Lowell Mason Hidden opens the Hidden Brick Company in Vancouver, Clark County, in 1871.

  • By John J. Caldbick
  • Posted 9/01/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9132

In 1871, Lowell Mason Hidden (1839-1923) opens the Hidden Brick Company in Vancouver, and his timing could not be better. Mother Joseph (1823-1902), head of the Sisters of Providence mission in the Pacific Northwest, is planning to build the largest brick building north of San Francisco, and she taps Hidden to supply the bricks. The three-story  Providence Academy (also called the House of Providence) will be completed in 1873, and will house an orphanage, a school, and the offices of the religious order. After this fast start, three generations of the Hidden family will go on to supply bricks for major projects in Vancouver, Portland, Astoria, and other cities. The Hidden Brick Company will stay in business for 121 years before finally shutting down in 1992.

From Vermont to Vancouver

Lowell Hidden's path to success as a brickmaker was neither easy nor straight. He was born into poverty in Vermont in 1839, and at the age of 6 he was "bound out" to a farmer who had agreed to provide him with an education. When the farmer reneged on his word, Hidden, then all of 13 years old, ran away. He found ample work in Vermont and within four years had saved enough to buy a small farm, which he worked until late 1863, raising grain and hay.

In November 1863, seeking to avoid the carnage of the Civil War, Hidden pulled up stakes and sailed to San Francisco. The war had greatly reduced the supply of labor, and he had no trouble finding employment. After working as a handyman for a few months, he was hired by a San Francisco businessman to  harvest crops on a farm the man owned in Vancouver.

A Man of Many Talents

Hidden arrived in Vancouver in 1864, only to find that the Columbia River had flooded out most of the fields he had been hired to harvest. He went to work cutting hay for another landowner, then was hired by the City of Vancouver to build a dock on the Columbia. After that job was completed, Hidden went into the fence-rail business. Vancouver was still a frontier town, and Lowell Hidden was not a man to let opportunity pass him by. He later told  an interviewer:

"In those days people were as honest as they had to be. For example, when a man wanted to fence his place he usually cut his fence rails -- by mistake of course -- on the land of somebody else, or on government land. I cut four hundred cords of wood that winter and I also got out twenty-seven thousand fence rails. I cut the rails on a homestead claimed by Mrs. Shockley. She was not living up to the homestead requirements so my brother, Arthur W. Hidden, later jumped the place" (History of the Columbia River from the Dalles to the Sea).

Hidden soon saved enough money to buy a small piece of land, and in 1865 he built a log cabin at what is now 14th and Main streets. Over the next several years, he continued to take on new challenges. He put in Vancouver's first water system, digging a two-mile trench and using hollowed-out logs as pipes. He also went into the oxen business, buying the beasts in Oregon and herding them to logging camps on Puget Sound, where they sold for twice what he had paid.

Marriage and Making Money

In 1869, Hidden returned to Vermont and wed Mary Sherbon Eastman (1847-1913). The couple, accompanied by Arthur W. Hidden (1830-1910), Lowell's older brother, then moved back west to Vancouver. Besides jumping the unfortunate Mrs. Shockley's claim, Arthur went on to plant the first prune orchard in the city, at 26th and Main streets, and later became known as the father of Clark County's huge prune industry of the early 1900s.

It does not appear that Lowell Hidden came back to Vancouver intending to go into the brick business. The first thing he and his wife did upon arriving was to lease the Pacific House Hotel, which they operated in 1870 and 1871. One popular account holds that Mother Joseph, needing a local brick supplier for her ambitious building plans, approached Hidden and talked him into going into the business. True or not, it is undisputed that he organized the Hidden Brick Company in late 1871, just in time to provide the building material for Mother Joseph's Providence Academy.

Forty Million Bricks

The Hidden Brick Company was not the first or the only brickyard in Clark County, but it was to be the most successful. The first factory was located at 15th and Main streets, and it would remain there for the next 60 years. In an interview near the end of his life, Lowell Hidden related the story of his hugely successful enterprise in an almost off-hand manner:

"For over twenty years I ran a brickyard on the first land which I acquired here and made over forty million bricks from this ground. Most of the early-day brick buildings in Vancouver are built from bricks I made" (History of the Columbia River from the Dalles to the Sea).
This was no exaggeration. In addition to the Providence Academy, Hidden bricks were used to build Vancouver's St. James Church (1885); its first Masonic Temple (1886); St. Joseph's Hospital (1911); the Carnegie Library, for which Lowell Hidden donated the building site (1909); and several other buildings. The company also provided bricks for the Tacoma Hotel in Tacoma and for projects in Portland and Astoria.

Success and Failure

Hidden also branched out into other areas of commerce, including a flour and feed mill on the Vancouver waterfront and the Hotel Columbia, which he built  with his younger brother Oliver (1843-1899) in 1891 and operated for several years. It was in its day the largest hotel in Vancouver.

Not all of his ventures met with the same success as his brickworks, however. Hidden's most notable failure was as a founder and president of the Vancouver, Klickitat & Yakima Railroad. Thirteen miles of track were laid in 1887, but it never came close to reaching its goal of establishing a rail link between Vancouver and Yakima. The line operated for 10 years, sometimes at a profit, but ultimately went broke and was sold in 1897.

Keeping It in the Family

Lowell Hidden retired in 1905, but lived another 18 years before passing away in 1923. His two sons, Foster (1871-1963) and Oliver (1874-1940), carried on the business under the name Hidden Brothers Brick Company.

By 1929 Oliver had also retired, and Foster moved the brick factory from his father's original site to a new location at 27th Street and Kaufman Avenue, again calling it the Hidden Brick Company. Upon Foster's death in 1963, the operation was taken over by his son, Robert Hidden (1910-1992), who continued to make bricks until finally closing the business in 1992.

A Legacy of Great Buildings and Good Works

Members of the Hidden family have played a large role in Vancouver's economic and civic life for nearly 150 years (2009), working to preserve the city's heritage and making generous philanthropic gifts. In 1969, Robert Hidden purchased the Providence Academy building from the Sisters of Providence, saving it from the wrecking ball. The academy was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Other Hidden Brick buildings on the national register include the Carnegie Library (now home to the Clark County Historical Museum), the Lowell M. Hidden house, and the W. Foster Hidden house. St. James Catholic Church was listed on the Washington Heritage Register in 1986.

Today a new generation of Hiddens in Vancouver continues the family tradition of community involvement and philanthropy, and the legacy of Lowell and Mary Hidden lives on in both brick and good works. 

Sources: Karl Gurcke, Bricks and Brickmaking: A Handbook for Historical Archaeology (Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1987), 102-103, 123; Pat Jollota, Downtown Vancouver (Mount Pleasant, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 46; W. Foster Hidden, "The History of Brickmaking In and Around Vancouver," The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 2 (April 1930), pp. 131-132; Joseph Gaston, Portland, Oregon, Its History and Builders ..., Vol. 2 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1911), 355; Fred Lockley, History of the Columbia River from the Dalles to the Sea (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1928), 24-27; Tenth Special Report of the Commission of the Commissioner of Labor (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904), 28; "Vancouver Uncovered," Clark County Historical Museum website accessed August 28, 2009  (http://www.cchmuseum.org/MuseumText.pdf); Scott Hewitt, "A Walk Into History at Academy," The Columbian website accessed August 27, 2009 (http://www.columbian.com/article/20090712/NEWS02/707129966); "Hidden Family," The Columbian website accessed August 27, 2009 (http://retro.columbian.com/history/profiles/hidden.cfm); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "The Vancouver Register reports that L. M. Hidden and other Vancouver businessmen have incorporated the Vancouver, Yakima & Klickitat Railroad on September 22, 1887" (by Gregg Herrington), http://historylink.org/ (accessed August 28, 2009); "About Us," Clark County Historical Museum website accessed August 25, 2009 (http://www.cchmuseum.org/about.html); Southwest Washington Medical Center website accessed August 25, 2009 (http://www.swmedicalcenter.org/body.cfm?id=925); "Washington Lodge 4: Lodge History," Washington Masonic Lodge 4 website, accessed August 28, 2009 (http://www.washingtonlodge4.org/lodgehistory.html); "Clark County Cemeteries," Rootsweb website accessed August 28, 2009 (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~waclacem/OldCity/p398.htm).

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