It's hard to say whether Astoria and Clatsop County are any more likely than other places to be attractive targets for get-rich-quick operators, but there certainly have been notable examples over the decades.
Some actually even have managed to get rich from the people and natural resources here. And to be fair, their activities have at times resulted in a lot of jobs and economic growth in the towns of the lower Columbia. They didn't usually last long, but the activity was welcome while it did. Getting rich isn't the problem; it's getting rich and leaving lots of wreckage behind, or getting rich from assets that shouldn't have been so cheaply sold away.
In the course of research for another purpose, I recently encountered an absorbing historical paper in the Winter 2008 Oregon Historical Quarterly by Greg Gordon. There were aspects of his story that made me think, "Gee, some things never change."
Andrew B. Hammond, 1848-1934, was the main moneyman behind the creation of the Columbia River Packers Association, one of several Oregon enterprises he controlled. Canada-born Hammond acquired his nickname, the "Missoula Octopus," after acquiring many of the companies in western Montana following an 1893 economic depression.
In 1894, he came to Oregon and began an aggressive acquisition campaign, snapping up railroads and timber interests, including the Oregon Pacific Railroad and the Astoria and Columbia River Railroad.
"Hammond's arrival and interest in the railroad stimulated a renewed optimism in Astoria. Despite many previous disappointments, Astorians once again pinned their hopes on yet another out-of-town investor," according to historian Gordon. "The leading citizens must have been suitably taken by Hammond's demeanor, poise, and professionalism to believe that he would be the savior to deliver them into the grace of the market. Astoria's town leaders regaled Hammond with stories of how Astoria was destined to become a great port city."
Eventually succeeding in linking the mouth of the Columbia to the rest of the nation via the Northern Pacific Railroad, Hammond parlayed local subsidies and land grants into a vast fortune based on exploiting Northwest Oregon's enormous timber resources. By 1910, his sawmill at Tongue Point was producing 250,000 feet of lumber every shift.
"Extending the rail lines into the rugged Coast Range allowed Hammond to exploit Oregon's most valuable natural resource; he converted trees into more capital and began a process that would nearly eliminate the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest over the next century and propel A.B. Hammond into the top tier of West Coast lumbermen," according to Gordon.
In this empire of trees, the Columbia River Packers Association formed a significant branch. According to historian Irene Martin, Hammond recognized that the salmon industry was overcapitalized and in 1899 began buying, organizing and consolidating packing companies into the CRPA. Hammond's agent, Edwin Stone, acquired the Aberdeen Packing Company, Eureka and Epicure, Columbia River Canneries Company, Astoria Packing Co., Fishermen's Packing Co., and the J.W. and V. Cook and the Samuel Elmore facilities, as well as trap and seine sites, cans, labels and trademarks.
The Astorian of those times was owned by Sam Elmore. Elmore's objectivity, or lack thereof, was obvious. "On July 25, 1895, the Astoria newspaper evoked royal or at least presidential connotations as it proclaimed across its banner, 'Entire Community Celebrates Inauguration by the Noise of Cannon, Fireworks, Music and Speeches. Hammond Addresses the People,'" Gordon observes.
In private correspondence, Hammond figuratively rubbed his hands with glee: "the Astorians treated me in great shape and if things should go my way I will make quite a clean up."
Boy, did he. Between railroads, timber, fish and other enterprises, Hammond made a mint. Fleeting, though, is fame and fortune: Hammond's name has been almost entirely forgotten. Even the small town that once bore his surname has nearly ceased to exist by that label, absorbed by Warrenton. Land he once acquired under dubious circumstances in Humboldt County, Calif., was brought back into public ownership and now comprises the heart of Redwood National Park.
The moral of this story? Hold developers to a high standard of accountability, making sure the profits do the most possible good here in the communities that produce them.
Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer.