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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
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B.R. Lewis, Clear Lake Lumber Co.

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal ©2011
(The Lewis family)
Art, B.R. and Syd Lewis.

      Byron Ruthven Lewis, who was always called B.R., was born in New York State, Cattaraugus County, Sept. 28, 1864, and was a babe in arms when his parents moved to Michigan. His father, a Union Army surgeon in the Civil War, set up practice in the logging country, and when B.R. was in his teens, he had so little education that he could not hire on as a clerk, so he labored in sawmills, planing mills and the woods in the Saginaw and Ausable districts until he was 17. At that time he began clerking for a hardware and farm implement store where he handled hardware and agricultural tools.
      At age 21 he returned to the logging industry by moving to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, where he began cruising timber independently in 1887. He accumulated enough capital by 1891 to trade in timberland out of his business in Minneapolis. He married Ida Swanson, of Fargo, North Dakota, in 1891 and they had six children, including the oldest, Sydney and Arthur, who would become principals in the operation out here.
      In 1896 Lewis organized the B.R. Lewis Lumber Co. and acted as company president. In 1902 he moved farther west to follow the trend in logging the virgin forests of the Northwest, while Michigan and Minnesota were both increasingly clear-cut. He disposed of his Minnesota property at Ortonville a year later and set up his company and home in Spokane, while investing in land and camps near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. His plant there cut 400,000 feet of lumber every day and he bragged that his planing mill alongside the sawmill was the best equipped in the West, with 19 machines. E.P. Keefe, of Coeur d'Alene, signed on as treasurer and would follow him to Clear Lake.
      In 1905 he led others to incorporate the Idaho & Northwestern Railroad Company as president and manager. The line had 18 miles of track, with spurs to all his camps and then the dumping point was Lake Coeur d'Alene. He was also founder of the Bank of Coeur d'Alene, a much more successful venture than the bank he opened a decade later at Clear Lake. Fraternally he was a member of various timbermen lodges, and he was a Freemason, an Elk and a Concatenated Hoo-Hoo.
      His mill complex on the shores of the lake appeared to be profitable and on firm financial footing. We found, however, a 1908 Idaho court case was decided against Lewis, personally and his corporation, for debts of more than $350,000. The business was taken over by a receiver, F.A. Blackwell, and Lewis stayed on briefly but left in 1908-09. Dennis Thompson wrote that Lewis sold the bank in 1908 and in 1909 he sold the balance of his assets for about $500,000.

(Clear Lake Mill)
The Clear Lake Mill, when owned by B.R. Lewis family. Circa 1923, photos from A Timber and Sawmill Travelog, produced circa 1923, reprinted by the late Dick Fallis in 1983.

      He then surfaced on the south shore of the Skagit River, where he bought a large tract of virgin timber in 1909 and he founded Skagit Logging Co. In 1911-12, he built a new common carrier, the Puget Sound & Cascade Railway (PS&C) and began associating with the Clear Lake Lumber Co. [CLLC]. Many people assume that Lewis was involved from the beginning in the CLLC operation at Clear Lake but he came along a decade later.
      The Day Brothers built the first shingle mill on the northwest shore of the lake in 1892 and that evolved over the next decade into Bratnober & Waite, whose sawmill was destroyed by fire in November 1902, although the shingle mill was saved. John Bratnober stayed on for a short while as secretary but soon moved on greener pastures in King County. In 1903 the company was reorganized and renamed the Clear Lake Lumber Company, with F.H. Jackson as president. Jackson stayed on through the Lewis years all the way to the end, the only one of the original officers to do so. For the next nine years, they basically treaded water as they built a rail extension westward nine miles from the Northern Pacific [NP] tracks to Mount Vernon.

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      Local competition from J.E. Potts and the Day Creek Lumber Co., along with an interim owner who seemed snake bit, led to an opening for B.R. Lewis. He attracted some heavyweights to invest in his rail line, including Thomas Smith, the Mount Vernon attorney [B.R.'s son Sid married Smith's daughter]; T.J. Meagher; F.H. Jackson and J.C. Wixson, the Big Lake timber man. Jackson may have been retained so long because he was a cousin of the Hortons, of Winona, Minnesota, who became the largest block of CLLC investors. The new rail line first shipped logs over the ten miles of track back to the Skagit Junction NP interchange in December 1912 and it became a roaring success.
      In April 1913 a third version of CLLC emerged, absorbing Lewis's companies and the railroad, and with Lewis as president. Lewis hit his first speed bump in 1914 when he incorporated the First National Bank of Clear Lake, but he was soon at loggerheads with the board and eight months later he and a partner sold their shares to C.E. Bingham, the leading Sedro-Woolley banker.
      His PS&C Railway, however, was consistently a winning investment, eventually running by 1923 seven steam locomotives and 225 log-cars across 35 miles of mainline and 60 miles branch line. He hedged his bets, however by an investment in the Puget Sound & Baker River [PS&B] Railroad as early as 1906. That consortium led by Ed English and the Dempsey brothers, of Michigan, ran tracks on the north side of the river exclusively, eventually from Hamilton to Sterling, and both Lewis and Bingham invested in it too. Lewis also invested in April 1920, along with Bingham again and farmer John Peth, of LaConner, in the Faber Logging Company, upriver from Birdsview.
      A major sale in 1923 might have forecast upcoming financial trouble for CLLC as they sold the Clear Lake Lumber yard in Sedro-Woolley to the Massar family of Mount Vernon. It stood on part of the same footprint as Marketplace Foods occupied from 1963 until the early 2000s, on the north side of State Street near Eastern Avenue. The yard had been a major business there since December 1911.
      In about 1923, the company produced a major public relations magazine that showed them reaching their peak in expansion and sales. The late Dick Fallis reprinted it in 1983, during the county centennial celebration. In it, B.R.'s sons are featured prominently: S.B. "Sid," the eldest at 30, was general manager and "A.L. Art" was assistant G.M. The writer bragged about the recreation, housing, the general intellect of many of the employees and the amenities such as the Stoddard Club and theater, along with the company's own electric system and its own phone line.
      On May 12, 1925, the company seemed prosperous and still growing, as 1,236 employees and their families celebrated at the annual employee picnic. But in December the company shocked the county and especially the employees, as it went into receivership. They cited a recent fire at the mill and raging forest fires in their holdings as major reasons, but years later, Frank Evans at the Courier-Times attributed bad management as a major factor, perhaps the same kind of problem that doomed Lewis's Coeur d'Alene company two decades earlier.
      Properties inventoried at $5 million, the largest sale of its kind ever in the Northwest. The final bid was accepted on Aug. 20, 1927, from buyer Bank of California. The in turn sold it to the Puget Sound Pulp & Timber Co. [PSP&T], which was formed in April 1929, in Everett. PSP&T absorbed several companies and 70 million feet of timber in Snohomish and Skagit counties. The new company's president was Ossian Anderson, who was president of San Juan Pulp and Manufacturing Co. in Bellingham and president of Fidalgo Pulp & Manufacturing Co. in Anacortes. He was also a descendant of the family of Louisa Anderson, the Swedish immigrant wife of Joseph Hart, one of the four British bachelor homesteaders in Sedro in 1878.
      We have been unable to determine how Lewis fared financially in the deal but he had already landed on his feet in 1925 when he used his political connections, to get appointed to the State Department of Public Works between by Governor Roland H. Hartley, and then became the department commissioner in 1930. He retired in 1933 and moved to Longview. He died July 2, 1950, a few days before a family reunion he had planned. We found no mention of either of his sons after they left Skagit County in 1926.
      Major sources for details: 100 Eminent lumbermen of the U.S., The American Lumberman magazine, 1906 . . . Dick Fallis, 1983 reprint of A Timber and Sawmill Travelog, @1923 . . . Dennis Blake Thompson, Logging Railroads in Skagit County, 1989 [a must for the top shelf of anyone's desk].
      Upcoming note: We will excerpt parts of the 1923 Travelog, along with an expanded profile of Lewis and a mini-biography of John Bratnober in an issue this summer.

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Story posted on March 27, 2011
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This article originally appeared in Issue 53 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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