's logging and railroad superintendent. Cross had been the company's railroad engineer. Percival E. Thomas also came; he was to install the machinery for the mill and shop. The following year he brought his wife, Mary, by boat to Brookings.

The Driskell's first home was a small ranch house near the Chetco River; later the Company drew a plat for the new town. Two acres of land on its main street had been reserved for them. Thus the Driskells were the town's first individual landowners. For 10 years they were the only private owners in Brookings.

A Pilot article in May, 1971, tells more of the story:

"Travel in this area at that time was as primitive as it had been 50 years earlier in the east. Mr. Driskell recounts now that he and his young wife, in October 1912, left Grants Pass by horse stage. They rode all day and all night, arriving early in the morning at Crescent City. There they rested a couple of days before they left for the next community of Brookings.

"The second stage of their journey took less time, but was nevertheless as arduous. They left Crescent City early in the morning and arrived at Smith River in time to eat lunch and to have a short rest. After lunch they resumed, to arrive at Ferry ranch -- crossing the Chetco River above Harbor after dark.

"The immediate job to be accomplished, with the arrival of men, was to get in supplies and materials with which to build the new town, most of which were being shipped up by steamship from San Francisco.

"The men made preparations for the arrival of a shipload of supplies. Their first job was felling timber suitable for shear legs that could be placed some distance off-shore in the water, from which to run a high line.

"In the meantime, Brookings bought the S.S. South Coast, and outfitted it with supplies and materials for the new community. It sailed from San Francisco under Capt. Hamilton, arriving at Chetco Cove Nov. 15, 1912.

"When the S.S. South Coast arrived, there were no facilities ready for unloading, so the first cargo was put over the side onto rafts made from railroad ties that the ship was carrying. The first raft to be loaded carried a gasoline engine for power ashore. The raft had no motive power. It was cast loose from the ship and the waves carried it ashore. Some of the local boys from Harbor came out in rowboats to give whatever help they could, which, it was agreed, was very little.

"As the raft hit the beach, lines were made fast to it, and it was pulled ashore, and the gasoline engine was man-handled up the beach to high ground. It was set up to furnish power for the high line -- a cable stretched from the shear leg to the shore, and ships could anchor underneath the cables. Cargoes then would be attached to the cable and pulled ashore. (Passengers also came ashore that way.)

"With the power for the high lines, unloading was stepped up. Among the first materials to be brought ashore was lumber to build a cook house, bunkhouse and store. The original plans for the Brookings townsite called for the store to be located at the north edge of town, near where Lees Dragon Gate Restaurant & Lounge now stand (2001).

The town was to develop out from the store, and a railroad was laid by high line on Chetco Point from the store. After tracks were laid, it was time to bring the first locomotive in but it was decided that the high line would not carry it, so it was floated in on a raft, too. Although this railroad was in a wilderness was probably one of the shortest in history, it was also one of the busiest." (5)

"The townsite was laid out for a population of about 1,500 people. This was to be no ordinary company town, drab and ugly. Robert Brookings was something of an idealist. To design the town, he had engaged the services of Bernard Maybeck of Berkeley, California, famous for his architectural planning of the Arts Building at the Pan American Exposition in San Francisco, and for his design of Golden Gate Park in that city. Maybeck was enthusiastic about the scenery and the townsite location. Rather than laying out the streets in the typical checkerboard pattern, he made them to follow the natural contours of the lands, so that gently winding avenues resulted."

W.J. Ward's 1926 Report gives a glowing picture of Brookings:

"The town is not like the usual type of industrial village. The cottages are all different and very attractive. They were built for homes for the employees of the Lumber Company, and each was placed on a large lot, affording space for garden and flowers. In general, the standard floor plan consists of a living room, two bedrooms with a complete bathroom between, kitchen and a back storage room for wood. Some of the houses are smaller and a few are larger, having three bedrooms. The mild climate of the town and the excellent soil produce an abundance of flowers, vines and shrubs." (6)

Some 40 years later, The Pilot ran a grimmer story about life in the fledgling mill town, written by Marian Chapman, the newspaper's office manager:

"This was primitive country and there were no roads, no bridges and few settlements (when the Driskells came to Brookings in 1912). The nearest post office was at Harbor, and to get their mail they had to push a wheelbarrow a half mile to the river, then row across in a small boat and push another wheelbarrow to the post office where they received their mail in a gunny sack. They returned home in exactly the same manner.

"It was a desolate spot and the young couple were minded to leave, but the company offered them two acres of land as an inducement to stay on ...

"The Driskells were the first to settle in this isolated spot and were, therefore, the founders of the town of Brookings.

"In 1915 they decided to go into business on their own and opened a "Club" in the newly built structure on the acreage they had been given. The site is now the vacant lot by the Credit Union building. The Club boasted of a pool hall, card room, barber shop and dance hall. The latter was on the second floor and many a dance was held there to the music of an oft-changing orchestra, using Hilda Driskell's piano, the very first piano brought into Curry County. (This piano is now owned by Charlotte Crook, in Harbor in 1979).

"Folks often stayed two or three days and had to be bedded down on mattresses laid out on the dance hall floor. These transient over-nighters became so frequent and numerous that the Club, in 1922, was converted into a hotel by adding to the original structure and building 10 one-room cottages behind the main building.

"At times, when the company store was closed, so many people came to the hotel to borrow groceries which were seldom returned that the barbershop was moved to a new location and a small store was opened in the modest space it formerly occupied. The store grew and grew and eventually developed into a large general merchandise business which the Driskell's operated for a period of 27 years. (7)

"When the Brookings Timber and Lumber Company began operations it brought here another of its top employees, Vern C. Cross, who became engineer on the logging train. His daughter, Anna, is said to have been the first child born in the town of Brookings. She recalls that John Brookings, for whom her father worked, was always called "J.R." When her mother had a piano brought here by ship it was swung ashore while many spectators held their collective breath until it was safely down.

"The Brookings area at that time was called Child's Point, or, sometimes, Arkansas Flats. Just north of where the present Bonn Motel is now located. Behind it was a hill called Moore's Butte, a good area for deer hunting then. According to longtime resident Max Brainard, Tom Moore, a one-armed half-breed teamster, had a house and a barn there. He carried the mail south, and on need sounded the triangle fire alarm, which was made of railroad rails and stationed on top of the hill.

The company soon built a large bunk house, called the St. George Hotel, to house the unmarried male employees. This stood on the south side of the present Pacific Avenue, adjoining Chetco Avenue. The St. George Annex was constructed on Pacific Avenue, across the street from the hotel. Directly west of the Hotel stood the mess hall which seated 300.

According to Leo Lucas:

"Over the years, since the closing of the mill, the building was used as a dance hall, a temporary school house, a feed store, and a restaurant.

"On the north side of Pacific Avenue, in 1979 the site of the Brookings Tire Shop, a hospital was built. It was staffed and equipped to care for the sick and injured of the area. A sobering and chilling experience for everyone, particularly those who had some member of their family working at the mill, was the sound of six short blasts of the mill whistle signaling for the hospital staff to be prepared for someone who had been injured or killed.

"The present Central Building was the company's office building. Also constructed was a commissary. The company began construction of a town sewer system in 1915. Completed in 1923, it is now referred to as Sewer District No. 1.

"The all-electric mill the company built was one of only two electric unit package mills in the world for cutting fir. The other was in Marshfield (now Coos Bay), Oregon. Built in 1913, it cost $1,250,000. This type of mill almost entirely eliminated the need for shafting and belting because nearly every machine was powered by direct drive from an individual motor. The electric power and lighting for the entire town as well as for the mill was produced at the plant by a 1,250 horsepower turbo-generator, driven by three automatically stoked boilers. An 80-foot high dam was constructed, and a 20-acre mill pond to float the logs. A standard-gauge railroad was extended from the logging camp up the Chetco River to the mill."

FIRST LOG INTO MILL

On October 6, 1914, the first log came out of the pond and into the Brookings Lumber Co. mill.

Letter from John Brookings to Dr. D.J. Brookings in Woodward, Iowa:

Harbor, Oregon, Feb. 18, 1913

Walter (John's son) has just returned to San Francisco from St. Louis after a conference there with R.S. Brookings, having incorporated the Brookings Timber and Lumber Co. and (to) issues bonds to install our plant and operate ...

We have about 80 men working now and will probably have 200 this summer. One building and a log pond at a cost of about $40,000. We will make a town called "Brookings" upon a fair amount of agricultural land ...

From the Chetco Valley Museum Archives