The decades bring diverse pioneers to Willapa River village

C.P. Dobler stands in his wagon in front of his crew at the Mayfair Ranch Creamery, Menlo. One source claims the old man with the white beard is Sebastian Giesy of the Bethel Colony, but this is not authenticated. Photo from the Ralph Antilla collection, 1998

Woodard's Landing (Willapa)

The Bethel Colony, led by Dr. William Kiel, was a socialistic, religious group that first organized in Pennsylvania, and then migrated across the Great Plains and western mountain ranges from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest, in 1854-1855.

In the winter of 1855-56, isolated in the cold and wet wilderness of Willapa Valley, the members of the newly arrived Bethel Colony lived in tents, unable to purchase food, and forced to survive the difficult months by killing dog salmon with clubs. The few neighbors living nearby could offer only a small supply of potatoes and peas to the undernourished German-Swiss American settlers. Because of a fear of Indian attack (which never occurred), William Keil would not permit the use of firearms for hunting, demanding that all ammunition be saved for protection of the group. When a long-awaited oyster schooner finally arrived on the bay, only a meager three sacks of flour was available for sale.

In early spring, a disappointed Dr. Keil looked over the Willapa Valley and lamented, "The area is too steep, too muddy, and dense with underbrush. And it's too removed from good markets. We are imprisoned like criminals and can't stay here." Following their leader's wishes, the majority of the colony's settlers moved south to Oregon, while a smaller number remained on their Willapa Valley claims. Despite those who departed, more than 80 men, women, and children settled Donation Land Act claims in what later became known as the rural communities of Willapa and Menlo. Although the colony was separated by more than 130 miles, it remained as one in its religious and political organization, with the seat of authority at Aurora, Ore.

The group's westward migration from Pennsylvania had been one of great accomplishment. When the colony ended their overland journey at Portland (one year after the founding of Oysterville), the majority of the group convoyed down the Columbia on a large scow, equipped with sails and oars. (Some of the party remained in the Portland area for the winter.) The trip took five days, with the group arriving at the Wallicut River under the direction of John Edmonds Pickernell. The travelers were taken up the Wallicut as far as possible and then portaged to Shoalwater Bay. From there they traveled in open boats to the Willapa River and Woodard's Landing.

Following a difficult winter's stay, Keil led the party back to Portland and then to their new settlement at Aurora, south of Oregon City. (Except for the Giesy family and a few others who chose to remain on their Willapa Valley claims.) Dr. Kiel's son Willie also stayed in the valley. Willie had died before the group's western migration had begun. Having promised his son that he would come west, Dr. Keil had Willie transported in a zinc-lined coffin, filled with alcohol, and buried him near Menlo, where today the gravesite is a designated historic site.

A farmer's perspective, 1883

From the hardships of the first land claims 30 years before, the farmers of the 1880s were proud of their accomplishments. In 1883, a Seattle Herald newspaperman reported the words of a Willapa Valley farmer:

... This place has as good soil that there is. I get 600 to 700 bushels of potatoes to the acre. The grass is as high a quality there is and grown in great quantities in the valley. We often get two crops a year. Cows do excellently and the butter making is very successful. There are quite a few farmers engaged in this activity. We don't export much from here because local consumption is great.

There are five logging camps running and there is the mill in South Bend. (Note: The founding of Raymond was still 20 years in the future.) And the acreage is comparatively small that is under cultivation. But people are becoming knowledgeable of our resource and that is surprising to us old stagers ... A good wagon road goes all the way from Woodard's Landing to South Bend. We can get to the county seat at Oysterville pretty easily (by rowing, sail, or small steamer.) ... Most new farmers are compelled to find work in the logging camps or in the sawmill during the summer season to help pay for all this. Wages are real good in the logging camps.

Woodard's Landing becomes Willapa City

In the late 1870s, the former Donation Land Act claim of Samuel Woodard (1853) began to take on the look of a thriving village, with a wharf, warehouse, store, and post office. The Fort Willapa post office had been moved to Woodard's Landing in 1870. (In 1854 and 1855, because of the threat of Indian attacks, mostly in the Puget Sound area, blockhouses were constructed at Bruceport and Giesy Crossing. The Giesy Crossing blockhouse, given the name Fort Willapa, was not a government-operated military outpost.)

In the mid-1880s two separate requests were filed to establish a town. Ed Woodard (son of Samuel Woodard), surveyed and recorded "Woodard's Town of Willapa." Part of the Woodard claim was sold to John Wood, the manager of South Bend's Simpson mill (1874 to 1888), while the neighboring Whitcomb claim was sold to John Dolan, S.S. McEwing, John Drissler, and other partners. The old claims were platted and the village was named Willapa City (or Willapa).

Following the leadership of S. S. McEwing and others, the inhabitants of the little community soon had a school, a church, drug stores, hotels, livery stables, a blacksmith shop, saloons, and stores. There was also a real estate office and a newspaper, the Willapa Republican.

The decision of the Northern Pacific to bypass Willapa City put an end to the town's growth, and in the early 1890s the South Bend land boom offered more lucrative opportunities. Some of Willapa's businesses, including the newspaper, were sold and moved downriver. The newspaper's new owner, C. A. Heath, changed its politics and name to the Willapa Harbor Pilot.

During the height of Willapa City's success, commercial activity was centered around the wharf and warehouse. The wharf, as the main link to the outside world, was an important part of the upper valley's commerce. Shipping activity had gone on for more than two decades. For example, in 1864 the small schooner Sarah Louise, owned by the Morgan Oyster Company and manned by Captain J. J. Winant, took a load of potatoes from Woodard's Landing. (Meinert Wachsmuth was aboard the vessel. Wachsmuth later became an oysterman at Oysterville.)

During the two decade period prior to the 1880s, steamer captains loaded or received cargoes of agricultural goods, animal feed, lumber, and mail and other freight at the landing. During that time passengers, mail, and freight were routinely loaded and unloaded with scheduled steamboat runs connecting all points on the bay and the Willapa River: Willapa, Riverside, South Bend, Tokeland, Bay Center, or Nahcotta/Sealand and beyond.

Disappointment and change

During the construction of the Chehalis and South Bend rail line (1890 to 1893), word spread that the Nothern Pacific Railway Company would bypass Willapa City.

During the first week of August 1890, S. S. McEwing led a delegation to Chehalis to visit W. R. Marion, the engineer in charge of construction. Realizing the gravity of the situation, the Willapa group offered to underwrite a train station, freeing the Northern Pacific of any extra costs. McEwing and his partners offered to pay any additional costs up to $50,000. To sweeten the deal they also offered to pay the company a cash bonus for any difference between actual costs and the $50,000.

On Aug. 11, having already completed plans for the projected route, Engineer Marion sent a message to his supervisor estimating the extra costs of a route change. Marion then sent a another message to his chief surveyor, asking him to survey a route to Willapa City. The effort failed, and a month later McEwing and his partners received the bad news when the Northern Pacific chose the original southern route, bypassing the village. The decision of the railroad company delivered a fatal blow for the Willapa City business center, one from which it never recovered. (Twenty-five years later, when the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad placed their own depot in the area, the Willapa post office also moved, to the site named "East Raymond.")

With the completion of the Northern Pacific line to South Bend, the entire Willapa Valley saw dramatic changes. Depots were built in the growing communities of Frances, Menlo, Lebam, Holcomb, and the new Willapa (East Raymond) site. Local farmers realized the increased opportunities to market their creamery products. Large sawmills were built at Frances, Globe, Walville, and Lebam. Logging railroads and high lead logging practices soon pushed logging operations deeper into the hills. Later, when the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul railroad bought out the Pacific and Eastern logging railroad, those tracks were lined with busy logging camps.

Beginning in 1907, two passenger trains departed Chehalis for South Bend, due in at 4 p.m. and 10:55 p.m. Two passenger trains departed South Bend, the first at 2:30 p.m., and the late train at 7 p.m.

In 1914, the Milwaukee line began a passenger service out of Raymond, and the logging camp stops (Firdale, Sutico, and others) were sometimes jammed with standing room only crowds.

In the early 1900s logging and farming helped bring on a new look to the area. With an active economy growing downriver at South Bend and the new town of Raymond, investors renewed their interest in the valley. Although its commercial importance was on a smaller scale than in the 1880s, Willapa (City) hung on as a center of activity through the years of the Pacific and Eastern, the predecessor of the Milwaukee line. When the river traffic of the steamers began to disappear, and the Milwaukee's railroad construction crews departed (1913), Willapa's once promising business phase was done.

The Louderback Family of Willapa

John Louderback settled near Woodard's Landing in 1854, and then courted and married Nancy Wilson, daughter of the Daniel Wilson family. In 1982, John and Nancy's grandson, Marion Louderback, remembered his grandfather's claim, on what became known as Louderback Slough. Marion recalled the place as quite remote, where there was no electric power. Marine engines had come into being by the time of Marion's childhood (he was born in 1903), but his father and grandfather John had lived on the slough for years with no other way of getting around the river or bay except by sail or rowboat. Marion recalled that, with a gas launch, the run to South Bend took an hour.

An expert craftsman, Dan Louderback built boats without power tools, everything done by hand. Son Marion recalled his dad's skill with an axe and adze. Dan hired a helper, Curt Barstow, a big man, strong as an ox, with a handlebar mustache. Barstow built a shack at one side of the boathouse, and could run a ripsaw or adze all day long.

In earlier years (the 1880s), Dan built sloops and oyster workboats purchased by families around the bay. Among these sloops were the Sailor Boy, Vivian (1888), Undine, Pearl (1891), Elsie Rhoades (1891), Columbia (1892), and Dauntless (1897). Although these wonderful sloops were built as workboats, they were also raced in regattas on both the bay and the Columbia River.

As the bay's eastern oyster industry succeeded, an increased demand for workboats kept Louderback and other builders busy working at their craft. In the first decade of the 20th century, three long-lasting oyster dredges were built, including the Willapa (1906), Bay Point (1907) and Tokeland (1910). Today's oystermen acknowledge that Louderback-built vessels were works of excellence. The Bay Point and Tokeland are still in use by local companies. (The Herrold family still owns and operates the Tokeland, while several years ago the Bay Point was moved to Grays Harbor by Coast Oyster Company.)

Steam and gas operated tugs and towboats built by Louderback included the Flora Brown (1902), Laurel (1902), Myrtle (1903), Ena (1905), Mary and Edith (ca. 1905), Transit (1906), and Anna Porter (1913). At the end of World War I (November, 1918) boatbuilding slacked off and the river and slough was full of timbers, cedar slabs and such), and the Louderbacks (father and son) decided to build a new boat for their Cross engine. The new craft was 17 feet long and planked with five-eighths red cedar, full length planks, split and planed by hand. Although there were a few tricks of the trade to be learned, Dan's son Marion learned how to split planks by watching and copying his dad.

The next jobs included working on the towboat Reliance, and a new 45-foot fish packer, the Ussona. The Ussona, built for Almon Church, had a twin screw, 12 horsepower Atlas Imperial engine. The boat was later used to pull an auto ferry scow.

In 1920 the Louderback family moved to Woodland for a short time, where they stayed busy, building several boats. In 1923, Dan and Marion landed a job in Aberdeen rebuilding the Flora Brown for owner Dick Ultican. The two men worked all winter shorthanded until Rasmus Eastwald showed up to give them a hand. Eastwald was quite young at the time, but a first class and a no-nonsense woodworker. As Marion recalled, "Rasmus really got things done." Later in the year, the family returned to Louderback Slough where they built a new house next to their old property, then owned by boatbuilder Alma Smith. During these years they were again busy building boats on the river and Willapa Bay.

Among the jobs the Louderback father and son team completed in the mid-1920s were the towboats Sunset and the Daring, which was later re-outfitted with a Diesel engine and a new wheelhouse. In 1926 the Willapa boatshop was destroyed by fire, as disaster which led the Louderbacks to search for a new location. Next they joined forces with Alma Smith and John Fosse to lease a piece of South Bend riverfront property. After building a boathouse the men turned out several new boats. Later, Dan and Violetta Louderback returned to Woodland, where he died in 1935.

Marion Louderback and John Fosse became partners at the South Bend shop, where the Bonne was completed, followed by the rebuilding of the Cora. Once the impact of the new Japanese oyster business breathed new life the bay's oyster industry, several oyster bateaux (and other work craft) were built by the local builders. Eventually, John Fosse bought out Marion and took control of the boatshop, which is still owned and operated by the Fosse family. Marion had thought of retiring from the business, but returned to build his own shop, where he continued to work into his old age.

Arrival of the Minerva and Pet at Woodard's Landing, 1875

The sloops Minerva and Pet arrived at Woodard's Landing from Riverside, a distance of only a few miles. The passengers disembarked, and after the Whitcombs secured their boats they came ashore to find family members with whom they would stay the night. Here the Millers and the Schmidt families met friends and relatives who come to the landing to meet them. Horses-drawn wagons were brought to the landing to take the new arrivals to their various places. Joseph and Anna Schmidt were met by Anna's sister and another friend. The Millers were met by a two teenage children of Anna's family, who have brought a wagon and team to bring the Millers to a farm some miles away. Pete the Drummer hired a young man to take him to a rooming house in the village.

Willapa, 1908

Thirty-three years have gone by since the day the Whitcombs sailed the sloops Minerva and Pet to Woodard's Landing. Although the place (now called Willapa City, or Willapa) had failed to grow into the small metropolis planned by the town's leaders of the 1880s, 1908 had brought new hope.

Tom Miller, now 40 years old, accompanied by his wife Katherine, are returning to their home in Astoria, following a long weekend visit with an aunt and uncle, who live on a farm near Menlo. Together with three other passengers, the Millers board a horse-drawn carriage to take them from Willapa to the Northern Pacific depot at Raymond. After loading luggage onto the rear of the carriage, the driver offers a hand to the ladies..

Once the small group was on their way to the East Raymond train depot, the friendly driver was eager to tell them about the economy of the place. "If that reporter who came through here back in '83 could see this place now there wouldn't be much he would recognize. In those days you had to take a sailboat or rowboat to go anywhere. The trail from the Stauffer place (Holcomb) to Elk Prairie was so deep and muddy a lot of the time a person had to be careful or they could easily break their neck. And we have this train that's connected to the transcontinental routes, as well as the mosquito fleet of steamers and those new gas launches. Now we have direct connection by rail, water, and the telegraph. And one of these days we'll have some of those telephones like they do down in South Bend and Raymond."

The young driver was asked what he thought the future held for the Willapa area. "Well it's going pretty good. The P. & E. has four or five miles of track laid and I hear another big locomotive will be barged up here from Raymond any day now. Those loggers up here are sending out millions of board feet of logs downriver to the Raymond and South Bend mills. And there is a new 18-ton locomotive running along the tracks of the creek, with another one in Raymond ready to be barged up here at any time. I think the town will be OK."

At the small depot, a good-sized crowd waited for the the train. When the train arrived, amid bells, whistles, and shouts, the crowd stepped back to avoid the blast of steam. The train was packed, partly with members of the Frances Band, on its way to entertain at a big baseball game in South Bend. The game, between the Frances and South Bend clubs, was to be played the next day.

The plan was to take the afternoon train to South Bend, although the steamer Shamrock loaded passengers at Raymond, at 9 am, and at South Bend, at 9:30 am. Both Tom and Katherine had traveled this route many times in the past 15 yerars. The next stop is Raymond, due in at about 3:25 pm.

Sources for this story include: Willapa Harbor Pilot; South Bend Journal; Louderback papers; Research Library, University of Montana; and The Sou'wester (PCHS); and The Willapa Country, Mrs. Nels Olsen, ed.

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