Shelton -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 9/27/2010
  • Essay 9591
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Shelton is a primarily industrial city on southwest Puget Sound, and the seat of Mason County. The 6.11-square-mile city on the shores of Hammersley inlet of Oakland Bay is home to 8,735 residents. Since its founding, Shelton's history has been intertwined with that of the logging and lumbering industry, on which the town's economic well being continues to depend.

The town is named for David Shelton (1812-1897), who served as a delegate to the territorial legislature, and was originally known as Sheltonville.  Shelton and his wife Frances Wilson Shelton (d. 1887) and their family established a farm at the head of Oakland Bay in 1853. 

Squaxin Island Tribe

The area that would become Shelton and its surrounding vicinity was home to the People of the Waters (later called Squaxin Island Tribe), a group of Lushootseed-speaking bands who lived in the fertile region for centuries prior to Non-native contact. They called the area "Cota" (Log Towns, p. 59).  The rich tidal land between the future Shelton and Olympia yielded shellfish and was a feeding ground for shore birds and a habitat for spawning fish. 

The land was part of 4,000 square miles ceded in the Treaty of Medicine Creek on December 26, 1854.  Only one small island, four-and-a-half miles long and one-half mile wide, was reserved for native peoples. The island was given the name of the Squawksin of Case Inlet, and became known as Squaxin Island. 

Squaxin Island had no drinking water, making it inhospitable for permanent settlement, although many native people were confined there during the Indian Wars of 1855-1856.  David and Frances Shelton’s two oldest sons, Lewis Shelton (1841-1888) and John Shelton (b. 1843), were said to have been among those fighting the Native inhabitants under the title Territorial Volunteer.  When the war ended, most of those who had been confined on the island moved to the mainland to farm; harvest berries, hops, and shellfish; and continue practicing traditional handwork. 

In 1965, the Squaxin Island Tribe became one of the first tribes in the Pacific Northwest to establish an autonomous relationship with the federal government.  The Tribe began purchasing back the land that had once been theirs, and this remains an ongoing process.

The Squaxin Island Tribe Museum Library and Research Center, founded with the assistance of the Burke Museum, documents and celebrates the history of the Squaxin peoples, educates the public, and strives to preserve tribal culture.

The Sheltons

The Shelton family immigrated to Oregon Territory from Missouri in 1847, settling first near the fledgling town of Portland.  In 1852, the Shelton family, along with the Francis W. Pettygrew (d. 1887) and Loren B. Hastings (1814-1881) families, journeyed to Puget Sound on the river schooner Mary Taylor.  The Hastings and Pettygrews disembarked in Port Townsend harbor, where they helped found the Port Townsend community.

The Shelton family sailed on to the small settlement of Olympia, arriving on February 15, 1852.  David Shelton was quickly elected to serve on the Olympia district’s first board of commissioners, serving all the country south of the Nisqually river. In April 1853, the Shelton family moved north to the site that would become Shelton.  After the passage of the Donation Land claim in 1855, David and Frances (b. 1817) Shelton claimed their allotted 640 acres of land.  Frances Shelton’s portion of the claim covered the “flat,” and this eventually became the town of Shelton’s business district.  David Shelton’s portion covered the prairie north of the future town.  Over time, the Sheltons continued to purchase land, augmenting their donation land claim with heavily timbered 20 or 40 acre parcels.

Mason County and its County Seat 

What would become Mason County was carved out of Thurston County in 1854, and named Sa-heh-wamish or Sawamish County, honoring the first residents. Sa-heh-wamish County encompassed all the land west to the Pacific Ocean. In 1864, the territorial legislature renamed the county after the late Charles Mason (d. 1859), Territorial Secretary of State and Acting Governor during the Indian Wars. Shelton was designated county seat on April 28, 1888.  The town of Shelton was incorporated in 1890.

The Mason County Courthouse, constructed in 1929 of reinforced concrete clad with sandstone quarried in nearby Tenino, replaced an earlier courthouse of frame construction in the same location.  David and Frances Shelton had donated the land.

Logging and Lumber Milling

Unlike eastern Puget Sound, where old growth timber harvesting began almost immediately following non-Native settlement, Shelton's timber remained untouched for decades after the first non-Natives reached the region.  In 1883, Pennsylvania oil field speculator William H. Kneeland (1849-1910) built a saw mill in the woods and a flume to Oakland Bay and began milling lumber.  Kneeland also built a logging railroad, the Mason County Central, to transport harvested trees to the mill.  Kneeland was not able to make his business a success, and left the area after two years.  (He later returned, platted and sold his land, and built the Kneeland Hotel and Shelton Opera House.)

C. F. White, James Currie, R.R. Spencer, and J. R. McDonald, investors from Seattle, seeing the area's wealth of timber and theorizing that Kneeland's problem had been his distance from the bay, approached David Shelton with the idea of using his land -- at the head of the bay surrounded by a wide valley and fed with a stream that could provide water for steam logging locomotives -- to site a mill.  Shelton agreed, platted his land (reserving the land cleared for the Shelton farm, and an orchard), and began selling lots.  The Satsop logging railroad (first called the Goldsborough Creek Railroad Company) terminated on Shelton's site, and the new town quickly prospered. 

Shelton, so recently a peaceful valley untouched by industry beyond activities of the Shelton family's farmstead, soon resounded with the whir of saw blades and the screams of locomotive steam whistles, the mill whistle, and the whistles of mosquito fleet steamers bringing, daily, people eager for employment.

In 1891, the Satsop logging railroad went bankrupt.  Wisconsin businessman Alfred H. Anderson (b. 1856) reorganized the line as the Washington Central (later the Peninsula Railroad).  He also reorganized the Shelton bank, whose fate lay with rail and logging operations. 

Simpson Lumber Company

In 1900, Anderson, logging railroad operator Sol Simpson (1843-1920), and Simpson's son-in-law Mark Reed (1866-1933) founded what would become the Simpson Lumber Company.  The firm eventually became the second-largest timber holder in the state, after Weyerhaeuser.  Mark Reed became a long-serving state legislator and was instrumental in securing appropriations for the Olympic Highway.

Shelton's logging camps soon peppered the old growth forest surrounding Shelton.  When one stand of lumber had been harvested and dragged (first by oxen and later by steam locomotives built to handle the heavy task), the logging shacks themselves could be loaded onto flatbed trucks and trundled along the rails to the next dense stand.  The trees first harvested were giant -- towering Douglas firs with circumferences that exceeded 50 feet. 

A 1993 history described the men who tackled the job: "The eddy harbor which had been David Shelton's place for 30 years was no longer a mere pioneer homestead.  Men from Quebec and New York, Wisconsin and Michigan, Ireland and England and Finland cursed and hauled and hammered.  Mostly, the men were young and unmarried.  Mostly these men desired diversions in saloons, hotels, and bawdy houses.  Mostly the town of Shelton was born to work and sin" (Log Towns, p. 69).

In 1946, Simpson Lumber Company signed an agreement with the United States Forest Service that placed the company's lands and adjacent national forest lands under unified management.  The agreement gave Simpson Lumber all sales from the reserved area through 2046.

Rayonier Incorporated

In 1926, the Northern Pacific Railroad extended a line from Elma through Shelton, facilitating product shipment.  Mark Reed eventually built a mill that could handle hemlock wood, which was too soft to be processed in other mills.  A San Francisco investor built Rainier Pulp & Paper, a pulp mill that used the hemlock mill's waste to produce paper.  A power station used waste from all the mills to produce power.

In 1937, Rainier Pulp & Paper, Gray’s Harbor Pulp & Paper (in Hoquiam), and Olympic Forest Products Company (in Port Angeles) merged to become Rayonier Incorporated.  Rayonier Incorporated utilized the methods of modern chemistry to modify and tailor pulp for specific uses. By 1940, the Rayonier plant in Shelton employed 530 local residents.   

A 1941 history of Shelton states:  “From their test tubes emerged pulp with a wide range of uses.  The finest sulphite book and bond papers.  Rayon silk to fire the imagination of apparel designers and supply America with a top-to-toe wardrobe.  Plastics products of light weight, durability, and fascinating colorings.  Serviceable ‘Cellophane.’  Fabric for the daintiest gowns in the Easter parade or cord for the heaviest duty truck tire on the highways” (A Brief History of Shelton...), p. 13.

The fly in Rayonier's ointment was the by-product of the process, spent sulphur (so-called) liquor, which included the wood's lignin (growth material that holds fibers together) and soluble cellulose. Pulp mills of the era usually let the liquor drain into the nearest body of water, but Rayonier was sited on a narrow tidal basin and the liquor was a threat to Oakland Bay's oysters.  Rayonier built a five mile disposal pipe to Mill Creek, and storage tanks from which the liquor was released on outgoing tides. 

The Rayonier plant closed during World War II due to lack of needed hemlock, and when it reopened after the war, a new method of disposing the liquor was employed because of traces of seepage from absorption ponds into nearby water.  The new method involved evaporating the liquor into a thick syrup, which was then burned.  The process required that ammonia be added during the cooking process.

In 1957, however, the Washington State Pollution Control Board refused to renew the mill’s operating permit over concerns that its waste products might be damaging nearby oyster beds.  The Rayonier Laboratory, renamed Olympic Research Division, continued to operate.  In 1968, it was purchased by International Telephone and Telegraph, becoming ITT Rayonaire, Incorporated.

Organized Labor

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had a presence in Mason County by the mid-1910s.  During the General Strike called by the IWW in Seattle and the Puget Sound region in 1917, all logging operations except one shut down. 

Between 1935 and 1937, an American Federation of Labor union came to Shelton.  The Lumber and Sawmill Workers (part of the AFL) organized Simpson’s Reed Mill and (following a short strike) McCleary Mill.  A few years later, workers in the Simpson mill switched their affiliation to the International Woodworkers of America.

Workers in Rayonier were organized by the Pulp and Sulphite Workers Union in the mid-1930s.

Town Life

David Shelton and many other men who pioneered Mason County were members of the Masons, and that fraternal organization was an important part of pioneer life in the area.  The Masonic lodge was originally located in Oakland, but moved to Shelton (as the Masonic Temple) in October 1887.

As soon as Shelton began selling lots and logging activity began in earnest, the new town was filled with loggers and the businesses that serviced them.  A boot and shoe store, a store selling groceries and confections, and a laundry near the dock at Shelton’s Point were soon doing landmark business.  The Pioneer Saloon refreshed the loggers, and the Morrow Hotel and Shelton Hotel dished out hearty meals. 

A 1970 history of Shelton states: “Timber brought the influx of a new proud breed, drastically affecting settlements in the county.  These people came looking for work, not land ... . Men came to test their stamina against the forest, their stomachs with logging camp chow” (Oakland to Shelton... p. 40).

Besides the predominant lumber industry, Shelton had a dairy industry during the early part of the twentieth century, some beef cattle ranches, and benefited from Mason County's oyster-raising industry.

The town suffered a devastating fire on August 27, 1914.  Flames consumed seventeen of the town’s 20 stores.  The belfry of the Shelton Methodist Church caught fire, but the flames were doused.  Shelton’s bank burned, but the vault survived. 

In 1920, Mark Reed, Simpson Lumber Company, and the town of Shelton built Shelton General Hospital.  The new facility meant that acute medical situations could be handled locally, rather than after transport to Olympia.  Shelton General also made giving birth in a hospital setting an option for Mason County women.  In 1968, Shelton General was replaced by Mason General Hospital, which boasted a modern new building, fully equipped for surgery and with skilled nursing care.

Kneeland Park, built in a formerly swampy area south of Goldsborough Creek, was cleared and developed into a well manicured park facility with an adventure playground, large picnic shelter, and basketball court.

Fit To Print

Town life created stories to report.  Grant C. Angle installed a printing press in a small office in Shelton and founded the Mason County Journal.  The first issue came out on December 31, 1886.  In addition to news about the progress of railroads and the doings of townspeople, Angle published the daily schedule of the little steamer that ferried passengers from Shelton to Olympia, Tacoma, and Seattle.

As of 2010, the paper (now the Shelton-Mason County Journal) is the oldest continually operating business in Shelton.  It has had only six publishers over the course of its long existence.

Christmastown, USA

In 1955, the Shelton Chamber of Commerce adopted the slogan “Christmastown, USA” to describe the town.  During the 1950s and 1960s, Shelton annually shipped several million Christmas trees each fall.  Although the designation is still used by some tree growers in the Shelton area, and although Mason County tree farms do harvest a substantial number of Christmas trees each year, Shelton is by no means the nation's largest Christmas tree producer. 

According to the National Christmas Tree Association's figures for 2007, Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (in that order) produce more live Christmas trees than does Washington.

Churches, Libraries, and Schools 

Shelton’s earliest churches were Shelton Methodist Church, organized in 1885, with a church constructed in 1887, and First Baptist Church built in 1892, was restored and expanded in 1985.

The Catholic mass was celebrated in Shelton as early as 1894 by priests who traveled to the town for that purpose from Seattle or Olympia, meeting in private homes.  A wood-frame building to house St. Edward’s Catholic Church was built in 1898, but the parish had no resident priest until 1935.  A new brick church designed by noted architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993) replaced the frame building in 1931. This building served the congregation for decades, but by the late 1990s, the congregation had outgrown it.  A new building was dedicated in 2009.  In the 1950s, the parish wanted to build a school but was thwarted by the city's refusal to issue a building permit.  The city eventually relented, but by then the parish no longer wished to build.  

Shelton Library, built in 1914 to house both the library and town hall, was donated to the town by the Mary Garrard Simpson (b. 1853), widow of Simpson Logging Company founder Sol Simpson, to give Shelton's single men an alternative activity to that of frequenting the town's saloons and brothels.  Frederick Heath (1861-1953), whose other work included the Paradise Inn on Mount Rainier and the Stadium Bowl in Tacoma, designed the building.  In 1983, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The building now (2010) houses the Mason County Historical Society Museum.  

Shelton's new public library, William G. Reed Library, opened in June 1989 on land formerly occupied by the Irene S. Reed High School.  The Timberland Regional Library System operates the facility.

Mason County’s first school district was organized on October 29, 1868.  David and Frances Shelton’s daughter Mary Shelton (b. 1848) was hired to teach, earning $7 per term.  Her first class of 10 students ranged in age from 5 to 19 and included two of her brothers and one sister.  The location of the one-room schoolhouse is not known, but was probably on the Shelton claim.  Mary Shelton taught there for 12 years.

By the early 1900s, Shelton School had a principal and six teachers and an average of 250 students between kindergarten and tenth grade.  Sometime after 1910, the school added 11th and 12th grades so that students wishing to complete high school could do so locally -- up until that time, graduation required two years at Olympia High School.  Shelton High School opened in 1909.

By 1950, Shelton schools had 78 teachers serving 1991 students.

A new middle-school building opened in 1989.  Parents, students, and teachers, however, soon grappled with a rising tide of violence in the school.  A series of articles in the Shelton-Mason County Journal in 1991 documenting troubles at the school won an award from the Washington Newspaper Association.

As of 2010, Shelton has three elementary schools (Bordeaux, Evergreen, and Mt. View), Olympic Middle School and Oakland Bay Junior High, Shelton High School, and CHOICE (Challenging High School Opportunities in Continuing Education Alternative) Schools.

Preserving While Changing

By the mid-1950s, changes in shipping practices impacted land use in Shelton, remaking some of the town’s built environment.  Rails and a train roundhouse were removed from the center of town, buildings that had stood nearby were demolished, and the area was cleared for redevelopment.  A shopping center rose on the former rail yard, stimulating Shelton’s ascension as an automobile destination for surrounding communities.  The city expanded, gaining suburban developments.

Shelton has an active historic preservation board charged with providing incentives to property owners to restore and maintain the city's historic buildings and sites. In addition to the practical aspects of educating citizens about the importance of historic preservation, the board's goals include promoting civic pride, preserving the community's heritage and identity, and improving Shelton's aesthetic presence and economic vitality. 

Shelton Today

Shelton is the last city in Washington to utilize the Mayor/Commission form of government.  This means that Shelton, rather than having a mayor and a separate board of city commissioners, elects three city commissioners who have equal power.  One of these commissioners bears the honorary title of mayor and presides over city meetings, but shares the same authority as the other two commissioners.  The City of Shelton has 120 employees and a $50 million operating budget.

In October 1994, WalMart opened a 102,000-square-foot store in Shelton, boosting employment by 200 jobs. Shelton also has businesses at the opposite end of the retail spectrum, including an independent bookstore, and numerous small antiques shops.

Taylor Shellfish Farms, a family-run business that grows shellfish and sells them around the world, is headquartered in Shelton.  The Taylor family has been growing oysters in the Shelton area since 1891.  Along with the Skokomish, Squaxin Island, and Suquamish tribes, the non-profit Puget Sound Restoration Fund, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Taylor Shellfish are working to re-establish Olympia oysters in south and central Puget Sound.

Since 1995, Shelton has been home to a branch of Olympic College.  The Shelton campus is unique in the state because, although it is a public college, it was largely funded by private donations including the Simpson Lumber Company, Elmer Nordstrom, the Bremer Trust, Manke Lumber company, the William H. Gates Foundation, and numerous local residents.

Shelton has seven parks, a two-mile jogging trail, an athletic field, a boat launch, and a vibrant community center that is a core of activity for residents of all ages. The Shelton Arts Commission, established in 1990, fosters public awareness of and participation in fine arts and performing arts.  The commission sponsors the annual Shelton Arts Festival and the Shelton Art Walk, among many other projects.

As it has been since its formation, Simpson Lumber Company continues to be an important employer in Shelton. The Shelton facility includes a sawmill, planing mill, steam generating plant, log yard, and rail and barge loading facilities. The mill produces dimensional lumber (green lumber), dimensional kiln dried lumber (dry lumber), wood residuals, and wood chips.  As of 2010, the mill operates on reduced schedules and struggles to respond to the recent recession, especially the massive drop in housing construction. In September 2010, Simpson Lumber Company purchased a former Shelton competitor, Mason County Forest Products. 

Railroad Avenue is dominated by the Simpson Logging Company and Peninsular Railway Caboose No. 700.  The large steel Shay locomotive was built in 1924 by Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio, for Simpson Logging.  The locomotive is known as Tollie in tribute to Mary Garrard Simpson, who went by that nickname.  On display with Tollie the Shay is Caboose  No. 700, a side-door caboose built in Shelton by the Peninsular Railroad Company, a subsidiary of Simpson Logging Company.  In 1984, Tollie and Caboose No. 700 were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The caboose now (2010) serves as Shelton's visitor center.

Shelton's annual Paul Bunyan Parade celebrates the continued importance of logging to the community.

Sources: City of Shelton website accessed September 19, 2010 (; Squaxin Island Tribe Museum Library and Cultural Center website accessed September 19, 2010 (; Squaxin Island Tribe website accessed September 19, 2010 (; HistoryLink.Org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Mason County -- Thumbnail History" (by David Wilma) (accessed September 19, 2010); Shelton Public Schools website accessed September 19, 2010 (; Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 365; Susan Olsen and Mary Randlett, Mason County, Washington: An Illustrated History (Shelton: Mason County Senior Center, 1978); Jan Halliday and Gail Chehak, Native Peoples of the Northwest (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2000),  89; Grant Colfax Angle and William D. Welsh, A Brief History of Shelton, Washington (Shelton: Shelton Division, Rayonier, Inc., 1941); Michael Fredson, Oakland To Shelton The Sawdust Trail (Belfair, Washington: Mason County Historical Society, 1976); Berwyn B. Thomas, Shelton: The First Century Plus Ten (Shelton: Mason County Historical Society, 1996); St. Edward's Catholic Church website accessed September 22, 2010 (; "Technical Support Document (TSD) And Statement Of Basis Simpson Timber Company Shelton Mill, February 3, 2005," Olympic Region Clean Air Agency website accessed September 23, 2010 (; Tom Banse, "2010 Forecast Calls For Slow Recovery For Northwest Lumber Industry," Oregon Public Broadcasting report, January 12, 2010, OPB website accessed September 23, 2010 (; "Simpson Lumber Finalized Purchase Of Mason County Lumber...," LSPROM website accessed September 23, 2010 (; "Tollie the Shay," and "Caboose No. 700" informational handouts prepared by Mason County Historical Society, Shelton; Brian Dirks, "Christmas Trees, Towns, and Trivia" Office of the Washington Lieutenant Governor website accessed September 25, 2010 (; "States by Total Trees Harvested," National Christmas Tree Association website accessed September 25, 2010 (; David G. Gordon, Nancy E. Blanton and Terry Y. Nosho, Heaven On The Half Shell (Seattle: Washington Sea Grant Program, 2001), 140; Dave James, Washington Forest Memories: Big Trees & Steam Lokies (Farifax: Ye Galleon Press, 1997); Michael Fredson, Log Towns (Olympia: author, 1993); Micheal Fredson, Shelton's Boom: The Classic Years (Shelton: Northwest Arts Foundation, 1982).

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