Siuslaw Pioneer Museum

See the history

By Louis Campbell reprinted from FOG DOG (1995)

Regardless of statistics, we are satisfied that the Florence area including the lower Siuslaw Valley was a thriving community in 1890.

The considerable amount of farming activity generated dairy products which were in demand not only locally but as far away as San Francisco.

The seemingly inexhaustible supply of trees supplied local mills with logs to be cut into lumber which was shipped to other pacific ports.

Salmon in the Siuslaw were described by some as sometimes "...being so thick that you could walk across the river without getting your feet wet.” That exaggeration could be appreciated by anyone who has listened to the stories of the pioneer fishermen of the Siuslaw who literally carried boatloads of salmon to the canneries on the river, back in the heyday of the industry.

Florence became an incorporated city in 1893. The weekly newspaper, "The West", described the population at that time as "Over a thousand people living in the watershed", and added “This is double the number living in or near Florence in 1892.” If we look only at official city population statistics, we will see only part of the story. For example, the population of Florence was described as being about 150 in 1881, 300 in 1901, and 400 in 1911; but if we look at a more complete breakdown of figures from 1905, we find that 258 people were listed as dwelling in the city of Florence, and 743 were in the local area outside the city. If we add the 64 people at Heceta, and 245 in Mapleton, then consider the additional temporary residents involved in shipping, lumber and cannery work we can visualize a sizable thriving community back at the turn of the century.

This thriving, producing community had products in demand by the outside world, and it needed supplies from that outside world as well. Prior to 1912 there were no railroads into the Siuslaw Valley. There were no major highways or bridges to link the smaller coastal towns with the major cities until the 1930's. From the very beginning, until the railroad from Eugene crossed the Siuslaw at Cushman on its way to Empire in 1915, the river was the main highway for local commerce. The river was the only connection to ocean commerce, and a lifeline between the settlers and the outside world.

There were stage line connections between this and other communities, but even then connections often had to be made by water to other stage lines. This was fine for passengers and mail, but hardly satisfactory as a major means of commercial transportation of commodities. Ocean shipping was essential for commerce.

Ocean vessels entering or leaving the Siuslaw faced a serious problem. The sand and silt that was carried by the river was deposited in the ocean at the river's mouth, causing a shallow bar that constantly shifted. The main river channel entrance would shift accordingly, varying from somewhere near its present location to an area near Heceta Beach. Vessels entering the river would try to cross this bar at high tide when the water was deepest and there was little or no current. Soundings had to be constantly taken to gauge the depth. Because most of the ships were sailing vessels, the right wind conditions had to exist. Sometimes, a skipper would miscalculate the current and the depth, or simply take a chance when conditions were not right. Ships were constantly running aground. Some could work their way loose by lightening their load using other vessels, or if a higher high tide came along. Many ships were lost along this stretch of coast.

In 1892, construction of a jetty was begun to keep the river flowing into one single exit and reduce the deposition of sand at the entrance. A receiving wharf, tramway with locomotive, a hoisting derrick and pile driver were all installed at the river mouth. A rock quarry was developed at Point Terrace to supply material for the jetty. Work continued until the money for the project ran out. This effectively cut off the old north entrance and offered better protection to the channel, but the bar build-up was not totally eliminated. In 1903, attempts were made to finance lengthening of the jetty, and construct another jetty on the south side of the river mouth. Work was begun again in 1904, but the project was not completed until many years later.

Harbor entry here has always been a tricky maneuver because of the tidal currents as well as the shifting sands. At "high-water-slack" and "low-water-slack" there is a short period of time when there is no current one way or the other. During flood tide, the river current actually runs "upstream" as the seven to nine foot tidal range pours into the Siuslaw estuary. At the ebb tide, the ocean water flows out rapidly, adding its speed to that of the normal river current. Old time sailing craft skippers were dependent upon winds favorable enough to control their ship in this constantly changing environment. If the wind was not enough or from the right direction, they could not safely continue through the river channel. Steam vessels obviously had fewer problems, but for many years, sailing vessels were the mainstay of early commerce in the Siuslaw.

Salmon production on the Siuslaw exceeded 18,000 cases in 1892. Lumber production grew in importance, and exceeded six million board feet by the year 1900.

The 80 foot steam tug, "Robarts" with a seven foot draft was purchased by William Kyle in January 1893, and used for the next 27 years to pilot schooners over the bar and into the river. On March 19, 1901 the Robarts towed five schooners, laden with over a million board feet of lumber over the bar on one tide!

The Hurd family owned another steam tug, the "L Roscoe", which was 90 feet long with a 9 1/2 foot draft. Both the Robarts and the Roscoe were an important part of the history of Florence and the river.

Florence was truly an ocean port, but only for vessels in the coastal trade. Schooners and steam vessels visited here with cargo and passengers. Florence was never to become a major port for larger ships used for ocean crossing, but she held her own for many years as an important port in the coastal tide.