Every town in America has a story, a way of life that is loved and an image that defines it throughout generations. For Morton, that identity is logging, which is readily apparent to visitors. Morton’s logging culture is on full display with signs and artwork highlighting the region’s burly, hardworking past. Today, this tranquil town between Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens is a basecamp for outdoor recreation enthusiasts and artists, while still holding on to and highlighting the pride of the logging industry. While logging may not be what it once was in this laid-back community, the town is persevering, just as it has for the past 100 years.
Settled in 1871, the town of Morton was named after President Benjamin Harrison’s Vice President, Levi P. Morton. After becoming incorporated in 1913, the town gained quick national prominence, thanks to a vein of cinnabar discovered nearby. Soon this tiny town surrounded by old-growth forests was considered the mercury capital of the US, rumored to produce more mercury than any known deposit in the world. The Tacoma Eastern Railroad brought city life to Morton, thanks to two export trains a day from the Puget Sound, and Morton became the business hub of eastern Lewis County.
Despite the boom, Morton had a population of just 522 residents in 1920. That number would drop by 11 percent by 1930, thanks to the Great Depression and a fire in 1924 that gutted 80 percent of the businesses in town. After a devastating flood in the early 1930s, Morton rose yet again, becoming a logging boomtown, unlike anything the region had seen. From 1930 to 1950, the population jumped from 461 residents to 1,140, which is where the population hovers around today.
It was also in the late 1930s that Morton’s signature event officially started. Now known as the Loggers’ Jubilee, the event was created in part for bragging rights for the region’s lumbermen. The event is held the second weekend in August, starting on Thursdays.
“There doesn’t seem to be a record of the first Loggers’ Jubilee, but it was in the late 1930s,” according to Linda Mettler, co-manager of the Jubilee and website content manager.
The website for the Loggers’ Jubilee reports, “Some say the late F.E. Coleman was the main force behind the first Jubilee. Others say Coleman started it in cooperation with Ed Baker, Peterman Timber Company superintendent, and Jack Sutherland, superintendent of Kosmos Timber, now known as the Morton Division of Champion International.”
After the first few years of the event, Morton started advertising the event around Western Washington, sending what the Loggers’ Jubilee describes as a colorful “hillbilly” band that played in cities like Tacoma, Chehalis and Centralia to get people excited about the event. While the early days of the Jubilee were lean in attendance, the event brought in the Pacific Northwest’s best loggers, eventually leading to a handful of local loggers gaining international recognition for their skills in the woods. Today, the Loggers’ Jubilee is known as the “Granddaddy of Logging Shows,” bringing in thousands of visitors each year for this unique community event.
Since the 1930s logging has been the main industry in town. At the height of the timber boom, Morton was considered the “railroad tie capital of the world,” thanks to easily accessible towering timbers and the world’s longest tie docks. Until the 1970s, the logging boom was huge for the region. It was not uncommon for 200-foot trees to be rolled into town on numerous logging trucks, creating a sense of pride for both the old-timers and youngsters of Morton. Logging was what defined the region, but like most booms based on resources, the good times had to stop eventually. After the closing of mills, Morton’s population dropped substantially in the 1980s, with fewer than 1,000 residents for the first time since WWII. However, as it had throughout its rich history, Morton grew back and looks to be stronger than ever.
Combining logging, art, history and community service, the town of Morton is redefining itself, just like it did after a fire, a flood and a shift in the industry. In outdoor recreation circles, Morton is becoming known as a perfect basecamp for Cascade Mountain adventures, leading to a slow and steady increase in tourism. The new tourism economy, combined with the rich logging culture, has impacted the arts community, which has fostered the growth of a Grammy-nominated artist in Brandy Clark and a handful of talented artisans, writers and painters.
The lumber industry is still around, and while it is not the dominant business it once was, Morton is a shining example of how people from all walks of life can find peace and prosperity in the forested hills between two volcanos.