Did you ever turn off the Astoria-Megler bridge and head east on State Route 401 toward Naselle, skirting the river… and in a forest wilderness, suddenly have your heart broken by a vast range of ungirded pilings in a glassy bay of mythic beauty?
You weren’t the first. Hearts broke in 1941, when the sawmill that created Knappton burned out of existence, uncreating a unique community that could so completely disappear in the 79 intervening years, because it was made of the stuff it sent over the world.
The exuberant forestation of the north-bank hills drew developer Jabez Knapp’s eye when his first attempt at industry on this bay west of Gray’s Point, a cement-crusher chewing up lime boulders, ran out of chewable lime in a year. The year 1869 saw two great incidents in world commerce: the completion of the Suez Canal, and the transformation of Knapp’s “Cementville” into something more like Lumberville, when he organized the Columbia River Manufacturing Co., bought up nearly 500 acres of adjoining timber, and hired to build a sawmill a couple of tough Oregon Trail pioneers whose prolific names — Barr and Vaughn — have percolated deep into Pacific and Wahkiakum County history. By 1871, when it got a post office, the combined population of the new mill and declining cement works was a genuine town, called — of course! — Knappton. (You’d think having Knappa, Oregon named for his brother would be enough for Jabez.)
Biodegradable packaging was all the rage, with everything from chinaware to salmon being packed in wooden barrels. Knapp met the need with a barrel factory, soon diversified to a box-and-barrel factory. Carpenter James Vaughn, purchasing 160 acres on Deep River, could float 50,000 feet of logs daily. (Talking huge numbers brings the age-old question, “How deep is Deep River?” — a mystery, or perhaps superstition, each succeeding generation must come to peace with.)
With log rafts like that converging on Knappton, which could turn out 25,000 board feet daily, Knapp’s success would seem assured. Alas, tied up in a Portland agricultural firm and probably overextended with the construction, Knapp defaulted on a loan and relinquished the mill in a settlement with a San Francisco bank.
The Simpson era
Asa Simpson, a white-whiskered Yankee seaman with all the business acumen of his kind, bought it in 1876 (a year that supplied many of the red-white-and-blue specimens in the great Victorian legacy of knicknacks), and guided it into the 20th century; the high point of his captaincy appeared in the South Bend Journal in 1900: a mill lit by electricity, a mill pond bulging with trunks 90 feet long and 20 inches in diameter, and 82,000 board feet a day to prove that the snarling roar of the saws wasn’t just to annoy the population.
And the population! Here’s the real kicker of the Knappton story: a comparatively refined, self-conscious, polyglot community perched on the hilly bank, sending the kids to school in a white clapboard school, flirting and smoking on a muddy boardwalk, gaping up at genteel, lacy-porched Settem House or the state’s largest cherry tree. A community that’s now more a matter of faith than sight.
It was once able to support such frivolities as a dance hall in the old cement works, another hall belonging to the Maccabees insurance cooperative, the mill store, the Knappton Hotel, a tennis court, boys’ basketball and girls’ volleyball teams. Those English, Finns, Germans, Norwegians, Chinese and others who called Knappton their hometown are so completely gone that, when high tide nearly drowns the whole piling field, a passing motorist will more readily think of the bay’s history in terms of Chinooks rounding Gray’s Point in canoes than mill wives in starched blouses promenading before row-houses. Because… pretty much everything at Knappton was biodegradable. Wood.
An epic blaze
Yes, the Knappton story comes to an end about the time amicable Japanese-American relations did — in 1941, the mill still under the 1909-plus leadership of an enterprising German family whose name you can still hardly go half a mile on the north bank without hearing. (Maybe because it’s so fun to say. Brix. Brix. Or maybe because they established a towboat company that seemed to leave no bit of river untouched.)
The operation was already slumped by the Depression when fire broke out on July 15, 1941 — a day that will live in local infamy. It was little help that some 9 million board feet of lumber were saved on barges, or that somebody saved a car by driving it onto a barge. (A car in Knappton was a doubtful thing at best; the road out, to Naselle, was a temperamental plank trail).
Though no one was killed, the mill was a write-off, losing the sawmill, main office, yard office, oil house, and a million feet of lumber. (The scrap-burner was evidently engulfed in flames, but if you’re very curious what it looked like, it’s the only vestige of which I can cite an extant twin — the cautious outbound driver leaving Clatskanie on Beaver Falls Road may see a thing like a huge iron wigwam on the left.)
There’s heartbreak at Knappton. The heartbreak of 85 mill workers trudging home jobless after July 15. Of kids who grew up in the vibrant, characterful factory town watching it literally fall down or drop into the river during the second half of the 20th century. Even of the newcomer who visits the Knappton boat launch — the only active public feature of the townsite — with some inkling of what’s underfoot.
Is there any lesson in this heartbreak?
Well, tongue-in-cheek — if you want to build a town that lasts, wood is a kind of impermanent material.