Nicholas Delin and His Mill
April Fool's Day 1852 a long-nosed, spade-bearded Swede was
grubbing in the golden skunk cabbage at the southeastern edge of
Commencement Bay. It was hog-work, leveling the soggy silt washed
back by the tides from the out fall of the Puyallup River, not the
type of labor a master carpenter preferred. But Nick Delin was
preparing the ground for industry.
this patch of bog, where the no-see-ums hovered and the blackbirds
flashed their underwing rubies, he would build a dam to impound
the waters of two rivulets flowing from the gulch to the south and
use the water from the millpond to drive a saw in a mill of his
own devising. The spade-bearded Swede in the swamp at the far edge
of nowhere, crushing insects against his forehead as he rubbed
back the sweat, was the cutting edge of technology on the
know little about Delin's early life. He was born Nicholas Dahlin
somewhere in Sweden sometime in 1817. He was apprenticed as a
carpenter and after learning his trade crossed the Gulf of Finland
to St. Petersburg in Russia, where he worked as a cabinetmaker.
five years he left for New York, then left New York for
Massachusetts, left Massachusetts in 1849 with some 150 other
adventurers bound around the Horn for the California gold fields,
left San Francisco for Portland the next year, and in 1851 moved
on to Puget Sound.
scattered farms of the Bush-Simmons party had given rise to a
village. There Delin found work and learned the brief history of
Olympia. Big Mike Simmons had completed his grist mill below the
falls of the Deschutes in 1847, furnishing it with grindstones
chiseled from granite found on Eld Inlet. Now the settlers could
eat their own wheat, though the first years were unusually dry,
the crops were small, and most grain was needed for seed.
gristmill in operation, Simmons started building a sawmill. Seven
other settlers teamed up with him and on August 20, 1847, they
entered a "corporate commercial venture" to be called
the Puget Sound Milling Company. The mill was built half a mile
below the falls, far enough down the river that logs could be
floated in from the inlet.
was amid this change and turmoil that Nick Delin, the quiet Swede,
reached Olympia and quickly attracted attention by his competence.
The demand for lumber was growing; new mills were being built up
and down the Sound. Delin found financial backers for a mill on
he smoothed out the ground around what is now Twenty-fifth and
Dock streets in Tacoma, Delin hired Sam McCaw, a young Irishman
who lived near Steilacoom and had a team of oxen, to drag the
foundation timbers into place. He paid $150 for three days' work,
an extraordinary price at the time. Most of the other work, Delin
did himself. The mill stood on tall pilings, a gaunt shed facing
the bay with a broad trough extending down into the stream (Delin
Creek) up which saw logs could be moved.
little to the south, Delin built his house, twenty-four by thirty
feet, one and a half stories tall, its exterior of upright planks,
the inner walls of hand-planed cedar weatherboard twelve inches
wide. It was simply but handsomely furnished, for Delin was not
only cabinetmaker but Scandinavian.
was a typical pioneer garden, a bit larger than most since it
supplied food for the mill hands: corn, beans, pumpkins, squashes,
potatoes, peas, turnips, cabbages, melons, cucumbers, beets,
parsnips, carrots, onions, tomatoes, radishes, lettuce, parsley,
sweet fennel, pepper grass, summer savory, and sunflowers. Delin
had a few chickens, a dog and a cat, but he had yet to find a
needed only three or four helpers in the mill. Jacob Burnhardt, a
twenty-nine-year-old German who had come out from Illinois, built
a log cabin at the edge of the bluff near today's Seventh and
Pacific, but Delin built small houses near the mill for his other
workers. Into one of them a young English couple moved: William
Sales to work in the mill, his twenty-four-year-old wife, Eliza,
to cook. On October 23, 1853, she gave birth to their son, James,
the first white child born in what is now Tacoma.
mill started cutting lumber sometime late in 1852. The Puyallup
Indians thought it a wonderful show, watching solemnly as one of
the mill hands rolled a two-foot fir log onto the crude carriage,
fastened it with iron dogs, and Delin shoved the lever that
released water down the flume. The mill wheels slowly turned and
the muley saw rose and fell against the face of the log. Yellow
sawdust cascaded to the floor and the air grew heavy with the
scent of fresh-cut wood.
mill could do two thousand feet a day on the days when the saw
didn't hang up too often. It took him nearly six months to make
enough lumber to form a shipload. Then, since it all had to be
rafted down the creek and out to the George W. Emery and
hand-loaded over the side, several more weeks passed before the
brig sailed for San Francisco. But Commencement Bay was now a port
of Delin's logs were brought in by settlers who were clearing
their land. He paid not in cash but in lumber. He ran an ad in the
Washington Pioneer of Olympia:
SAW LOGS! SAW LOGS!
The undersigned will
let a contract for furnishing his mill with saw logs on the
following terms: he will allow $6 per log to be paid for in lumber
at $20 per thousand. Application to be made immediately at his
mill on the Puyallup Bay.
the fall of 1853 the local population was increased by the arrival
of the first party of settlers to struggle over the Cascades. A
wagon train, led by James Longmire, had come up the Yakima Valley
and through the Naches Pass-the route taken in 1841 by Lieutenant
Bob Johnson of the Wilkes Expedition-rather than following the
Columbia to the Cowlitz, then dog-legging north.
Longmire party expected a wagon road but found only the incline
trail that had been widened in places that summer by a party of
west-side settlers hoping to encourage immigration. The trail was
a torment. The wagons crossed the Naches River sixty-eight times.
one point on the west side the party had to slaughter some oxen to
provide rawhide ropes to lower wagons down a cliff. But
thirty-four of the thirty-six wagons and all 171 pioneers made it
to the Sound. Nick Delin had not only a fresh labor supply but a
local market for lumber as they scattered to homesteads around
wagon brought Peter Judson, forty; his wife Anna, thirty-six;
their sons Steven, fifteen, and Paul, thirteen; and their niece,
Gertrude Meller, thirteen, who had lost the rest of her family to
cholera on the trail. Originally from Cologne, Judson had lived in
Illinois before starting for California; along the way he changed
his mind and joined the Longmire train.
fellow German, Jacob Burnhardt, was ready to give up on Puget
Sound. Judson bought Burnhardt's cabin at the foot of today's
Stadium Way for thirty dollars and filed claim on 321 acres
stretching from Seventh to Twentieth streets.
land as was naturally clear, about six acres in all, they
immediately sowed with grain and in the summer of 1854 harvested
oats where the post office now stands and wheat near the Union
Depot site. The Judson boys threshed out thirty-five bushels of
wheat with flails and rowed it to the Simmons gristmill on the
Deschutes for grinding.
Steve yoked the family's six oxen and snaked logs down the gully
the Indians called Shu-bahl-up, "the sheltered place"-today's
Old Town. The logs were stored in a lagoon, then towed one at a
time by rowboat to the Delin mill. With the aid of one feller, a
Swede named Peter Anderson, Steven could keep ahead of Delin's
saw. Besides supplying Delin with sawlogs, his new neighbors
provided the thirty-seven-year-old bachelor with a wife.
November 25, 1854, Gertrude Meller, then fourteen, married the
mill owner in a ceremony performed at the Judson's new house on
the present site of the Union Depot. Portly little Sherwood
Bonney, another member of the Longmire party, who had just been
elected Pierce County Justice of the Peace, performed the
ceremony. There was now a community of whites on the south shore
of the bay.
Sales had staked a claim on the bank of the Puyallup, where they
had as neighbors three German-American veterans of the Mexican
War-Jacob Kershner, Peter Runquist, and Carl Gorisch-as well as
Adam Benston, a Scot who had arrived as a servant of the Hudson's
Bay Company. On the waterfront west of the Stadium gulch, a cooper
named Chauncey Baird had built a small cabin alongside a big shed
in which he assembled fir barrels.
he sold to John Swan and Peter Reilly, the first commercial
fishermen on the bay. When the salmon were running, Swan came up
from Olympia and with Reilly dragged in enormous catches with
seines set between Shubahlup and Cho-cho-chluth-"the maple
wood"-where the Smelter now stands. There are no recorded
figures, but pioneer memoirs spoke of hauls of two thousand
salmon. The fish were brined and shipped to San Francisco.
logging, sawmilling, farming, barrel making, seining, and
fish-packing under way the little community seemed ready to
coalesce into a town. Instead there was war, and all was lost.