Forks -- Thumbnail History

  • By Julie Van Pelt
  • Posted 12/10/2007
  • Essay 8397
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Forks, a small town in the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula in an area called the West End, is one of three incorporated cities in Clallam County. It sits within traditional Quileute Indian land on a large prairie surrounded by forestland, an hour's drive west from its largest neighbor, Port Angeles. Non-Indian settlers arrived in the late 1870s, and the town grew slowly from a remote collection of farming homesteads into a booming timber town by the 1970s, given its proximity to thousands of acres of colossal old growth forests nurtured by the area's average rainfall of 120-plus inches a year. Timber-harvest decline and controversy over protection of wildlife habitat deeply affected the town during the 1980s and 1990s, causing anger and high unemployment. The town's makeup has shifted from its Scandinavian-settler origins, and it has the highest Hispanic population in the Clallam County in 2007. Forks is surrounded by land zoned as commercial forest, and timber remains a large industry. Government, education, and health care are also large employers, and the town attracts tourists by taking advantage of its logging history and its proximity to rain forests, rivers, and ocean beaches.

Quileute Territory

The Quileute Indians once occupied lands throughout the interior West End, including the area of Forks. Their territory stretched north from La Push at the mouth of the Quillayute River (the tribe and river spellings differ) to adjoin Ozette and Makah lands, then east to the headwaters of the Soleduck and Hoh rivers, and south to the Quinault River. 

The Quileutes thought themselves wronged by the 1855 and 1856 treaties that ceded their territory, not realizing they had signed away their traditional lands. A reservation was eventually created around the village of La Push in 1889, the same year Washington became a state. And though the remote area experienced little early pressure from white settlement, in 1889, settler Daniel Pullen burned down the entire village while the villagers were picking hops in Puget Sound. They returned to find nothing of their longhouses, tools, artwork, or ceremonial items. This was an episode in a land dispute later decided in favor of the Quileutes,

Forks sits 12 miles inland from La Push on a prairie one mile wide and three miles long that was regularly burned by area tribes to regenerate young fern fronds eaten by elk and deer, which the Indians hunted. Two names for Forks Prairie in the Quileute language -- the only surviving language of its kind -- both mean "prairie upstream," and the open area is bounded by the Bogachiel River to the south (from bokachi'l, "muddy water") and the Calawah River to the north (from kalo'wa, "in the middle") (Powell and Jensen, 62-67). Settlers called it Indian Prairie or Big Prairie.

Early Settlers   

Pioneer settlement of Forks Prairie came by way of rivers and trails from the Pacific and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, as the overland route from the east was nearly impenetrable. Except for the Forks Prairie and Quillayute Prairie 10 miles to the northwest, settlers were greeted with towering forests of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar. Men from Dungeness staked claims in the mid-1860s, convincing the territorial legislature to create Quillayute County out of the western ends of Clallam and Jefferson counties. But with too few settlers, the new county never came to be and the early claims were abandoned.  

Eli Peterson, Ole Nelson, and Peter Fisher were trappers living on the prairie when Luther and Esther Ford arrived by way of La Push with their family in January 1878 and claimed a 160-acre homestead a mile east of Forks's present-day town center. The Fords had bypassed pioneer Arthur Denny's offer of 80 acres of what became downtown Seattle for the reputed open, rich farming soils of the West End.  

A post office was established in 1884 in Nelson's cabin. But the name Ford's Prairie was already taken by another Washington settlement, and so Forks Prairie was chosen -- "Forks" for the prairie's location between the Calawah and Bogachiel rivers and near the Soleduck.  

A Remote Farming Settlement   

Hay, oats, grain, and vegetables grew well on the prairie, and hops were a major crop. Luther Ford planted the first orchard and established the first dairy herd, bringing cows in 1879 by schooner to Neah Bay and then driving them miles along the beach to La Push and then inland.  

But selling products beyond the prairie was a challenge. The nearest market in the 1870s was 100 miles away in Port Townsend, and in the 1890s was 60 miles away in Port Angeles. A small supply boat came to the mouth of the Quillayute River in the summers, but was not large enough to carry cargo. Hops regularly rotted awaiting transport. Cattle, at least, could walk to market -- the first drive to Port Townsend took six weeks.  

Getting supplies was equally taxing. Rudimentary trails led to the Pacific and the strait, until narrow roads not much better -- of "mud ruts and puncheon" (El Hult, 138) -- were built in the 1880s and 1890s. The trail south to the Hoh was passable only by foot, and settlers packed supplies on their backs, legendary among them John Huelsdonk, the "Iron Man of the Hoh." In the late 1890s a foot trail developed from the prairie to Lake Crescent, where a canoe could be hired to make the crossing. Later a ferry was established. At the east end of the lake another trail led to Port Crescent (Crescent Bay) and local logging camps. It was 1927 before a single-car-width road was opened from Lake Crescent to Forks and 1931 before a continuous roadway opened as the Olympic Loop Highway (U.S. 101).  

Settlers traded with the Quileutes for calico and other goods that the Indians received from the La Push and Mora trading posts in return for fish and furs. By the early 1890s, the Mora post had moved to Forks, where there was more business, the settlement at that point consisting of a general store, a hardware store, and a hotel.

Hop growing was in decline by the early 1900s and the Forks Cooperative Creamery was established around this time, operating for 70 years. One early prairie resident remembers hauling loads of butter in spruce boxes to Clallam Bay, where they were sent by steamship to Seattle. The Merrill Whittier hop house, near the town's current main intersection, became the site of all-night dances, people coming from miles around and staying until they could travel by daylight to far-flung homesteads.  

Early Logging through World War I

The same remote location that made selling crops difficult delayed major timber harvest around Forks until after the more accessible eastern-peninsula forests were logged, especially those near tidewater and thus transport.  

Before 1900, timber in the West End was mostly cleared by settlers and small-time loggers using ox teams. Companies logged at Clallam Bay and Port Crescent (Crescent Bay) on the strait in the 1870s. Timber baron Michael Earles, later developer of the first Soleduck hot springs resort, set up booming logging camps at the turn of the century at Crescent Bay and west along the strait, and many settlers from Forks worked in these camps part of the year. Merrill & Ring would begin to log in the Pysht River drainage northwest of Forks in 1916.  

President Grover Cleveland provoked considerable ire among West Enders and timber companies when he designated 2,188,800 acres of the Olympic Peninsula as forest reserve in 1897, placing it off-limits to individual claims. The timber volume in the reserve proved monumental -- a 1902 survey put it at 61 billion board feet, then a two-year supply of U.S. consumption. Including areas outside reserve land, the report counted 81 billion board feet in peninsula forests.  

Reductions in 1900 and 1901, and then partial restorations in 1907, trimmed the Olympic Forest Reserve by 623,000 acres -- only about a third of the area, but containing some three-fourths of all timber by volume. The remaining reserve would become Olympic National Park (first established as a monument in 1909), ringed by Olympic National Forest.

The national 1907 recession slowed timber development, and Forks remained isolated. Then World War I and its urgent demand for airplane spruce brought the West End into focus again for its vast stands of Sitka spruce, some of the largest in the Hoko River drainage north of Forks. In 1918 the U.S. Army's Spruce Production Division built 36 miles of railroad track from Port Angeles west to Lake Pleasant in six months. The epic job was all but complete when the war ended and work abruptly stopped without any spruce being hauled on the line.  

Through Wind, Fire, and War   

Growth came slowly to Forks, though it was a center of commerce for settlers from the Hoh to the Quillayute Prairie. The town was laid out in 1912 on the site of the Whittier homestead and into the 1920s remained barely a block of buildings set amid prairie homesteads and looming forests. A newspaper was started in 1890, and the current newspaper, the Forks Forum, began in 1930. Electricity came in 1923, the first garbage dump in 1929, and the first bank in 1930. The town incorporated on August 7, 1945, and opened its library through a grassroots effort in 1946. The first U.S. decennial census after incorporation counted 1,120 people, and by 1970 numbers had risen to only 1,680. 

On January 29, 1921, 120-mile-per hour winds raged through the West End and flattened nearly 20 percent of the forest surrounding Forks. Residents recalled the air "full of flying limbs," "a hurricane roaring overhead" (Smith, 64), and the road north from Forks to Lake Crescent a tangle of downed trees -- some 300 in the first mile. Then on January 10, 1925, fire burned most of the west side of main street, including the Forks Hotel, the Odd Fellows building, two pool halls (one the genesis of the fire), and the general store.

World War II brought fortifications along the ocean and the strait to guard against a possible landing by Japan. West Enders were warned not to expect evacuation or rescue in the event of an attack -- the sole highway would be reserved for military transport. Headlights after dark were restricted to dim, which barely cut the blackness, and Frank "Sully" Sullivan, the Forks Grocery butcher, posted a frequent sign: "No Meat -- So Solly, Sully" (Mason, 9).

A U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air Station was built on Quillayute Prairie in 1944 and service men and their families swelled Forks's population, though many left after the war. Close to 2,500 sailors were on duty in the West End, and Forks was the closest place for recreation. The airfield, now home to a National Weather Service weather station, was deeded to the City of Forks in 1999. (In 2007 fire destroyed the old control tower.) 

In 1951 the Great Forks Fire almost claimed the town. It began the morning of September 21 east of Forks and raced almost 18 miles toward the town in eight hours. Residents bulldozed and then worked the fire lines, while others helped with evacuation as smoke choked the town and fire curled around it on three sides. Seventy-one-year-old Oliver Ford, son of original settlers Luther and Esther, remained on his front porch armed only with a garden hose as "the flames exploded houses like matches" (Amundson, 35). Only a shift in wind bringing cool, moist ocean air slowed the blaze enough for it to be controlled. In the end, 32 buildings in Forks burned, along with 33,000 acres of forest.  

"Logging Capital of the World"   

It was the all-but-complete Spruce Production Division railroad of World War I that set the stage for large-scale logging in the West End. The timber company Bloedel-Donovan bought thousands of acres in the Forks area in 1921, all of it either next to or made accessible by the railroad. Bloedel-Donovan ended by not using the existing tracks -- though other logging companies later would -- instead building its own hundred miles of rail network and beginning to log in 1924, hauling its logs to Sekiu on the strait and towing them in huge rafts to Bellingham for milling. The company ran this operation for two decades, peaking at 300 million board feet in both 1928 and 1929.

The completion of the Olympic Loop Highway in 1931 was another boost, granting access to vast tracts of virtually untouched Douglas fir and Sitka spruce south of Forks. Timber north of the Hoh was trucked through Forks to Tyee (near Lake Pleasant) and then loaded onto rail cars bound for Port Angeles.  

Timber dominated the town's economy through the 1980s. Large companies like ITT Rayonier (which bought lands from Bloedel-Donovan and another major timber company in the 1940s) employed hundreds of woods workers -- Rayonier was still the largest private landowner in the Forks area in 2007, its trees second- and third-growth. Forks residents also worked as independent contract, or "gypo," loggers, especially after World War II when railroad logging camps became less prevalent.  

Many smaller, family-owned operations were engaged in secondary wood processing, such as making cedar shingles for roofing and siding. One of the larger so-called shake and shingle mills was the Forks Shingle Mill near the Hoh River, which operated from 1934 through the mid-1960s, when it burnt down. The Rosmond Brothers Sawmill, only one of the mills in town, opened in the 1940s and was a major employer through two ownership changes until the 1980s.  

Disasters proved an unlikely road to Forks's boom years in the 1970s, when the town earned its reputation as "Logging Capital of the World." The 1951 fire opened thousands of acres to salvage logging, attracting newcomers. Then the Columbus Day Storm of 1962 flattened 15 billion board feet of Northwest timber. Though this storm didn't hit Forks directly, it created such a huge supply of downed timber for salvage that overseas markets were developed to absorb the surplus, and Forks cashed in on the generated demand -- U.S. log exports went from 210 million board feet in 1960 to 4.2 billion board feet in 1988, nearly two-thirds of that from Washington.  

Bill Brager, whose father and uncle were the first gypo loggers for ITT Rayonier in the 1940s, remembers the 1970s as a time when he could "make a couple calls and have a good job" in the woods (Brager interview). The town's population doubled to over 3,000 that decade, and a bolt cutter (cutting sections of cedar from logs and stumps for later milling) could make $25,000 to $30,000 a year.  

An Industry Declines

Forks was forever changed by timber-industry decline in the 1980s and 1990s. There was a national recession in the early 1980s, and large timber companies experienced corporate buyouts that led to reorganization and downsizing. Shake and shingle mills closed because of limited cedar salvage available, lower-priced imports, and safety regulations. Mechanization in the woods, a phenomenon since the 1950s, continued to reduce jobs, and companies were also shifting to overseas operations.  

Prospects revived in the mid-1980s as timber prices jumped, but then came fierce and bitter controversy surrounding habitat protection for the northern spotted owl, which was eventually listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990.

Timber harvest fell dramatically on public lands, which many smaller companies and independent loggers relied on: The allowable cut in Olympic National Forest plummeted from 250 million board feet a year in the 1980s to 10 million board feet after the owl's listing, and by 1994 2.4 million acres of Washington forests were closed to logging. This was followed by protections for threatened and endangered Pacific salmon and steelhead beginning in 1999.  

The era of cutting mammoth trees, which had fueled Forks growth, was also ending because little old growth remained. In 1990 one environmental group estimated low-elevation old growth in Olympic National Forest at 3 percent, and ITT Rayonier had none left on its lands around Forks by the late 1980s. As far back as 1938, timber depletion had been predicted between 1980 and 1990, given the rate of harvest, and in 1979 the state's Department of Natural Resources warned that the cut on its lands would decrease as old growth disappeared.  

Forks was at the center of this complicated stew as forest-related jobs fell by almost 25 percent after 1990. Three mills in Forks closed in December 1989, and the number of logging companies in western Clallam and Jefferson counties slid from about 70 in 1980 to 14 in 2001. People involved only in logging left town and population dipped. The state estimated that Forks experienced as high as 19 percent unemployment in 1991, and U.S. Census data from 1999 put the Forks poverty rate for families at 14.6 percent, double that of the state. 


The town's demographics also shifted after the 1970s. Forks has received some quality-of-life transplants from urban areas, and its affordability and tight-knit community feel have made it attractive for retirees who don't mind the rain.  

More significant has been the swift increase in residents of Hispanic origin. In the 1970s, Latinos in Forks consisted of 15 single men and one family. By the 2000 census, Forks's Hispanic population was 15.5 percent, compared to 3.4 percent for the county. Seven years later the town's percentage reached 20 percent. Tienda Latina opened in 1992, Forks's first Latino business, occupying the first floor of the post-1925-fire Odd Fellow's hall.  

Mexicans were the first immigrants, later joined by Salvadorans and Guatemalans. Most were drawn to work cutting cedar bolts from stumps already logged, and later to greenery harvest for the florist market. The latter, once a sideline industry, by 2006 was generating at least a quarter-billion dollars a year from Northwest forests, almost a quarter the size of the state's apple industry. The picking work is seasonal and low-paid, and conditions can be exhausting and sometimes dangerous.

 In 2007, border control agents alarmed residents by setting up checkpoints on U.S. 101 outside of Forks, saying they were "to support enhanced national-security efforts to deter ... terrorist attacks" (Westneat). Instead, seven undocumented workers were sent to Tacoma for detention. 

Down but Not Out   

In 2004 a Forks resident told a National Public Radio reporter that people who don't live on the Olympic Peninsula see it "as their backyard ... They've already ruined the East Coast, they've already ruined Seattle, so they're going to reserve and preserve us, at the expense of us" (Arnold). But Forks did not collapse after the so-called timber wars.  

The town population has climbed back to its pre-1990 level, consisting of 3,120 within city limits as of the 2000 U.S. census, or 4,900 including the expanded urban growth area. The timber industry has survived, though much reduced. Some woods workers shifted to work for agencies such as the fisheries department, and many more found employment at one of two prisons, the larger in nearby Clallam Bay. The 2000 census counted roughly 18 percent of Forks workers employed in extractive industries, including forestry, the same percentage as in the public administration sector and also in the education/health/social services sector.  

Forks also hosts tourists, many on their way to the national park. Two new motels and nine bed-and-breakfasts opened between 1995 and 2005, and on a summer weekend every room in town can fill up. A small but much-appreciated surf shop -- voted business of the year in 2007 -- supplies surfers headed to nearby wilderness beaches, and winter salmon and steelhead runs on area rivers draw anglers from around the world. Historical photographs went up on several buildings in 2006 as part of a walking tour, and hundreds have visited the town because of Stephenie Meyer's teen vampire books, which are set in Forks. Logging itself became a tourist draw with the 1990 opening of the Forks Timber Museum, and by 2007 thousands had toured logging sites and a local mill on trips organized by the chamber of commerce visitor center.

The town even briefly joined the space race. In 2004 two participants in the Ansari X Prize space-flight competition relocated to Forks for its affordability and open area for rocket testing. The scrappy duo weren't successful -- their rocket exploded on launch and mannequin parts washed up on ocean beaches -- but townspeople dove into the effort, volunteering and donating materials. "A lot of people [really took] to these guys," said the barber who supplied the test-run dummy, "partly because they're something new -- but also because they don't give up" (Paulson).

Sources: Mavis Amundson, The Great Forks Fire (Port Angeles: Western Gull Publishing, 2003); Mavis Amundson, ed., Sturdy Folk (Port Angeles: Western Gull Publishing, 1994), 63-67; Patricia Campbell, A History of the North Olympic Peninsula (Port Angeles: Peninsula Publishing, 1979); William Dietrich, The Final Forest (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992); William O. Douglas, "The Last Frontier in a Dark Forest: Forks, Washington," in A Vanishing America: The Life and Times of a Small Town ed. by Thomas C. Wheeler (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), 176-90; Ruby El Hult, Untamed Olympics (Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1954); Harriet U. Fish, Tracks, Trails, and Tales in Clallam County, State of Washington (Port Angeles: Olympic Printers, 1983), 5-50; Forks Loggers Memorial (Forks: Loggers Memorial Book Committee, 1994); Jimmy Come Lately: History of Clallam County (Port Angeles: Clallam County Historical Society, 1971); Carsten Lien, Olympic Battleground (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991); Jim Mason, A Tough Act to Follow (Forks: Olympic Graphic Arts, 2006); Doug Rose, The Color of Winter: Steelhead Fly Fishing on the Olympic Peninsula (Portland, OR: Frank Amato Publications, 2003); LeRoy Smith, Pioneers of the Olympic Peninsula (Forks: Olympic Graphic Arts, 1976); Jay Powell and Vickie Jensen, Quileute (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976); James Spencer, Rayonier (Forest Park, IL: Heimburger House Publishing Co., 1999); Native Peoples of the Olympic Peninsula ed by Jacilee Wray (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2002), 119-49; Elizabeth Arnold, "Saving the Spotted Owl: Benefits of Recovery Effort Remain Complex, Controversial," NPR Morning Edition, August 5, 2004 (; John Calhoun, "Managing Natural Resources; Are We Creating Wealth or Consuming It?" Forks Forum, May 14, 2003, n.p.; "Chamber's Wine and Cheese Draws a Packed House," Ibid., November 7, 2007, p. 1; William Dietrich, "Who Won the Spotted Owl War?" Forest Magazine, Winter 2003, accessed November 10, 2007 (; Tom Paulson, "Rocket Boys of Forks Capture a Town's Imagination," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 22, 2004 (; Cara Solomon, "Romancing the Tree," The Seattle Times, October 21, 2005; Danny Westneat, "Checkpoint Sticks in Forks' Craw," Ibid., March 21, 2007; Craig Welch, "A War in the Woods," Ibid., June 6, 2006 (all; Jonathan Raban, "When Loggers Become Bloggers," The New York Times, August 5, 2007; Sam Howe Verhovek, "Agency to List Pacific Salmon as Threatened," Ibid., March 16, 1999 (both; City of Forks website accessed November 15, 2007 (; Rod Fleck, "General Demographics Based upon Census 2000," Forks Chamber of Commerce website accessed November 5, 2007 (; Forest Community Research, "Forks, Clallam County, Washington," in Northwest Economic Adjustment Initiative Assessment, December 2002, Sierra Institute for the Community and the Environment website accessed November 10, 2007 (; "Forks Fire of 1951: Newspaper Articles and Photographs from the Collections at Forks Timber Museum, Olympic Peninsula Community Museum website accessed November 15, 2007 (; "People without Borders" and "World War II and the West End," Ibid. accessed November 17, 2007 (; Quileute Natural Resources website accessed November 6, 2007 (; U.S. Bureau of the Census, "Table DP-3: Profile of Selected Economic Characteristics, 2000" for Washington, Census 2000 website accessed November 17, 2007 (; U.S. Bureau of the Census, "Table DP-1: Profile of General Demographic Characteristics, 2000" and "Table DP-3: Profile of Selected Economic Characteristics, 2000" for Forks, Census 2000 website accessed November 17, 2007 (; Larry, Jerry, and Kelly Peterson, "Old-Timers Remember How Homesteaders Drove in over Forest Trails to Celebrate Independence Day in the Outpost Settlement," typescript dated June 22, 1988, in possession of Bill and Susan Brager, Forks; Julie Van Pelt interviews with Marcia Bingham, Forks, November 13, 2007, with Bill and Susan Brager, Forks, November 12-16, 2007, and with Sherrill Fouts, Forks, November 15, 2007.

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