Mill Fire destroys the black neighborhood of Weed, California

It was a company town, anchored by a sawmill and a nearby neighborhood populated by black laborers recruited from the South a century ago to work in the sawmill.

Now the two have been devastated by a forest fire.

The factory fire tore through parts of the Roseburg Forest Products plant on Friday afternoon in Weed and destroyed much of the Lincoln Heights neighborhood, a tight-knit working-class community that sprung up in the 1990s. 1920 to house black carpenters.

“Everyone on this street knew everyone,” said Daudi Etter, 50, a longtime Lincoln Heights resident whose home was destroyed on Friday.

Ryan Sabalow [email protected]

Standing on the outskirts of the neighborhood early Saturday, he said: ‘Looks like a bomb went off. For 45 harrowing minutes on Friday, Etter, who was at work in Mount Shasta when the fire broke out, did not know if her 11-year-old daughter-in-law, Amaya, had survived the blaze. He later found out that someone had evacuated her safely.

Others weren’t so lucky, Etter said, including an elderly woman he overheard didn’t have time to pull through. She was believed to be dead, he said.

Smoke billowed from houses that were little more than piles of rubble and twisted metal. The destroyed cars lay in puddles of aluminum from the metal wheels that had melted. A small dog wandered aimlessly through the wreckage.

Although the cause of the fire remains unknown, Mayor Kim Greene told The Sacramento Bee on Friday that it appeared to have started near the Roseburg plant. A company spokeswoman confirmed that part of the Roseburg property burned down on Friday, although she has no information on exactly where or how the fire started. A major building at the Roseburg site was a smoldering ruin early Saturday.

The fire marked a catastrophic chapter for this town of 2,600 people, named after lumber magnate Abner Weed, who emigrated from Maine and bought a small sawmill for $400 in 1897.

Ironically, he chose the location after discovering “that the region’s strong winds were useful for drying lumber,” according to the city’s website. Witnesses said high winds helped drive the mill fire through town.

In the 1920s, the facility was owned by the Long Bell Lumber Co., which recruited black people from its Southern mills, paid for their train fare and moved them to Weed, according to an account by James Langford, a retired teacher of Weed. who researched the history of the city.

Newly arrived workers mostly lived in company-provided housing in a nearby neighborhood called the Neighborhoods. Years later it would be renamed Lincoln Heights.

Langford, who was Weed’s first black teacher, said in an interview that Long Bell ran Weed as a company town. The carpenters were expected to purchase their groceries, clothing and other necessities from a company-owned store called the Mercantile. The building still exists as an indoor shopping mall.

“You could get whatever you wanted.”

Long Bell — known to some as “Ma Bell,” according to Langford — has kept the community racially segregated. The mill was no different. Whites worked indoors, while blacks were relegated to manual labor outdoors.

“Working outdoors was the hardest job,” said Langford, who moved to Weed in the 1970s after finishing college in San Francisco. Ten years ago, he helped produce a documentary about the neighborhood, “From the Quarters to Lincoln Heights.”

lincoln heights
The Lincoln Heights neighborhood in Weed was largely in ruins on Saturday, August 3, 2022, after the factory fire scorched the area the day before. Ryan Sabalow [email protected]

Lincoln Heights’ black community eventually became more diverse, he said, and until the fire was home to a mix of whites, Asian Americans and Latinos. “Lincoln Heights was starting to be totally integrated,” he said.

Etter said the neighborhood has always been very united. “Everyone helped everyone; everyone on that street knew everyone,” he said.

“A lot of people went to the Bay Area, and stuff like that, but everybody always came home,” he said.

Long Bell eventually became part of International Paper Co. and later the mill was taken over by Oregon-based Roseburg.

However, relations between the mill and the town were not always friendly. For several years, the two fought in court for control of a water supply known as Beaughan Waters, which the town had used for 100 years. The dispute was settled in March 2021, after the two sides signed a complicated settlement agreement that provided water to the city.

The factory was badly damaged in the Boles fire in 2014, but reopened. With a workforce of around 140, it remains one of the largest employers in the city.

“Jobs are hard to come by unless you’re in the factory,” Langford said.

Homes are burned in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Weed, Calif., Saturday, Aug. 3, 2022, after a factory fire ripped through the historically black neighborhood the day before. Ryan Sabalow [email protected]

This story was originally published September 3, 2022 9:54 a.m.

Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, the economy and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major corporate stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.