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Simpson timber empire made Coos Bay a shipbuilding capital

Asa Mead Simpson came out West for the Gold Rush, but he soon learned there was more money in the timber that blanketed its hills than would ever be scratched out of its rapidly dwindling gold mines.

The big four-masted schooner Admiral taking on a load of lumber at the Simpson lumber mill in North Bend, circa 1905. (Image: Coos Historical and Maritime Museum)

There was a time, a century and a half ago, when Coos Bay was the shipbuilding capital of the entire West Coast.

It all started, as so much West Coast history does, with the Gold Rush. A young apprentice shipbuilder named Asa Mead Simpson, caught up in the excitement, jumped aboard a sailing ship in which he owned a small percentage and headed for the gold fields.

Simpson was moderately successful there, but seemed to realize that it couldn’t last. So with a little over four pounds of gold in his poke, he headed back to San Francisco to see if he couldn’t turn his stake into something more stable.

History would prove this to have been the right move for Asa, but it sure didn’t seem that way — at first, anyway. First, he learned the ship he owned 1/32 of, on which he’d come to the gold fields, had sunk off Valparaiso on its return trip. Then he found out the business in which he’d invested half his gold — roughly two pounds of it — had gone bankrupt. And finally, just to make a thorough job of the thing, a thief made off with the other half of his gold stash, leaving him flat broke — except for his share of the load of lumber from the ship.

The good news was, there was plenty of that.

Making the best of it, Asa built and sold a house with some of it, and opened a lumber yard to sell the rest. The wood turned into money so quickly and lucratively that Asa realized digging for the stuff in the ground was strictly for suckers. There was far more gold growing on the trees that lined the West Coast than anyone could ever dig out of California’s increasingly stingy mountain soil. Anyone, he knew, could have millions of dollars’ worth of valuable lumber almost for the asking simply by building a sawmill.

One thing led to another, and the next year found Simpson an up-and-coming lumberman, in partnership with an old friend from Maine, S.R. Jackson, their firm based (of course) in San Francisco. He also had a seemingly endless supply of brothers happy to help him build a family business empire. And now, Simpson set out to scour the West Coast for a good timber supply to start building it with.

Asa Mead Simpson as he looked in 1890 or so. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

His first score was in Astoria, of course. There was very little else on the West Coast at the time — a few farmers in Tillamook Bay, a tin-roofed trading center at the mouth of the Umpqua River, a hard-pressed mining camp at what’s now Port Orford. Seattle was not yet even a settlement, and San Francisco was so ga-ga over gold mining that sawmill workers were impossible to find.

Asa salvaged a wrecked ship, had it towed to Portland and left it in the care of his brother, Louis, to be refitted and loaded with lumber to sell in San Francisco. He also bought a half-finished sawmill in Astoria, which soon got busy sending stock to San Francisco for Jackson to sell at their lumber yard.

But it was the next year — 1852 — that Simpson found his El Dorado at the mouth of the Coos River.

It took several more years to get things lined up; the mouth of the bay was sandy and treacherous, and the path over land arduous and guarded by unfriendly Native American tribes. But by 1856, Simpson had a big sawmill established in what’s now North Bend, busily turning tens of thousands of acres of prime Oregon Coast virgin timber into lumber.

The only problem was, Simpson was at the mercy of shipping companies, and he wasn’t yet big enough to be able to tell them what to do. He decided to put his early training to work, and get into the shipbuilding business himself. So in 1857, under the direction of master shipbuilder John W. Kruse, the first keel was laid at the newly chartered Coos Bay Shipbuilding Co. It would be the first of 58 ships built at the yard over the following half-decade — and the first of some 260 built in the little bayside town of North Bend.

Other West Coast shipyards would soon start up, and some of them would soon be outstripping the production of Simpson’s operation. Simpson’s goal was never to break records; he was primarily interested in supplying his own company with freighters. But along the way, his outfit did break a few records:

In 1886, it launched the Novelty, the world’s first four-masted “bare-headed schooner.” Two years later, it launched the Louis, the world’s first five-masted schooner and the largest ship on the West Coast.

But Coos Bay Shipbuilding’s most famous effort was the Western Shore, the last true clipper ship ever built and the only one built on the West Coast, in 1874. The Western Shore set several speed records, some of which still stand today.

A sailing ship is towed across the Coos Bay bar by a steam tug, sometime around the turn of the 20th century. (Image: Coos Historical and Maritime Museum)

By the 1890s, Simpson and his brothers were running a business empire with mills in North Bend (then simply known as “Old Town”), Gardiner, the lower Columbia River, Crescent City, Willapa Harbor and Grays Harbor. Each one had its own company town with company stores. Dozens of ships, most built in Coos Bay, shuttled back and forth between his mills and the markets.

Old Asa Simpson died in 1915, still at the top of his game, still tightly controlling company finances and answering correspondence from the company’s San Francisco office while his son, Louis J. Simpson, ran the empire from Coos Bay. The company would miss him. Louis, left a free hand at last, started spending lavishly on things like travel, entertainment and luxury real estate. He also invested in several ill-starred residential real-estate development schemes. Then the Great Depression gobsmacked the lumber market, and the Simpson empire started to topple. A tight-fisted operator like Asa might have been able to navigate through the tough times, or perhaps not; but in any event, Louis couldn’t do it. By the time he died in his early 70s in 1949, the wheels had come off, the timberlands sold and the palatial family estate had gone to the state for back taxes.

Today, when timber people talk about Simpson, they’re almost always talking about the company that makes Strong-Tie hardware for construction projects. Or they may be referring to the Washington-based Simpson Lumber, a large timber-products concern with mills in Tacoma and Longview. Neither of these companies has any connection with the 19th Century timber empire of Asa Simpson and his brothers.

But still today, when you drop the name “Simpson” around the South Coast, people still know who you’re talking about.

(Sources: Beckham, Stephen Dow. “Asa Mead Simpson, Lumberman and Shipbuilder,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Sept. 1967; Priske, Steve. “Tall Ships Coos Bay Documentary,” YouTube.com, Nov. 5, 2014; Nasburg, Steve. “Shipbuilding in Coos County,” Waterways (Coos County Historical Society newsletter), March 2013)