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Rainier Valley's Timbered Past

History of Lumber Industry in Rainier Valley

Big Trees, Shingle Mills, and Lumberyards

From the first logs milled at Henry Yesler’s sawmill in 1853, timber has played a crucial role in the history and economy of Seattle and its surrounding territory. The late 19th century saw the proliferation of logging camps and lumber mills throughout the Puget Sound region. The Atlantic Monthly reported in 1888 that “the timber now standing in Washington territory… is equal to the consumption of the whole United States during the last 100 years,” but warned that “at the rate trees are being cut down, and lumber shipped away from this region, it is a comparatively simple calculation to reckon how long it will take to strip the country bare.” In 1900 lumber was still Seattle’s biggest export, with 340 mills producing 405 million board feet of lumber and 3 billion shingles a year.

In the heavily forested Rainier Valley, logging served several purposes. First of all, the industry provided jobs and income to loggers and millworkers, many of them local residents. The lumber produced was used locally to build houses and plank the sidewalks and streets. And, once the electric railway was built in1890, lumber was sent by rail to Seattle, which was rebuilding after the Great Seattle Fire.

Logging also produced another valuable commodity: cleared land, which could then be platted and sold by developers. After all, the Rainier Valley, no matter how big the trees, wasn’t an isolated wilderness. With Seattle just three miles (?) north, thriving coal mines in Renton and Newcastle to the south, easy water access, and electric streetcar service, it was prime real estate.

Columbia Mill: “The Hand of Commercial Man"

Columbia City’s early years saw all these aspects of the timber industry flourish. In 1890, just after J.K. Edmiston built the Rainier Avenue Electric Railway to bring homebuyers to the newly platted town of Columbia, a mill opened just south of town at Brandon Street. Horse-drawn wagons brought the raw logs in; freight cars on the streetcar rails shipped lumber out.

It’s not clear how long the Columbia Mill (also known as the Dry Lumber Mill) lasted – while the photos are impressive, the records are somewhat hazy. It is clear, however, that lumber remained an important business in Columbia City. Christopher Hepler, a member of one of Columbia’s founding families, started a lumber company in the 1890s, and the Columbia Shingle Company operated under several different owners from 1903 to 1908, according to the Polk Directory.

Even after the big trees were gone and Columbia became part of Seattle’s urban metropolis, lumber companies flourished, providing building materials for new houses and businesses throughout the Rainier Valley. The Lakewood & Mt. Baker Lumber Co. operated at 43rd and Genessese in the 1910s and ‘20s. City Sash and Door sold lumber, mouldings, and millwork at the SE corner of Rainier and Hudson from 1909 to 1926. Other lumber companies included Orvis Lumber in Columbia City (1911) and Stewart Lumber Co., which is still in operation at 1761 Rainier Avenue. When the Young family, current owners of Stewart Lumber, bought the business in 1926, lumber was still delivered to the site by rail, on a spur of the streetcar track that ran right through the building.

Harry Kneisley: “An Energetic Hustling Businessman Who Thoroughly Understands His Business”

In 1910 the Columbia Lumber Company opened at the southwest corner of Rainier and Hudson. Its founder, Harry Kneisley, was a 27-year-old Midwesterner who headed west in 1905 to attend Portland’s Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition and wound up settling in the Rainier Valley. His business thrived through the 1910s and ‘20s. In 1924 Kneisley’s biography appeared among those of Seattle’s leading citizens in C. H. Hanford’s “Seattle and Environs: 1852-1924.” According to Hanford, Kneisley was “an excellent type of the energetic hustling business man who thoroughly understands his business.” Kneisley left the lumber business in 1927 and died about 1930. The old site of the Columbia Lumber Company was soon occupied by Shade Foster, an experienced lumberman who remained in business at Hudson and Rainier until the mid-1960s, sharing the site with a series of gas stations, car dealers, and auto repair shops. The office for Foster’s lumberyard was in a little gabled building that is now home to the Busy Bee Market.

Taylor’s Mill

Big trees survived in the Skyway area long after the rest of the Rainier Valley had been cleared of timber. Taylor’s Mill, located at the foot of Dead Horse Canyon, turned those logs into lumber, after they made the journey down the hill along a wooden chute. The mill also processed timber from across the lake. Sanford Taylor’s mill originally operated at the foot of Leschi bluff, but after a landslide in 1901 he moved the mill on barges to Rainier Beach. Like Columbia Mill and Stewart Lumber, Taylor’s Mill used the streetcar rails for shipping lumber – note the streetcar visible in the lower left corner of the photo.

Most of Taylor’s 100 or so employees lived near the mill, many in bunkhouses constructed by the company. The little community was known to the post office as “Tamil.” It had its own restaurant, run by one of the Taylor girls, and a grocery store on Rainier Avenue at the corner of 68th Avenue South. The grocery building is still there – the old Lakeside Tavern, with the sign on the north side still upside down.

No other trace of Taylor’s Mill is left today, unless you count Lakeridge Park, better known as “Dead Horse Canyon.” While some say the canyon’s gruesome name commemorates a beloved pet horse who died of dehydration there in 1909, a competing legend says it is named in honor of a team of horses that plunged to their deaths while bringing in a load of logs in the early days of Taylor’s Mill.

by Mikala Woodward