Bookmonger: Spokane author profiles the life of a Northwest timber baron

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 10, 2014 

The book I'm reporting on this week should get a prize for the best title of the year.

"When Money Grew on Trees" is a history of timber baron A.B. Hammond. He grew up in New Brunswick and as a teenager worked as a lumberjack in Maine. The Civil War was just coming to a close as Hammond came of age, and forests in New England were succumbing to overcutting and environmental degradation. So Hammond headed to Montana, hoping to make his fortune.

He did - but as author Greg Gordon, an environmental studies professor at Gonzaga University, points out, the road to riches was a circuitous one.

Originally Hammond was lured west by the prospect of gold, but when he realized he'd arrived too late to stake a good claim, he stuck to what he knew for a couple of years - scraping by as a "woodhawk" one winter on the upper Missouri, later working for Pope and Talbot in Port Gamble for a short time.

Then he wound up at a successful mercantile business in Missoula.

By the time the Northern Pacific Railroad came to Montana, Hammond had acquired enough capital and business acumen that he was able to parlay his youthful lumberjacking "expertise" into an exclusive contract with Northern Pacific to supply all of the railroad's construction timber for a 175-mile stretch of track, as well as build the roadbed and provision the entire operation.

Hammond availed himself of "free" wood from the forests along the route, a poaching practice that continued later as he moved on to become involved with railroads, shipping and timberlands in Oregon, and ultimately a logging empire that stretched from Puget Sound to the redwood forests of California.

Imbued with a strong Protestant work ethic, Hammond was also a diligent student of success. He modeled and modified for his own purposes the actions of an earlier wave of industrialists including James J. Hill, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. He copied successful strategies such as Pope and Talbot's vertical integration and company towns. He exploited new markets overseas, and embraced new technologies that allowed him to extract resources faster and more thoroughly - environmental consequences be damned.

And he had such little regard for his workers that after he died, the bitter joke went around that Hammond rose up from his coffin just to fire his pallbearers.

In sum, it was a remarkable life: Hammond went from fighting Indians to fighting labor and Progressives in government. He began as a pioneer entrepreneur and ended up a corporate tycoon, ruthlessly converting the nation's natural resources into personal wealth and helping to establish an American paradigm that in some ways continues unchecked today.

Gordon delivers an energetic, scrupulously researched, well-rounded narrative that covers a great deal of territory not only geographically but also in terms of biography, labor history, business practices, industrial development and environmental policy.

"When Money Grew on Trees" is a hefty read, but well worth the time and effort.

FIND THE BOOK

"When Money Grew on Trees," by Greg Gordon

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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