By Don Fels

This article was first published in ARCADE issue 28.4, Summer 2010.

Snoqualmie Falls Moving House Bridge

House being moved across a temporary bridge from the town of Snoqualmie Falls, 1958.

Just over ninety years ago, in 1917, the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company began building houses for loggers and mill workers in the Snoqualmie Valley of Washington State. When completed a few years later, the Weyerhaeuser operation included 250 houses, a community hall, schools, ball fields, a post office, company store, barbershop, hospital, Japanese bunkhouse, hotel and a railroad depot to comprise the new town of Snoqualmie Falls. The town was sustainable; people walked to all essential services and electricity was supplied to homes at very low costs by burning scrap wood in the mill. Hailed from the beginning in their own literature as a “planned community” and a “social experiment,” the town was also promoted by Weyerhaeuser as “permanent.” Internal Weyerhaeuser documents reveal that it expected to consume the hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in forty years. Fifty years ago (forty years after building them), the company sold the houses to the renting workers, and they were moved off-site (most are extant elsewhere in the Snoqualmie Valley). The other structures were pulled down, and the town completely disappeared. The ex-town site is now covered by Douglas fir—the same “crop” the mill once turned into the first nationally branded lumber. Beginning in the 1920s, the lumber was marketed as coming from an especially enlightened and progressive place and was used to construct all of the town's houses and structures.

Riverside House Snoqualmie Falls

Houses on Reinig Road in the Riverside area of Snoqualmie Falls circa 1930. Today, all that remains is the row of Sycamore Trees (below) planted by Weyerhaeuser in 1929; the trees are a protected landmark.

Sycamores in Snoqualmie

Sycamores today—same street, sans houses. Photo: Don Fels

The town’s publicly declared purpose was to make it a “stable” and “comfortable” base for millhands and itinerant and “wild” loggers (commonly referred to as timber beasts). The company didn’t happily enter into the construction of an entire town but did so at a time when the Wobblies were making enormous inroads in the lumber camps. As WWI was heating up, it became clear to Weyerhaeuser and to the federal government that there could be a critical shortage of Sitka spruce, crucial for constructing warplanes, if the anarchists paralyzed the industry.

Lumber camps were horrible places to live—damp, overcrowded, filled with vermin—and testosterone-ridden. In order to defeat the Wobblies, the company was forced to dramatically better the living situation of its isolated employees. If the beasts were to be tamed, a host of resident man-tamers was needed. Accordingly, the success of the initiative was entirely dependent on attracting females to the “settlement.” A man employed by the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company was entitled to a company house at a nominal rent but only if he had a wife with whom to occupy it. The commercial and industrial heart of the town was of course the lumber mill, but its nerve center was the community hall. For decades, the company organized all manner of family- and women-centered events and programs. Streams of babies was born in the town hospital (the same facility that treated the loggers working in the world’s most dangerous occupation).

The outbreak of WWI brought a huge manpower shortage; large numbers of able-bodied American men were either being conscripted or volunteering for the armed forces. In order to open the mill in 1917, the company arranged with a Japanese contractor, who supplied a contingent of Japanese-born workers. With this core group, some ex-timber beasts and a few women workers, the mill opened on schedule.

According to company records, until 1942, when the men were sent to Idaho for internment, the Japanese never represented less than half of the workers employed at any time, yet photographs very rarely showed them. Common perception is that the workers were burly, blond Scandinavians; though to the company, the Japanese were known as “well-behaved” and “hard workers” who never caused labor troubles, the very qualities that Weyerhaeuser was trying to inculcate in its workforce by building and maintaining the town. The Japanese bunkhouse was far removed from the housing offered to the Caucasian workers and was torn down the day after the men were sent to internment.

In its literature about the town, Weyerhaeuser wrote that families “enjoyed all the comforts of the city home with the additional advantages of fresh air and plenty of room.” The “tree-growing company” effectively became the family-growing company, creating city life in the forest. By 1958, the forest itself had also been tamed, no longer offering a close-in harvest, and the town was abandoned. Snoqualmie Ridge, another Weyerhaeuser planned community, has since sprouted nearby, and Weyerhaeuser has made known its desire to officially become a real estate investment trust (REIT). The social experiment that produced the town of Snoqualmie Falls would seem to have been much more central to the core Weyerhaeuser business than it might have appeared at the time.

Don Fels is a visual artist who lives in the Cascade foothills. He works worldwide, but the local story of the town of Snoqualmie Falls has attracted him for decades. His installation Gone Missing: The Town of Snoqualmie Falls was at the Snoqualmie Valley Historical Museum from April through October 2010.