Once the West Coast’s soggiest town, Valsetz is now a memory
The little company town was located smack in the middle of the country's most productive tree-growing land; so, in the 1980s, the company drained its lake, bulldozed it into a pile, torched it, and replanted it with trees.
By Finn J.D. John — November 20, 2016
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in March 2009, which you’ll find here.
If you should ever get really lost while exploring the spaghetti tangle of Forest Service routes and old logging roads in the Coast Range woodlands west of Falls City, you just might stumble upon the mortal remains of a tiny timber town there.
To be sure, there won’t be much to stumble upon. Just a few overgrown streets, with the bare concrete foundation of some long-gone industrial structure nearby.
This is all that remains of the town of Valsetz, Oregon.
Valsetz was one of the little logging-company towns that once dotted the more remote parts of Oregon’s timberlands. In the early- to mid-1900s, there were many of these. Wendling, deep in the forest outside Marcola, was another one that’s gone today; Shevlin, the “portable town” that moved on the company railroad whenever the local timber supply started to run low, was another. And a number of little Oregon towns that still exist today got their start as logging-company property, including Brookings, Seneca, Hines and Gilchrist.
Valsetz was unusual, though, in several ways. To start with, there was the rain. Valsetz was located squarely in the middle of one of the wettest spots on the West Coast. It got 120 inches of rain a year — four times as much as the towns of the Willamette Valley, and more than any other town or city on the West Coast (although Forks, Wash., is very close at 119.7).
Also, during its 1930s heyday when it boasted a population of more than 1,000, Valsetz had a nationwide reputation for journalism. Thanks to the nine-year-old editor of the “Valsetz Star,” Dorothy Anne Hobson, more people nationwide knew the name of Valsetz than any other Oregon town besides Portland and Salem. Subscribers to her charming news reports included Eleanor Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover and several radio personalities who regularly read them over the air.
The town of Valsetz was founded just after the First World War, when the Cobbs & Mitchell timber company figured out that it was going to have to do something expensive if it wanted to be able to continue its logging operations in the Coast Range.
The company’s property was deep in the mountains, near the Forest Service property known today as the Valley of the Giants — the most productive timber-growing land in the country, or nearly so.
But what was good for growing trees wasn’t so great for growing a labor force. The nearest town was dozens of grueling, muddy miles away. Before the war, when the woods teemed with itinerant young bachelors willing to work in rough logging camps for months on end, this wasn’t such a problem; but with the end of the war, the culture was changing in a more family-oriented way. Labor shortage was a real danger if the company continued relying on the dwindling supply of bachelor loggers.
So the company built a new sawmill deep in the heart of its timberlands, at the terminus of the Valley and Siletz Railroad, and platted a town around it: Valsetz.
By the 1950s, when it was at its peak, Valsetz included a school district, a company store, a company cafeteria/restaurant and a two-lane bowling alley. Nearby, the Siletz River had been dammed up to form Valsetz Lake, which did double duty as mill pond and fishing hole.
Crime — with the exception of poaching — was virtually nonexistent. After all, everyone who lived in the town worked for Cobb & Mitchell, and no outsider was going to travel 30 miles on muddy logging roads or buy a railroad ticket to come to Valsetz and steal things. There was no police department. Also, because the whole town was on private land, many state laws didn’t apply there — 13-year-old kids regularly drove cars and rode motorcycles on its streets.
From the standpoint of the people living there, probably the best thing about Valsetz was the wildlife. The town had its own herd of elk, and the lake teemed with fish — trout, mostly, until the late 1950s when somebody stocked it with bass. The deep woods were just outside town, beckoning youngsters for overland adventures and older folks for deer and elk hunts. Valsetz was a sportsman’s paradise.
It wasn’t a timber company’s paradise, though. Not in the 1980s, after the last of the old-growth trees had been cut down and processed into lumber.
By 1983, Valsetz was a very different town than it had been 20 years earlier. Boise Cascade had bought the town and timberlands in 1959, but by then much of the good old-growth timber was already gone. When it was all depleted, a decade or so later, the sawmill was converted into a plywood operation, and it soldiered on for a few more years, employing fewer and fewer people and looking less and less well-kept.
Making plywood at Valsetz was all well and good during the building boom of the 1970s, when the money was still rolling in. But with the onset of “stagflation” and recession at the end of the decade, things started looking really grim for Valsetz. When there had been old-growth logs to cut up, it had made great sense to run a mill there; but running a plywood operation smack in the middle of the best tree-growing land in the United States made no sense at all.
Moreover, by the early 1980s the closure of federal lands to logging — this was the “spotted owl” era, remember — had put the big companies on notice that if they were going to survive, it would be on company-owned land. Boise Cascade couldn’t afford to have the very best of that land occupied by unnecessary lakes, superfluous sawmills and half-inhabited towns.
So as other loggers and sawmill workers around the state were trying to find a new career, the people of Valsetz were put on notice that they’d have to find a new home, too.
This was especially harsh for those who had grown up in Valsetz and thought of it as home. Moreover, because they’d had their housing provided for free, they’d not had a chance to build equity in a home; they’d be starting from scratch, late in the game, in a new and unfamiliar community.
“Now I know how boat people feel,” one of them told the Corvallis Gazette-Times reporter at the time.
Local salvage companies tried to work out an arrangement with Boise Cascade; but by now the railroad line had been taken up, and the only way to get the houses out was on trucks, over 16 miles of primitive roads to Falls City. Boise Cascade wanted the town gone right away, so that the land it sat on could get back to producing logs for the company’s mills immediately. And the salvage companies couldn’t meet the company’s timeline.
So the entire town was bulldozed into a giant heap of rubble and burned. And today, all that’s left is that odd street grid, the foundation of the mill, and the bittersweet memories of its former inhabitants.
(Sources: Carlson, Linda. Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: UW Press, 2003; Corvallis Gazette-Times, 2-25-1984; Sacramento Bee, 3-18-1984; www.valsetz.homestead.com)