Lumberman Willard Case of Kalama

As 1908 came to a close, veteran lumberman Willard Case ushered in the first railroad logging operation at Kalama. Case had been in the lumber business for nearly two decades by this point, but was relatively new to this area. He hailed from the Old Northwest Territory – born in Ohio and raised in Missouri – and got into the lumber business as a young man in St. Joseph, MO, in the late 1880s. Over the next decade and a half, he relocated his headquarters to St. Louis and expanded into Arkansas.

But by the turn of the century, the handwriting was on the wall: The once-timber-rich regions of the Great Lakes, Midwest and the Southeast had largely been logged off by timber companies that made fortunes. And now these industry leaders, such as Weyerhauser and Long-Bell, were uprooting and heading for the old growth of the Pacific Northwest. Willard Case was quick to join that migration.

Willard Case

Initially, Case established a logging and milling operation at Rainier, OR (along the west bank of the Columbia River and a few miles north of Kalama), with two partners. Business was swift from the outset. And the company benefitted from some high-visibility jobs, such as supplying the lumber to construct the Oregon State building at the 1904 World’s Fair at St. Louis ­– Case’s old stomping grounds.

Within a year, Case established a second logging and milling operation in Rainier. A local news article from June 1907 remarked upon the enormous amount of wood being cut and milled by the Case operations, citing that it took the largest ship ever to dock at that port for uploading the 1.2 million board feet of lumber from Case’s two Rainier mills.

As the timber around Rainier was cut, milled and shipped, Willard Case began eyeing the dense forests across the Columbia at Kalama. And in 1908, he launched plans to relocate and expand his operation there, including construction of one of the largest mills on the Pacific Coast. Area newspapers reported that in addition to the sawmill, Case “will operate two logging camps up the Kalama River, where they have recently bought large tracts of timber. All together, the company expects to employ about 200 men at this place… In addition to large docks [on the Columbia River, the company] will have a spur from the Northern Pacific track, affording an opportunity for both water and railroad transportation.”

Just as Case’s new mill was nearing completion in the fall of 1909 (shown in the image), a group of wealthy capitalists from Omaha, NE, appeared on the scene. They had just organized a new firm called Mountain Timber Company and were scouting around the West Coast looking for prime logging and milling opportunities. They were very impressed with what they saw at Kalama and purchased the mill for $150,000. Local press reported that “the mill is practically new and was not yet completed at the time of the purchase. It has a capacity of 100,000 feet in a 10-hour run. About 18 acres of the mill site was included in the sale.” The article also noted that “Mr. Case was taken into the firm and made manager of the manufacturing and construction department.”

The deep pockets of Mountain Timber Company also financed the “finest logging trestle in Washington,” according to the Portland Oregonian story written in July 1910. “The trestle is more than two miles long and contains 3000 pilings… The cost of the trestle alone is estimated to be above $40,000. [It] is part of the new road of the Mountain Timber Company and extends from a point just north of Kalama across the bottoms and up the Kalama River for a distance of about five miles, where untold quantities of timber await cutting.”

All indications were that this endeavor was going to be a huge success. Undoubtedly giddy with the prospects, Willard Case hired Portland architects to design a mansion in Kalama for him and his family. Upon its completion in 1911, the home was touted in the newspapers as “one of the finest country places in the State of Washington.” Of a colonial design, it featured beamed ceilings, six upstairs bedrooms, four fireplaces, a library, billiard room and dining room. As of 2020, the beautiful home still stands high on the hill near the high school.

Reflecting his newfound wealth and status, Willard Case was elected vice president of the Portland Merchant Saving & Trust Company by the bank’s stockholders. Meanwhile, Mountain Timber Co.’s mill at Kalama thrived and continued to modernize and grow. In January 1912, a local newspaper beamed, “the Mountain Timber mill’s cut of 150,000 feet a day is expected to be doubled soon, as orders are on hand to keep the factory working….”

Incredibly, a year later, Mountain Timber was enlarged again, including an extension of the docks, more engines and saws in the mill, additional logging trains on the company’s logging railroad and two new logging camps in the woods.

Suddenly, the glut of fortune came to a halt: a ferocious, accidental fire burned the industry-leading mill to the ground one night in late July 1914. No lives were lost, but the company was brought to its knees. It was a crippling blow from which Mountain Timber never recovered.

Willard Case, on the other hand, made out okay. Never an owner of the Mountain Timber Company, he was able to walk away with his substantial earnings as manager and take early retirement at age 55. He, his wife and six children moved to a ranch in California, where Willard lived a comfortable life into his mid-80s.

1 Comment

  1. Lori on May 21, 2020 at 6:28 pm

    Wow! I was born and raised in Kalama and never knew any of this. Cool story. Thanks for the history.

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