Rip-roaring South Bend boomed, then went bust

The grand Willapa Hotel was cntructed in South Bend in 1893 and torn down in 1919, after sitting empty for 25 years.

Houseboats, float houses, floating fish shacks, oyster stations, and a variety of private docks and wharves once crowded the waterfronts of South Bend, Raymond, Willapa, Bay Center, Naselle, and North River. These places once relied on the rivers for their existence, but only a small number of the shacks or small docks remain today. Following is a tale of South Bend's floating saloon.

The South Bend of the pre-speculative land boom years of 1889-1893 was a small company-owned village, strictly controlled by the rules of its mill owners. To the chagrin of a number of the loggers and millworkers, a liquor ban was enforced, with a successful blocking of any saloon from doing business on company-owned property. The workers, familiar with the more friendly environs of Astoria and other lumber towns, longed for a livelier time. Some of these men found the time to row or sail dinghies or plungers to Oysterville, Willapa City, or even Astoria, where there were saloons, as well as restaurants and hotels. Some loggers made Oysterville their winter home when the woods were closed during inclement weather.

As happens with most rules, an enterprising fellow devised a plan to evade the liquor ban, by anchoring a scow next to the river bank. By strategically placing a plank to allow patrons to cross over the watery void to the smoky and boozy establishment, South Bend had its first saloon. The water borne joint, scorned by some, enjoyed a lengthy and celebrated existence.

1869 Milltown

Beginning in 1869, South Bend's first years were rather primitive: a lumber camp surrounded by a few family cabins and farms, where the residents considered the visiting lumber schooners as their lifeline to the outside world. The mailboat from Oysterville did not make regular stops until 1875, the year the little milltown opened its first post office. The Weekly Astorian, on reporting of lumber shipments from the mill, referred to the camp as the "Bruceport Mill." (The mill was seven miles to the east of Bruceport.)

The village grew slowly, from approximately 50 people in 1880 to around 150 in 1889 (a number which included the surrounding area for several miles). The surrounding area looked more like today's nearby tideland and sloughs, without dikes, but with more trees and tidal water.

The lumber camp and adjoining village was the work of Valentine and John Riddell, two brothers from Nantucket Island, Mass. Valentine, the eldest by ten years, had arrived on the bay first, settling at Bruceport. After John arrrived he joined his brother as the co-proprietor of one of Bruceport's two general stores. Led by Valentine's desire to establish a steam-powered sawmill, the brothers chose a site along the broad bend of the Willapa River, about two miles from its mouth and across the river from the entrance to Mailboat Slough. The mill was constructed with lumber supplied by Daniel Wilson's little water-powered mill on Mill Creek, near Woodard's Landing. Although it was the first steam-powered sawmill on the bay, it was preceded by three water-powered operations, E. O. Reed's mill on the Palix, John Adams' mill at Riverside, and the brief operation at North River.

The Riddell Mill had one rip saw to cut the logs into cants, and a down saw to cut the cants into lumber. The operation was never run on more than a sporadic basis, with some of workers living at the site only when the mill was in use. A few of the men, including owner Valentine Riddell and John Scully, established Donation Land Act claims and constructed family farms.

The mill's first cargo of 380,000 feet of lumber was shipped out in 1870, on the barkentine C. L. Taylor, due for Peru. John Riddell traveled to Portland to pilot the vessel to Shoalwater Bay. When the vessel arrived at the mill, the small crew, with the exception of the cook, mutinied, leaving ship and cargo stranded. John Riddell took his mill engineer and two other mill hands to assist the ship's captain and cook, and helped sail the Taylor to San Francisco.

In September 1873, the Riddells' ownership came to an end when they sold the mill to four men from the Knappton mill: John Wood, Jim Miller, Jake Jordan, and Asa M. Simpson, a wealthy California lumber merchant (who had also purchased the Knappton Mill). Over the next 30 years, especially after Simpson took exclusive control of the operation, the mill was steadily enlarged. Lumber was shipped to Simpson's California lumber yards (and around the Pacific rim) on the owner's own Diamond S shipping line. Typical of the early Simpson-built schooners calling on the old mill were the three-masted brigantine Arago, built in 1859, and the Tam O'Shanter, a three-masted, 600 ton barkentine, built in 1875. Both vessels were built at the Old Town yard in North Bend (Coos Bay), as were most of Simpson's vessels.

Boatbuilding in South Bend

As the mill operation prospered and grew, Asa Simpson ordered the construction of towboats and a bar tug to ensure the safety of vessels crossing the Shoalwater Bay bar. In 1875, a 93-foot steamboat was built near the South Bend mill. Instead of using the completed vessel at South Bend, Simpson sold it to Lewis Loomis for $22,000. The steamer was renamed the General Canby and for many years it worked the Astoria-Ilwaco run for the Ilwaco Steam Navigation Company.

South Bend shared in California's prosperity during the early 1880s. With the completion of the transcontinental railroads and the state's growing population and market demands, Simpson became one of the Pacific Coast's most powerful timber barons. Simpson arranged to have two more vessels constructed at South Bend: a steamer, the South Bend, and most impressively, a three-masted schooner, the Sailor Boy. Ed Patterson, a local boatbuilder, was hired to build the vessel, with a gang of men from San Francisco sent to South Bend to do the rigging. Registered at San Francisco on March 14, 1883, the vessel cost $30,000, was 126 feet long at the keel, 33 feet wide at the beam, with a hold 11 feet deep. The Sailor Boy's cargo capacity was 385,000 feet of lumber.

With the region's growing economy, there was a modest increase in economic activity and population. By 1881, the steamer General Garfield was making two trips a week between South Bend and Oysterville, connecting with the Ilwaco Steam Navigation Company's stage line to Ilwaco and Columbia River connections. The Garfield usually arrived at South Bend at night, greeting townspeople with noise and lights. As the vessel glided to the dock, its electric light illuminated the shoreline.

Medicine and boats were also necessary partners at this time. In the late 1880s, South Bend had its first doctor, Edwin T. Balch. Dr. Balch, from Maine, had actually practiced on the bay since 1865, living on the South Fork (of the Willapa) and visiting his patients by boat. The doctor had the first steam launch on the bay, a little craft called the Pill Box. It was fired with wood, and took some time to get up enough steam to "hurry" to a call. During his early years the popular doctor traveled as far as Olympia and Grays Harbor, both long trips that would have taken days. The Pill Box was a common sight on the river and bay, steaming between Woodard's Landing and Oysterville.


In September 1889, the tug Sea Lion arrived in South Bend from Hoquiam, with four ambitious and hopeful land speculators: George Holcomb, Philander Swett, Lewis Eklund, and Charles Warner. Three of the men had just concluded sales of land in Hoquiam, and before that at Whatcom (Bellingham) and Fairhaven, in northwest Washington. Having been inspired and aided by Capt. A. T. Stream, and wasting little time, the men drew up articles of incorporation and launched the South Bend Land Co.

In March and April 1890, three separate parties of Northern Pacific Railway Co. surveyors mapped out a route for a Chehalis to South Bend rail line. As two newspapers spread the news, land boomers crowed that South Bend held the trump card for Pacific Coast expansion.

In negotiations with the town, the Northern Pacific drove a hard bargain. A large part of riverfront property was transferred to the company's ownership to insure that the railway would build the terminus in South Bend. The contract would have long lasting problems for South Bend, especially when mill operators later took advantage of Raymond's offer of industrial sites.

Late in 1890, Colonel James Ashton, a successful attorney from Tacoma, directed the N. P.'s development of South Bend's east end. The work had begun with filling in the tideflats, the grading of streets, and roadbuilding. At the corner of Jackson and Broadway, the Hotel Willapa was under construction on Alta Vista hill. Work on the new hotel dragged on for three years, resulting in rising costs and length of construction time. Regardless of the problems, the building's appearance was glorious. The hotel was three stories high , and in additon, had living and work spaces in its attic and basement. The roof was a gray colored mansard design, with several gables and one octagon-shaped and two round towers. The main tower rose 85 feet from the ground, commanding a regal view of the Willapa River. There were 87 guest rooms, some described as elegant, and many with fireplaces.

A celebration was held at the hotel on the night of July 28, 1893 for the officers of the visiting coastal defense warship U. S. S. Monterey and many local and visiting dignitaries, but the hotel would never open for business. Not one day. If ever there was a symbol of the failure of the South Bend boom years, it was the Hotel Willapa. After sitting empty for more than 25 years, the building was torn down for salvage in 1919.

In April 1890, land sales were brisk. Three-quarters of the newly offered lots were snapped up in a single day, with sales amounting to $70,000. Between May and October the market continued to increase, and by July the St. Paul Additon to South Bend (now a part of Raymond) was filed and brought similarly high prices. In August, another addition, situated on the "island," across the river from South Bend, was offered for sale. Visionaries saw homes, wharves, bridges, and industrial sites. In the upper Willapa Valley, George Holcomb established the townsite of Holcomb, which was promoted as an agricultural center, the future "Puyallup of the Willapa Valley." Back in South Bend, Simpson Lumber Company officials, initially reticent, began to sell their properties. Profits were to be had and many choice lots were sold.

By the end of 1890 South Bend truly had been transformed. The Albee Hotel had been built, a new school constructed, newspapers established, and several large private homes commanded prime views from the town's surrounding hills. South Bend's leaders also initiated an infrastructure for the growing city, with new landfills, several office buildings and churches, and water, police, and fire departments.

In the heady days of the early 1890s, business boomed, and on any given day, the wharf was busy. On one day the steamer Willapa brought fifty tons of dry goods and liquor. On another day in August the steamer Alliance arrived with 115 tons, mostly animal feed. With the freight were seven passengers. Among the other arrivals was a steamer from San Francisco with 121 tons of cargo and six passengers, then the Point Loma, with 161 tons. After that the schooner Orient arrived with powder for the railroad contractors. The Willapa returned with another boatload, this time 46 passengers, including nine fishermen and 14 Chinese laborers, all taken to P. J. McGowan's new salmon cannery at North River.

Church Business

The Land Company donated several lots for the construction of a variety of churches. In most cases, the mills sold lumber to these groups at cost. First, a Methodist church was constructed, with the lumber carried up the hill from the wharf by the men who then helped construct the building. Although the Rev. James Mathews helped get the church started, the first regular pastor was Rev. Sprague Davis. Davis despised the sinful ways of the townspeople and regularly denounced alcohol drinking and gambling. The pastor had a point: according to the South Bend Journal, South Bend had 28 saloons, 12 houses of prostitution, and five gambling houses, operating in full view of the public. (This was a far cry from the old days of the lumber camp.)

The construction of churches continued with the First Congregational Church, built on Jackson Street. It had a Romanesque style of architecture which included a chancelry, main room, class room, and a library. The Presbyterians erected a church on the corner of A Street and Second Street. Its large main room seated as many as 150 parishoners. The Land Company continued to encourage more building of churches. A Scandinavian Methodist Church was built on Monroe Sttreet. It was followed up by a large Swedish Baptist Church, constructed on the corner of Cowlitz and Ferry (near the present day Court House).

Although South Bend's leaders had encouraged the building of several churches, the good times were essentially gone by 1892, and church attendance was not the best. The town's several pastors suffered greatly, and the Land Company's leader, George Holcomb, began to visit the town's saloons, asking patrons to make immediate donations to help pay the salaries of the church leaders. This maneuver was not terribly successful, and soon Holcomb himself had fled town.

The Sinking Of the Challenger

In early 1904, an unusual drama took place on the South Bend riverfront. A disabled and burning three-masted, 279-foot schooner, the Challenger, was towed into the bay and upriver to South Bend. For several days, the captain of the vessel had struggled in the hope that the ship could be saved, but part of its cargo, 3,800 barrels of lime was ablaze (along with 150,000 board feet of lumber). Unable to gain entry to the Columbia River, and finally forced from the wheelhouse many times because of the smoke and fumes (from the lime), the ship and its crew had struggled in mountainous seas.

The Challenger's captain had made a last desperate run for the Willapa bar to save the ship and cargo. Seeing the ship's distress signals, Cap. Chris Olsen, of the bar tug Astoria, brought his vessel out over the treacherous bar. Two hours later, after getting a line to the Challenger, the Astoria's crew towed the vessel to South Bend. The Challenger and its crew had finally escaped the stormy sea, but not the fire. Flames shot through the cabin and the vessel had to be scuttled next to the shipping channel, across the river from South Bend's city dock. In total, the fire had burned for 11 days.

Much of the Challenger's lumber was salvaged, but the vessel was eventually declared a complete loss. After several futile attempts to raise the ship, the Creech brothers, then operating out of Raymond, were hired to blow up the wreck and clear the channel for navigational purposes.

Although it was claimed that the wreckage was cleared, another dredging operation, 29 years later, during the summer of 1934, found that not to be the case. When the channel opposite South Bend was widened in 1934, the Bowers dredge began spitting out chuncks of wood, old barrel hoops, lime, and even iron and old copper fittings.

Writer's Notes:

1. Riverside's post office had opened on April 5, 1871; South Bend's post office on May 12, 1875.

2. During its first year, South Bend had two newspapers, the South Bend Enterpriise and the Western World. The Western World (which was done after one year) was the mouthpiece for the Sea Haven Land Company, but its early office was in South Bend. The Enterprise was sold and was renamed the South Bend Journal. For a year or so, the town had three weekly newspapers. The South Bend Herald had a brief existence, and the Willapa Republican, which was sold and moved to South Bend, was renamed the Willapa Harbor Pilot. The Pilot, which enjoyed early success, lasted until 1945. Until the end of World War II the South Bend-Raymond area had four weekly newspapers: The Journal and Pilot in South Bend, and the Herald and Advertiser in Raymond.

3. The story of the Challenger, 1905-1907, was found in both the PCHS files and McCurdy's Maritime History.)

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