Westport Oregon History
This Oregon History sign is in a rather odd location. Instead of being near it’s subject, it’s on bluffs overlooking the actual location. You can see the modern version of the sawmill that is mentioned in the sign, but not the town itself.
This view is from Bradley State Scenic Viewpoint off of Highway 30, about 26 miles east of Astoria. The state of Washington is on the left, the state of Oregon on the right, divided by the Columbia River. In the lower right hand corner is the Georgia Pacific Wauna Mill, beyond that is the town of Westport.
“Captain” John West was a self-made man. A native of Scotland, he settled on the lower Columbia River near this spot in the early 1850′s after trying to his luck in the goldfields of California. West built and operated sawmills, ran a general store and post office, built and managed a salmon cannery, developed and improved canning machinery and exported lumber. He also exported canned salmon around the globe and left his name on both a large seafood processor and distributor and on Westport, the Oregon community four miles east, upriver.
“Born in 1809, John West immigrated to Quebec where he married and started a family while apprenticing as a millwright. In 1849, he left his family and job to search for gold in the California. A year later, with little gold to show for his efforts, he arrived in Astoria and went to work using his knowledge and skills as a millwright.
“In 1853, West and his wife Margaret took up a 640-acre Donation Land Claim along the lower Columbia River upon which he soon began construction of a water-powered sawmill. West built a steam-powered sawmill in the early 1860′s and by 1868 he was exporting lumber to Australia. During these years the community of Westport grew up around John West’s sawmill on his Donation Land Claim.
“The West family sold the mill in the early 1900s. The Wesport Lumber Company continued production there until February 1956, when it became uneconomical to operate the mill due to a scarcity of logs of sufficient size.
“John West also exported salmon from as early as 1857. The first fish West processed were salted, packed in barrels, then shipped to California, where they were loaded on sailing ships and sent around Cape Horn to East Coast ports, and then on to Great Britain. In 1868, West entered into partnership with several others to found the Westport Cannery, the first on the Oregon shore of the Columbia River. The cannery packed 22,000 cases of salmon during the 1873 season and in October of that year won a gold medal from the Oregon Agricultural Society. Salmon canning peaked in the 1880′s with 39 canneries in 1883, supported by 1,700 commercial fishing boats along the Columbia River.
“West invented an automated can-filling machine and was the first on the lower Columbia River to make use of salmon waste for oil and fishmeal by-products. He also experimented with canning beef, mutton, and blackberries to keep the machinery and workers busy during the salmon off season. West’s brand label for canned foods lives on today as John West Foods Ltd. of Liverpool, England. As a subsidiary of the H. J. Heinz Company, it sells canned fish, fruit, vegetables, and meat all over the world.
“Captain” John West died in 1888 at age 79 and is buried in the West family plot at the Westport Cemetery.”
Beyond the canned food company, and the town, “Captain” John’s influence can still be seen. The remains of a logging tunnel that he had built in the 1880′s. It was widened for steam engines in 1907, but fell into disuse by 1915.
Westport’s other claim to fame is the Oregon landing site of the only ferry to still cross the lower Columbia River. Walter Coates brought the first ferry boat to the area, on June 25, 1925. Before that travel across the river was on a wooden barge that could only handle one vehicle at a time. The Ferry is now partially owned by the State of Washington.