Date of visit: October 31, 2010
Population: 2151 (2010 Census)
Vernonia was established in the 1870s when hardy pioneers came to the area, cleared the old growth, and started farming. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that the town really started booming. A railroad line from Portland was finished in 1922, connecting Vernonia to the outside world. The Oregon-American Lumber Mill was finished two years later and loggers set to work cutting down the vast swaths of forests near Vernonia. The mill caused such a population boom that the town became known as the “Biggest Little City in Oregon.” From 1920 to 1928, the population increased ten-fold to 1,500. The mill company had to build homes for managers and mill workers with families to alleviate the sudden housing shortage in town. The boom years also brought a new newspaper, the Vernonia Eagle, in 1922 and an airport in 1935, which had a two-day opening celebration and an Airport Dedication Queen.
By 1957 the mill had processed 2.5-billion board feet of lumber. But all the big old-growth had been cut down and the mill had to close. Now there is almost no evidence left of the mill. The planing mill was deliberately burnt to the ground, a scene featured in the 1959 movie Ring of Fire. One of the old mill buildings still remains, sitting roofless down by the lake. Trees grow from the dirt floor, their branches spreading out above the tops of the walls. The mill office became the Vernonia Pioneer Museum, which is chock full of cool old artifacts from Vernonia’s past. The rail line south to Banks is gone, converted to a 20-mile-long paved path that is popular with cyclists. The rail line east to Portland is also gone, converted to a logging road by Crown Zellerbach in 1943. That road has been purchased by Columbia County and is slowly being converted into the Crown Zellerbach Trail.
Although it’s days as a logging town are gone, Vernonia has become a quiet bedroom community for the nearby city of Portland.