One day, a long time ago, a logger named Gordon Smith dreamed of building the biggest log cabin anyone had ever seen. He'd fell, buck, haul, and cut the timber—red cedar and Douglas fir—all by himself on his property of deep Oregon forest near Elsie. When he was done he'd fill his Bunyanesque cabin with logging tools, machinery, and photographs, to which reminiscent old loggers, curious children, and everyone else, too, would be drawn. Maybe that way the colorful, dangerous, and laborious profession that defined the Pacific Northwest for so long would never die. Camp 18, he'd call it—18 miles from the Coast Highway. And besides, the old logging camps were always numbered, not named.
The short version of Gordon Smith's story is that he built his dream. He made the biggest log cabin you ever saw, complete with a 20-ton, 85-foot fir ridgepole surrounded by cedar and fir beams and two 500-pound fir front doors. He filled the inside with crosscut saws, topping axes, calk boots, and a huge stuffed cougar. Then he really indulged his fascination with logging by salvaging steam locomotives, boilers, a band saw, and even an ancient fire engine, all of which he scattered around outside the cabin as a kind of "open-air logging museum," as he says. This, then, is what you find as you're driving along Highway 26 toward the coast: Suddenly, on the south side of the road, you come across the biggest log cabin you've ever seen.
The longer version of Gordon Smith's story would delve into his own career as a "gyppo," or independent logger, and then go on to talk about how his father and grandfather were loggers, too. It might also tell how this genetic line with sap and cedar shavings in it led Smith, now 70, to devote more than a quarter of a century to building what must have seemed to those who know him like something of a pipe dream. Who would come to a logging museum out in the Oregon woods, anyway?
In the beginning, discovered Smith, hardly anyone. So he and his wife, along with their sons and daughter, started a restaurant in the huge log cabin in 1986. It's the restaurant that today draws people off the highway as they rocket to and from the coast, and provides Smith with the money to keep expanding his motley museum, which will never be finished, he admits with a grin.
It's a pretty good restaurant—sturdy American food and lots of it, with cinnamon rolls as big as your head, huge omelettes, berry pies. You'll also find a smorgasbord of such Oregon coast touches as halibut, razor clams, oysters, and microbrewed ales. But as Smith's daughter, Elaine, says, her father generally couldn't care less about the restaurant. When you get him talking about his free-form museum at Camp 18 and the old days of logging, his gaze sharpens. He starts off walking and talking, and you're quickly taking a grand tour of Gordon Smith's dream: "Here, now, that's a logger carved from fir, he's about 9 feet tall, carved with a chain saw and then a knife by a logger, this same fella did a lot of the carvings here—see the bear and the eagle and the cougar there by the road? And there's Bigfoot there, Sasquatch, he scares the little kids. And the log entrance that you drive under, that's a cedar. Got a huckleberry bush started growing out of it, see? Now all this stuff in the parking lot, a lot of this stuff was burned in the Tillamook Burn, the three massive fires here in the 1930s and '40s, and all told they burned 355,000 acres of old-growth forest around here, it was a hell of a thing. A lot of the timber was salvaged by loggers, and the forest was replanted by loggers and schoolkids and college kids, and that's why it's such a beautiful forest today, the Tillamook State Forest. Well, here's a torpedo, or old oil tank, and a straddle buggy that could pick up huge logs, you know, and a horse-drawn grader, and a couple real old Cat tractors, I think one is the oldest in the state. The railroad car, that's a caboose, a woman used to live in it. Lovely thing—the caboose. There's a dining car over there that also serves as our extra rest room for the restaurant, and there's a loading donkey, and a boiler, and a steam bathhouse a guy gave me, and another boiler—Lord, we have a lot of boilers here—and that's logging cable, all different sizes, and a water tank. I took that apart where it was and numbered all the timbers and rebuilt it here so we would have a real old water tank that was in a logging camp . . . "
And this is just outside.
Inside, on the main floor, there are so many photographs and tools that Smith has lost count. One photograph in particular sets him going again, this time about his dear friend and Camp 18 partner Maurie Clark, who had grown up in a timber family and worked as a logger before making millions in investments and insurance. But Clark, who died last winter at age 85, never lost his love for his fellow loggers. Along with rebuilding the little coast town of Cannon Beach and quietly funding half the schools and historical societies in Oregon, he also found and paid for much of Camp 18's collection.
"One of the great men in Oregon history, and it'd be a thinner history without Maurie having kept it alive," Smith says.
Logging in its precomputerized heyday (roughly 1850 to 1950) was a famously dangerous profession. There were hundreds of ways to be killed or maimed in the woods—falling trees, truck accidents, howling fires. Even today, when most large-scale logging is done with specialized machinery, more loggers die on the job than do police officers or firefighters.
And few jobs were physically harder than logging. In the old days, a logger worked dawn to dusk six days a week, fueled by 7,000 to 9,000 calories per day, nearly three times that of today's average man—which may explain the huge portions served at Camp 18.
Yet there were many joys in the work, including the sheer natural beauty of the deep Northwest woods. And don't forget the camaraderie of men engaged in arduous labor; the sense, in the old days, that trying to create "daylight in the swamp," as old loggers said, was a virtuous aid to an expanding nation; and, of course, the steady money. No job was more secure than logging . . . until the 1980s, when litigation, federal restrictions, and new technology sent timber employment into a steep decline. Where once the industry employed roughly 15 percent of the region's workers, today it employs only 3 percent, and the old days of logging are indisputably gone.
But they aren't forgotten—not at Camp 18, anyway. So says Gordon Smith, who is now wandering around in the basement. Here there is more logging paraphernalia, and a fir beam the size of a car serving as the counter of the bar. "A really big fella was once here and swore he could lift it, but it only groaned a little," Smith says. Out back is Humbug Creek, where chinook salmon the size of your leg spawn every fall. By now, Smith is winding down a little—but it turns out he wants to go look at an old steam engine, so off he goes. His visitor, now a little goggle-eyed, makes for the restaurant and gobbles up the biggest piece of marionberry cobbler he ever saw, and then heads home.
But he does not forget Camp 18, which for all its casual chaos and restaurant-like bustle is a place of poignant power. More than a museum, it is a monument, perhaps—not only to Gordon Smith and Maurie Clark, who so loved timber work and workers that they created this unusual and savory roadside shrine, but also to a craft and profession so closely tied to the Pacific Northwest, one that helped build schools, houses, gyms, and churches all over America. No small feat, and one that should be remembered. And as long Gordon Smith stands watch over Camp 18, it will be.
Camp 18 is located at Mile Post 18 on Highway 26. Information: (503) 755-1818, (800) 874-1810.