St. Helens


Not long ago, a friend needled me about the lack of information on our page about St. Helens, the county seat of Columbia county. I replied that the beginnings of the town were controversial and I was still looking for the truth in the matter. To which he replied: “Since when was history about the truth?”

Version 1



Bartholomew White first settled at this place in 1844, but being a cripple, did not make much improvement. Either he sold it or was crowded off by H. M. Knighton, an emigrant of 1845, one of those unfortunates who took S. H. L. Meek’s cut off, and were lost and suffered so much. [Knighton did not go with Meek’s caravan; he followed the Oregon Trail to The Dalles –ldr]

Mr. Knighton first settled in Oregon City, and kept a hotel there, in 1846. In that year he entered the claim above mentioned, but did not settle upon it until 1847. Mr. Knighton appears to have been an active, dashing, and speculative, rather than a serious and careful business man. From the “Spectator,” which began to be published about the time he came to Oregon, it is easy to gain an idea of his social and business character. He went to parties and gave parties. He advertised well whatever business he engaged in and was what we call “a live wire.” His wife was a Miss Elizabeth Martin, daughter of a settler of that name in Yamhill County. [According to the 1860 Federal census the first two Knighton children were born in MO… –ldr]

In 1847 Mr. Knighton went to reside upon his land claim, and in the autumn of that year there were two log houses at this place, one the Knighton residence and the other a camping place for travelers.

In 1849 a few lots were surveyed off by James Brown, of Canemah, but the place was afterwards properly surveyed by S. H. Tappan and P. W. Crawford, and was mapped by Joseph Trutch, now of Victoria, in the winter of 1850 or 1851. A road was opened to the Tualatin Plains, and a railroad talked of in that early day.

Coal and Iron were known to exist near the place; plenty of fine timber was found in the vicinity, and the beauty of the location was evident to all.

At this time the Pacific Mail Steamship Company had a contract to carry the mail from Panama to Astoria, Oregon. They tried to evade it because the California trade had crowded their capability for carrying to the utmost. They put the mail aboard sailing vessels or left it lying in San Francisco.



But the trade in Oregon was becoming considerable, and the people made their complaints heard in Congress, so that the company at last (about 1851) got to running their steamers pretty regularly all the way to Portland. They did not like going there on account of Swan Island bar and similar obstructions, and in 1852 built a fine wharf and warehouse at St. Helens, making that their point of arrival and departure. All the sea captains of those days were in favor of St. Helens as the port for their vessels, so much so that a company of them laid out the rival town of Milton with that sagacity in land matters which seamen usually exhibit.

Building went on rapidly at St. Helens, and lots became of value. Business was brisk, the population rapidly increased, and Mr. Knighton’s prospects were good for founding the metropolis of Oregon, as he had the P. M. S. S. Co. at his back.



The pioneer settlers at St. Helens were W. H. Tappan, Ben Durell, F. A. Lamont, Aaron Broyles; L. C. Gray; Joseph Trutch, John Trutch, Capt. Seth Pope, Dr. Adlum, John Dodge, George Thing, William English, William Hazard, Ben Teal, R. Cowley, William Meeker. Charles H. Reed, James B. Hunter, Joe Caples, J. Cunningham, A. E. Clark, Robert Germain, G. W. Yeagle, Cain Carpenter, Johnson Carpenter, Lockwood Little, Col. Trip, Berry Dunn, Hiram Field, Barrows, Flake, Layton, Kearns, Hally, Maybee, Achilles, Courtland and Atwood. The first death in St. Helens was of E. A. Clarke.



Mr. Knighton who was seemingly on the flood tide of success was just at this critical point too much assured and failed to offer the inducements to businessmen which he should have done to compete with Portland. The owners and merchants of that incipient metropolis alarmed by the action of the P.M.S.S. Company held meetings threatening to withdraw their patronage from the line, and by other means expressed their disapprobation. This, however, did not change the determination of the company. Their wharf was duly completed and the steamer stopped at St. Helens but not for long. Means were found to discountenance such proceedings. All the company’s improvements were destroyed by fire. The mysterious torch of the incendiary so frequently applied to objectionable rival structures in the early days of Oregon was applied to the wharves, mills, etc. at St. Helens. Meantime Portland received a large accession to its population and drew to itself the discouraged merchants of St. Helens who were really too far away to get the trade of the Willamette Valley.



Mr. Knighton, who was called Captain, commenced acting in that capacity. He piloted the “Sylvie de Grasse” down the river and ran her on the rock on which she remained spitted for so many years and from which the storms of last winter only finally loosened her hull. He then ran a vessel to the Sandwich Islands in China after which he became a merchant in St. Helens and after the decline of business at this place was employed as captain of one of the boats of the P. T. [Peoples Transportation] Company on the Willamette River. Captain Knighton died at The Dalles in 1864 of typhoid fever.



In the fall of 1865 the widow of Captain Knighton sold the east half of the townsite of St. Helens and one fifth of the west half to H. C. Victor, Esq. and there was an effort made by Mr. Victor to revive business at this point which was but temporarily successful. The time had not arrived for permanent prosperity because the country about was too sparely settled. Oregon was large and had but few people in it. But as the population increases and the valley of the Columbia settles up, the natural good points of St. Helens and Columbia County will come out and we shall have a handsome and thriving town here yet; and as a means to that end shall devote our paper to building up the interests of the whole county about us.

Version 2


History of Columbia County
Told in University of Oregon Bulletin
by Adolph Chapples in Commonwealth Review

Not until the arrival in 1845 of Captain H. M. Knighton does the history of the county, hitherto largely a record of explorations and somewhat abortive attempts at settlement, become an account of definite land developments and commercial enterprise. In 1845 the section was still a rugged wilderness. The heavily timbered slopes of the Coast Range, which cuts diagonally north and west across the area, had not yet heard the ring of the axe; the Nehalem Valley on the western side was inhabited only by trappers and Indians; the bottom lands along the Columbia had been only briefly scarred by the plow. About March 1847, Knighton located a preemption claim in this almost completely unexploited region, on a site at the confluence of the Columbia, the Willamette, and the Lewis rivers, at a point where the terrain rises in a series of benches. It is believed that Knighton here set up a knockdown house imported from Bath, Maine.


On May 22, 1850, Knighton and L. C. Grey deeded one undivided quarter of a section of land to George H. Ensign of San Francisco, “to lay out a town thereon to be known and styled Casenou.”


There is evidence that Captain Wyeth had earlier selected this identical spot on which to locate a town; from him it had originally obtained the name “Wyeth’s Rock” (later changed to Plymouth Rock). Under the name, Plymouth, the St. Helens post office was established on April 9, 1850, while the district was still a part of Washington County. The county court “ordered that a new precinct be established at Plymouth at the house of H. M. Knighton, and Joseph Caples and William Weatherby are hereby appointed as Judges of Election of said precinct.”


However on April 9 of the following year the court, in appointing judges of election, called the precinct St. Helens. It appears likely, therefore, that the use of the name St. Helens, in lieu of the earlier Plymouth, became established at some time between May 1850 and April 1851. The town was name after the cone shaped mountain across the Columbia, which Captain Vancouver had named in honor of Baron St. Helens, British ambassador to Spain.


About the time Knighton settled at St. Helens, probably in 1846, Captain Nathaniel Crosby and Captain Thomas Smith founded Milton about a mile and half away at the mouth of Milton Creek. Not long after, Francis Perry re-arrived in a homemade prairie schooner, accompanied by his wife and George Perry, his son. At Milton, according to the son, the Perrys built a home and a sawmill, probably the first in the county.

Milton for a time was promoted with even greater vigor than was St. Helens. Smith and Crosby, who bought a mill built earlier by Hunsaker, manufactured lumber to load on their bark, the “Louisiana.” During the California gold rush their lumber sold for the almost unheard of price of $150 per thousand. The sawmills, stimulated by the gold fever, boomed and the river was alive with vessels awaiting cargoes. “The town of Milton … is fast improving.. fast settling and it is proposed to build a railroad to Lafayette in the interior of Oregon,” said the “Oregon Spectator” in 1850.

Milton was first laid out in 1851. In September of that year the opening of the district school was advertised in the “Weekly Oregonian.” Nathan Pearcy was superintendent, and subjects taught included mathematics, chemistry, natural history, philosophy, botany, astronomy, Latin and Greek. The advertisement was signed by Thomas A. Smith, Squire Bennett, and Francis Perry, school directors. To attract new settlers, the founders offered free lots to the men who would erect houses and make their homes in Milton.


On January 16, 1854, when Columbia County was created by act of the Legislature, the measure located the county seat at Milton on the land claim of Thomas Smith. ..The same act created election precincts “at St. Helens, Milton, Rainier, Scappoose and John Bonser’s.” The measure gave the county commissioners the power to change precinct boundary lines, or establish others. On January 15, 1855, the western boundary of the county was redefined as “Commencing at a point in the main channel of the Columbia river, twelve miles below Oak Point mountain, thence south to the north line of Washington county.”


The doom of Milton was sealed when, after less than a decade, the county seat was moved on June 7, 1857 to St. Helens schoolhouse on September 7 of that year. The transfer of the county seat was but the last step of several in the dissolution of the town of Milton. An early flood had already all but washed the community away. Not long after the flood, according to George Perry, his father, Francis Perry, moved his mill about a mile up Milton Creek. The town was sold in 1851 and again in 1854. In 1857 Milton precinct was ordered to be combined with that of St. Helens, and in 1861 the town’s water rights were sold to Knighton for running factories, mills, etc. Today, what once was Milton is scarcely even a ghost town; for not a vestige of the community survives. Whatever remnants have escaped time and flood have been absorbed by St. Helens.


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