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Roy Vataja


Nothing New — Death on the rails: Logging train fatalities

When the first men came to this corner of the country and began toppling the big timber, they started by tackling the trees nearest the rivers and transported them to the mills using the infinite strength of the rivers. As the forests receded, loggers resorted first to oxen and skid roads, and then to railroads, with tracks extending miles into the back country. All phases of the timber industry carry a certain amount of risk, and logging trains were no exception. What follows are a number of gruesome and truly horrible fatal accidents that took the lives of men who had no idea that they were facing their last day on earth. These stories are not for the fainthearted.

Nothing New — The most important building in Aberdeen

There is a misguided movement afoot to remove the squat, shoebox-shaped wooden structure at the west end of the Wishkah River Bridge known as the Pourhouse building. The plans call for it to be replaced by a soulless glass-and-metal terrarium for use as a “visitor center”, which, in this age of smart phones, has itself become an antiquated, quaint concept. To raze this nearly 120-year-old building would be no less than a crime against the history of this city, the people who built it, and the generations of past and future residents who would call Aberdeen home.

Nothing New — A short history of cycling on the Harbor

When the first bicycles appeared on the streets of Aberdeen about 1890, the only place they could be ridden was the planked city center. A plank road (present day Pacific Avenue) was soon constructed connecting Aberdeen to Hoquiam and providing a passable route for cyclists. Whether for transportation or diversion, bicycling has been popular in Grays Harbor for well over a century, and the issues they dealt with then are still with us, as seen in stories from local papers a long time ago.

Roy Vataja — Stumbling and bumbling through the past

A personal note: As I was sauntering home on the eve of Art Walk 2014, I stumbled and hit the pavement, breaking the fall with my face. As the abrasions heal, it seems a good time to look back at other Harborites who have taken tumbles of varying degrees of seriousness. Whether it is an unfortunate accident or a case of simple human stupidity, the Law of Gravity always wins. The first one is a classic.

Nothing New — Man ground to death under picnic train in 1914

The first picnickers appeared on the streets of Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Cosmopolis shortly after seven, an odd sight on a Thursday morning in 1914. Clutching picnic baskets, groups headed toward the railroad station in anticipation of the second annual Merchant’s Picnic at Moclips. It was to be a day filled with sports and games, clam digging and dancing, and a free barbecue with the attendees requested only to bring knife, fork, spoon and cup with them.

Billy the bear

In commemoration of this weekend’s McCleary Bear Festival, it is a good time to look back on the life of Billy the Bear; a study in fortitude and self-reliance in the face of physical infirmity, and Grays Harbor’s real-life answer to the mythical mountain men of lore. Billy lived the life of a hermit, but his door was always open to visitors at what was known as the Winter’s cabin 20 miles above the Wishkah Falls.

Nothing New — Aberdeen’s first Splash celebration — 100 years ago

Today is Aberdeen’s first Founders’ Day celebration, featuring the city’s largest parade in decades, and harkening back to 1914 and Aberdeen’s first Fourth of July Splash. Back in the early days of the Harbor, a logger’s two most anticipated holidays were Independence Day and Christmas; the only times they could get a week out of the woods and raise hell in the city. From the time of their founding, Aberdeen and Hoquiam held separate Independence Day celebrations; it took two decades for them to end that rivalry — and begin another.

Roy Vataja — Minnie Leitch and the Fourth Street Bridge

Right around 1900, Aberdeen experienced her first big growth spurt. Lumber had become an established industry and more ships were arriving at the docks daily. With the population nearly doubled, the city quickly outgrew the available space in the former tide flats and organically spread toward the hills. The primary need in the new residential areas was passable roads. Dirt was hauled from the hillsides to fill and level the gulches, creeks and sloughs that cut through the area and by 1914 the topography of the city appeared pretty much as it does today. One exception was east Fourth Street just off Broadway, where a bridge was constructed to carry street traffic, and where one of Aberdeen’s leading ladies met her end 100 years ago next Wednesday.

Nothing New — Keep clam and dig on

The tender, golden-shelled razor clam that grows in abundance on our coast has long been a source of local pride and a renewable resource that draws thousands of hunters to our sandy beaches every year. It was the pioneering newcomers in the late-1800s that saw the economic value in the humble bivalve ­— long a succulent staple among the native population — who developed methods for distributing the tasty treat worldwide. In celebration of the last digs of the season, here is a chowder of clam tales and methods used to acquire and distribute the sweetest shellfish in the world.

Roy Vataja — Why you don’t see cows in downtown Aberdeen: The Cow Ordinance of 1905

Before there were lumber mills, canneries, or even commercial fishing, the primary industry in what is now Aberdeen was farming. When Sam Benn settled here in 1867, he cleared a pasture, brought in some beef and dairy stock, and supplied butter to Olympia and the sparsely populated Puget Sound region. It would be another 17 years before the arrival of the A.J. West family from Michigan and lumbering began to take hold. The town was platted, streets were laid out and a business section grew along with the population, and cows, descendants of Aberdeen‘s first industry, continued to wander whenever and wherever the mood struck them. By 1905, the free-roaming cow was Aberdeen’s most divisive political issue.

Nothing New — John Cudahy and Henry Foss

In the early 1900s through the 1920s, Grays Harbor was one of the world’s busiest seaports. Longshoremen werer kept busy loading lumber for shipment around the world — shipments that would go nowhere without the pilot tugs that guided the schooners and steamers across the bar at the mouth of Grays Harbor. Of the dozens of tugs that worked the Harbor, one of the most storied was the John Cudahy .

By Roy Vataja

In the summer of 1901, the enterprising Hoquiam duo of Vernon Smith and Charles Kuhn put together a transportation scheme that was intended to bring Aberdeen and Hoquiam together with a means of transportation the likes of which had never been seen in these parts.

Nothing New — Danger and death in the early Harbor sawmills

At the end of the nineteenth century, before there was a Department of Labor &Industries and unionization was still a few years away, the lumber mills on the Harbor were a largely-unregulated maze of screaming saws, and canvas and leather belts running on open wooden pulleys with none of the guards or shields that are taken for granted today. Gruesome injuries were a nearly daily occurrence, and all it took was one moment of inattention, one small distraction. The following stories are rather graphic and not for the squeamish, but it is essential that the largely-anonymous workers who built the timber industry, often giving life and limb, are remembered and given their due.

Nothing New — Franklin School and the first hot lunch

The children at Franklin School clutched their buffalo nickels with hungry anticipation — they were about to take advantage of a relatively new social program presented for the first time in Grays Harbor. Whether you loved ‘em or loathed ‘em, tomorrow marks 100 years of hot lunches being served in the Aberdeen School District.