WESTPORT — Jim Aalberg is happy to report his mission is accomplished.
The Portland man has self-published an illustrated history of Westport, a company town which prospered for a dozen decades sawing giant logs and canning salmon.
Aalberg is a senior executive for the Kroger Co., which owns the Fred Meyer stores. His work, “Westport Oregon: Home of the Big Sticks and Gold Medal Salmon,” is the product of “two solid years” of writing and obtaining photo permissions, plus “staggering” hours delving into archives during the past 30 years. His wife, Jan, and son, Bryan, helped.
“I have always been very interested in genealogy — I’m a history buff,” he said. “I enjoy research and especially historical research. It’s like treasure hunting.”
The topic isn’t random. Aalberg, 66, is the great-great-great-grandson of Westport’s founder, John West.
The 212-page book was spawned from articles he researched for Cumtux, the quarterly magazine of the Clatsop County Historical Society, of which he is a longtime member. He discovered at least three surviving descendants of Westport Lumber Co. pioneers were keen to have their stories told.
• Don Taylor, whose father, Jack, ran the planer mill and whose mother, Jean, created an extensive photo collection of village life and company activities;
• Gloria Fahlgren Turner, whose father was Archie Fahlgren, who supervised the loading docks and was the appointed town marshal;
• Francis V. Anderson, whose father was Andy Anderson, head butcher at the company’s meat market.
“They started pushing me,” said Aalberg, joking that they considered him “the chosen one” to write their history. “They pretty much railroaded me into it.”
He wasn’t really a reluctant researcher. He had the family connection with West, a lifelong fascination with ships, which play a crucial part of Westport’s story, plus strong support from the historical society.
The historical society’s chief archivist, Liisa Penner, who wrote the foreword, met Aalberg digging through file boxes in the basement of the Clatsop County Courthouse some 25 years ago.
Aalberg is happy his research has helped tidy his family archives. More importantly, he has preserved the trio’s memories. “The thing that really motivated me was these people who wanted me to tell their story,” he said. “Every one had a positive attitude about the company, the church, the strong work ethic, the flower shows and all those things. It just amazed me. I wanted to tell their stories.”
The story begins with West emigrating from his native Scotland to Quebec, marrying in 1832, then joining hordes seeking fortunes in the California Gold Rush. When that didn’t pan out, he moved north to Portland then Astoria.
Upriver he built a waterwheel-powered sawmill and salmon cannery on a 640-acre donation land claim in the 1850s and named the settlement West Slough and later Westport. The easternmost Clatsop County community, which once marched to the tune of the mill whistle, never became an incorporated city.
“Captain” West became the first postmaster and served as justice of the peace. His son, David, ran the mercantile, which housed the post office, and was the first telegraph operator.
West packed salted fish in barrels which were shipped around Cape Horn to East Coast ports and Great Britain. This progressed into canning, an industry that peaked on the Columbia River in the 1880s. The Scot also canned mutton and beef, finding markets for byproducts, including oil squeezed out of fish during processing.
West’s breakout moment for his distinctive red label Oregon brand, was earning the gold medal for best canned salmon at the Oregon Agricultural Society Fair in 1874. The name stays alive today on products distributed from a base in Liverpool, England.
As old-growth lumber was exhausted in the East Coast and Midwest in the 1890s, Westport thrived. The town experienced 120 years of continuous saw-milling operations, surviving multiple changes in mill ownership, rebuilding after catastrophic fires.
“I don’t know of any community that has had that role in the Northwest and had such an impact throughout the world,” Aalberg said.
The subtitle of the book — “big sticks” — refers to old-growth Douglas fir, notably from the Nehalem watershed. Trees up to 112 feet long were cut by 12-foot ban saws. Timber was carried around the world to Australia, Japan, China and Guam on sailing vessels and then steamships.
Transportation from forest to mill was enhanced by the mid-1890s blasting of a 75-foot tunnel through the soapstone hill by Malcomb McFarlane, the only one of its kind in Oregon constructed for the use of bull teams to drag logs. A narrow-gauge rail line was laid in 1907. The collapsed passageway still exists, if you know where to look.
Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, Bulgarians and many Scandinavian immigrants provided mill and cannery labor. The Westport Lumber Co. was founded in 1909 and its “Diamond W” logo created in 1916. As the community grew into what Aalberg calls a “vibrant quintessential Oregon lumber company town,” mill owners sought ways to retain skilled personnel. A bowling alley was opened. Company picnics featured races, tug-of-war contests or trips to Seaside. Links with Linfield College were promoted, with students returning for summer mill work.
Westport’s social life centered on the 4L Hall — the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, a concerted effort to focus loyalty and keep out the International Workers of the World, whose militants disrupted Northwest commerce.
Although many traveled in from Clatsop and Columbia counties, and later the ferry from Washington’s Puget Island, other workers lived in company housing, swelling Westport’s population to a peak of almost 900 (it is 321 today).
The two world wars boosted productivity, with Westport sending logs to Great Britain for railroad ties in the first then 3 1/2-ton logs to shipyards in California, Seattle, Ballard and Everett, Washington, during the second. In between, the mill provided masts for “Old Ironsides” when the USS Constitution was refurbished in 1929 (and twice more in subsequent years).
Big timber waned through the 1960s and Aalberg carefully charts the end of Westport’s boom as the 1970s dawned.
The book concludes with an index of characters, a detailed timeline and a meticulous list of ships arriving at the mill between 1903 and 1937 with their cargo’s exotic destinations.
Aalberg does not intend to profit from his creation, instead assigning the photo collection and the proceeds from book sales to the Clatsop County Historical Society — actions which delighted its executive director, McAndrew Burns.
“I am so excited in so many different ways,” Burns said. “It is a huge donation to us for our records and it’s a wonderful archive of Westport.
“It’s the definitive history — anyone researching logging in the future is going to reference it.”
The work emphasizes the society’s goal of a countywide focus, even though it is headquartered in Astoria, he said.
“We have all driven through Westport, but I don’t think any one of us has stopped to think, ‘There’s a ferry, a restaurant and a gas station, but what history has been there?’”
Patrick Webb is a North Coast writer and former managing editor of The Daily Astorian.
“Westport Oregon: Home of the Big Sticks and Gold Medal Salmon,” by Jim Aalberg
Clatsop County Historical Society, illustrated, 212 pages