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Camas

In a semicircle of evergreen hills dropping to cultivated prairie land bordering the Columbia River on the south, was a “City of Paper” where wide, concrete-paved streets and modern brick business and residential buildings enlivened the town. The mill buildings and the lingering odor of sulphite suggested the city’s industrial background.

Construction of a sawmill by Jacob Hunsacker in 1846 on Lake Lackamas brought the first industrial activity to the district. First settlement was in 1860 near a sand bar where the camas, a blue-flowered, sweet-flavored bulb, grew prolifically; the village retained the name of this favorite food of the Indians. The growth of Camas was the direct result of paper manufacture. The uncertainty of paper delivery from eastern mills, because of slow sailing around Cape Horn and oxteam transportation across the country, long handicapped the newspapers of the Northwest. In 1884 construction of a paper mill began on Lake Lackamas; after 18 months of operation, it was completely destroyed by a $150,000 fire. The mill was rebuilt the following year, with provision for new methods of pulp production and additional machinery. With its unlimited pulpwood resources, Camas grew as the factory expanded.

Several unsuccessful attempts were made to combine this town with nearby Washougal as Twin Cities. Until 1894, the post office was designated as La Camas, when it was altered to the present spelling to avoid confusion with La Center and La Conner. Residents continued to use La Camas as the town’s name until 1909, when the present was adopted.

Camas is still the site of big industry, but that industry has changed frequently in the last half of the twentieth century. Today the electronic industry is booming. Although much remains of Camas’ industrial past, the city is making efforts to change the face of Camas as a tourist-friendly town. Downtown revitalization and new residential neighborhoods offer a different vision of the once over-industrialized “mill town.”

Points of Interest Points of Interest icon

Crown-Willamette Paper Company Plant

 

The Crown-Willamette Paper Company Plant, division of Crown-Zellerbach Paper Company, had 12 gigantic paper-making machines capable of producing more than 300 tons of paper, 5,000,000 paper bags, and 2,000 cases of tissue and towels daily. This industrial town was highly unionized, with more than half its population holding union cards. Georgia Pacific owned the paper plant for several decades, but sold it in the early 2000s due to economic setbacks and the changing face of the industrial interests.

Docks

 

Docks on the river front handled shipments of materials and products for the paper mill. Fruit from nearby prune orchards were packed and prepared for shipment by water and rail. Smelt fishing during the spring and salmon fishing during the summer also contributed to Camas’ revenue. Pails, basins, and washboilers were used during the smelt run to coop the tiny, oily fish from the streams. This area is now an industrial port off Camas Slough with no public access.

Camas Christian Church

 

The Camas Christian Church, is octagonal in shape and painted yellow. The form and brick design (1912) marks it as one of the more interesting structures in this intensely industrialized town.

Farrell Building

 

Built in 1924 by John Roffler for his brother-in-law, Charlie Farrell, this building was an important commercial center in Camas. Farrelll and his wife, Rose, were successful merchants, and the building housed several stores, including “The Golden Rule,” a retail outlet that later became J.C. Penney, and Rose’s own “The Fashionette.” Upstairs eight apartments were furnished with high-end amenities, including built-ins like Murphy beds. The building was remodeled and modernized in the 1950s, and stayed in the same family until 1998.

U.S. Post Office Camas Main

 

This one-story red brick post office, with its square wooden cupola, is nearly identical to those found in Snohomish, Raymond and Shelton. It was built in 1939 from a standardized government plan. It is noted for its mural, “Beginning of a New World,” completed by Douglas Nicholson in 1941. The mural is one of 18 commissioned in the state by the Federal Works Agency, Section of Fine Arts.

Roffler House

 

This is the second area home of the prolific architect/builder John Roffler. The handsome two-story transitional Queen Anne-style home was finished in 1906. Roffler lived here until 1911, when he built his third residence. A fourth followed in 1920. Roffler came to Camas from Minnesota in 1889 at the age of 10. He became interested in design and construction after working on “Lakeside,” a large local estate. By 1911, he was responsible for 54 homes built in 55 months. It is likely he built more than 100 homes in his brief lifetime. He died in 1924 at the age of 45.

Themes You'll Find at this Main Street

Mill Town Renaissance

Once solely a paper mill town, Downtown Camas has evolved over the years into a charming shopping, dining, and commerce district (including the historic mill!) with something for everyone. This transformation is due in large part to unique efforts in the 1960s.

Stories

Downtown Camas

 

In 1964, a group of downtown business owners proposed a plan to make Downtown Camas not only more beautiful but nicer to shop and spend time in. The plan was called “Operation 4-Sight” and involved creating a Downtown Camas Shopping Park, the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. The proposed improvements included better layout of parking spaces, trees, flowers, benches, store awnings, gazebos, buried electrical and phone wires, widened sidewalks, outdoor telephones, and an outdoor sound system. In 1965, 4th Avenue (the town’s main street) was redesigned with a temporary mock-up of the suggested improvements which were left in place for two months so residents could offer suggestions and get used to the changes. Work began on the downtown mall in 1966 and was completed in 1967. Funding came from the building owners of the downtown area, city revenues, and some federal aid. The trees that were planted along the main street in 1967 have helped create the iconic small town feel and charm that Downtown Camas is known for today. The vision and efforts of these forward thinking business people significantly helped to prepare the foundation for future downtown success decades later when new revitalization efforts began.

4th Avenue looking east, 1967.

Photo of 4’x8’ hand-painted plywood concept board for Operation 4-Sight from 1966. This original board was rediscovered in 2016 in storage in Camas City Hall.

4th Avenue looking west, 1947.