Why Would We Want to Leave?

From the time Detroit was founded in the late nineteenth century to when it was inundated in 1953 by the construction of Detroit Dam, the town and surrounding area was a place that was lived in and loved by many people. From the original residents of the North Santiam Canyon (read about them here) to John Outerson to Hilma “Ma” Dickie to Mrs. Mabel Moore, these people contributed to the character of Detroit. 

Detroit’s original townsite began as a work camp for the Oregon Pacific Railroad in 1889, and although the railroad tracks stopped only a few miles east of town due to the company’s bankruptcy in 1890, Detroit attracted enough settlers that warranted a post office in 1891. Andrew B. Hammond later bought the Oregon Pacific Railroad in 1895, finished the line through Detroit, and established numerous logging camps in the area. With a new level of accessibility and more job opportunities, Detroit grew in number.[1] From the time Detroit was founded in the late nineteenth century to when it was inundated in 1953 by the construction of Detroit Dam, the town and surrounding area was a place that was lived in and loved by many people. From the original residents of the North Santiam Canyon (read about them here) to John Outerson to Hilma “Ma” Dickie to Mrs. Mabel Moore, these people contributed to the character of Detroit.  

The Atlas of Drowned Towns is committed to telling the stores of people so that we can better understand the impact of asking someone to leave a place that they call home. We invite you to meet some of the people who called Detroit home and understand why it was difficult for them to leave. 

John Outerson 

Born in Scotland in November 1853, John Outerson immigrated to the United States in 1886.[2]Arriving on the steamship Austrian in Boston harbor, John went to live in Mackinaw City, Michigan, when he first arrived.[3] 

John was one of the earliest settlers in Detroit, Oregon, and it is said by some that Detroit was renamed from its original name of “Coe” due to several immigrants from Michigan settling the area. John established a store in the early 1890s, which served both residents and visitors. He wanted to showcase the beauties of the Mount Jefferson Primitive Area with more people, so he began renting pack trains to mountain climbers and other sportsmen. [4] Some even remembered John’s speed and skill in loading pack animals as bordering “upon magical.”[5] 

In 1914, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) praised John for his work leading fire patrol efforts. In addition to supplying campers, hunters, and other visitors to the North Santiam Canyon, John had his packers, J.L Cooper and two assistants, traverse the backcountry to look for signs of smoke and fire. Not only did this prove to be an efficient method of fire patrol, but John also asked the USFS for literature on fire safety so that he could educate all the visitors he served.[6] 

As he invited more people to experience the abundant landscape of the North Santiam Canyon and worked to preserve it from wildfires, John clearly enjoyed and wanted others to enjoy the area he called home. Although he died on September 12, 1917, his memory is preserved in Outerson Mountain, which was renamed after him.[7]

Grace Ruth Smith 

Born in 1905 in Albany since there were no doctors in Detroit, Grace Ruth Smith remembers Detroit as a lovely place to grow up. Her father and grandfather originally settled in the town of Niagara, about thirteen miles west of Detroit, before relocating to Detroit and buying a mill of their own. As Andrew B. Hammond established numerous logging camps in the North Santiam Canyon during the 1890s, logging became an important industry, bringing many new residents to Detroit. The arrival of the daily logging trains was the social occasion of the day. The engine would be driven onto the turn table, and all the men in town would use long wooden handles to turn the locomotive around. According to Grace, the “railroad was the only connection to the outside world.”[8]

Hilma “Ma” Dickie 

Hilma E. Dickie, otherwise known as “Ma,” was born in Sweden in 1890 and later immigrated to the United States at the age of eleven in 1901.[9] Ma Dickie owned Detroit Hotel, a fourteen-room hotel that she ran for more than 20 years, but the construction of the dam forced her to abandon her business. At first, the U.S. Corps attempted to persuade residents with monetary encouragement, but as Ma Dickie said, “the government didn’t give us too much for what we have.”[10]Many residents were unwilling to leave—they were connected to the place. During a public meeting in June 1949, Ora Leis asked the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers’ Chief of Real Estate “if there is any possible site that the people could have…People don’t want to leave here.”[11] The Chief of Real Estate dismissed Leis’s request, stating that “that’s the way it is.” Although Ma Dickie’s hotel was eventually burned in preparation for the rising waters, many residents fought for “new” Detroit. 

Leaving “old” Detroit but finding “new” Detroit 

In June 1949, about 40 residents of “old” Detroit petitioned the Corps to establish a new townsite, and by November 1949, 155 residents signed a petition requesting that the Corps and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) work together to identify a new townsite, seeing as the USFS owned much of the surrounding land. The Corps dodged the request with the excuse that their office did not have the authority to sell lands owned by the USFS. Residents turned to the USFS, who promptly denied their request, so they looked to a familiar name—the Hammond Lumber Company. The company owned a former logging camp just above the waterline, which they subdivided into 300 lots in August 1950. Detroit residents bought some of those lots while the others were bought by newcomers interested in the new lakeside getaway.[12] 

Some residents decided to move away permanently, but those that stayed reestablished their homes and businesses. Mrs. Mabel Moore, who served as postmistress from 1928 to 1959, moved the post office from Roy Newport’s store in Old Detroit to a new building in New Detroit.[13] Owners Earl and Audrey Layman relocated The Cedar Tavern to New Detroit, moving the main building four miles from its original location in the Fall of 1951.[14] Residents, such as Mabel Moore and the Laymans, continued to enjoy the forested landscape and built a legacy of perseverance. 

These are just a few stories of many. Our archival research and oral histories continue to reveal more and more stories like the ones above. We strive to preserve the stories of people like John Outerson and Ma Dickie, and we need the help of community members to do so. If you or anyone you may know has knowledge or stories that you would like to contribute, please reach out here, and consider joining us in Detroit for our inaugural History Jamboree on October 21 and 22. We would love to meet you and learn from you!  

[1] Bob Reinhardt, “City of Detroit,” Oregon Encyclopedia, Oregon Historical Society. Last updated September 12, 2022.

[2] “United States Census, 1900”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MSDN-KKG : 11 March 2022), John Outerson in entry for Jack Hamlyn, 1900.

[3] “Massachusetts, Boston Passenger Lists, 1820-1891,” database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939K-YCS5-Z?cc=1860873&wc=M612-YWG%3A168071301 : 26 August 2019), 100 – Mar 1-May 15, 1886 > image 529 of 576; citing NARA microfilm publication M277 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

[4] Compiled by Workers of the Writers’ program of the Works Progress Administration in the State of Oregon, Oregon, End of the Trail (Portland: Binsfords & Mort, 1951), 476. 

[5] Letter to the North Santiam Historical Society about their 2004 newsletter, January, 8, 2004.

[6] “Forest Service Praises Work of Fire Patrol,” The Daily Capitol Journal (Salem), August 19, 1914.

[7] Lewis A. McArthur, “Oregon Geographic Names,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 28, no. 3 (September 1927), 298.

[8] Grace Smith Ruth, Diary, Oregon Historical Society, MSS 1509, Diaries and Reminiscences. 

[9] “United States Census, 1930,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GRC8-9H4?cc=1810731&wc=QZF7-9W4%3A648804701%2C648805702%2C649754701%2C1589282363 : 8 December 2015), Oregon > Marion > Breitenbush > ED 5 > image 2 of 6; citing NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002).

[10] “Passing of Detroit Brings Both Cheers and Moans,” Oregonian (Portland), May 21, 1952.

[11] “Detroit Order OK’d,” Mill City Enterprise, July 21, 1949.

[12] Bob Reinhardt, “Drowned Towns in the Cold War West: Small Communities and Federal Water Projects,” Western Historical Quarterly 42, no. 11 (Summer 2011), 169.

[13] Boots Champion, “‘Mails and Females’ Major Attractions on Early Detroit,” Oregon Statesman (Salem), March 9, 1968.

[14] “Cedar Tavern & Cedars Restaurant and Lounge: Three Generations of Ownership by the Layman Family,” North Santiam Historical Society, 2007.


Further Reading

  • Gordon, Greg. “Andrew B. Hammond (1848-1934).” Oregon Encyclopedia, Oregon Historical Society, 2022. 
  • Reinhardt, Bob. Struggle on the North Santiam: Power and Community on the Margins of the American West. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 2020. 
  • Robbins, William G. “The Willamette Project of Oregon: A Study in the Political Economy of Water Resource Development,” Pacific Historical Review 47, 1978: 585-605. 
  • Robbins, William G. “Dams and the onset of the Modern Age.” Oregon History Project, Oregon Historical Society, 2002.
  • Tucker, Kathy. The Detroit Project. Oregon Historical Society, 2002.

Citation Info

Klade, Rachel. “Why Would We Want to Leave?” The Atlas of Drowned Towns (blog). July 31 , 2023.

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