St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company and its affiliated railroads (1888-1958)

  • By Russell Holter and J. Clark McAbee
  • Posted 11/09/2020
  • Essay 21129
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Washington state's second-largest logging and lumber operation during its heyday, the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company controlled 90 square miles of standing timber in Pierce County and milled billions of board feet of lumber at its mill complex in Tacoma. The company was founded in 1888 in concert with the Northern Pacific Railway, which agreed to build a subsidiary logging railroad into the forests below Mount Rainier to extract the timber. The lumber company felled trees virtually nonstop for the next seven decades, weathering two world wars, two bankruptcies, and the Great Depression. In 1958, the St. Paul & Tacoma merged with St. Regis to become the St. Regis Paper Company. 

Opportunity at Hand

The Northern Pacific Railway arrived in Tacoma in December 1873, two months after a worldwide panic gripped the economy. The timing for the new venture was poor, and for several of its formative years, the Northern Pacific in Washington had no immediate outlet to the outside world. It scraped by on a few freight and passenger fares with limited service between Tacoma and Kalama, on the Columbia River. To protect it from mounting construction debt and deferred interest payments, the company filed for bankruptcy in August 1875. But soon the Northern Pacific saw an opportunity to capitalize on the massive infrastructure it had created. One of its brainchildren was the Tacoma, Orting, and Southeastern logging railroad.

Into the 1880s, almost all of the high-value revenue freight was moving in one direction – west toward the Pacific – and most of the cars heading east were empty, being sent to fill car shortages in the Midwest and East. Empty cars represented a lost revenue opportunity for the Northern Pacific; it needed to devise a plan to send loaded cars eastward, as many as possible. Historian Murray Morgan gives readers a boardroom seat to the company's thinking in his book, The Mill on the Boot. By 1888, when the Northern Pacific was land rich but cash poor, its managers saw the wisdom of building a sawmill in Tacoma that could produce materials in sufficient quantities for markets in the Midwest. Their timing was right. While lumber producers in the Midwest faced depletion of marketable stands of timber, the Northern Pacific had plenty of standing timber, thanks to generous land grants the railroad received from the federal government while developing its infrastructure in Washington.

To meet the challenge proposed by Northern Pacific management, a meeting of top lumber executives was called in Tacoma, and on February 17, 1888, it was announced that a lumber syndicate had been formed. It would be led by a group of timber barons who had prospered in the woods above St. Paul, Minnesota: Colonel Chauncey Griggs (1832-1910), Addison Foster (1837-1917), Henry Hewitt, and Charles Hebard Jones (1845-1922), men of good standing and fiscal accountability. They chipped in personal funds and sought financing from investors, and in less than 60 days had amassed $1.5 million in startup funds (more than $30 million in 2020 dollars).

Properly capitalized, they next struck a deal with the Northern Pacific to acquire 80,000 acres of standing timber located in eastern Pierce County on the shoulder of Mount Rainier. At the time, it was the largest single real estate transaction in American history. The sale price was $3 an acre. It was a square deal. The lumber company needed logs, and "[The] NP needed revenue from these [timberland] purchases ... the freight on the raw logs and finished lumber" (McAbee, 18). The partners called their new firm the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company.

As part of the deal, the Northern Pacific offered an option for another 20,000 acres. Along with the stands of timber, the railroad sold 120 acres of spongy tidal marsh on Tacoma's Commencement Bay located adjacent to the mouth of the Puyallup River, and tossed in an additional 40 acres of tideland for free. The otherwise worthless land was a small island in the Puyallup River delta that locals referred to as "The Boot" – a boot-shaped island that was prone to seasonal flooding with an elevation of no more than a fathom above sea level. The initial development plan called for construction of a sawmill at The Boot with an annual capacity of 30 million board feet. A second plant would be phased in over time; the two plants combined would produce 90 million board feet of lumber per year. A journalist in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, had cornered Henry Hewitt traveling to Tacoma from New York. When asked about the importance of the blockbuster land buy, Hewitt remarked that the sale represented a staggering 2.5 trillion standing feet of Douglas fir for the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company.

Pushing into the Forest

With timber acquired in alternating sections from the Northern Pacific, the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company developed the sawmill at The Boot. The Northern Pacific agreed to construct the rail line from Orting out to the newly acquired timber parcels. The terms of the contract called for the railroad to be reimbursed by the lumber company for the construction cost in car-hire fees, plus $1 per thousand foot of scalable timber on every train. With a contract like that, the St. Paul & Tacoma was incentivized to ship the biggest logs it could find. "Payment for delivery would not be in cash," Murray Morgan wrote in Mill on the Boot. "The Northern Pacific would hold its freight bills for delivering the logs until such time as they equaled the cost of constructing the logging railroad. They would then use the bills as payment for acquiring the line as part of their system" (Morgan, 54). 

The new railroad partnership initially incorporated as the Tacoma and Southern, though by the time the rail line was operational, the name was changed to the Tacoma, Orting, and Southeastern. In the shipping contract, the railroad promised not to charge the St. Paul & Tacoma a penny more than timber producers were being charged in Portland, Oregon. According to Morgan, "This portion of the contract added up to a promise by NP officials to try to open the trans-Mississippi West to lumber from Puget Sound, a breakthrough, which, if achieved, would accelerate industrial growth in western Washington, especially in Tacoma" (Morgan, 53).

The Tacoma, Orting, and Southeastern logging trains would originate in Tacoma and be operated exclusively by Northern Pacific crews. Trains ran on Northern Pacific tracks until they reached the area around Orting. As the project began, the line was pushed southward following the Puyallup River drainage. Approximately a mile south of the junction was Camp 1. The first logging spur into St. Paul & Tacoma holdings diverged into the woods for approximately one mile south of Camp 1. This spur was referred to as the Fisk Spur and roughly followed the alignment of Fiske Road today [2020]. From Camp 1 the mainline was pushed farther south to Fox Creek, where at the confluence of Fox Creek and the Puyallup River, the railroad turned due east into the foothills of Mount Rainier. From the confluence of Fox Creek, the mainline of the Tacoma, Orting, and Southeastern was referred to as Wilbur Spur in honor of St. Paul & Tacoma’s superintendent of logging.

The rail line steadily made elevation for four miles to a small flat spot located between Fox and Voight’s Creek. A new camp was constructed here, known as Construction Camp. This was where the civil engineers, surveyors, bridge, and track construction workers were housed. Construction Camp was the field office for the land managers and the timekeeper, the only camp with a company telephone, and the base for the company store located within the confines of a converted boxcar. The company store could thus be moved to various remote locations throughout the system each week and then brought back to Tacoma, where it was resupplied. Here, as at Camp 1, the Tacoma, Orting, and Southeastern would exchange empty cars for loaded ones. Trains loaded with as many as 30 cars of logs began arriving at the Mill on The Boot in Tacoma in April 1889.

Growing Pains and Financial Panic

The relationship between the Northern Pacific, its subsidiary rail company, and the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company was amicable during their first year of operation. That is until trainloads of Grade-A Douglas fir lumber sat unpurchased in wholesale lots across the Midwest. The NP had promised that its rates would not be higher than for lumber originating from Portland. But there was a problem, wrote Morgan: "These rates remained too high to make Pacific Northwest lumber broadly competitive with white pine from the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley" (Morgan, 73). Douglas fir is a superior building product, and Midwest lumber dealers knew it. However, by the time it arrived, there was little or no margin left to sell it profitably. Soft southern yellow pine was being shipped up the Mississippi River for pennies on the dollar. The St. Paul & Tacoma applied to the Northern Pacific for rate relief. The railroad demurred, saying it was not in a financial position to fix the problem. "The fact that the railroad slid into the hands of receivers in 1893 indicates that its claims may have been valid," Morgan wrote. "But the rate structure did put the operations of a mill conceived with the idea of Midwest sales in an awkward situation" (Morgan, 73).

Although the railroad was not positioned to cut freight rates, not even for a company that it helped birth, it continued to expand and improve its infrastructure. On January 1, 1891, Colonel Chauncy Griggs, the president of St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company, reported with pride the single largest lumber sale in history: 8.25 million board feet of heavy timber sold to the Northern Pacific Railway. The sale lent credibility to the durability of Douglas fir as a building material. It helped spawn multitudes of industrial applications for the product. The St. Paul & Tacoma soon agreed to build boxcars for various carriers other than the Northern Pacific. Addison Foster brought a group of railcar-construction executives to Tacoma to demonstrate Douglas fir's superiority; the demonstration immediately brought in a handful of new invoices. Douglas fir proved to be a reliable substitute in heavy frame timber construction and shipbuilding. According to Murray Morgan, "They also shipped to Brooklyn three flatcars loaded with timbers 100 feet long to be used in ship construction -- the longest cargo ever moved across the continent by rail" (Morgan, 129).

The American lumber industry went into a slump even before the Panic of 1893. The first sign of trouble was when lumber prices fell by 10 percent in 1889 just as St. Paul & Tacoma began sawing. In 1892, sawmills and lumberyards had begun shutting down, temporarily at first. St. Paul & Tacoma fared better than most because its market now extended coast to coast. In addition, months before the collapse, it had received an order for Douglas fir to be used to construct a massive iron ore loading facility on the shores of Lake Superior. Despite this, not one order came in during June 1893. The story was not much better in July. With the economy reeling, Griggs laid off half of the staff, both in the mill and out in the woods. From senior managers down to the errand boy, the survivors were told they would take a 15 percent pay cut. A government contract for lumber to construct a ship canal at Keokuk, Iowa, kept a skeleton crew occupied during the darkest days. In downtown Tacoma, the Panic’s impacts could be seen in the boarded-up windows of commercial buildings on Pacific Avenue. Thomas Emerson Ripley reported that everything in Tacoma had stopped. "[It was] as though the whistle of eternity had blown. Pacific Avenue, so lately the home of bustle and hum, slept" (Ripley, 103).

Eventually, even the Northern Pacific succumbed; it went bankrupt, again. But this time, Griggs and his partners seized the opportunity to put his lumber company on more solid financial footing. With the railroad reeling in bankruptcy, he approached the receiver to renegotiate his shipping contract. Griggs had to travel to New York to iron out a deal between the Northern Pacific and the bankruptcy receiver, Pierpont, Morgan, and Company. After three intense hours of bargaining, a deal was struck that both parties considered fair. Wholesale lumber orders began trickling in. The cost associated with shipping the product was no longer prohibitive.

Whether the purchase and sale of the Tacoma, Orting, and Southeastern railroad was included in the negotiations is not clear. However, not long after Griggs returned to Tacoma, an announcement was made on April 12, 1898 that the Northern Pacific had reorganized, and that two local railroads had been neatly consolidated. The NP was elated to have finally acquired the Columbia and Puget Sound. It also acquired another subsidiary -- the Tacoma, Orting, and Southeastern – but the Columbia and Puget Sound was the big prize because it gave the Northern Pacific access to valuable portage in Seattle and coal mines in Renton and Newcastle. To maximize income from the newly acquired line, the Northern Pacific agreed to share the tracks with the newly arrived Great Northern. For the Great Northern, this was an opportunity to push its transcontinental service from its terminal at Smith Cove in Seattle south to Tacoma, picking up valuable customers such as the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company.

The St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company Railroad

Following the reorganization, the Tacoma, Orting, and Southeastern became part of the Northern Pacific. But because the Northern Pacific's rod-driven engines were not equipped to perform safely on steep grades, the NP was no longer willing to switch empty cars for loaded ones at the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company's reload sites in the Cascade foothills. This forced the lumber company to hastily form its own line, the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company Railroad, to bring logs down to the Northern Pacific mainline. From 1899 to 1902, the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company Railroad purchased three geared locomotives, all Shay engines, that could climb steep grades and bring down heavy loads with heightened confidence on switchbacks approaching 8 degrees. The St. Paul & Tacoma would eventually purchase 16 locomotives, 11 of the trusty Shay design. Geared locomotives were stout; some of the ones owned by the St. Paul & Tacoma saw 40 years of service in the woods above Tacoma.

Economic woes in the Puget Sound region came to a glorious conclusion with the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. Suddenly it seemed everyone needed lumber again. For Colonel Griggs, this was the sign he looked for to complete his vision for the St. Paul & Tacoma. Griggs immediately set to work constructing Mill B, which began operating in December 1900. The timing was good. Just 11 months earlier, George Weyerhaeuser and his syndicate had announced he had made the single largest real estate transaction in the world with James J. Hill of the Great Northern. Griggs knew that the Weyerhaeuser deal would provide stiff competition for St. Paul & Tacoma. He could console himself with the fact that he controlled the second-largest sawmill in Washington.

With the opening of Mill B, Griggs had to ramp up logging output to feed his machines. He employed enough loggers to fill three fulltime logging camps. Even that was not enough, so he subcontracted with two private firms to cut more timber. Sixty carloads of logs left the camps, 30 at a time, twice a day, six days a week, to feed his log-hungry mills. At the insistence of partner Henry Hewitt, the St. Paul & Tacoma exercised its land purchase option with the Northern Pacific. Hewitt also routinely purchased adjacent parcels, or took out contracts to have them logged, thereby splitting the proceeds with the neighboring landowner.

With Mill B in operation, most cuttings in the new plant were of trees from within St. Paul & Tacoma holdings. The smaller Mill A was dedicated to cutting contracted logs from outfits outside of their holdings. These logs arrived on the Northern Pacific daily from Buckley and Wilkeson. The Tacoma Eastern, another significant supplier of logs, brought timber to the mill from places such as Eatonville and Graham.  

Griggs expanded operations at Tacoma again by adding a large shingle mill. The shingle mill was located on valuable tidelands adjacent to the St. Paul & Tacoma mill. Having a shingle mill next door made the sorting of the cedar logs incredibly convenient at the log pond. The cedar logs were scaled off and boomed in a separate part of the millpond.

The dominant species of tree being cut was Douglas fir, though any random forest section could also produce a marketable percentage of cedar, hemlock, and spruce. Western red cedar found in the coastal forests of Washington was considered some of the finest in the world. Spruce would become an ideal material for the construction of aircraft. But hemlock were known as "weeds" and scorned by loggers, many of whom had migrated from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest. The eastern variety of hemlock was a pitch-laden tree that gummed up saws and had few qualities as a building material. The western type of hemlock did not have the same irritating qualities. Nevertheless, Northwesst loggers ignored them for decades.

Expanding Markets

A watershed moment took place in 1909 that affected operations at the St. Paul & Tacoma. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific railway – commonly known as the Milwaukee Road -- crested Snoqualmie Pass. It had become no secret that the transcontinental Milwaukee Road was looking to make a link with its subsidiary, the Tacoma Eastern. It also was eager to take advantage of the fastest route into Mount Rainier National Park. To get to Tacoma as quickly as possible, it took out a track agreement with the Pacific Coast Railroad from Maple Valley to Black River Junction and Seattle. To reach Tacoma, it agreed with the Union Pacific to build a line the two companies shared between Black River Junction and Tacoma.

That's when the Northern Pacific jumped in. To prevent further collaboration between its rival transcontinental railroads, the Northern Pacific reluctantly agreed to allow the Union Pacific access to its mainline from Portland to Tacoma. This prevented the Union Pacific from entering into a similar agreement with the Milwaukee Road. According to a year-end report in the 1910 Timberman, the St. Paul & Tacoma relocated its corporate offices at the Tacoma mill site to accommodate a new Union Pacific right-of-way for the purposes of servicing the plant. The first carloads of lumber on the Union Pacific left the plant in March of that year. 

The St. Paul & Tacoma remained beholden to the Northern Pacific as an outlet to Midwest markets. But the Milwaukee Road was so eager to gain access to the St. Paul & Tacoma, it built a dedicated bridge over the Milwaukee Waterway near the mill just to have the privilege of interchanging cars there. The additional competition forced the Northern Pacific to cut freight rates for its fair share of St. Paul & Tacoma lumber. Lumber could now be moved from Tacoma to places such as Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Omaha on the Union Pacific. Ready markets were expanded in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Chicago on the Milwaukee Road. By 1909, five railroads competed intensely for the St. Paul & Tacoma rail traffic generated by the Tacoma mill complex.

Again, the contract language between the St. Paul & Tacoma and the Northern Pacific brought the bickering allies back to a judge’s bench, until finally, "after prolonged negotiations, lasting years, and the threat of additional litigation by both sides, Herbert Griggs and the railroad attorneys reached a compromise agreement" (Morgan, 141).

By 1912, the St. Paul & Tacoma had 18 miles of spur line being operated by five fulltime train crews. Later that year, the Mill A complex burnt to the ground. Management of the St. Paul & Tacoma rationalized that the employees running Mill B at full capacity could make up the shortfall. A new Mill A eventually was placed into production in 1919. In hindsight, it was a regrettable decision not to rebuild the facility immediately. After the outbreak of World War I, the St. Paul & Tacoma hastily prepared lumber for the war effort. Many carloads were sent to construct cantonments for soldiers at places such as Camp Lewis. To keep pace with demand, the company put Mill C into operation.

By the end of the war, a little more than half of the St. Paul & Tacoma's original timberland purchase remained uncut. Yet Henry Hewitt insisted that the St. Paul & Tacoma purchase more land. An inefficiency in the checkerboard pattern of the initial timber purchase was problematic to Hewitt; some stands of timber easily within reach were off-limits. He also was plagued with standing timber located on inaccessible reaches of his own property. To Hewitt’s way of thinking, the solution was to purchase as many of the alternate tracts as possible. By 1920, he had purchased another 15,000 acres, and the St. Paul & Tacoma controlled the lion’s share of 90 square miles of Pierce County forest lands.

Arguably the highwater mark for the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company Railroad was 1923. That March the company received the first of two compound Mallet 2-6-6-2T locomotives from the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Its twin was delivered in January the following year. Combined, these locomotives could do the job of four ordinary steam engines. The engines, Nos. 7 and 10, were distinctive for their split saddle tanks located directly over the driving wheels. The water weight in the saddle tanks gave the Mallet locomotives better adhesion to the rails, and the engines were suited to heavy loads on steep grades in wet conditions. Both locomotives could run leisurely at 45 miles per hour, more than twice as fast as geared locomotives.

In addition to acquiring a large supply of rolling stock, the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Railroad pioneered the use of track-mounted logging cranes, which could drag logs up to a mile for booming onto a log flat. The technique proved so successful that the West Coast Lumberman wrote an article on the new practice. In it, it was noted, "The machine was bought by St. Paul as a utility machine, that is, as a logging crane, for relogging, for bridge building, pile driving, digging ballast, as a dragline machine or as a wrecking crane" ("Logging With a Crane"). Soon rivals such as Weyerhaeuser and Simpson began to take note of St. Paul & Tacoma's practices.   

The Great Depression had a demoralizing effect on the business. St. Paul & Tacoma scaled back operations and sold off surplus equipment, including locomotives, to make ends meet. Still, logging superintendent Ernie Allison reported laying 13 miles of track in 1933, which he felt was a record for one year, and he had been with the company since 1910. Allison experimented with the use of log trucks and cat skidders in the 1930s, and even during the darkest days, the company kept busy. The 1936 Timberman reported the Ohop Valley operations of the company were generating nearly three quarters of million feet of timber per day.

Out of the Woods

The St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company weathered World War II and was thriving during the early part of the Baby Boom, though some of its railroad operations became obsolete as moving logs by truck became more cost-effective. On September 30, 1949, the last load of logs pulled by the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company Railroad was brought down to the reload yard at Lake Kapowsion. From that point on, all logs hauled to the Northern Pacific reload site were brought down from the mountain by a fleet of Mack trucks.

The St. Paul & Tacoma lumber operation was doing well into the late 1950s, but to keep pace with juggernauts such as Weyerhaeuser, it had to compete at a similar economy of scale. The fastest way to accomplish that was to expand. In 1958, the St. Paul & Tacoma merged with St. Regis to become the St. Regis Paper Company. By then, thousands of loggers had brought down billions of board feet of timber in the name of St. Paul & Tacoma. 


Murray Morgan, The Mill on the Boot, (University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1982), pp. 51, 53-54, 62, 68, 72-73, 78, 129-130, 141, 166, 206, 222, 235; J. Clark McAbee, "Peeling the Pinnacles, Part 1," The Columbia River and Pacific Northwest Timberbeast, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1994, p. 17-18, 24; Thomas Emerson Ripley, Green Timber (American West Publishing: Palo Alto, 1968), p. 103; Donald B. Robertson, Encyclopedia of Western Railroad History (Caxton Publishing: Caldwell, Idaho, 1995), p. 293; Lawrence Anderson, In the Shadow of the Mountain (Gorham Printing: Centralia, 2007), p. 69; Poor's Manual of Railroads in the United States (Poor's Railroad Manual Co.: New York, 1923), p. 126; Russell Holter, et al, Rails To Paradise (Gorham Printing: Centralia, 2005), pp. 49-50, 67, 177; Tacoma Daily Ledger, April 24, 1901; "Puget Sound," The Timberman, January 1910, p. 32; Walker D. Hines, War History of American Railroads (Yale University Press: New Haven, Connecticut), p. xii; Correspondence from Director General of Railroads to E. G. Griggs, President of St. Paul and Tacoma Lumber Company, dated January 9, 1920, Special Collections of the University of Washington Library; Company correspondence, dated February 19, 1920. St. Paul & Tacoma Time Book Ledgers 1911-1913, Special Collections, University of Washington; "Gigantic Fir Tree Comes to be Made Into Tacoma Floors,"  Tacoma News Tribune, December 23, 1921, clipping, Northwest Room, Tacoma Public Library; J. Clark McAbee, "Peeling the Pinnacles, Part 2," The Columbia River and Pacific Northwest Timberbeast, Vol. 8, No. 4, 1995, pp. 19-20, 24, 26-27; Correspondence from Superintendent LeDoux to President Griggs, dated, April 1922, Special Collections of the University of Washington Library; "Logging with a Crane," West Coast Lumberman, December 1929, p. 39; "Puget Sound Camps," The Timberman, August 1936, p. 89; "Rail Equipment Accident/Incident Report No. PA334" U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C., undated; Timetable No. 16, Burlington Northern, October 29, 1978, p. 15; "Flatcars Dumped in River When Old Bridge Collapsed," The Dispatch, March 14, 1979, p. 1; Herbert Hunt, The History of Tacoma, Vol 1 (Tacoma Historical Society reprint, 2005), p. 197; Peter J. Lewty, To the Columbia Gateway (Washington State University Press: Pullman, 1987), p. 14.

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