Camas -- Thumbnail History

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 2/08/2010
  • Essay 9290
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The city of Camas (originally La Camas) takes its name from the camas lily, the bulbs of which were a staple of the Native American diet from the Great Plains to the Pacific Coast. Camas lies along the north bank of the Columbia River and the Camas Slough. The slough begins where the Washougal River meets the Columbia, and it scribes the north shore of Lady Island before rejoining the Columbia further downstream. Most of Camas lies west of the Washougal, but a small section of the city crosses onto the east bank, where it blends seamlessly with the neighboring city of Washougal. The Clark County seat is in Vancouver, approximately 15 miles downriver to the west and slightly north. There were no known permanent Indian settlements near present-day Camas, but the area was frequented by Chinookan-speaking Natives who hunted and fished there centuries before the first European explorers and trappers arrived. Early attempts by Americans to settle the area were not successful, and nothing that could be called a town existed until the mid-1880s, when the La Camas Colony Company decided to build one. For most of its existence, the life's-blood of Camas has been the wood pulp used for the production of paper, and the local economy has been dominated by that industry for more than a century. In recent years, the city has drawn significant investments from high-tech firms, giving it a broader financial base. Camas shares a long history with the city of Washougal, and they have jointly operated the Port of Camas-Washougal since 1935. Accounts of the area's earliest settlement by non-Natives do not always draw sharp distinctions between the two localities, leaving room for doubt about precisely where particular persons lived and specific events occurred.

First Peoples

"Kamas" or "quamash" are non-Native approximations of the Indian word for a blue-flowered plant of the lily family, the bulbs of which were considered a delicacy by Native Americans from the Great Plains to the Pacific Coast. The plant was abundant where the Washougal River joins the Columbia, and the area was named "La Camas" by French Canadian trappers of the Hudson's Bay Company, who also named La Camas Lake and La Camas Creek (which in later years were shortened to "Lacamas").

Among the Indians who treasured the bulbs were the Watlala, one of several bands of Chinookan speakers referred to collectively by white explorers as the "Cascades people." These small bands appear to have been independent family groups -- fishers, hunters, and gatherers who ranged along the Columbia on either side of its lower rapids. Archaeological digs on Lady Island, separated from the mainland by Camas Slough, have unearthed prehistoric ceramic artifacts that indicate human presence as long ago as 2,000 to 2,500 years.

When Lieutenant William Broughton (1762-1821) was sent by Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) to explore the lower reaches of the Columbia River in 1792, he made it a few miles upriver from La Camas and no doubt had some contact with the Watlala. American explorers Lewis and Clark first stopped at Camas in November 1805 while traveling down the Columbia to the sea. When their Corps of Discovery returned in late March 1806 and camped for several days near the Watlala, Meriweather Lewis described the Natives:

"The women of these people pierce the cartelage of the nose in which they wear various ornaments ... most of the women brad their hair which hanges in two tresses one hanging over each ear." (The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, April 9, 1806)
"The men usually cew their hair in two parsels which like the braded tresses of the female hang over each ear in front of the sholder, and gives and additional width to the head and face so much admired by them. these cews are usually formed with throngs of dressed Otterskin crossing each other and not roled in our manner arrond the hair." (The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, April 11, 1806)

What is now called Lady Island (after an early settler with the last name "Lady") was named "White Brant Island" by Lewis and Clark, a bow to the plentiful waterfowl they found there, a great many of which they shot.

The virulent epidemic that swept through the Chinookan-speaking world beginning in 1829 decimated the Native American population, and the Cascades peoples were no exception. By 1854 their number was reduced to about 80 individuals. These few survivors were absorbed into the Wascoe Tribe of The Dalles, Oregon, as the "Dog River Band of the Wascoes" and removed to the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in 1855, where their descendants still survive.

Sporadic Settlement

In their earliest days, the histories of Camas and Washougal are at times indistinguishable. All that can be said with certainty is that among the earliest settlers in the general area were:

  • A British seaman named Richard Ough (sometimes spelled "Howe"), who most sources say arrived in 1838. If so, he was the first non-Native to actually settle in the area. Ough married an Indian woman named White Wing who was the daughter of a Cascade chief, Schluyhus (Slyhorse);
  • George Bush, an early African American settler, who with his traveling party wintered over in La Camas in 1845. The following spring, Bush moved on to Puget Sound country, finally settling in Tumwater;
  • David C. Parker, who arrived in the La Camas-Washougal area in 1846 and squatted on public land. After the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 was passed, Parker laid claim to 582 acres. He built a dock just east of the Washougal River called Parker’s Landing and in 1854 platted out a town he named Parkersville. Both the landing and the erstwhile town are now located on land controlled by the Port of Camas-Washougal;
  • Jacob T. Hunsaker (variously Hansaker and Hunsacker) (1818-1889) and his wife, Emily Collins Hunsaker, who arrived in La Camas in 1846 or 1847. Hunsaker opened the area's first commercial enterprise, a sawmill, which he operated until it was destroyed in a forest fire in 1849;
  • Several unidentified employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, which briefly operated a sawmill in La Camas in 1851 before it too was destroyed by fire.
  • H. J. G. Maxon and spouse, Arabella Taylor Maxon, who came to La Camas in 1852, where Maxon also established a sawmill. His mill met the same fate as the first two, burning to the ground shortly after it was opened. The area remained industry-free and sparsely populated for years after.

A Company Town

Nothing much seems to have happened in the La Camas area for about three decades after the destruction of Maxon's mill, or at least nothing of sufficient significance to merit a written record. Its long dormancy is illustrated by what few writings do exist. In November 1879 a settler named Victor Zepherinus Barthelemy filed a homestead claim in the La Camas area. Although there certainly were at least a few other settlers there at the time, including Barthelemy's in-laws, the 1880 census of the Washington Territory starkly describes the locale surrounding his homestead as "Mountainous country -- no villages, Clarke County."

That was to change just three years later, when a Portland newspaper owner named Henry L. Pittock (1835-1919) decided to build a new paper mill, and a new town to support it. Pittock had made his way from Pittsburgh to the West Coast in 1853 and taken a job as a typesetter with the Weekly Oregonian in Portland. At first working for just room, board, and clothing, Pittock within a few years had become the paper's business manager. By 1860 he owned the paper outright, reportedly taking it in trade for unpaid wages. Less than a year later, the Weekly Oregonian became the Morning Oregonian, published daily. In 1877 Pittock started another paper, the Portland Evening Telegram, and hired Doran H. "Don" Stearns (1841-1904) to manage the advertising department. But Pittock found another outlet for Stearns's talents, and within a few years he was to be put to work planning, organizing, and building the town of La Camas from the ground up.

Pittock already owned a paper mill in Oregon City and had built another on the Clackamas River, but these were insufficient to satisfy the market. He and some business partners decided that the wisest course would be to build a new pulp-and-paper mill that could supply not only Pittock, but other publishers as well. They started to scout for a good location in 1882 -- someplace that would provide ample lumber to feed the mill, ample water to power it, and a convenient way to ship the mill's product to Portland and beyond.

Much was possible in those days for those who had the will and the resources. Although the story might be apocryphal, A. O. Hathaway, a pioneer La Camas land developer who knew Pittock, was later quoted as saying:

"Henry Pittock was out in a rowboat on Lacamas Lake. He leaned over the side, looked at the water, and said this would be a great place for a paper mill" ("Camas," The Columbian).

And so it was to be. In 1883 Pittock and partners formed the La Camas Colony Company, and they put Don Stearns in charge of the project. Stearns surveyed the area early that year, and by July the company had purchased 3,000 acres of land, stretching from the banks of the Columbia River and the Camas Slough to Lacamas Lake, more than a mile to the north. In September, the La Camas Colony Company filed a plat that set aside 60 blocks for a new town, with the mill site at the western end. The money came from Pittock and his partners; Stearns was the company's man on the ground.

Starting from Scratch

Stearns first had to raise the level of Lacamas Lake by building three dams at its southern end. A sawmill was built near the first of these dams to supply lumber with which to build the pulp mill and the town, and it sawed its first logs in October 1883. More than 100 Chinese laborers, many of whom had just completed work on the last links of the Northern Pacific Railroad, were hired to clear land and to build the primary aqueduct, which was more than 7,000 feet long, eight feet wide and seven feet high. Much of it was trenched through solid rock, and a tunnel nearly one-half mile long was blasted and dug.

At the pulp-mill end, the channeled water dropped 170 feet before being harnessed to produce "several thousand horsepower" (History of Clarke County, Washington Territory) to power the mill. This aqueduct proved to be extremely durable, and is still carrying water more than 125 years later. A tramway was built from the mill to new wharves on the Columbia, where the paper produced could be loaded on steamboats for shipment to the Oregonian, the Evening Telegram, and other customers.

Along with the mill came the town, and stores and shops and services to cater to those who lived there. An immigrant from Canada, Aeneas McMaster, started his general merchandise store, the town's first, in July 1883. Not long after, he was able to build and open the Pioneer Store, a much larger outlet. A few years later, on September 10, 1889, a group of men met on the upper floor of the Pioneer Store and formed the original Washington State Grange. (Before this, some Washington counties had individual granges, but the statewide organization started in Camas with this meeting.)

By the summer of 1884 two hotels, The Mountain House and The LaCamas, had opened. The sawmill was producing more than 30,000 feet of timber a day, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with demand. By the winter of that year, La Camas had three general stores, a meat market, a bakery and restaurant, a blacksmith, and a livery and stable. A report printed in The Vancouver Independent newspaper on March 26, 1884, captured the frenzy of development as the paper plant neared completion:

"A correspondent says on Wednesday water was let on to the wheel at the paper mill ... . A large force of men are hurrying forward the business of placing the paper mill machinery in position ... . A large gang of men are at work clearing out obstructions in LaCamas creek, to pen up some of the best fir, larch, oak, maple and ash timbered lands on the coast. Three full gangs of loggers are at work along the lake. The saw mill is running full time on orders for houses in the town, teams are hauling lumber in all directions, the hotels are full, the stores are busy, there is not an idle man in sight, and every indication of a prosperous community is present." 

La Camas was a company town in the truest sense, lot, block, and jobs. Pittock's Oregonian reinforced the point in a January 4, 1884, article, where it noted that "Conservative businessmen of Portland ... are developing the idea of an industrial colony on a purely business basis." And The Vancouver Independent observed on May 8 that year, "LaCamas [was] not intended as a suburban town as [were] the villages around Portland ... but rather as a manufacturing point." In the eyes of its founders, the town existed to support the mill, and not the other way around. The Columbia River Paper Company so dominated La Camas for decades that there seems to be very little history recorded that does not center on the mill's operations.

The mill produced its first paper in May 1884, and the steamboats that carried the paper downriver to market returned upriver carrying settlers to the new town. Nor was the La Camas Colony Company lax in its promotion. On July 17, 1884, Portland's Standard newspaper told of a press junket to La Camas on the steamer Traveler, arranged by the company:

"When the Traverler [sic] reached the landing at La Camas with flags flying, she was greeted with an anvil salute, under the management of Mr. Albins, the blacksmith. A considerable of a crowd were at the landing ... . A carriage, the only one in the village, was kindly provided for the ladies on board and the entire party proceeded to the hotel where a sumptuous dinner awaited them. After the dinner ... visitors were taken over the grounds and shown all the attractions of the colony."

By the end of 1884, the population of La Camas had grown to 153 residents, and the town had those emblems of permanence, a school and a post office. By the spring of 1885, several churches had sprung up, and additional land was platted to add to the townsite. Everything seemed to going as planned in La Camas. But Stearns soon had to break away from his town-building -- in January 1886 his wife, Clara Duniway Stearns (1854-1886) died, and he returned to Portland to be with their 6-year-old son. By that time, the population of La Camas had grown to 435.

Stearns returned to La Camas in July 1886, taking charge again and returning to the villa he and his late wife had built on Lacamas Lake. A list of his titles illustrates the depth of his involvement in company operations -- manager of the La Camas Colony Company, manager and secretary of the La Camas Lumbering Company, president of the La Camas and Tacoma Railroad and Transportation Company (which apparently never laid a single rail), secretary of La Camas Milling Company. The town he had built was going strong, more businesses were opening, and more people were calling it home. And then disaster struck.

Another Fire, a Fresh Start, and a New Century

Fire, again, was the enemy. The new and "modern" La Camas paper mill proved no more resistant to the scourge of flames than the sawmills of 30 years earlier. In early November 1886 fire broke out in the paper mill. It burned until the building was completely destroyed, along with tons of raw material and finished product. Many thought the town was doomed, but it was too valuable an asset to lose. Pillock and his partners quickly made plans to build the mill anew, and to make it better.

Much of the mill's machinery had survived, but it was outdated and was sold to smaller operations in Oregon. A new and larger mill was built on the burned-out site, of brick and stone rather than wood, and furnished with the latest equipment and technology. On May 3, 1888, after 18 months of rebuilding, the new mill opened for business, and the town of La Camas could once again move forward.

Economic turmoil in the early 1890s, including the Panic of 1893, forced many industries in the Northwest to close, and almost, but not quite, took down the Columbia River Paper Company. After the crisis had passed, the mill continued to expand. In 1905, Pittock's Columbia River Paper Company and the Crown Paper Company of Oregon City merged to become the Crown Columbia Paper Company. The following year, the mill added a bag-manufacturing plant, and women were employed for the first time. By 1910 the mill had doubled its original manufacturing capacity and was turning out four million pounds of paper a year. By 1913 the plant was running on electricity and claimed to have the largest paper-making machine in the world.

Looking ahead, more consolidation was to come. In 1914, Crown Columbia merged with Willamette Paper to form Crown Willamette, which at the time was the second-largest paper manufacturer in the world. Then, in 1928, the Zellerbach Corporation bought all the stock of Crown Willamette and created the Crown Zellerbach Corporation. Over the ensuing years there were more buy-outs and mergers. In 2005, the mill, owned by Georgia Pacific Wood Products, became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries.

Wets and Drys

La Camas experienced the same growing pains as young towns everywhere, and one of the most prolonged and rancorous disputes pitted the liquor industry against the temperance movement. In 1885, a man named John Nagar opened a brewery just north of the La Camas, and within a short time the town was home to three saloons. In December of that year, a temperance group called the Band of Hope was formed, and within two months it could boast that only one saloon remained in business.

La Camas held a local option election on July 1, 1886, and voted 108 to 36 in favor of prohibition. But that was not the end of the matter. The state Supreme Court ruled the local option law unconstitutional, and rumors abounded that more saloons would soon open. The temperance forces held mass meetings and brought in nationally known speakers. A petition was circulated asking the Clark County commissioners to ban the sale of alcohol in La Camas, and more than three-quarters of the town's citizens signed it. The over-heated nature of the debate was illustrated by an article in the February 17, 1888, edition of the La Camas News:

"This is the most decided temperance precinct in Washington Territory and the new license law passed by the late legislature is on trial here more than anywhere else. The eyes of temperance reformers on the Pacific Coast are turned to LaCamas to watch the struggle now going on and to admire the skill and faithfulness by which the people of Columbia precinct are crushing the slimy serpent that is attempting to poison our life’s blood by its sting. Rally to the mass meeting at the church on Monday evening and show your colors."

The enterprising John Nagar, whose brewery had fired the opening shot in the brouhaha, tried to frustrate temperance forces by setting up a "whiskey scow" and mooring it on the Camas Slough just offshore from the town. But on April 18, 1888, the county sheriff shut down the floating saloon, and the temperance forces could claim a temporary victory.

The struggle went on for years. Two saloons closed in 1906 when the town mayor threatened to hold their owners personally responsible for public drunkenness, but they were soon replaced by two new watering holes. The ongoing battles ceased only when the state Legislature imposed state-wide prohibition on December 31, 1916.

Progress and Labor Pains

In 1884 the U.S. Postal Service dropped the La from La Camas to more clearly distinguish it from  La Center and LaConner. Gradually the little company town developed an identity of its own, nurtured its own institutions, and fought its own battles. More businesses opened, more churches sprang up, babies were born and cemeteries filled. On June 2, 1906, the townsfolk took the significant step of incorporating, and, although not without dissent, they formally adopted the name "Camas," without the "La."

Working in the mill was a difficult and dangerous occupation, and Camas saw its share of labor strife over the years. The first strike came in 1914, when the women working in the company's bag factory walked off the job. An unsuccessful strike in April 1917 led to the formation of the Paper Workers Union, and in October of that year a second strike was called. The company responded by hiring non-unions workers, and both the strike and the union were broken. Permanent unionization would not come to the Camas mill until the late 1930s. In 1964, the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Local No. 5 was organized in Camas as an alternative to the international unions, which mill workers believed were not sufficiently responsive to local concerns. The new union began to aggressively represent its membership. Strikes were called in 1964, 1969, and 1971, and in 1978 there was an unsuccessful walkout that lasted seven months.

While labor and management grappled, Camas continued to grow, and there were signs of growing prosperity. In 1908, O. F. Johnson opened the Camas State Bank, later to become First National. Between 1910 and 1920, the population increased from 1,123 to 1,843, and the next decade saw explosive growth -- by the 1930 census there were 4,239 residents in the town. Much of this growth was due to a huge increase after World War I in the world-wide demand for paper. Over the next few decades, population growth was slow but steady. Then, between 1990 to 2000, the number of people living in Camas nearly doubled, from 6,798 to 12,534. This increase reflected not only the creation of new jobs in the city itself, but also an increase in the number of working folk from Vancouver and Portland opting for the slower pace and more bucolic ambiance of Camas and the surrounding area.

Camas Today

The pulp-and-paper industry still plays a huge role in Camas, but the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first have seen a dramatic broadening of the city's economic base. By 2009, population had increased to an estimated 16,950, and among the new industries that set up shop in Camas were Sharp Microelectronic, Underwriters Laboratories, and Linear Technology. In 2008, estimated household median income in Camas was $73,302, more than $15,000 higher than the state average. The town can also boast of at least two citizens who have moved on to national renown: pop singer and TV star Jimmie Rodgers (b. 1933), whose 1957 hit "Honeycomb" topped the national charts, and famed NASCAR driver Greg Biffle (b. 1969), a graduate of Camas High School.

The Port of Camas-Washougal, which was created in a special election in 1935, is still jointly operated by the two municipalities. Among the major projects developed over the years by the Port are Industrial Park, which houses 41 businesses; Grove Field Airport; a marina providing moorage for more than 350 boats; and Capt. William Clark Park at Cottonwood Beach east of Washougal.

Camas benefits greatly from its proximity to the regional population centers of Vancouver and Portland. But the city has also taken pains to preserve some of its own long heritage, and offers a seamless blend of history and progress, from a modern, state-of-the-art public library to several buildings listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. Camas is no longer a one-company town, but it hasn't  forgotten that it owes its existence to the vision of Henry L. Pittock, the hard work of Don Stearns, and the world's insatiable demand for paper.


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