America’s last logging camp still has an impact

by Ashley Bach

The histories of the timber industry and Washington are intertwined, so much so that one can’t separate them. The timber industry was active here even before Washington became a state in 1889 and is still the state’s second largest manufacturing sector, supporting 106,000 jobs and $5.2 billion in wages. 

This deep history is what makes celebrations like the 75th anniversary earlier this year in Montesano, Wash., of the country’s first tree farm so resonant. The timber industry is part of what makes Washington the state it is, and it is still a critical part of people’s lives.

This was on full display with a recent story by KNKX Radio (formerly KPLU) about the former logging town of Grisdale, 30 miles outside Montesano, in Grays Harbor County and just inside the border of the Olympic National Forest.

When the town shut down for good in 1986, it was the last logging camp in the continental U.S. (this Knight-Ridder story from December 1985 sets the scene). Simpson Timber Co. opened the town in 1946. Rather than a temporary camp, Simpson had its sights set on a community with more staying power, according to Knight-Ridder.  

“They wanted to attract the family man,” said David James, former public relations manager for Simpson and unofficial historian of Grisdale. That’s why the company invested about $1 million to build free-standing homes, a two-room schoolhouse, a gymnasium and a grocery in the middle of the forest, he said.

“They wanted to build a comfortable place, to attract and hold workers despite the rough work and the wet climate,” James said.

The KNKX story this month is told from the point of view of the children who grew up in Grisdale, as well as the wives of some of the loggers there. Twenty years after the town shut down, and the memories are still strong.

“While they can’t ever move back to the place where they grew up,” the KNKX story says, “they also never really fully left.”

The former residents of Grisdale tell KNKX about the roller rink and the two-lane bowling alley where the pins were manually replaced. About picking wild strawberries, about building forts in the trees (some of which still stand) and about peaceful evenings, far from the big city. 

“Before Grisdale shut down, it was like a little diorama of small town America, a neat grid of houses all painted white, with green trim, a two-room schoolhouse and kids running around everywhere,” KNKX says.

One older woman tells the station that her son, who lives in Texas, still insists on camping a couple nights at the Grisdale site when he comes to visit. Another former resident says, “It would have been the best place to grow up as a kid. If you could do it for your own kids, that would be the ticket right there.”

There isn’t much left at the site of Grisdale (as this slideshow from SeattlePI.com can attest) but it still lives on. Former residents recently held a reunion there, and several families have left the ashes of their loved ones at the site. You can buy a photo book about Grisdale on Amazon, one woman said she wrote two novels based in the town, and a former resident wrote in the Olympian a couple years ago about her time growing up there. 

Grisdale harkens back to a simpler time, among the trees and the mountains, former residents told KNKX. As one woman said, “They called it heaven, and that’s what it was.”

[This post originally appeared at WFPA.org.]