Previously named a 2009 “All-American City” Award Finalist by the National Civic League, the town of Toledo was born at the turn of the 20th century and the history of its growth offers a quintessential example of America’s larger pioneer story of cross-cultural encounters, economic struggle, and the determination to prosper against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Toledo was first established in 1866, by John Graham, under the Homestead Act, along with William Mackey and Graham’s son, Joseph. The elder Graham was an Irish born immigrant from Toledo, Ohio, and the name of that industrial town was given to the settlement near the Yaquina. Located 8 miles East of Newport on the Oregon Coast, the area rapidly attracted interest for its natural resources and its easy access only 14 river miles up from the mouth of the natural harbor at Newport. It was also home to the Siletz Indian Tribe, and ambitions to settle the region soon came into conflict with the Tribe’s land interests. At the recommendation of the Oregon Delegation in Congress, President Johnson signed an Executive Order that opened portions of reservation land for settlement, and white settlers began flooding the region. The relationship between these two groups reflected the country’s heightened racial tensions as it entered into civil war. Whites accused the Indians of being restless and aggressive, and stories described settlers taking possession of Indian homes before they had been vacated. Ironically, many years later, Graham and his family would find themselves in the position of being removed from the land when a road development project through town required that the Graham family graves be relocated from their original sites and taken to the Toledo Pioneer Cemetery. Progress in Toledo let nothing stand in its way.
The story of Toledo’s incorporation is more rumor than fact and intriguing mostly for the dispute over the dates that surround it. According to some records, the town’s incorporation date was in 1893 when the first ordinance of Toledo was written and an election was held. However, the town’s seal bears the date of 1905. Apparently, Toledo businessman W.C. Copeland hired an attorney who had the 1893 incorporation of the town thrown out, claiming the boundaries of the city had not been properly described. Thus, what was a city on October 4, 1893, was no longer a city the following day. But in keeping with its independent pioneer spirit, for many Toledo residents, Copeland’s actions appeared not to matter. In November 1893, elections were held. Those elected took office on December 5th and went about the business of running the town.
THE COMING OF THE RAILROAD
The largest challenge the new town faced was establishing for itself a stable and thriving economic base. In 1872, the Corvallis and Yaquina Bay Railroad Company was incorporated, and the last spike was driven on July 4, 1885. While the railroad did not terminate in Toledo, the community viewed its presence as the promise of Toledo’s “golden era,” and the town started to grow rapidly. By 1890 Toledo’s modest downtown featured a waterfront hotel, a saloon and feed stable, a blacksmith’s shop and other businesses.
The first school was opened, and several churches were built. Sawmills were up and running, and finished goods were heading downriver by boat or to Willamette Valley by rail. Coal was discovered, and in 1890, the State Senator C.B. Crosno of Toledo declared, “There can be little doubt that the mine will be a very valuable one when developed.” It turned out that Crosno was wrong. But the little coastal town had another ace up its sleeve, and as Toledo entered the new century, timber proved to be the promise for its future.
TIMBER AND TOLEDO’S BOOM DAYS
Estimates suggest there existed 15-20 billion feet of marketable timber standing in the area during Toledo’s early years. The rivers and railroad systems made transporting timber easy and affordable, and wealthy investors from the east coast began flocking to the area, lured by how much money could be made in west coast timber. The result was the establishment of nearly 70 small mills throughout the county, bringing wealth to some and employment to others.
With the beginning of World War I, a lightweight wood was needed for airplanes, and spruce met these requirements. The federal government created the Spruce Production Unity and built a huge mill in Toledo along with two others in Washington. Although the war ended before the mill in Toledo was able to begin production, the Pacific Spruce Corporation purchased the government’s holdings in Lincoln County, along with the railroads the government had built to log the spruce and all the equipment that went with the operation. The name for the mill operation was later changed to the C.D. Johnson Lumber Company, and in 1924, it employed 800 people. Rail lines wound up and down the coast, out to Siletz and up the Gorge. By the early-to mid-1900s, Toledo had become the industrial hub of Lincoln County, a title it would carry for years.
But the little town continued to struggle for its economic survival, and the community was to face more challenges within it. One such challenge came in 1925 when the C.D. Johnson Lumber Company decided to hire Japanese workers at less pay than white workers, to do a portion of the mill work that was especially difficult. A demonstration was held and culminated in violence when the crowd stormed “Tokyo Slough,” the residential area where the Japanese were staying. The Japanese were removed to Corvallis, and a collection was later taken up in the community as an offering of reparation. The matter was not closed until later, however, when five Japanese won a lawsuit against the leaders of the crowd. The incident serves as a reminder to the community of the ways in which Toledo’s own history exists as part of the same political, economic and cross-cultural struggles that characterized the country’s expansion west. Economic decline continued into the 1950s when Toledo was replaced by Newport as the County Seat. To make matters worse, an improved Highway 20 bypassed the city, and as a result, many businesses relocated to Newport. A flicker of hope sparked when, in 1952, the Georgia-Pacific Corporation bought the failing C.D. Lumber Company. Although the town did not return to its boom days, Georgia Pacific has remained loyal to the community, and it is the only mill that remains in operation, serving as an important backbone of the town’s economy and generous contributor to its growth in other ways as well.
Today’s Toledo is known for its old Victorians, many of which have been restored, a downtown promising treasure in the form of antique shops of all kinds, and a warmer micro-climate that has brought some inland from Newport in search of respite from the harsher coastal winds. It offers its community members a public swimming pool, library, parks, and an active school system. Since its early establishment, Toledo has been home to a widely diverse set of communities. Its members have come together to address challenges and to accomplish many wonderful projects. Perhaps this, above all else, is what makes Toledo an “all American city.”