Longview -- Thumbnail History

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 7/02/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8560
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The city of Longview is located at the confluence of the Cowlitz and the Columbia rivers in western Cowlitz County, 66 miles upriver from the Pacific Ocean and 67 miles south of Olympia, the state capital. Financed by Kansas City timber baron Robert Alexander Long (1850-1934), president of Long-Bell Lumber Company, it was at the time the largest planned city ever to have been built entirely with private funds.  Longview's principal function was to support a giant lumber mill that Long-Bell planned to construct on the 14,000-acre town site.  Long did not want a squalid mill town to spontaneously develop there, so he conceived of a beautiful new industrial city, which was planned and built in the 1920s.  Named after his farm in Lees Summit, Missouri, Longview was incorporated as a third-class city on February 14, 1924.  Four months later Long-Bell Lumber Company started production in what was declared to be the largest lumber mill in the world.  By 1930, Longview's population had grown to approximately 10,700 residents, far short of the 30,000 people the Long-Bell Company expected and the 50,000 residents the community was planned for.  Today, manufacturing wood and paper products is still the city's main industry, employing more than 3,000 workers.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2006 the city of Longview, the largest in Cowlitz County, had an estimated population of 35,710.

Long and His Lumber

Robert Alexander Long, one of nine children, was born on December 17, 1850, in Shelbyville, Kentucky. His parents, Samuel and Margaret Long, owned and operated a profitable 300-acre farm there. Robert achieved a high school education and was blessed with a photographic memory, a strong asset for entering the business world. In 1872, Robert left his father’s farm for Kansas City. After a brief, unsuccessful venture running a butcher shop, he went to Columbus, Kansas, where he, along with his cousins, Victor Bell and Robert White, started a lumberyard, which eventually became the hugely successful Long-Bell Lumber Company, incorporated in 1884.

Over the ensuing years, Long-Bell acquired hundreds of thousands of acres of timberland throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Michigan, and Wisconsin and established or purchased numerous regional mills, lumber yards, and warehouses to manufacture, sell, and store its wood products. In 1891, Long moved Long-Bell’s general headquarters from Columbus to Kansas City. In 1907, at a cost of $14 million, he built the R. A. Long Building in the heart of the financial district to house Long-Bell’s corporate headquarters,. The classic 16-story beaux arts-style building (now the United Missouri Bank Building) was the first tall building in Kansas City constructed with an all steel-skeleton frame.

By the end of World War I (1914-1918), Long-Bell's holdings were nearly depleted and good timber in the South was becoming scarce. Rather than quit the timber business, the company purchased huge tracts of old-growth forest in northern California, southern Oregon, and southwest Washington. After acquiring the rights from the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company to log 70,000 acres of timber in Cowlitz and Lewis counties, Long-Bell executives began searching for a mill site with access to rail and water transportation. The main contenders were Portland and Astoria, Oregon, and a sizable expanse of the flat, swampy farmland at the confluence of the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers, which had once (in the 1850s) been the small community of Monticello.

Naming and Creating Longview

In early 1921, Long decided on the Cowlitz River location, with rail access in nearby Kelso, deep water access on the Columbia River, and close to their source of timber. The company acquired 14,000 acres of Columbia Valley bottom land for $2,611,103 in cash, far more land than needed for its sawmill. A large, successful milling operation, however, would employ thousands of workers who would have no place to live. Kelso, a small town of fewer than 2,000 residents, would be unable to provide the housing, goods, and services necessary to sustain the burgeoning community and permitting a squalid town to spontaneously develop around the new mill was unthinkable. The answer was to create a beautiful industrial city to house Long-Bell’s workers and their families and to take advantage of expected regional growth by developing and selling land. It would be named Longview after Long’s 1,600-acre horse farm in Lees Summit, Missouri.

When Long-Bell applied for a post office, the U.S. Postal Service advised that there already was a “Long View, Washington,” and rejected the request. The company discovered that Long View was a flag stop on the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroad in Benton County, servicing only three rural families. After negotiations, the community agreed to relinquish the name “Long View” if Long-Bell would build them a covered platform, at a cost of $25, to protect the mail sacks thrown from passing trains. The name “Longview” in Cowlitz County became official in January 1923, with the establishment of a U.S. Post Office there.

In May 1921, Wesley Vandercook, Long-Bell’s chief engineer, established an office in Kelso and, with the assistance of 100 men, began the arduous task of conducting a detailed survey of the swampy, brush-covered property. The river delta had a high water table and was prone to periodic flooding, so required the protection of a dike to be suitable for building purposes. The cost of building a dike 15 miles long and 30 feet above the river water, plus drainage canals, was $3.25 million, financed by bonds issued and sold by the Long-Bell Company.

Planning and Building

In 1922, Long hired Jesse C. Nichols, a successful real-estate developer, George B. Kessler, a renowned landscape architect, and Sidney Herbert Hare, a city planner from Kansas City, to offer advice and draft plans for the new community. The layout was classic European, with boulevards with esplanades and wide streets, designed for motor vehicles, radiating from a landscaped, six-acre civic center. There would be buses, rather than streetcars, for public transport, bypasses around the city for commercial traffic, and beautiful public parks. In order to control land use, Longview would use zoning and establish distinct industrial and commercial districts and residential neighborhoods, separated by open land. Rather than a company town, they designed a large-scale city with enough space for a population of 50,000. In addition to attracting high-caliber workers and their families, Longview would generate money for Long-Bell as a real-estate development. Benjamin Letcher Lambuth, a Seattle lawyer and real-estate developer, was engaged to manage development and generate property sales for the Longview Development Company, Long-Bell’s real-estate subsidiary.

In August 1922, after the various sites had been platted, Long-Bell began the arduous process of grading and paving the streets, installing utilities, and building houses. Meanwhile, many construction workers were housed in small two-room cabins called “skid houses” in a section of town one block south of Civic Center called Skidville, or they were camped in empty lots. Other workers lived in Kelso or across the Columbia River in Rainier, Oregon.

Designing the Downtown

The first permanent building to be erected was the six-story, Georgian Revival-style, Hotel Monticello on the west side of Civic Center, facing Jefferson Square (now R. A. Long Park). The hotel, which opened for business on July 23, 1923, was the centerpiece around which Longview was to grow and the gathering place for important events. The “fire-proof,” 200-room hotel, each with a bathroom, provided lodging for prospective residents and visiting business people looking for property.

Once the streets had been graded and paved, developers turned their attention to the principal retail district located mainly on Commerce Avenue, south of Broadway. The first commercial structure to be completed was the 70,000-square-foot Columbia River Mercantile Building, which housed Long-Bell’s offices and the company store. Several other carefully designed two-story buildings followed, providing retail space on the street level and office space or apartments above. By October 1923, 26 retail stores were in operation and the company had constructed 357 buildings of various kinds in the city.

Mills and Mill Workers

In early 1923, the Long-Bell Lumber Company began the construction of its new giant sawmill on 2,000 acres of Columbia River waterfront. The design and construction of the mill was the responsibility of Long-Bell executive John D. Tennant (1882-1949). Initially Long had planned to build only one mill, but with a big new city in the works, decided to build two. The West Fir mill would manufacture kiln-dried lumber for the domestic market and the East Fir mill would process green wood for the overseas market.

Approximately 1,000 workers were engaged in the construction of the giant mills. The first permanent housing Long-Bell built was 250 small cottages, for sale or rent, for workers with families in nearby Highlands and St. Helens Additions, and five large dormitories, called the St. Helens Inns, to lodge 500 single men. The population overflow lived in temporary settlements of skid-houses, in the auto-park, or in tents pitched in empty lots.

A New City

Dedication ceremonies for the city of Longview were held at 10:00 a.m. on July 12, 1923, in front of the mostly completed Hotel Monticello. Some 10,000 people showed up for the event held in Jefferson Square and stayed all day for the multitude of planned activities. Two days later, the deluxe hotel held its grand opening, which culminated with a large banquet. The streets around the hotel, however, had yet to be paved and sanitary sewer lines were not yet connected. The basement was utilized as a temporary septic tank, collecting the waste draining from the toilets and bathrooms above. As intended, the two events drew a significant amount of attention to the new industrial city and generated publicity for Longview Development Company, whose main objective was to sell property.

The first formal census of Longview, to determine if the private city had enough residents to become a self-governing municipality, was taken in December 1923. Census takers recorded the names of 3,724 individuals, enough to validate the issue and elect a city government. Building the planned city would take years and Long was concerned that the unincorporated area would be annexed by Kelso. On Saint Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1924, Longview, now the largest community in Cowlitz County, was incorporated as a third-class city. Theoretically, the citizens were now responsible for Longview’s police and fire protection and other services, but Long-Bell owned all the land and paid most of the taxes. Under R. A. Long’s enthusiastic and benevolent leadership, Longview’s planned development continued throughout the 1920s, but growth was slow.

From Thursday, July 29, through Sunday, August 1, 1924, Longview held the Pageant of Progress, a four-day celebration marking the city’s first anniversary and the opening of the huge Long-Bell lumber mill. Thousands of visitors attended the festivities. Events included the Grand Industrial Parade with commercial floats, a boat race and regatta on the Columbia River, baseball games, a tennis tournament, a rodeo, band concerts in Civic Center, logging demonstrations and competitions, fireworks, and outdoor dancing. In addition, the public could tour a naval destroyer, take airplane rides, and watch an aerial circus perform over the business district. On Saturday, July 31, the dedication of the “biggest lumber mill in the world” and the cutting of the first log took place in the West Fir mill of the Long-Bell plant. A steady stream of visitors watched from catwalks high above the machinery as giant Douglas firs were sawed into lumber. The total cost of the splendid celebration was $57,831, a considerable sum for an advertising stunt.

Starting Production

In 1925, Long-Bell’s East Fir mill began operations producing “green wood” for the overseas market. Rather than shipping whole logs, they were square cut to make efficient use of shipboard space. Finished kiln-dried lumber from the West Fir mill left Longview by rail. The two giant sawmills, all electric with state-of-the-art equipment, each produced up to a million board-feet of lumber a day. Long-Bell ran two eight-hour shifts, employing some 3,000 workers. Electricity for the mills, as well as for Longview city, was produced by a sawdust-fed, steam-powered generator located between the two sawmills.

One of Longview’s ambitions was to become a rail hub. A railway station had been established in Kelso in the 1870s, when the Northern Pacific (NP) laid tracks between Tacoma and Kalama. But Longview required direct passenger service for the population to grow and Long-Bell needed to bring log trains down from its operations center in Ryderwood. In 1923 Long-Bell asked to use the NP tracks, along with the Union Pacific and Great Northern Railways, but permission was denied because of the risk of accidents. The solution was to build a company rail line, the Longview, Portland and Northern Railroad (LP&N), up the west bank of the Cowlitz River into Ryderwood with a connection to the UP line at Vader. Logs could be delivered to the Long-Bell mill, but permission was required from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) for passenger trains to use the LP&N tracks into Longview.

In 1925, R. A. Long Properties, Long’s personal holding company, proceeded to build a large, brick, Railroad Italianate-style, train station, with a tall clock tower, at the foot of Broadway at a cost of $125,000 and rented it to LP&N. Over Kelso’s objection, the ICC finally granted permission for passenger trains to use the LP&N line and in 1928, two northbound and two southbound trains a day began servicing Longview.

Cardboard, Kraft Paper, Timber, Pulp

The first major corporations to locate factories in Longview were Pacific Straw Board and Paper Company, Longview Fibre Company and Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. Along with Long-Bell Lumber, these companies, all tied to the timber industry, became the economic base of R. A. Long’s planned community.

Built in 1925, Pacific Straw Board and Paper Company produced modest amounts of paper and cardboard. The mill was situated on 15 acres of land along the Cowlitz River near the Long-Bell mill site. The company managed to weather the Great Depression (1929-1939) and expanded operations during World War II (1941-1945) to meet the demand for cardboard containers. The company reorganized in later years, becoming the Pacific Paperboard Company whose forte was making newsprint. A fire destroyed most of the paper mill in 1952, but the company continued to produce pulp until it ceased operations in 1969.

In 1927, Longview Fibre Company started production of kraft paper and linerboard using sawdust and wood waste supplied by Long-Bell. The large facility was situated at the confluence of the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers, east of the Long-Bell mill. Longview Fibre, a closely held corporation, was financially successful from the start and grew steadily over the years, reinvesting most of earnings into a new plant, equipment, and timberlands. During World War II, the mill stepped up its manufacturing of kraft paper, strong enough for shipping flour, sugar, stock feed, fertilizer, and other war supplies.

In June 1925, Weyerhaeuser Timber Company announced plans to build a sawmill in Longview to salvage timber damaged in the disastrous Yacolt Burn of 1902. The company purchased a 700-acre site with two miles of Columbia River waterfront, adjacent to the Long-Bell plant. Construction was begun in October 1927 and the plant, consisting of three sawmills, each designed to cut a different sized log, and a shingle mill, was finally opened in June 1929. In the interim, Weyerhaeuser built a railroad, the Columbia and Cowlitz, to haul its logs to the mill. The sawmills produced more than 4.3 million board-feet of lumber in the first two years of production, before the Depression forced severe cutbacks. In 1933, Weyerhaeuser developed Presto Logs to utilize wood waste and went into the production of pulp and paper. The company began making its own chlorine for bleaching pulp and also added a plywood mill. During World War II, 90 percent of its wood products supplied the war effort. Weyerhaeuser produced thousands of tons of bleached sulfite pulp for the War Production Board to make smokeless gunpowder. Longview soon became the company’s largest operation and the city’s largest employer, by far.

Longview's Great Depression

Long-Bell’s financial troubles began in 1927 with a slump in the lumber market. Although the company was then free of debt, it had to borrow money from banks to use as working capital. When the lumber market failed to improve and the borrowed money was gone, Long-Bell had to sell capital assets to survive. Then on October 29, 1929, the stock market collapsed, ushering in the Great Depression. As jobs disappeared, economic growth in Longview came to a standstill. Long-Bell, which had sunk $9 million into the planned city and more than $40 million into its logging and sawmill operations, was soon forced to retrench and reorganize. The 1930 U.S. Census recorded Longview city had a population of 10,652, far short of the 30,000 expected and the 50,000 residents the community was planned for.

In 1932 Long-Bell, now in deep financial difficulties, sold their electrical power plant to Washington Gas and Electric Company for $3.2 million and the LP&N tracks between Longview and Vader to the NP for $4 million. In December 1933, the Cowlitz River flooded, washing out sections of the LP&N tracks and railroad draw bridge. The railroads were losing money servicing Longview, so the tracks were never repaired and the line was abandoned. The train depot, now standing empty, was converted into Cowlitz General Hospital in 1935 and remained so into the 1960s. It was abandoned when the state Health Department declared the building outdated, and a new Cowlitz General Hospital built. Despite efforts to preserve the beautiful building as a historical landmark, it was demolished in 1968.

On March 15, 1934, Robert A. Long, age 83, died in Kansas City, Missouri, from complications after major surgery to correct an intestinal obstruction. A memorial service was held for him at the Longview Community Church on March 18, the same day his funeral was conducted in Kansas City. In 1938, Longview’s citizens voted to rename Jefferson Park in Civic Center, R. A. Long Park. A bronze bust of the city’s founder, by Seattle sculptor Alonzo Victor Lewis (1886-1946), was placed there on August 24, 1946.

In 1934, the Long-Bell Lumber Company owned 13 lumber mills, 110 retail lumber yards, a sash and door factory, and numerous warehouses. The company filed for bankruptcy, then filed a reorganization plan in the Kansas City federal court in 1935. During the worst years of the Great Depression, the number of workers dropped below 1,000. Although there was a very limited market for lumber, the mills ran one shift three or four days a week to keep as many men as possible working. Long-Bell barely survived, but in the mid-1930s the economy had begun to rebound under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (1882-1945) New Deal programs. “Longview weathered the Depression reasonably well. They were bad years, but not disastrous as they would have been if Long-Bell had not found a way out of its financial difficulties and managed to keep the mills running part time and to provide some assistance to the struggling city” (McClelland).

War and Aluminum

In 1940, the advent of cheap, abundant hydroelectric power, generated by the Bonneville Dam and, in the future, the Grand Coulee Dam, brought Reynolds Metals Company to Longview, looking for a place to build a huge aluminum plant. With war now raging in Europe, the U.S. government saw an urgent need to increase aluminum production for the defense effort and was willing to underwrite the construction. Reynolds Metals needed space to build its production facilities and a community that could accommodate the families of at least 500 workers. Every city along the Columbia wanted the new plant and its payroll, but Longview was finally selected. Reynolds purchased 400 acres of waterfront along the Columbia River, west of Weyerhaeuser, from Long-Bell for $200,000. The smelter opened in September 1941, just in time to meet the aircraft industry’s increased need for aluminum.

On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II (1941-1945). Suddenly, all Longview's industries became defense plants, running 24-hours a day to support the war effort. The market for wood products improved dramatically and remained strong throughout the 1940s. War production brought prosperity back to Longview, attracting hundreds of new workers. And the Long-Bell Lumber Company was well on its way back to solvency.

Post-War Transformations

By 1950, Longview’s population had reached 20,339, though the big burst of wartime growth had abated. But the city now had a healthy tax base and was no longer dependent on Long-Bell’s largess for survival. In 1956, International Paper Company (IP) purchased all remaining holdings of the Long-Bell Lumber Company and renamed it IP-Long-Bell. In 1960, Long-Bell’s old-growth fir and cedar had finally been depleted and the mills in Longview, antiquated and no longer profitable, were closed and dismantled. International Paper retained ownership of the mill site for future use and rented the many, huge timber-storage sheds to the Port of Longview for storage. When the sheds were torn down in 1996, the giant old-growth beams were salvaged and sold. Some were used to build Microsoft-founder Bill Gates’ mansion in Medina on Lake Washington.

In the 1960s, Weyerhaeuser expanded production and began producing fine papers and specialty plywood, and built a new chlorine and caustic soda plant. Longview Fibre Company launched a $25 million expansion of its facilities and the Reynolds Metals Company marked its 20th anniversary in Longview. Between 1960 and 2000 the city’s population increased approximately 32 percent, from 23,349 to 34,660, with several thousand more living in West Longview, Longview Heights, and other unincorporated areas west of the Cowlitz River.

On May 3, 2000, Aluminum Company of American (Alcoa) engineered a $5.6 billion takeover of the Reynolds Metals Company to become the largest aluminum manufacturing company in the nation. Alcoa didn’t need the Longview plant, but wanted its alumina, the raw material from which aluminum is smelted, and lines of consumer products such as Reynolds Wrap. Alcoa sold the plant to the Longview Aluminum Company for $150 million but retained ownership of the property. Longview Aluminum transferred ownership to Michigan Avenue Partners (MAP), an investment group, which closed the plant in March 2001, allegedly because electricity was now too expensive for the power-hungry smelter to be profitable. MAP sold the smelter’s electricity contracts back to the Bonneville Power Administration for $225 million, then filed for bankruptcy protection in March 2003. The assets of Longview Aluminum were liquidated in November 2003 and the plant was dismantled. The deal cost the community approximately 950 high-paying jobs.

In February 2007, Longview Fibre was purchased by Brookfield Asset Management, a Canadian company, for $2.15 billion. With this transaction, Brookfield acquired 588,000 acres of prime, softwood timberlands in Washington and Oregon, along with one of the largest pulp and paper complexes in North America and 15 corrugated container plants located in 12 states. Longview Fibre continues to be one of Cowlitz County’s major employers with some 1,800 workers.

Longview Legacies

Because Longview is one of the nation’s few planned industrial cities, it has an impressive array of places listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NR) and the Washington Heritage Register (WHR). There are two historic districts, the 16-acre Longview Civic Center (NR No. 85003012), which includes the Hotel Monticello, the Longview Public Library, the Longview Main Post Office and Jefferson Square (now R. A. Long Park), and the Monticello Convention Site (WHR No. CW00041). The historic place is Lake Sacajawea Park (NR No. 85003011), a 60-acre, mile-and-a-half long, man-made lake located west of Civic Center. The historic structure is the 195-foot-high Columbia River Longview Bridge, renamed the Lewis and Clark Bridge in 1980 (NR No. 82004208). There are also 19 historic buildings listed, which include several in the downtown area around Broadway and Commerce Avenue and buildings Long financed and donated to the city such as the Longview Community Church (NR No. 82003016) and R. A. Long High School (NR No. 85003010) built in 1928 at a cost of $500,000. John D. Tennant’s 13,000 square-foot English Colonial-style house (NR No. 84003461), known as Rutherglen Mansion, now functions as a bed-and-breakfast and restaurant.

Today, (2008) manufacturing pulp and paper and wood products are still Longview’s chief industries, with health care close behind. Weyerhaeuser and Longview Fibre are the largest employers with some 3,600 workers, followed by Peace Health/St. John Medical Center with approximately 1,500 health-care workers. True to its roots, Longview is an industrious community, with 60 percent of its population in the work force. According to the states Office of Financial Management, in 2007 Longview was the 28th largest city in Washington, with an estimated population of 35,710.

Sources: S. Herbert Hare, “The Planning of a New Industrial City,” The American City Magazine, November 1922, pp. 501-503; B. L. Lambuth, “A Small City Whose Growth Is Aided and Controlled by a Plan,” Ibid., August 1926, pp. 186-191; Carl Abbott, “Longview,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, Summer 1990, pp. 14-20; John M. McClelland Jr., R. A. Long’s Planned City: The Story of Longview (Longview: Longview Publishing Co., 1976); History of Cowlitz County, Washington, ed. by Ruth Ott and Dorothy York (Dallas: Taylor Publishing Co., 1983); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington’s Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 390-395; Pat Forgey, “Smelter’s Final Hope Melts,” The (Longview) Daily News, January 20, 2004, p. 12; Pat Forgey, “What Alcoa Got in Smelter Swap, Sale,” Ibid., April 4, 2004, p. 12; “Robert Alexander Long, His Life and Times” R. A. Long Historical Society website accessed January 22, 2008 (www.ralonghistoricalsociety.org); “City of Longview, Washington: Our Community: History” City of Longview website accessed February 8, 2008 (www.ci.longview.wa.us); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Cowlitz County -- Thumbnail History” (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 8, 2008); “Washington State Historical Decennial Populations for State, County, and City/Town: 1890 to 2000,” State of Washington, Office of Financial Management website accessed February 2008 (http://www.ofm.wa.gov/pop/decseries/historicalpop.xls); “U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder: Longview city, Washington,” U.S. Census Bureau website accessed January 2007 (www.factfinder.census.gov); “Historic Places in Washington,” State of Washington, Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation website accessed February 2008 (www.oahp.wa.gov); “National Register Information System,” National Park Service website accessed February 2008 (www.nr.nps.gov); “Brookfield Asset Management and Longview Fiber Company Announce Definitive Agreement for Brookfield to Acquire Longview Fibre for US$24.75 per Share,” Brookfield Asset Management website accessed February 13, 2008 (www.brookfield.com/newsroom/pressreleases/r2007/r2007-02-05-2.asp). See also Robert M. Carriker, “The Longview Homesteads,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring 2010), 23-28.
Note: This essay was corrected on April 19, 2014.

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