BMD 2016 highlights local history's unsavories

For The Sentinel

57th Bohemia Mining Days Festival: All that Not Gold!

Bohemia Mining Days Festival board members invite you to the 57th annual family-friendly festival celebrating Cottage Grove’s colorful history. The fun begins on Thursday, July 14 at 4 p.m. and ends on Sunday, July 17 at 4 p.m.

The admission-free celebration transforms Coiner Park into “Bohemia City” for four days filled with food, contests and entertainment. There’s plenty to see and do and lots of free parking. Details and the schedule are available at www.bohemiaminingdays.orgon Facebook or by calling the BMD Office at (541) 942-5064.

“All that glitters... is not gold!” is the theme of the 57th annual Bohemia Mining Days festival. It highlights the unique adventure of a young Cottage Grove man who visited the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair near the end of its six-month run. He learned enough about the concept of electricity to return to home with a big dream to establish the first electric company here in 1895. Located at the headwaters of Oregon’s Willamette River and nestled between two of its uppermost tributaries: the Coast Fork and the Row River, Cottage Grove was in the center of a fertile valley that supported a wide variety of cultivated crops by the time it was incorporated as a city in 1887.

     In the summer of 1893, Andrew “Andy” Nelson was a 26-year-old jack-of-all-trades working as the steam engineer at the Annie Mine. He had many talents: tinsmith (sheet metal worker), carpenter,
woodworker and musician. He worked well with his hands and was fascinated with the work Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were doing with electricity.

 He was in his day what we call a “geek” in ours. He likely had a subscription to Scientific American and read each issue cover-to-cover. That year the magazine reported frequently on the progress of the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a tremendous feat of engineering and design on a massive scale that was unprecedented before or since. (To learn more watch the YouTube documentary “EXPO Magic of the White City” narrated by Gene Wilder.)

Andy was born on July 24, 1866, in Gordonsville, Minnesota. His family said he came to Oregon in 1889 for no other reason than just to see the country. He had no particular reason for coming to Cottage Grove but evidently liked what he saw. He worked as a railroad telegrapher at Comstock, then at as a tinsmith at S. R. Pipers hardware store before becoming the Annie Mine’s steam engineer. The first “roads” in South Lane County were narrow trails made by deer, the Kalapuyas and later fur trappers who traded at nearby Fort Umpqua. Whenever possible the early trails went between the foothills, avoided swampy ground and crossed natural fords in the rivers. Portions of the trails had unavoidably steep grades that made traveling a challenge even on good days. The early settlers found much of the Willamette watershed nearly impossible to traverse during the rainy season. Wagons often bogged down to the axles in the goopy clay mud.

      The Chicago World’s Fair seemed like a good reason to plan a long winter visit with his extended family back in Minnesota. On the way, he’d stopover in Chicago and spend a few days exploring the much-hyped event, to get a glimpse of America’s future in the 20th Century. The Eugene City Guard reported that on September 30, “Mr. Andrew Nelson, one of Cottage Grove’s handsome and popular young men, left for his native heath of Gordonsville, Minnesota, Monday, to spend the winter with relatives and friends.”

      To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, the United States held the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as The Chicago World’s Fair, between May 1, 1893 to October 30, 1893. The White City, as the press nicknamed it, was built next to Lake Michigan on a 600-acre fairground with 200 buildings exhibiting art, food, technological advances and entertainment. It was a grand showcase that put science in the forefront with unbelievable and revolutionary inventions along with a beautifully designed venue that solidified Chicago as a major US city.

      It was the fifteenth such exposition in the world, and only the second in the United States. From the beginning it was designed to be the fair to end all fairs – and that goal was certainly achieved. It had the biggest buildings in the world at that time. It also featured the world’s first Ferris wheel that towered over the fairgrounds and held 2000 riders at a time.

      An estimated 1 in 4 Americans visited the Columbian Exposition in the six months the White City existed. Andy was one of those 26 million fair visitors. He arrived there determined to learn all he could about electricity so he could return to his adopted town and set up a generating plant to provide the electrical power only large cities had at the time.

Growing up in the tiny towns of Gordonsville and Cottage Grove, no doubt Andy was mesmerized by the sheer size and scope of the fair. He likely spent most of his time in the Electricity Building and the Machinery Building scrutinizing each machine, talking to engineers and inventors, and learning all he could to fuel his big dream.     

   After spending the winter with his Minnesota relatives, in 1894, Andy returned to Cottage Grove. He most likely went back to the Annie Mine to earn the money he needed to buy the equipment and supplies to generate electricity for the still-small frontier towns of Cottage Grove and Lemati. His first task was to speak with Mr. Stone, the owner of the local flour mill.

     The flour mill was a very important place when white settlers began arriving to establish farms in this fertile river valley. They would bring wagon loads of sacked wheat to the mill in exchange for a winter’s supply of flour. The mill also shipped many loads to the Bohemia Mines to provide food for the miners. Residents and local stores were also customers of the mill’s products.

     The local history book, Golden Was the Past, 1850-1970, notes the mill was built in 1857. It faced South River Road on a millrace, a side channel diverting water from the river to create a swift current of water to drive the mill wheel. The millrace began above the rapids by the Swinging Bridge near where the Chambers Covered Railroad Bridge is today. It was lined with flowers and was one of Cottage Grove’s beauty spots.

      The millrace paralleled South River Road to the mill pond that was held back by gates. The water spilled onto the big waterwheel that turned flour mill’s machinery before it dumped the water into Silk Creek and back into the Coast Fork.

      Today, the Old Mill Farm Store on South River Road still stands next to Silk Creek and across from the Dr. Snapp House Museum. It is the oldest continuously operating business in town. (You’ll see all these locations when you hop on the BMD Express Time Traveling Train and take a stroll along River Road.)

      The November 9, 1895 issue of the Cottage Grove-Lemati Leader reported “A. Nelson is now busy pushing forward the electric light business. He has a building up adjoining Mr. Stone’s mill in Cottage Grove, where he will secure power for running the electric plant. He expects 80 good sized trees in Saturday, which he will place in Lemati and Cottage Grove for general lighting up.”

     Two months later the January 4, 1896 issue of the Eugene City Guard reported, “A. Nelson was granted a 20-year franchise for electric lights about two months ago for the towns of Cottage Grove and Lemati. He has finished his work and the plant started up last night. The light gives satisfaction. The plant will run until midnight until further notice.”

 Andy Nelson’s granddaughter, Larsana Nelson, wrote the Golden Was the Past chapter on “Mr. Nelson’s Light Plant.” It describes how her grandfather did all that he said he would do. He bought an Edison dynamo and belted it up to the flour mill’s waterwheel. He set poles around town, strung the wires and billed the customers 50 cents a month per lamp and the city paid $30 a month for street lights.

The waterwheel ran the mill in the daytime, the electric light generator at night, so electricity was available only from dusk until 10 o’clock. Later that was extended until midnight. At first there were only 50 lights and no appliances of any kind – not even irons. Business rapidly outgrew the capacity of the first dynamo so he added a larger

The November 21, 1896 issue of the Eugene City Guard reported, “Andy Nelson, owner of the electric light plant, is making arrangements to increase the power of his plant and improve the light. Another dynamo will be put in to be used exclusively for street lighting purposes and the present one to be used exclusively for interior lighting. The plant will be moved from its present site and a new one built on the bank of the river some distance below Main Street (122 N. River Rd). The building is now underway and the change will take place soon. Back water interfered with the water wheel at the electric light plant here Sunday night and the people had to use lamps and the streets remained in darkness.”

Tragedy was no stranger in Andy’s life. While working at the Piper Hardware Store he fell in love with the boss’s daughter Nola C. Piper. He was just 36-years-old when she died in 1902 and he never remarried. They had one child, Ray Nelson.

On November 1, 1900, his new steam plant burned down and he didn’t rebuild it. In frustration he said, “Every time I start to make money the city has grown and I have to buy a bigger engine and a bigger dynamo.” He sold his franchise to W.H. Abrams who worked with Mr. G.H. Stone, the flour mill owner, to furnish the building and adequate water supply for a turbine water wheel for a new light plant.

After purchasing Andy’s franchise, Mr. Abrams moved it after a few months to the railroad track beside the Brown Sawmill. There slabs from the mill were used to fire a boiler for a 75-hp Corliss steam engine to power the plant. Visitors were impressed by the 10 foot high flywheel that ran the generator. At that time a $1 monthly flat rate was charged for lights and $3/month for an iron. Many housewives didn’t list their irons with the light company and about 10 o’clock in the morning the steam engine would begin to pull down. The owner would climb into his automobile and start checking houses. The irons were hidden and the engine would perk up again.

Electrical power was supplied by this plant until IT burned down about 1927. Mountain States owned the plant and a connection to the California and Oregon Power company secured electricity from Roseburg. Mountain States merged with the Pacific Power Company in 1954.

On July 27, 1935, Andrew Nelson life ended quite suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 69 in an industrial accident at the W.A. Woodard Lumber Company, where he worked as an electrician. His body was found on the ground outside of the main building of the remanufacturing plant. He was doing electrical work and had to reach
through the window and fell 20 feet to his death.

Andy also brought electricity to the Bohemia Mining District. His obituary in The Sentinel notes he installed practically every power plant ever operated in the entire district including the first and second plants at the Black Butte mines and was in charge of the Champion Mine’s power plant. His son, Ray, followed his father into the electricity business and by the mid-20th Century earned the nickname “Radio Ray” as the sole proprietor of Nelson Electric. Ray was a popular local businessman who had a passion for preserving Cottage Grove’s unique and colorful history. He was one of the chief organizers of the wildly successful centennial observance of Oregon Statehood in 1959. He was a founding member of the Prospector & Golddiggers Club, which established the Bohemia Mining Days Festival. Today, we fondly refer to Ray Nelson as the “Father of BMD”.

Thanks to Joanne Skelton and the Cottage Grove Genealogical Society for their biographical research on Andrew Nelson and to the Cottage Grove Historical Society’s publication, “Golden Was the Past, 1850-1970,” both were invaluable to writing this story. – C.W.



For additional information call the Festival Office at 541-942-5064.