As the first of 130,000 Pacific Northwesterners donned uniforms and went to war, the U.S. Army’s Spruce Production Division began its home-front effort to boost production. With Lt. Col. Brice P. Disque in charge, Army troops built mills at Toledo on Yaquina Bay and at Vancouver and Port Angeles in Washington. In Oregon the Spruce Division produced 54 million board feet of spruce beams for airplane wings, and built a modern electric sawmill and many miles of railroad track in Lincoln County during the war. These eventually passed into private hands.
The war brought economic activity into the whole region, including the coastal communities. Shipbuilders in Astoria, Tillamook, and Marshfield contracted with the federal Emergency Fleet Corporation to build wood-hulled and steel ships for the war effort. Soldiers trained once again at Fort Stevens at Warrenton, near Astoria, originally commissioned during the Civil War. Women all over the Northwest became active in the war effort, according to the historian Carlos Schwantes:
...they provided a variety of knit goods, staged benefits and bazaars to raise money for the Red Cross, and promoted the conservation of vital supplies of meat, wheat flour, and sugar. Some took jobs in business and industry when the war temporarily eradicated lines of distinction between “men’s work” and “women’s work.”
Women also served in uniform. More than thirty thousand American women served in the Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard, at a time when they could not vote.
The 1918 armistice brought in poorer economic times. The cost of living, which rose sharply during the war, continued upward after hostilities ceased. As shipping and lumber production scaled back to peacetime levels, many coastal residents were thrown out of work: seven thousand men were laid off from Oregon mills and logging camps in 1920.
Prices for farm commodities took a dive, and farmers, most of who had gone into debt to expand operations to meet wartime demand, found themselves in severe straits. After a sharp depression in 1921, times got better relatively quickly in the cities, but the rural areas, including those along the coast, continued to suffer.
In addition, peacetime introduced another, more deadly enemy: Spanish influenza. American casualties in World War I numbered about fifty thousand; the flu pandemic took five hundred thousand to seven hundred thousand American lives. The sickness, along with the flood of weary, wounded, shellshocked, and undernourished soldiers returning from the front, the spread of Communism through the defeated empires of Europe, and the postwar economic downturn combined to narrow people’s outlook and sour their mood. More than fifty thousand people left Oregon for better opportunities after the war.
Among some of those who remained, intolerance of blacks, Catholics, and immigrants (especially German Americans) expressed itself in an upsurge in Ku Klux Klan activity during the early 1920s. Klan members organized chapters in Astoria and Tillamook, as well as in Portland, Eugene, Medford, and smaller towns throughout Oregon. Fear of radicalism in general and union activism in particular sometimes led to violent clashes between labor activists and citizens-turned-vigilantes.
© Gail Wells, 2006.