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Rowdy River

Chapter X of Keith McCoy's column

Chapter XI


As we view the White Salmon River basin we see that Nature has given us an area mixed with both bounty and limitations. The climate and volcanic soils foster the growth and re-growth of our extensive conifer forests. The same soils provide rich agricultural tracts in the limited places where irrigation is practical.

The geologists tell us that a million years ago the area of the White Salmon River drainage was essentially a flat valley no more than 1,000 feet above sea level. It was capped with the extensive Columbia River basalt lava flows that underlie such a broad area.

We recall that much of the White Salmon River's course is bounded on the west by the steep-walled mountains of the Cascade Range formed by extensive compression and folding of the earth's crust. Flowing against this barrier from the east were the lavas of the Columbia Plateau.

These older top layers and Columbia River basalt flows were dotted with small volcanoes with permeable deposits that formed the present landscape.

Activity in the Mount Adams volcanic field began about 520 thousand years ago but the stratvolcanoe as we know it now was not completed until about 40 thousand years ago. Also affecting our area of study is the still older Indian Heaven volcanic field active beginning some 800 thousand years ago.

This volcanic activity was punctuated not long ago during the Ice Age when glaciers swept down from both Mount Adams and Indian Heaven to converge in the Trout Lake Valley.

We know, too, that some of the odd forms we still see in the Valley are remnants of the massive debris slide that came off Mount Adams slopes 6,000 years ago.

We don't always recognize that some of our familiar mountains were once volcanic. For example, Underwood Mountain, alive 560 thousand years ago, and the White Salmon volcanoes, Strawberry Mountain and the cone northwest of it that were active 622 thousand years ago, formed the stretch of spectacular bluffs that overlook the Columbia River and provide such prized homesites today.

This very simplistic view of the geology will be rounded out when Paul E. Hammond, prominent Northwest geologist, completes his detailed study of the White Salmon River area. We can expect a fascinating book that will direct us to the many geologic features with an understandable explanation of each.

Against this landscape let us consider man's relatively short-term use of the land. We know that our Indian neighbors have probably frequented the river for the same 12,000 years that their cousins had been at Celilo. We Euro-Americans have been here only a century and a half. As we recall, the Joslyns came to White Salmon in 1853 but the first white settlers did not come to the Trout Lake Valley until 1880.

Let us examine man's stewardship of the area and see how he has used, or perhaps misused, it. We have already mentioned the economic cycle in Trout Lake Valley wherein more than 50 dairies have now been reduced to three.

THE APPLE BOOM 1900-1920

As the 20th Century dawned it seemed that the White Salmon Valley could become a great orchard center. The Hood River and Yakima valleys were developing rapidly. Both boasted extensive irrigation systems right from the early days. The White Salmon Valley did not have the same potential because of rougher terrain such as the steep-walled canyons that cut up the Snowden-Appleton plateau where much of the development centered. But crafty realtors touted the dry-land fruit as being of better quality for shipping to world markets. This ploy and the availability of cheap land resulted in an unprecedented boom in the area.

Literally thousands of acres were cleared and planted to apples. An ad in a 1910 issue of The Enterprise proclaimed that one of the orchard development firms had 3,500 acres of prime land still available. Many investors came to reap the harvest. Some men, such as Charles A. Pearce, developed orchard tracts for absentee owners who would come later to live and prosper. Many never made it.

Some of the young orchards had their own packing houses. Others used the commercial and cooperative firms such as the Mansfield brothers' Growers Warehouse and John Wyers Columbia Fruit Union in White Salmon. Warehouses in Bingen such as Baker & Coe and Star Fruit managed by John Childs were busy. Such firms as McClintock and Simpson prospered from the sale of equipment needed by the new orchardists. Many houses, some modest, some grand, were built on the orchards they served.

White Salmon was a boom town with 15 realtors, seven attorneys, a title company and four banks. An opera house, hotels, library and good schools quickly developed in the burgeoning town.

Then, in the extremely severe winter of 1919-20 the bubble burst. Many of the orchards were destroyed by the deep-freeze. Many were never replanted. Time had proven that the rainfall was not adequate in much of the area to support the nurturing of young trees and the cut-up nature of much of the land did not encourage the development of irrigation systems except in a few favored places. The Snowden-Appleton plateau, in the rain shadow of the Cascades, suffered a dramatic decline in rainfall in those few miles between the canyons of the White Salmon and Klickitat rivers.

Very few of the family orchards survived these massive blows. Hundreds of acres were abandoned and reverted to brush and forest land. Only a few independent orchardists survive today in the White Salmon Valley.

One notable exception is the Mt. Adams Orchards started in 1910 by the energetic entrepreneur Wade H. Dean. Innovation was the rule from the very beginning. Dean alternated apple and d'Anjou pear trees in his orchards. The hardier d'Anjous survived the disaster of 1919-20. It was then and still is known as the world's largest planting of this favored pear.

In the 1920s ownership and management went to the Bloxom and Perham families of Yakima. Since the 1950s, the Bloxoms have been the sole owners. The genial John Bloxom Sr. was succeeded by his son Jack in the 1970s. They have been innovative stewards and have employed the latest in equipment and scientific orcharding through the years. They have had capable superintendents. George Ing, in his three decades as superintendent, brought many changes.

Diversity has been part of the success formula. In addition to their famous d'Anjous, the Mt. Adams now raises 13 brands of pears to satisfy expanding market demands. Cherries and apples add diversity.

To round out the 1,100 acre orchard in the White Salmon valley, the Mt. Adams has acquired several satellite orchards including the Triple A at Underwood and the Larsen and Glacier Orchards along the river where irrigation was feasible. It is interesting to note that the Larsen tract, above the Condit damsite, first had irrigation water from Underwood Mountain that crossed the river on a flimsy trestle. The 8-inch line was implanted in the concrete of Condit Dam when it was built in 1912. Another major addition was development of a 550-acre apple orchard at the far eastern end of Klickitat County where Columbia River water was available.

Though Mt. Adams began as a dry-land operation, expensive irrigation development has paid off. Green, grassy tracts have advantages over the ankle-deep dust of the former dry-land orchards.


The success of the Mt. Adams Orchards has been paralleled by that of their related Underwood Fruit and Warehouse Company. This plant, originally squeezed in between the railway and highway at Underwood, moved in 1970 to straddle the Bingen-White Salmon city line, where it crosses the BN Santa Fe Railway line. Rapid and steady expansion has followed that change.

While this plant primarily features their SUREGOOD pears and other fruits, about two-thirds of their business comes from independent growers. The family orchard is still alive and well in both the Hood River and The Dalles areas. Underwood Fruit gets their full share of the processing and marketing.

Though orchard and packing plant payrolls do have a seasonal aspect, they have long been an important part of the White Salmon Valley economy.


The sounds of the axe and the cross-cut saw and the cry of Timber-r-r-r have resounded in White Salmon Valley woods since the white man came a century and a half ago. The cutting of wood was not only a necessity for survival but it provided the area's first "cash crop" as great volumes of cordwood were cut and carried to the Columbia's shores to fuel the sternwheelers with their voracious appetite for wood.

One of the most exciting periods in White Salmon River history featured the Menominee Lumber Company and their series of roll-away dams that sluiced the giant logs down the river for rafting in the Columbia. Fortunately, our climate and soils promoted re-growth of much of the virgin timber.

Then came the Apple Boom and the extensive clearing of land. Too much of the valuable timber resource had to be burned where it fell. The equipment and few mills of the day simply could not handle the forest giants. It did, to an extent, stimulate sawmilling in the area. Early day mills, generally powered by steam, provided payrolls and material for the buildings that were needed.

Creation of the Columbia National Forest at the turn of the century was a boon to the valley. Once federal timber sales started in the 1930s much of the timber was processed in the valley or flowed through it to other mills. At the same time a wild, unregulated cutting of privately owned timber went on.

During the period following World War II there were more than 50 sawmills operating in the White Salmon River drainage. Too often the portable mill operators raped an area without thought of replanting it.

Creation of the Washington Department of Natural Resources in 1957 belatedly brought some semblance of order to the industry. For the first time enforceable rules for cutting and reforesting were in place.

Years of overcutting on both public and private lands took its toll. In time the environmental movement -- including the Spotted Owl -- brought a sharp decline in the lumber industry throughout the Northwest. In the White Salmon Valley we have one notable exception, the SDS Lumber Company. They are one of very few survivors in all of our neighboring Washington and Oregon counties.

Their continuing existence and success is clearly the result of their innovative management that included the acquisition of timber lands from the very beginning of their business.

It is my observation that our hills are much greener -- and will continue to be green and productive -- now that an increasing amount of the land is under the ownership and management of responsible firms such as SDS Lumber, Longview Fibre and J. Neils Lumber Company and their successors. We are blessed with a prime tree-growing landscape and climate that will produce renewed forests as long as responsible, sensitive management is the rule. Stable payrolls are only part of the benefits to the community.


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