For almost 12,000 years, the territory along the Deschutes River in Oregon has been home to Native Americans, a prime location for all their hunting and fishing needs. As early American explorers went out west in the name of colonization, they stumbled upon the area in the early 19th century, setting foot on the soil for the first time around 1813. Eventually, Oregon became a state in 1859, and many European settlers were already calling the area their home, made up primarily of farmers, ranchers, and shepherds.
Then came Bend. The city started as a logging town at the beginning of the 20th century. It was initially referred to as “Farewell Bend,” a designation used by early pioneers to refer to the location along the Deschutes River, where the town was eventually platted. By 1904, the residents had voted to incorporate the land into a city. By 1905, the citizens were dropping the farewell part as they had finally found home and nailed up a sign at the edge of town that said, “Welcome to Bend, Oregon.”
The foundation of this beautiful new city was all in thanks to founder Alexander Drake, a Midwest capitalist. He and his wife Florence had traveled to the area in a covered wagon while on vacation. When he arrived, he saw Bend as a place of economic opportunity and soon began mapping the area. It was Drake who built the city’s first neighborhoods, and it was he who built the first sawmill in 1901, then another was added in 1903.
It was the first sawmill that also started the Pilot Butte Development Company. After the sawmills went up, Drake began working on a series of irrigation projects in Deschutes County. From it came the Pilot Butte Inn and the area’s first hydroelectric plant. It was just the beginning, as the Drakes would bring about a myriad of “firsts” for the region and Bend’s population would grow more than ten times during its first decade.
The iconic pond, Mirror Pond, was also established during the city’s first ten years in 1910. Yet another project of Drake’s, this dam was developed on the Deschutes River nearby and initially provided the town with hydroelectric power and was its first source of electricity for its nearly 200 households. Today, Pacific Power has owned the dam since 1926, and the mile-long Mirror Pond is a common attraction for visitors and residents alike, thanks to its beautiful glass-like surface.
Also established during these early years were some of the nation’s largest sawmills at the time. The first big mill was opened in 1916 by Shevlin-Hixon Co., and not too long after it went up, competition arrived on the scene. The Brooks-Scanlon Co. came soon after and built a second large mill across the river from the Shevlin-Hixon mill called “Mill A.”
Later in 1922, Brooks-Scanlon opened an even larger mill a little further upstream from the first mill and named it “Mill B.” To this day, “Mill B” is the largest part of Bend’s historic Old Mill District. By this time, both mills were operating the largest sawmills in the world, processing Ponderosa Pine. These mills ran non-stop and employed nearly 4,000 of Bend’s early workers.
Though the mills are closed today, it was the creation of these two sawmill companies that made Bend quickly become a prosperous place to live, work, and play. The lifestyle and vibrant culture of this booming town remain. Today, the old Brooks-Scanlon mill is still humming, but no longer as a sawmill. Nowadays, it hums with the sounds of people enjoying shopping, dining, and entertainment in the renovated Old Mill District.
And though the times have changed, one thing has remained the same. Everything in the city still keeps with the tradition and culture of welcoming new people to a place called Bend. More information on the rich culture and history of our fair city of Bend can always be found at either the Deschutes Historical Museum or the High Desert Museum, walking you through the footsteps of the city’s past.