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Weyerhaeuser makes one of the largest land purchases in United States history on January 3, 1900.
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On January 3,1900, railroad magnate James J. Hill (1838-1916) sells 900,000 acres (1,406 square miles) of Washington state timberlands to Frederick Weyerhaeuser (1834-1914) for $5,400,000. This is “one of the largest single land transfers in American annals.” Soon after the purchase, Weyerhaeuser forms the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company (incorporated on January 18, 1900), the largest timber firm in the state.
Neighbors in Business
At the end of the nineteenth century, Frederick Weyerhaeuser headed a Midwestern timber concern that was “the largest lumbering enterprise in the country” (Martin, 465). By this time, most of the old growth forests in the Great Lakes area were logged. Weyerhaeuser needed more trees to harvest and looked to the Southern and Western states. In 1891, while investigating the two regions, he moved to St. Paul and two years later moved to Summit Avenue next door to an old- time St. Paul resident, James J. Hill.
James J. Hill, President of the Great Northern Railway, was just completing the railroad from St. Paul to Seattle. Weyerhaeuser and Hill became “fast friends” (Hidy, 207) and spent innumerable evenings together at each other’s homes. Occasionally they discussed the Pacific Northwest. By 1900 James Hill had gained the controlling interest in the Northern Pacific Railroad, the major competitor of the Great Northern in Washington. With the purchase of the railroad company came the remnants of the 44,000,000 acres (68,750 square miles) of land the Northern Pacific once owned along its railroad route from Lake Superior to Puget Sound. The Northern Pacific had received this land from the federal government in the 1870s and early 1880s for constructing the transcontinental railroad.
One evening the conversation between Hill and Weyerhaeuser turned to timberlands in Washington owned by the Northern Pacific. The conversation became negotiation because Weyerhaeuser needed trees and Hill needed cash. Nothing much is known about the negotiations except that it was claimed that Weyerhaeuser made an offer of $5 an acre for 900,000 acres of land ($4,500,000) and Hill put a price of $7 an acre ($6,300,000). They arrived at an agreed price of $6 an acre ($5,400,000). The agreement was $3,000,000 down and eight semiannual payments of $300,000 plus interest. The down payment strained Weyerhaeuser’s finances and stretched his capacity to raise money to the utmost. One contemporary to the events stated, “It took practically all the lumbermen on the upper Mississippi River to raise the money” (Hidy, 213).
"A Great Lot of It"
On January 3, 1900, the papers were signed and the property was transferred to Weyerhaeuser. This was “one of the largest single land transfers in American annals” (Hidy, 212). As part of the agreement, Hill gave Weyerhaeuser eastbound shipping rates for timber “so low that they were unheard of …” (Martin, 465). Commenting on the reason he purchased such an immense amount of timberland, Weyerhaeuser said, “This is not for us, or for our children, but for our grandchildren.” On the amount of timber, he remarked, “There is a great lot of it in every conceivable direction” (Hidy, 214). No one knew how much timber there was and many thought the purchase was “exceedingly speculative” (Hidy, 213). The purchase turned out to be exceedingly cheap. Twelve years later, it was determined that Weyerhaeuser had paid only 10 cents per 1000 board feet (one board foot is 2 inches by 6 inches by 12 inches).
More Than A Million Acres
Shortly after the purchase Weyerhaeuser and other investors formed the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company. Weyerhaeuser continued to purchase timberland in Washington and by 1903 the company’s holdings had increased by 67 percent to 1,500,000 acres. Although the company established a sawmill in Everett in 1903, manufacturing lumber was a secondary activity until 1915. From 1900 to 1915 the firm managed its holdings, sold timber to other sawmills, and purchased more timberland.
Ralph W. Hidy, Frank Ernest Hill, Allan Nevins, Timber and Men: The Weyerhaeuser Story (New York, 1963), 207, 212-214, 226, Footnotes 18, 228; Albro Martin, James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest (St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1976, 1991), 465; Edwin Coman, Jr. and Helen Gibbs, Time, Tide and Timber: A Century of Pope and Talbot (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1949), 226. See Also: Robert Ficken, "Weyerhaeuser and the Pacific Northwest Timber Industry, 1899-1903," Pacific Northwest Quarterly Vol. 70, No. 4 (1979), 146-154; and Robert Ficken, Forested Land: a History of Lumbering in Western Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987).
Note: This essay was expanded slightly on January 20, 2006.
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Frederick Weyerhaeuser (1834-1914)
James J. Hill (1838-1916), ca. 1873
Courtesy The Life Of James J. Hill