Excerpt from Bob H. Reinhardt’s Struggle on the North Santiam

May 21st, 2020 , Posted by Isaiah Holbrook

We’re excited to promote and celebrate the publishing birth month of Bob H. Reinhardt’s Struggle on the North Santiam: Power and Community on the Margins of the American West. With the restrictions and unfortunate outcomes of COVID-19, we offer an excerpt of Reinhardt’s brilliance as a satisfying distraction from these quarantine times.



Next to a well-traveled highway on the margins of the American West, there is a place that seems easy to ignore. This particular place is the North Santiam Canyon, a fifty-one-mile stretch along Oregon’s Highway 22 on the western side of the Cascade mountain range, surrounded by Douglas fir trees on the banks of the North Santiam River. It takes about an hour, depending on speed traps, to drive through the canyon. A few landmarks jump out to motorists: Mt. Jefferson to the east, occasionally peeking out over the treetops; two large dams (Detroit Dam and its regulating dam, Big Cliff) and their full reservoirs or empty reservoir beds, depending on the season; and always the North Santiam River, burbling, swirling, crashing, pooling, and tumbling alongside the highway. Houses and buildings are scattered along the roadside, sometimes gathered into villages and towns, and perceptive drivers might even notice the signs alerting them that they have entered or left behind one of these communities. But driving along at fifty-five miles per hour, one would be forgiven for not finding anything remarkable or memorable about the North Santiam Canyon, like so many other marginal places in the American West.

But those who slow down a little—even just to the forty-five-mile-per-hour limit posted in a few of the towns—will see more detail that suggests depth and complexity in the North Santiam Canyon. Those welcome signs have names on them such as Mill City and Gates, marking specific places with their own stories. Some of the signs are in the shape of circular saws and evoke the area’s logging past, present, and future; a few signs include images of mountains and rivers, suggesting other ideas about the area’s economy and identity. Higher on the hillsides away from the road, clear-cuts mar the view, but second- and third-growth stands peak out, as do patches of old-growth forest. Buildings more than a century old stand faded and dilapidated as well as repainted and renovated, occupied by residents of different means and interests who have their own sense of home in the canyon. And that’s just the view from inside the car window. Stopping at a roadside restaurant such as Cedars Lounge in Detroit or Marion Forks Lodge offers not just a good sandwich or slice of pizza, but also selected stories about the area’s past: paper menus with a map of Old Detroit, now submerged under the reservoir, from which Cedars Lounge was hauled up on a sled; paintings of Native peoples situated next to old maps and taxidermized animal heads, mounted on walls made of lumber produced in now-defunct mills not that far from Marion Forks Lodge. Intrepid and interested travelers might even stop for a while to visit the Canyon Life Museum in Mill City, where a floor studded with holes from loggers’ boots supports exhibits on farming, mining, and more. In short, there is history in the North Santiam Canyon, as in other such places in the West.

 Paying attention to that history leads to interesting questions about important events and themes in the history of the American West. Visitors might note repeated use of the name “Minto” and wonder why someone who never even lived in the area got his name on a mountain pass, park, road, and other landmarks. Others might have a vague (and generally correct) sense that the word “Santiam” has Native American origins and perhaps puzzle about what happened to those Native peoples. Railroad history buffs might stop in Mill City to see the old railroad bridge now used by pedestrians in the same spot that the Oregon Pacific Railroad crossed the river in 1888, supposedly on its way to becoming a transcontinental railroad—an aspiration that died in the upper canyon just a few years later. That projected route ran right through Marion Forks and Township 11, Range 7, where at the beginning of the twentieth century twelve false homestead claims led to the infamous Oregon Land Fraud Trials and the downfall—and death—of a US senator. If driving by Detroit Reservoir during the late fall or increasingly dry summers, passersby would certainly take note of the empty reservoir and stumps, but they would see no sign of the old town of Detroit that sat at the bottom of the reservoir and how “new” Detroit came to be in 1953. Seeing the vacant mill buildings in Idanha might remind some travelers that the North Santiam Canyon featured prominently in the old-growth forest controversies of the 1980s and 1990s, and a few might make the connection between the Yellow Ribbon Rallies of that time and the Save Our Lake (SOL) protests that occurred during the summer of 2001, when Detroit Reservoir went dry and the vulnerabilities of the tourism industry became apparent. In short, visitors might be surprised to learn that the North Santiam Canyon has been the site of interesting and important regional and national history.

To see, interpret, and make sense of the history of this place, and to suggest a path for studies of other such communities, this book focuses on power in the North Santiam Canyon. As long as people have lived in the region, they have sought to assert their autonomy. They have done so for myriad reasons: to control their homelands and cultures, as did the indigenous Santiam Kalapuyans and Molallans; to build their own farms and homes, like Euro-American families in the middle and late nineteenth century; and to profit from the area’s resources, from miners in the nineteenth century and loggers in the twentieth century to tourism businesses in the twenty-first century. Their expressions of power have taken a variety of forms, from the resourcefulness of Depression-era subsistence hunting to loud demands for government assistance at the same time; from enthusiastic embrace of federal river development projects to passive acceptance or modest resistance to the same; from beautiful moments of family and community life to ugly expressions of xenophobia and racism. These efforts have shaped work, life, community, and lived experience, although local autonomy has always been structured and limited by powerful forces from beyond the area: citizens of larger urban areas in the Willamette Valley, capitalists from Portland and San Francisco and New York, national politicians and agents of the federal government, and, most importantly, distant and abstract market forces. In their responses to these external forces, people in the North Santiam Canyon have developed a narrative that celebrates local resiliency and independence while pitting a victimized “us” (local residents) versus a powerful “them” (outsiders, city folk, “the government”). That story has become a part of the identity of the North Santiam Canyon, where, as in so many other similar marginalized places in the American West, residents have in a multitude of ways, out of many motives, and to varying degrees of success tried to exercise limited power over their lives, their work, and their community.



This book draws on, builds upon, and departs from other histories of the American West that examine the workings of power on and within marginalized communities. Broad perspectives surveying the sweep of the region’s history have explored the breadth and depth of external power exerted upon places like the North Santiam Canyon. In contrast to urban centers of wealth and power, small resource-dependent communities can seem like hapless, powerless victims of distant forces: distant politicians and entrenched government bureaucrats, cultural and social pressures emanating from urbane trendsetters, and global economic systems. In a famous 1934 essay for Harper’s, Bernard DeVoto described the West as a “Plundered Province,” an economic colony whose residents had been “looted, betrayed, [and] sold out” by ungrateful Easterners.1 This direct interpretation was simplistic in laying blame solely on outsiders, but its focus on the influence of external forces has resonated with historians for decades, from the enthusiastic endorsement of Walter Prescott Webb to the thoughtful and complex analyses of Nancy Langston, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Earl Pomeroy, Hal Rothman, Richard White, Donald Worster, and others.2 William Robbins has developed perhaps the most convincing and nuanced of these interpretations through histories written at different scales, from a history of a small Oregon coastal community to a broad survey of the entire American West.3 As Robbins explains, the relationships of marginalized places to larger sources of power, “Isolated, with relatively small populations, and lacking significant influence in the trade and exchange relation, resource-dependent communities are by-products of industrial strategies and decisions made elsewhere.”4 From historical perspectives that appreciate the power of national and global forces, small communities like the North Santiam Canyon can seem relatively insignificant and powerless.


Things look a little different closer up. Historians studying marginal communities in the American West have explored how people in such communities have sought to assert their autonomy. These examinations of local power offer examples and paths that this book seeks to follow and extend. The first step on that path is to try to re-create a place’s history and explain how and why that place changed over time; Richard White’s Land Use, Environment, and Social Change, William deBuys’s Enchantment and Exploitation, and William Willingham’s Starting Over approach such description and analysis from the perspective of environmental change, evolving ideas about and uses of the land, and careful demographic study of the local population, respectively.5 In exploring the myriad ways people respond to the overwhelming influence of a specific source of power, Brian Leech’s The City That Ate Itself provides an excellent guide, showing how the residents of Butte, Montana, created community, endured hardship in the mines and in their homes, and at times actively resisted the power of the Anaconda Mining Company. 6 Bonnie Christensen’s history of tourism in Red Lodge, Montana, shows the multitude of ways in which Westerners have transformed their communities, their identities, and even themselves in an effort to confront the challenges of the transition from natural resource extraction to a tourism-based economy.7 To make sense of the actual experience of life and work in a Western natural resource extraction community, James Feldman’s engaging history of Sand Island, Wisconsin, demonstrates how local conditions, and the way local people understood and interacted with those conditions, shape exactly how “a peripheral economy work(s).”8 Such on the-ground perspectives explain a variety of ways in which people on the Western periphery have worked against and with external forces. Such an approach does not ignore or minimize the influence of outside forces, but it does show how the people subject to those forces have not sat back and watched things happen to them—they made things happen, too. By building on these analyses and focusing on local perspectives, choices, and actions, this book examines how residents of the canyon have responded to, interacted with, and even, rarely, gotten the better of external forces.


To explore those local perspectives, this book draws on both local archives and histories as well as regional and national sources. The North Santiam Historical Society (NSHS) has sought to preserve the area’s past, collecting thousands of photographs, hundreds of personal recollections, dozens of boxes of documents, and a bank vault full of newspaper clippings, maps, and other ephemera. The NSHS maintains an archive of local newspapers, which provide an invaluable chronicle of events as well as express a local point of view that needs critical contextualization, as William Willingham explains.9 The NSHS also maintains a number of local reminisces and narratives, from the oral histories recorded in Just a Few of Our Memories to the unpublished, three-hundred-plus-page manuscript of longtime resident and history buff John Lengacher. Others have written about aspects of the area’s history, including Cara Kelly’s master’s thesis on precontact land-use patterns, Evangelyn Fleetwood’s twenty-page time line of notable events, Jim Petersen’s history of the Freres Lumber Company in Lyons, Jim Quiring’s forthcoming book about the Little North Fork River, and the “autobiography of a place” about Niagara written by Lisa Chaldize, Melody Munger, and Debbie Corning.10 These local perspectives and sources complement insights from other sources, including qualitative and quantitative information from the US Census, records from the US Army Corps of Engineers, urban newspapers and trade journals, and materials preserved by the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem and the Oregon Historical Society in Portland. Taken together and critically analyzed, these firsthand accounts and information reveal the many ways people in the North Santiam Canyon have sought to assert their autonomy in relationship to the world outside.





The path through the North Santiam Canyon’s history follows the routes that run into and through the area, especially Highway 22, a popular road connecting Oregon's Williamette

Valley to central Oregon and beyond. The Willamette Valley is the center of state and regional economic, political, and cultural power: it is the location of the state’s biggest cities (Portland in the north and Eugene in the south),                                                                                                             The North Santiam Canyon. Map illustrator: Edwin Xavier Pinedo.  
most of the state’s population, and the state capital in Salem. About twenty-two miles east of Salem on the highway, the North Santiam Canyon begins at the towns of Lyons and Mehama.11 There, the gently sloped farmlands of the Willamette Valley transition into mountain terrain and dense Douglas fir forests, and the highway saddles up alongside the North Santiam River for a sixty-mile journey into the Cascade mountains. Continuing east along the river brings one into Mill City, the largest population center of the area with about eighteen hundred residents living on either side of the river, which divides Marion and Linn Counties. A few miles up the river, the steep hillsides briefly spread out into a valley and the town of Gates, the last part of the lower canyon.

After Gates, the walls close in again and travelers enter the upper canyon. Ten miles up Highway 22, Detroit Dam rises 463 feet above the river, backing up a reservoir with thirty-two miles of shoreline. The town of Detroit sits at the northeast end of the reservoir. Idanha comes next, about fifty miles from Salem; its two hundred residents and vacant mill buildings represent the last population center. A few miles later, travelers come to a few vacation homes, a fish hatchery, and a historic restaurant at Marion Forks. The highway then skips over the North Santiam River for another ten miles, when the river breaks east for its headwaters in the Cascade mountains. Highway 22 continues to the junction with Highway 20, which crests the Cascades at Santiam Pass and heads east toward central Oregon. Each village and town along the North Santiam River has its own specific history, and there are differences between the lower canyon closer to the Willamette Valley and the more isolated upper canyon. But in practice—here in this book and in the lived experience of people in the area—the communities of the North Santiam Canyon have more in common than not.


This analysis of the North Santiam Canyon breaks roughly into two halves. The first part covers the period prior to Euro American contact in the mid-nineteenth century up through the Great Depression. Chapter 1 begins with the first people to call the area home: the Santiam bands of the Molalla and Kalapuya peoples. These Native groups created a multitude of connections into and through the area, creating a sense of home that incorporated the canyon as a place in which to survive and thrive and as a corridor through which to move. Chapter 1 also describes the first Euro Americans in the area: fur trappers and miners, explorers and road builders, and the first Euro American families to resettle the area, so recently dispossessed from Kalapuyans and Molallans, in the nineteenth century. These newcomers initially used and conceived of the canyon as a path to other places, establishing connections to the outside world, especially federal land policy largesse, that made their enterprises possible. Chapter 2 narrates the construction of the Oregon Pacific Railroad into the North Santiam Canyon during the 1870s and 1880s, a development that opened up opportunities for local agency as well as external influence, both legal and not. Chapter 3 focuses on life, work, and community in the area under the shadow of the Hammond Lumber Company, which dominated the area from 1894 to 1934. Chapter 4 considers the Great Depression and connections to the outside world, which had made it vulnerable to the effects of the Depression, retracted during this period, and local residents responded by pursing both self-sufficiency and government support. The Great Depression period highlights the theme of the book’s first section: people living in the canyon exercised autonomy and cultivated connections to external forces, hoping that both local power and outside power could coexist and even reinforce each other.


The second part of the book shows more powerful and abstract outside forces coming to the canyon, and explores how residents increasingly responded with anxiety, alarm, and anger. Chapter 5 details two infrastructure projects built between 1934 and 1953 that fundamentally transformed the North Santiam Canyon and the region: Highway 22 and the Army Corps of Engineers’ Detroit Dam. Although most local residents enthusiastically supported these changes and their promised economic development, a few people expressed reservations about how these technological wonders might transform—or even destroy—their homes and communities. Chapter 6 examines the timber economy and identity of a “timber community” that developed along the new highway from the 1940s through the 1980s, during which time timber workers and local timber companies sometimes convicted but often cooperated with each other and among themselves, attracting at one time unwanted legal attention. Chapter 7 explains the development of a fiercely independent identity in the canyon at the end of the twentieth century. That identity crystalized during the old-growth controversies of the 1980s and 1990s, and it hardened into a more general canyon-versus-outsiders perspective at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the vulnerabilities of the local tourism economy became increasingly obvious.

At the end of this journey through this place and its history, the book’s epilogue considers the community that has emerged from the transformations and tumult of the second half of the twentieth century, reflecting on the possibilities for local autonomy in the twenty-first century. In looking toward this future, the people of the North Santiam Canyon, like other such marginal places in the community, have a deep reservoir of history from which to draw. That history contains frustrations, failures, and even foolish and destructive responses to external forces. But it contains power, too—the power of knowing that the residents of the North Santiam Canyon and places like it are real people making real decisions that have real consequences.






1 DeVoto, “The West,” 364.

2 Pomeroy, Pacific Slope; Limerick, Legacy of Conquest; Worster, Rivers of Empire; White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”; Rothman, “Selling the Meaning of Place”; idem, Devil’s Bargains; Langston, Forest Dreams.

3 Robbins, Hard Times in Paradise; idem, Colony and Empire. For Robbins’s analysis applied at the scale of Oregon’s history, see “Town and Country in Oregon.” See also his Landscapes of Conflict and Oregon.

4 Robbins, “The ‘Plundered Province,’ ” 595.

5 White, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change; Willingham, Starting Over; deBuys, Enchantment and Exploitation.

6 Leech, The City That Ate Itself.

7 Christensen, Red Lodge and the Mythic West.

8 Feldman, “View from Sand Island.”

9 Willingham, Starting Over, 7-9.

10 Lengacher, “History of North Santiam Canyon”; Petersen, Santiam Song; Lisa Chalidze, Melody Munger, and Debbie Corning, “Niagara, Oregon”; Fleetwood, “Timeline—North Santiam Canyon.” Other residents, current and former, have written about the North Santiam Canyon, including Rada, Singing My Song; Grafe, Gates of the North Santiam; and Ray Stout,“Mehama Story.”

11 Some definitions of the North Santiam Canyon extend downstream to Stayton and beyond, to where the North Santiam River joins with the South Santiam River to become the Santiam River, but that area is both moreproximate and similar to the Willamette Valley in its geography, climate, and economy than the North SantiamCanyon as defined here.

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