Aberdeen is located at the confluence of the Chehalis and Wishkah rivers at the head of Grays Harbor, at the southern end of the Olympic Peninsula. The region’s rich fisheries and abundant timber supported a number of Native American communities and served to attract white American settlement in the mid-nineteenth century. During the latter half of the nineteenth century a number of small communities were established on Grays Harbor, but Aberdeen quickly grew to dominate as the commercial and cultural hub. Lumber, fisheries, and shipbuilding have fueled the local economy for much of the region’s history. More recently extractive industries have declined and tourism and commercial retail have increased.
For thousands of years the Lower Chehalis have lived around Grays Harbor and in the river valleys that feed into the bay. Bands of the Salish-speaking communities moved between a number of village sites near the saltwater where they gathered shellfish, fished for salmon and sturgeon, and hunted otter and other sea mammals. In the warmer months, they traveled to village and camping sites in the mountains for gathering plants and berries, harvesting trees for canoes and other items, and hunting.
The Chehalis's first contact with white Americans came in May 1792, when Robert Gray brought the Columbia into the harbor. He named it Bulfinch Harbor in honor of Charles Bulfinch, one of the Columbia's owners in Boston. One of Gray's crew, Fifth Mate John Boit, described the "vast many canoes [that] came off, full of Indians" (Brief Historical Sketch, 3). Boit's journal also reveals that although Gray called the bay Bulfinch Harbor, his crew called it Gray's Harbor from the beginning, as did George Vancouver, a British captain who anchored off the entrance to the bay just a few months later, in October. Vancouver's lieutenant, Joseph Whidbey (1757-1833), explored the bay in a smaller boat and Vancouver placed the name Gray's Harbor on his charts. That name has persisted, minus the apostrophe.
Europeans returned to the area in 1824. Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) men traveling to Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound passed through Grays Harbor on their way to the Chehalis River at its head. Most Hudson's Bay parties traveled via the overland route between Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River and Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound. Despite being somewhat removed from regular contact with the Hudson's Bay Company, the Chehalis formed trading relationships with the British, trading furs, probably from sea otter, for British goods.
White Americans began to come into the region in the 1840s. The Wilkes Expedition, an American government-sponsored exploratory expedition led by Charles Wilkes, sent an officer to survey the harbor in 1841.
None of these foreign visitors identified the harbor as a potential port for ocean-going vessels. It lacked the depth required for large ships and had neither railroad nor road connections to the fledgling settlements in the region. In the shadow of Puget Sound and Columbia River ports, Grays Harbor remained fairly isolated for several decades.
This did not preclude it from settlement by white Americans. In 1848, William O'Leary came to Grays Harbor to settle on what would become O'Leary Creek on the south side of the bay.
Other scattered settlements grew up around the harbor, but they remained small and did not begin to develop into towns until the 1880s. The families who claimed or bought land mostly practiced subsistence farming, with little access to outside markets. Travel to and from the area relied on canoes and steamships that plied the rivers and trails that penetrated the forests.
The new settlers lived amongst the lower Chehalis, whose numbers had been greatly reduced by disease epidemics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The closest permanent Chehalis village was on the point now occupied by Westport. The Chehalis continued to travel to hunting, fishing, and gathering sites. One of these, on what is now called Elliott Slough, was situated close to a sturgeon fishing ground. Fish of up to 200 pounds were pulled out of the water and dried for the winter.
As part of an effort to make as much of Washington Territory's land available for settlement as possible, territorial governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) made a rapid trip through the state in 1854 and 1855 convening councils with tribes and making treaties. In February 1855 Stevens met with the Quinault, Queets, Lower Chehalis, Upper Chehalis, Shoalwater Bay, Chinook, and Cowlitz tribes at the Chehalis River Treaty Council (at the site of Cosmopolis today). The treaty he presented to them required that they move to a reservation away from their traditional lands at a location to be determined later. These terms were unacceptable to the tribes and Stevens was unwilling to negotiate so the council broke up without an agreement. Later, in 1856, the Quinault and Queets would sign a different treaty with the governor, the Treaty of Olympia, and move to a reservation located north of Grays Harbor.
The Upper and Lower Chehalis continued living among white settlers, though those settlers were rapidly filing claims on land suitable for a Chehalis reservation. In 1864 Interior Secretary J. P. Usher authorized the purchase of land at the confluence of the Black and Chehalis rivers, near Olympia, for a reservation for the Chehalis tribes, today known as the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation.
Thousands upon thousands of wooded acres surrounded Grays Harbor. Fish and marine mammals filled the waters offshore. It was not long before white Americans came to the area to exploit those resources. While the harbor could not compete with others in Puget Sound as a major port, it was more than sufficient as a place to load ship holds with lumber and canned fish. In 1852 Benjamin C. Armstrong (1819-1857) and a couple of partners built a sawmill at the confluence of Cedar Creek and the Chehalis River. This lumber was primarily used locally for buildings and houses, and for building scows. (Scows are a type of barge with a shallow draft, allowing them to navigate rivers.)
In 1859, the first settler at what would become the town of Hoquiam, James Karr, arrived. Other settlers followed, but economic development would occur slowly until the 1880s. The town would not be incorporated until 1890.
In June 1870, John Fry settled at Sylvia Creek, at what would become Ocosta, just around the south side of the bay from the mouth of the Chehalis. He built a sawmill there with M. F. Luarck. At first they cut 6,000 to 10,000 board feet per day. By 1888 they had increased production to 15,000 board feet per day, which is the equivalent of nearly 3,000 of today's 2 x 4 inch studs.
In January 1862, Reuben Redman (1820-1917) came to Grays Harbor and settled on land south of the mouth of the Chehalis River. Shortly after that he bought two parcels of land north of the river mouth, adjacent to the confluence of the Wishkah and Chehalis rivers. Listed as a farmer in the 1871 Washington census, he most likely worked the land and raised livestock. In 1868 Redman’s son-in-law and daughter, Samuel (1832-1935) and Martha (1845-1917) Benn, traded their homestead upriver at Melbourne for Redman's land north of the river. The Benns then purchased more land, amassing about 740 acres. They and their children established a farm, and built a house where the Wishkah Street bridge now crosses the river.
Writing in The Coast nearly 40 years later of his decision to move to Redman’s land, Samuel Benn explained:
"I lived upon my ranch at Melburn [Melbourne] for nine years and having become acquainted with the country and believing that some day there would be a great city on Grays Harbor and conceiving the idea that the place for that city was where this Wishkah river empties into the Chehalis, I located where the city of Aberdeen now lies" ("About Early Days in Aberdeen").
By the time the Benn family moved to the area, a handful of other white settlers had established themselves. With Samuel Benn, however, they gained a city builder who would work for the next several decades for the establishment and prosperity of Aberdeen. Benn used his land base as a means to draw in new settlers who could supply the needed capital to develop the economy. With timber stands looming all around the bay and salmon teeming in the river each fall, Benn offered land grants to new settlers willing to invest in building canneries and sawmills.
In 1873 George W. Hume (b. 1836) of Astoria came to the area looking for a site for a cannery. Benn gave him a portion of his land on the river and Hume opened for business that fall. Not long after Hume sold the cannery to the Aberdeen Packing Company, owned by B. A. Seaburg and A. E. King of Ilwaco. A decade later, in 1884, Benn had his land surveyed and filed a plat for the a town named Aberdeen. Several town histories cite the owners of the Aberdeen Packing Company as the source of the new town’s name. However, in a Coast article from 1907, Jean Stewart, an early settler, tells her version of the town’s naming:
"I wrote a letter to one of the papers suggesting that the new settlement be called Aberdeen, since it was at the mouth of the Rivers Wishkah and Chehalis, just as Aberdeen in Scotland is at the mouth of the Don and the Dee, and also since Aberdeen means ‘at the mouth of the river.’ George W. Hume, who built a salmon cannery at the mouth of the Wishkah in ’77, saw the letter, and when Mr. Benn, in 1884, went to record the place as Heraville, he showed him the letter, and so the change was made to Aberdeen as being more appropriate" (Lockley, 727).
When a Michigan lumberman named A. J. West (b. 1840) learned that Benn was offering a site for the construction of a sawmill, he arrived in June 1884 and by the following month had his operation up and running. West brought 11 people in his party, many of them family members. When they arrived they may have been disheartened by the scene: a town consisting of six buildings perched on muddy streets that barely stayed out of water at high tide. In the distance, however, they would have seen the timber stretching as far as the eye could see, a welcome sight to lumbering men from Michigan, where by this time the pine forests had been almost entirely felled.
Aberdeen was not without some amenities when the West party arrived. There was the Aberdeen House hotel, a general store run by Adolphus Payette, and a new saloon run by Ed Clark and Leon Emont.
Soon West’s mill was joined by another, built by Captain John Weatherwax, who brought his family and associates from Michigan in 1885. In 1886 the first cargo of lumber was shipped out of Aberdeen. By 1889 Aberdeen had four mills (Charles, Fred, and Henry Wilson had opened a mill in 1887) producing nearly 30 million board feet of lumber. About 1890 Edward Hulbert came to Aberdeen and built the Union Shingle Mill on the south side of the Chehalis River, an area that came to be known as South Aberdeen. The mills brought money into the community and attracted new residents to work their machinery.
Another byproduct of the mills, which may or may not have been a benefit, was the mountains of sawdust. Weatherwax put his mill’s sawdust to work filling the low-lying streets of town. While the sawdust provided somewhat solid ground to traverse, it was highly flammable. Years later, when crews began to fill and pave the town’s streets, all the sawdust had to be removed before regular dirt fill could be put in place.
From No Roads to the Railroad
By 1890 Aberdeen could boast a population of 2,000, two sash and door factories, a shipyard, three salmon canneries, and two banks. But the town still struggled to transport goods and people overland into the interior. What roads there were lacked paving and sections were little more than glorified trails. In 1892 the Northern Pacific Railroad abandoned its plan to run a branch line to Ocosta, on the southern side of Grays Harbor.
Instead, the firm offered the line to Aberdeen, if local men would build the line. Every able-bodied man donated 10 days of labor, or $2 per day, Benn gave lots to those who provided labor, A. J. West donated the ties, and Charles Wilson and J. M. Weatherwax donated rails they had salvaged from a shipwreck off the coast. Completed in 1895, the railroad provided an overland connection to cities on Puget Sound and to Portland, offering access to those markets for the region’s lumber and agricultural produce.
With a railroad connection and the lumber schooners to deliver their product, lumber production around Grays Harbor thrived, particularly after the worst effects of the national Panic of 1893 subsided. Aberdeen at the dawn of the new century was home to six sawmills, two shingle mills, a stave factory, and two shipyards, in addition to three canneries. The young town was also home to two hospitals, three schools, numerous churches, and two theaters.
Considering its small size, with just under 4,000 people, Aberdeen had a diverse population. Many of the sailors, loggers, millworkers, and farmers who lived in Aberdeen hailed from foreign countries in Europe and Asia.
Another element of the population, loggers in town between jobs in the forests, supported less-respectable but very profitable businesses. Saloons and brothels flourished in turn-of-the-century Aberdeen. The brothels would persist into the 1960s, operating without official sanction, but also without official interference.
Utilizing locally produced lumber, the town consisted of frame buildings and convenient wood sidewalks to aid pedestrians in their efforts to stay out of the ubiquitous mud. But unfortunately, wood burns. It would only be a matter of time before tragedy would strike. A serious downtown fire in 1902 was followed the following year, on October 16, 1903, with a conflagration that destroyed some 200 acres of Aberdeen’s downtown. Three people died and 140 structures burned to the ground. But the city council wasted no time in addressing the future. While the ruins smoldered, meetings were held and codes enacted to ensure the safety of the Aberdeen that arose from the ashes.
Although the stone and brick buildings that filled Aberdeen’s blocks gave it an air of permanence and stability, much of it was built on not much more than sawdust-covered tidelands. The land at the river mouths was ideal for water access, absolutely essential before roads connected Aberdeen to inland markets, but it was low and prone to flooding at high tide. Early residents simply built on pilings and filled the streets with the prodigious amount of sawdust produced by the town’s sawmills.
This fill worked well enough but was not ideal. A journalist’s description from 1907 reveals a city built on pilings:
"Many of her streets are of sawdust, while all the principal streets are of plank; piling is driven as a foundation for her cement, brick or stone business blocks; many of her residences stand on piles and at high tide, water is seen through the cracks in the boardwalks as well as surrounding the houses" (Lockley, 722).
In 1908 the city began filling the low areas. Much of the fill came from a now-leveled hill in town, where Aberdeen High School stands.
More Fish and More Logs
Lumber shipments and fisheries continued to be the lifeblood of Aberdeen and the surrounding communities. As ships grew in tonnage, it became clear that the bar at the harbor’s entrance would require improvements. After a failed attempt to build a jetty at the harbor entrance in 1896, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers successfully completed a new one in 1916.
The voters of Grays Harbor County also approved the creation of a port district in 1911; by the 1920s a channel had been dredged to Aberdeen and public wharfs built. In 1924 a new milestone for annual lumber production was reached when the one billionth foot of timber was shipped from Aberdeen, earning the town the title of "Lumber Capital of the World."
In the first decade of the twentieth century, ships full of lumber traveled to ports around the Pacific Rim, including San Francisco (in the process of being rebuilt following the 1906 earthquake), San Pedro (where it was loaded onto Southern Pacific Railroad trains), Chile, Mexico, and Australia. Between July 1906 and July 1907, 324 sailing ships and 284 steam ships left Aberdeen loaded down with 342,062,651 board feet. That is in addition to the railroad cars that took millions of board feet of lumber to the East Coast and Midwest.
The growth of the mills and the attendant increase in logging meant that a large number of millworkers and loggers worked in and around Aberdeen. Likewise, more lumber shipping out of town required an increase in longshoremen to load the ships and railroad cars. During the pre-World War I era, many of these workers joined unions and conflicts arose over working conditions and pay. Business owners avoided hiring union workers by forming open shop companies, such as the Grays Harbor Stevedoring Company, and by bringing in outside workers. The Biennial Report of the Bureau of Labor of the State of Washington for 1904, quoted the complaint of one longshoreman from Aberdeen:
"Would like to state that several mill companies in Aberdeen import Italian and Greek laborers when there are lots of idle men looking for work in the mills, most every day of the year and especially so this time of year. These men are recently shipped from San Francisco; nearly every boat brings a batch of them. One boat brought thirty-five for a certain mill, of which number only two got jobs; the rest went back to San Francisco" (Fourth Biennial Report, 170).
Beginning in 1911, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) worked to organize loggers and sawmill workers in Grays Harbor in order to improve pay and working conditions. A concerted effort by the city council to prohibit their organizing efforts led to a free-speech fight that the IWW eventually won.
Anti-radical sentiments following WWI led to the harassment and decline of the IWW, but the Great Depression brought high unemployment and even more dismal pay and working conditions. Unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and with the Congress of International Organizations (CIO) organized workers in their fight against employers, but also in a contest amongst themselves. Conflicts between AFL-oriented unions and CIO-oriented unions, between pro-communist and anti-communist factions within unions, and between business and labor led to high tensions in Aberdeen throughout the 1930s.
In 1935 a massive strike, led by the Sawmill and Timber Workers Union, was called to press employers to recognize the union, allow a shorter work week and shorter daily hours, and a pay a minimum wage of 75 cents per hour, among other things. The employers, citing bad business conditions, refused the demands. Work stopped at many mills and in logging camps on May 6. At its height, the strike involved 15,000 workers, almost half of the region’s lumber workers. Aberdeen experienced months of upheaval. Conflict within the unions caused problems as did a lack of a solid front across the region. The strike ended in August after three months. Workers gained a small raise in the minimum wage and a somewhat shorter workweek, but not recognition of their union or any of their other demands.
Although unsuccessful in changing many of the industry’s onerous working conditions, the union did see some benefits. Union membership swelled from 15,000 before the strike to 70,000 by the following spring. And the workers had been organized, even if they disagreed who should be in charge and how they should be affiliated. These conditions set the stage for further efforts in the late 1930s and 1940s.
Logging and Preserving the Forest
Another change in the logging industry involved the trees being cut. Beginning in the 1930s, local leaders began to question to clearcutting ethos that brought so many logs into Aberdeen to be cut. According to the proceedings of the Grays Harbor Forestry Conference in 1939, the Grays Harbor Planning Commission argued for a sustained yield program, possibly to be managed by the state. One participant in the conference, T. S. Goodyear, from the state Department of Forestry, stated that at the average cut rates from 1933 to 1937, the available timber would be exhausted in eight years. Stephen N. Wycoff, Director of the Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, reported that 56 percent of the county’s timberlands had been cut over and more than half of these had not been reseeded. He predicted a serious break in timber production.
Rebutting some of these concerns, Warren G. Tilton of the West Coast Lumberman’s Association stated that the problem was not supply but the "loss of the export market" that had caused mills to close in recent years. Also, the lumber inventories had not taken into account the logs under 16 inches in diameter. These logs, although not as big as the millowners were used to handling, would be plenty big enough to make cutting them worthwhile.
Events of the latter half of the twentieth century have borne out the conference participants’ concerns. Lumber supply has dwindled and environmental concerns have led to further decreases in logging. Lumber and other wood products production still have a significant place in the local economy, but they no longer provide the numbers of jobs they once did.
Aberdeen's Busy Shipyards
Likewise, shipbuilding reached a peak during World War I, when Congress authorized the purchase of hundreds of wooden ships to supplement the merchant marine. Two shipyards in Aberdeen, Grays Harbor Motorship Corporation and Grant Smith-Porter, built ships for the Emergency Fleet Corporation. On October 5, 1918, workers at the Grays Harbor Motorship yard set a record for fastest ship construction. In just 23 and one-half days they built the Aberdeen, a 4,000-ton wooden ship with two propellers.
But after the war the demand for wooden ships declined, as did the industry in Aberdeen.
Aberdeen continues to function as the financial hub of the Grays Harbor region. The downtown retail core serves much of the surrounding area. New industries have developed. In 2007 Imperium Renewables opened a biodiesel plant in Hoquiam just west of Aberdeen. Regulatory issues and declining demand have hindered its success so far but its owners remain optimistic. Grays Harbor Ocean Energy is in the preliminary stages of developing offshore wave energy generation platforms.
Tourism now plays an important role in the economy. Aberdeen, along with its twin city Hoquiam, serves as gateway to the Olympic National Park. Aberdeen is also the home to the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport, a non-profit organization that operates the Lady Washington, a full-scale reproduction of the tall ship that was the first American vessel to visit the West Coast in 1788. Another tourist draw, one that puzzles some older Aberdeen residents, is the town’s fame as the residence of Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) and Krist Novoselic (b. 1965), founders of the grunge band Nirvana.
Aberdeen faces the same challenges as many Washington towns in adjusting to changes in their economies in the face of declining logging and fishing. A new mix of retail, different industries, and tourism offers a new kind of future, one that Aberdeen is embracing.