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Company town of Valsetz was soggy, but home; now, it's gone

The tiny town was owned by the sawmill, which bulldozed and burned it in 1984 when the mill closed so it could put the land back to work growing huge trees. Today, it's just a wide spot in the highway.

Valsetz photo
The gas station in Valsetz and other houses, viewed from an open railroad
wagon on the Valley & Siletz Railroad excursion train from Independence
to Valsetz in August 1958. (Salem Public Library/Ben Maxwell)

How much does it rain where you live?

Western Oregon has a reputation for being very soggy. Most of the state's western population centers — Portland, Salem, Eugene — get 30 to 40 inches of water each year.

Now imagine getting 120.

There was a town in Western Oregon that got an average of 10 feet of rainfall a year. This was actually more than any other town in the country, anywhere.

Except, it wasn't really a town. And it no longer exists.

It was called Valsetz, and it was essentially a mill camp: A couple hundred little houses built on timber company land by a sawmill at which almost everyone in town worked. It was in a little saddle in the middle of the Coast Range, about halfway between Monmouth and the Pacific Ocean.

Birth of a company town

The story of Valsetz is the story of the timber industry in Oregon, or most of it anyway. The place was founded in 1919 by the local timber company that built the mill. At its peak in the 1940s and '50s, more than 1,500 people lived there — in the middle of the Coast Range, 15 muddy miles of gravel road from "civilization" in Falls City. It had its own school district, a company store, and a two-lane bowling alley that looked, from the inside, like a railroad tunnel.

Crime was virtually nonexistent because the town was so isolated. The town had no police force. It was all private property, so some laws just didn't apply; kids zipped around on motorcycles long before they turned 16.

A sportsman's paradise

Valsetz also had its own herd of elk, a lake with more fish than the residents could ever eat, and wild woods everywhere just outside of town. Valsetz was a sportsman's paradise.

It wasn't a timber company's paradise, though. Not in the early 1980s. The timber industry was getting squeezed hard. The building boom of the 1970s had given way to "stagflation" and recession. Nobody was buying wood. Advances in automation were making it possible to run a mill with a lot fewer workers anyway. Good first-growth trees were getting hard to find, and the Valsetz mill had been converted to a plywood operation.

It made no sense at all to run a plywood mill — where second-growth "dog hair" logs are peeled to cores and glued together — smack in the middle of the best tree-growing climate on the West Coast. Federal forests were virtually shut down to further logging, either for legal reasons or because they’d already been cut over. Boise-Cascade, Weyerhaeuser and Willamette Industries knew if they were going to survive, it would be on the trees they grew on their own lands. And for Boise-Cascade, Valsetz occupied many acres of the very best of those lands.

The end comes

So as other loggers and millworkers around the state were trying to find a new job, the people of Valsetz were put on notice that they'd need to find a new home, too. 

This was harsh. While other timber workers had at least the equity in their homes to fall back on, Valsetz residents had six months to clear out — with nothing. "Now I know how boat people feel," one of them said at the time.

Many salvage companies tried to work out a deal with Boise-Cascade. But the company wanted the town gone right away, so the land it sat on could get to work producing logs for other Boise-Cascade mills.

In just a few months, the entire town was bulldozed, dragged into a giant pile of rubble and put to the torch.

Today the only sign of the town you'll see is a stand of young trees by the side of a dirt road — and the memorial Web sites former residents maintain to their vanished home town.

(Sources: Corvallis Gazette-Times, Feb. 25, 1984; Sacramento Bee, March 18, 1984; www.valsetz.homestead.com)

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