A Brief History of Brownsville
Brownsville, one of Oregon’s early settlements, had its beginnings in 1846, when a group of families including the Kirks, Browns and Blakelys, came west on the Oregon Trail and continued south to claim land in the lush valley of the Calapooia River.
Alexander and Sarah Kirk established a small, hand-hauled ferry across the Calapooia River the following year. Travelers on the east side Territorial Road used the ferry during the deep water periods, and the place became known as “Calapooya” or simply “Kirk’s Ferry”. Kirk’s ferry operated until 1853, when a covered bridge was built over the Calapooia — the first built in Linn County with county funds.
To further serve travelers as well as the local residents, Hugh Brown and his nephew James Blakely established a store south of the river. In 1853, Blakely laid out a town on part of his land claim and named it after his uncle.
In 1858, both North Brownsville and the town of Amelia developed as separate communities on the north side of the river. A dam was constructed three miles upriver, and a ditch (millrace) was dug to supply reliable water power for industry in the new towns. First a grist mill, then a woolen mill, and later a sawmill, furniture factory, and tannery, were established on the north side of the river. The railroad came to town in 1880, and by 1884, North Brownsville had become a bustling manufacturing and trade center serving a population of 300, as well as travelers on the railroad and the Territorial Road.
In 1895, the north and south sides of the river consolidated as the City of Brownsville. Pictured below is Main St. facing North in 1911 before the population reached 1,000 in 1912. In 1919, a fire destroyed many buildings in the downtown area, but the energetic tradespeople conducted “business as usual” in tents and homes until the town could be rebuilt.
Brownsville continues to be the home of people who take pride in their historic town, who value its past and its peaceful small-town atmosphere, and who are working to help it move gracefully into the future.
Pioneer Picnic History
Pioneer Picnic is Oregon’s oldest continuing celebration. The first Picnic, a reunion of Pioneers, was held in Crawfordsville in 1887. At the second annual reunion, the constitution was adopted for the Linn County Pioneer Association. Membership requirements were as follows: “All emigrants, male and female, prior to the first day of January, 1855, and now residents of Linn county are eligible to be members of the association.” The 3rd, 4th, and 5th annual reunions were held in South Brownsville, the 6th in a grove near Halsey. All subsequent meetings have been held in Brownsville on land that is now the Brownsville City Pioneer Park.
At early picnics, families from all over Linn County came by buggy, horse, and wagon; pitched their tents in the park and settled in for three days of fun, worship, and fellowship. They entertained each other with recitation, plays, and musical numbers. Picnic cloths were spread beneath the trees. Spirited Sunday sermons were also an important part of the annual celebration.
With the passing of time and the actual pioneers, the membership requirements have been revised to include all Linn County residents and other entertainment and activities have been added to keep pace with changing times and tastes. The Picnic welcomes all those who enjoy old-time fun and good fellowship.
The Oregonian Railway Company
From Stations West, The Story of Oregon Railways, Edwin D. Culp, 1972, pages 65, 66, 67 and 77.
A group of Scot Capitalists, headed by the Earl of Arlie, paid off the indebtedness of the DS&GR (Dayton, Sheridan & Grand Ronde Railroad Company) in 1879 and took over its operation. The line was renamed and the terminal at Dayton on the Yamhill River was moved to Fulquartz Landing on the larger and more navigable Willamette River. On the opposite side of the Willamette from Fulquartz Landing the established Ray’s Landing, another rail terminal (near St. Paul). From this point trackage was constructed through St. Paul, Woodburn, Silverton, and on to Brownsville and Coburg. Headquarters for the Oregonian Railway were at Dundee, a spot selected on higher ground above Fulquartz Landing and named after the city in Scotland.
Steamboat service left Portland in the morning and reached Fulquartz and Ray’s Landings in the early afternoon, making connections with the trains for destinations into the Willamette Valley.
Competition from the Portland and Willamette Valley Railway Company, formed in 1886, eliminated the need for a steamboat service formerly used to bring passengers and freight from Portland to a connection with the Oregonian Railway. Tensions grew as freight and passenger revenues became inadequate to meet company expenses. The pay car that brought wages to employees was seen less and less. One conductor — and an honest one — assumed the responsibilities of the workers. As he told it, he would toss the money collected from the rail fares into the air inside the coach, and that which balanced on the bell cord was turned over to the railroad, while that which fell to the ground went into his pocket to be paid to the employees along the line.
Revenues continued to drop, and the line fell into receivership. The Scot investors, becoming increasingly concerned about their money, granted Henry Villard of the O&C (Oregon & California) a long-term lease which allowed him complete control of the Oregonian Railway. At Villard’s exit from the Oregon railroad scene, the line fell into the hands of the Southern Pacific Company, which converted the track into standard gauge and used it for feeder service to their own operations.
Brownsville, one of the oldest cities in the Willamette Valley, was a farming community. Countless colonists from the East went there to make their homes. For a time the town was served by a narrow gauge line of the Oregonian Railway Company, Ltd. In 1890 the mayor of Brownsville and a group of towns people joined a work party of SP trackmen — the SP then owned the line — to change the track from narrow to standard gauge, thus allowing a free interchange of cars from all the railroads servicing the town instituted special colonist rates for March and April, 1909.
Several Rules and Regulations of the Oregonian Railway Company, dated June 16, 1880, were: —The maximum speed of freight trains was twelve miles per hour. —At trains’ meeting points, five minutes were to be allowed for possible variations intrainmen’s watches. —The use of “spiritous liquors” while on duty was strictly prohibited. —No engineer was allowed to run at night without a headlight. —Engineers were warned not to blow the whistle except when necessary since “too much sounding of the whistle impairs its value as a signal of danger.” —The fireman was instructed to close the ash pan when crossing the trestles.
The Big Fire
July 12, 1919, was an unforgettable Saturday in Brownsville. Fire was discovered around the Hazelwood Creamery about 3 p.m. that summer afternoon. No one knows the cause of the fire. It may have been boiler sparks from the creamery or a cigarette carelessly tossed in dry grass near the building.
Whatever the cause, around three blocks of Brownsville’s northern business and residential district from Spaulding Avenue south to the river and east across Averill Street were destroyed or damaged. Losses were estimated from $40,000 to $100,000, with fifteen to twenty percent covered by insurance. Ironically, Brownsville’s respected pioneer black barber, Minor Jackson, had insured his business building and attached residence for twenty years, and was one of those who had allowed his policy to lapse.
Insurance rates were high for Brownsville because the flammable wood buildings were erected too closely together and fire protection services were decidedly inadequate.
Brownsville Hose Company No. 1, organized in 1905, included a fire chief, hose cart, fire bell and eager volunteers. But the volunteers had lost their zeal, and during the intervening war years the company lacked even a chief. The local paper often scolded the city fathers for not providing proper quarters for the ladder and hose cart, which were often stored at random in separate buildings.
Volunteer help came from all around, and even children helped remove possessions to safer locations.
The telephone operator remained at her post calling for assistance until forced to leave the office on Spaulding and Averill. Albany, Lebanon and Corvallis responded to the call, bringing their hose carts on trucks. However, Brownsville’s unique brass couplings did not fit all the assisting fire fighting equipment.
Records show that eleven business buildings and twenty residences were burned. The brick Howe building pictured below on Main and Spaulding was believed to have saved the rest of the business district by serving as a fire barrier. The concrete block shell of the building now occupied by the Brownsville Public Library was gutted by the blaze.
Brownsville’s first settler’s were hard-working, pious people with scant time for idle relaxation and frivolous entertainment. The brief school term, with its spelling bees and programs, and church gatherings furnished most of their social life. Weddings and funerals were times of reunion and talk.
Most of the early churches were extremely strict and the Sabbath was so rigidly observed even non-whistlers were tempted to pucker-up on Sunday. Catechism study and family dinners were acceptable Sabbath activities, along with Sunday School and preaching services.
Everyone anticipated the arrival of the circuit riders, who made their rounds to remote farms, schools and meeting houses. Camp meetings were popular among Shouting Methodists, who came from miles around for days of preaching, praying, and baptizing.
In time, people became more worldly accepted musical instruments in their homes and churches. Vocal, piano, and violin lessons were offered by local teachers and instructors from nearby Albany College, and many community bands and orchestras were organized. A boys’ band from Brownsville preformed at the Lewis & Clark Centennial in Portland in 1905.
Entertainment from afar stopped at the Brownsville Opera House pictured to the right, which was located on Main Street. Minstrel shows, concerts, lectures, plays, male quartets and bands were popular attractions. The De Moss family of concert singers from North Powder, who had traveled about the world, were particular favorites.
William Jennings Bryan, frequent presidential hopeful, was 59 years of age when he spoke to a large crowd on July 16, 1919, for the Chautauqua Society — just a few days after Brownsville’s big fire!
The community “Browns” challenged many of the big town teams on their lighted baseball field, and the town took pride in its high school athletes. They followed many of the boys as they went on to play for the state colleges, as well as Willamette University.
Fraternal lodges were well-attended in those days and there were clubs to suit any interest: Rod and Gun, Late Hours, Boys’ No-tobacco, tennis, hiking, riding, literary and music. All these — plus dances, parties and church socials — kept Brownsville citizens entertained in the days before television and radio!