Oregon Trails: Cementing a Legacy

By Ron Brown

GOLD HILL, Ore. — It was mining that brought some of the first settlers to Southern Oregon, mostly looking for gold and silver. But it was mining of a lowlier mineral, and using it to make one of our most common building materials that produced one of our region’s longest running and successful mining operations.

It was almost a hundred years ago that work began on what was to become one of the largest cement manufacturing plants on the West coast, and it was right here in Gold Hill. Engineers had discovered that the area contained large high quality deposits of limestone and shale, key ingredients for making cement. With a railroad nearby, it seemed natural to build a plant near Gold Hill. When the Oregon legislature worked out a deal to cut rail shipping rates for Gold Hill cement to 2/3rds that of ocean shipping along the coast, investors signed on to build a plant at the west end of town. Construction began in 1913 on the million-dollar plant.

But one big snafu delayed construction. The huge kiln, the third largest in the world at the time, became lost in shipment! It weighed 1.2 million pounds and was nearly 200 feet long and 10 feet in diameter! It was shipped in three sections from the foundry in Iowa, but disappeared on the way to Oregon. It was finally found in Yuma, Arizona! By 1915, the plant was finally finished and the first carload of Beaver Portland Cement was shipped out. For the next 60-plus years the Gold Hill plant provided up to a thousand barrels of cement a day. Dust in the air, a sulfur smell, and for decades, a whistle blowing at 8, 12 and 3 also meant jobs for dozens of local families.

The plant employed a hundred or more men, and the cement it produced provided the concrete to help build the new Pacific Highway through Southern Oregon in the teens, and the Historic Rock Point Bridge. The company’s first big contract was with Jackson County for 50,000 barrels of cement to build the Pacific Highway. Jackson County was the first in Oregon to have a paved road from border-to-border, and Oregon was the first state to have a paved highway all the way, from California to Washington. And much of it was paved with Gold Hill cement.

Ten years later, it also provided concrete for another bridge over the river at Gold Hill, and sidewalks for the town. Both bridges are still rock solid historic landmarks. In the 40’s, a new hydro plant was built upriver to provide increased power to the plant and town, while a new concrete dam was built at Gold Ray to replace the original log structure. It was then that complaints from city residents about dust settling over the north side of town led to new controls added to the stack. For decades the plant provided valuable, locally produced materials for major projects and jobs for generations of families. The company even sponsored a local baseball team.

Within a few years after the plant opened, it was discovered ore supplies at the plant were not enough, so the company focused on another quarry site across from where Valley of the Rogue Park is now. Then, more limestone was needed, so the company tapped into the quarry at marble mountain, west of Grants Pass. In the 1950’s, Beaver Portland Cement became Ideal Portland Cement Company. When construction began on Interstate 5 in the early 60’s, cement from the Gold Hill plant helped make history when the concrete ribbon through the Rogue Valley was one of the first continuously poured segments in the country. Much of it is still there, under newer layers of asphalt. But once the freeway was done, the aging plant faced shutdown. In 1967, after more than 60 years, it closed and Gold Hill felt the impact. Many relocated to Seattle for work.

It’s been more than 40 years since the Ideal Cement Company shut down its Gold Hill plant. About all that’s left now to know that it was even ever here is a quarry up on the hillside, and the foundation that’s buried underneath the tailing pile. If it wasn’t for the memory of a few old-timers around town, you might not even know that it was ever here.

A former cement plant employee we interviewed 12 years ago, Wilmer Bailey, says the cement plant pumped the city’s water, provided power for the city’s street lights and other electric needs. There’s no word on what will become of the old hydro plant that is now in severe disrepair.