Cornelius hasn't always been Cornelius.
For many years, this small western Washington County community was called Free Orchards. This rather unusual name came from the many fruit trees growing on Benjamin Q. Tucker's Donation Land Claim which encompassed most of the town north of Baseline Street, the present day Tualitin Valley Highway.
Tucker had arrived in Oregon in October 1844, and settled his claim in 1845. His land and the surrounding claims were simply farms; there was no community. The name, Free Orchards, simply identified the orchard area.
The southern part of Cornelius also was settled in 1845. The land baron in this case was Solomon Emerick, who relocated after had lived in south Forest Grove for two years. His land claim in Cornelius stretched from Baseline Street south beyond the Tualatin River.
Little did Solomon Emerick realize how important his farm location would be in the development of Cornelius. In the days of almost no roads, the Tualatin River provided a means of bringing in goods and shipping out farm produce. In the 1850s, steamboats from Lake Oswego began coming as far as Cornelius and using a small wharf which became known as "Emerick's Landing." This could easily have been called the Port of Cornelius.
The Tualatin River is an endless, winding and meandering channel through relatively flat country. In many places, the wide bends almost form loops, and sometimes passengers were allowed to get off, pick berries, then meet the boat as it came around the bend near where they had disembarked. The 60-mile boat trip from Lake Oswego to Cornelius was leisurely, to say the least.
The first boat, the Hoosier, was taken off the Tualatin in 1859. It was followed by the Yamhill, a 50-ton sidewheeler, and the Onward, a 100-ton paddle sternwheeler. Both had difficulty navigating the twisting sternwheeler. Both had difficulty navigating the twisting river. The size of these larger boats sometimes required the crews to spend almost as much time cutting trees, to allow them to get around sharp turns, as they spent in navigating. A smaller boat, the Ajax, carried freight and passengers as far as Forest Grove in the 1880s.
In 1894, the U.S. government began a survey of the feasibility of improving navigation on the Tualitin River by dredging, by eliminating the many bends, and by purchasing land to permit cutting across narrow necks of land to shorten the route. It was determined that the cost and other problems ruled out such an effort. Hence, after about 40 years of boats serving Cornelius, the commercial use of the river was abandoned.
While the river was an important development in the early history of Cornelius, another form of transportation - the railroad - soon came on the scene. It has had a more lasting impact.
A certain family with the surname Cornelius was instrumental in taking advantage of the coming of the railroad and utilizing it for the benefit of the community.
In 1845, Benjamin C. Cornelius Sr. brought his family west from Missouri and settled a donation land claim about four miles north of where Cornelius is now located. Five years later, his son Thomas R. Cornelius settled a claim just north of his father's. It bordered on the west edge of the present town of North Plains. Hwy. 26 now crosses the old claim, which he owned and farmed for 49 years.
This was a period of time when there was trouble with Indians, and Thomas R. Cornelius saw service in the Cayuse War of 1848, following the Whitman Massacre of 1847. In late 1848, he went to California to seek gold. He boasted of mining $300 of the precious metal in one day.
In 1855, he entered the Yakima Indian War as captain, and soon became colonel in charge of a regiment.
By 1856, he had joined the legislature, where he served for 20 years. In the fall of 1886, he ran unsuccessfully for governor. These events, among others, describe his colorful career.
In 1871, Thomas R. Cornelius got wind of plans by Ben Holladay to build a railroad through Free Orchards. Holladay was angry at Hillsboro and Forest Grove for not promising him free right-of-way through the towns, and therefore planned to bypass them.
Not so with Free Orchards.
Ben Holladay was a wealthy operator of stage lines and steamboat companies, and a building of railroads.
He felt he was in a strong position to teach Hillsboro and Forest Grove a lesson. He planned to convert Free Orchards into a city which he hoped would become the center of Washington County, with his West Side Division of the Oregon and California Railroad running right through the city. By Dec. 23, 1871, the railroad had passed Hillsboro and was rapidly approaching Free Orchards.
Thomas Cornelius saw opportunity coming and moved quickly. He left his farm and moved into Free Orchards, where he built a nice home.
He then constructed a large warehouse alongside the new railroad. When the trains come in, his warehouse became a boon to farmers. Soon, long lines of wagons were bring loads of grain to his warehouse. The farmers found it convenient to trade at his store right across the street. The high-volume business also was aided by extending liberal credit to his customers.
Meanwhile, Thomas Cornelius busied himself by opening a creamery to take care of the farmer's surplus milk. He saw further opportunity in the expansion of his adopted community and built two sawmills to provide lumber for houses and barns over a wide area. His businesses employed many men who then found it convenient to build homes nearby. Along with such interests, Cornelius found time to build the first frame schoolhouse and to take an active part in building the Methodist church.
The new railroad was helping Free Orchards enjoy increasing trade, and was serving Hillsboro and Forest Grove in an unusual way. For a time, the trains only stopped at Free Orchards, and passengers had to ride wagons to and from the other towns. Livery stables in Hillsboro and Forest Grove advertised that they provided hack service to "meet the cars at Free Orchards". Later, both Forest Grove and Hillsboro found it necessary to provide better ways to connect with the distant railroad line.
In 1906, a street car line was built in Forest Grove for that purpose. Finally, both towns authorized electric railroads to detour through the towns on a side track off the main railroad line. This was accomplished by adding a loop through the middle of town and back to the main line.
There is no doubt that the coming of the railroad had a lot to do with the growth of Cornelius. The track cut right through the center of town along the south side of Baseline Street, and that is where the tracks remain to this day.
The original depot was just across the track from Thomas Cornelius' warehouse. In spite of the convenience of having the railroad in the center of town, the growth envisioned by Holladay never developed enough to make it the most important town in the county. Hillsboro was well established as the county seat, and Halladay's dream of moving the county seat to Cornelius died.
It is tempting to say that when the West Side railroad began service to Cornelius it brought a new era of prosperity. Though it was a convenience, all was not well with the construction and the way that Holladay conducted business. He was in a hurry to reach Corvallis and Eugene and connect with the Oregon and California.
He bulldozed the line past Forest Grove and through Gaston, Yamhill and Carlton until it finally reached the hamlet of St. Joseph on Nov. 3, 1872. In anticipation of the railroad coming to McMinnville, it's citizens donated $40,000 to assure their town would get a good depot.
But Holladay had run out of funds at St. Joseph, just east of McMinnville, and built a small depot there instead. Work stopped for eight years, and McMinnville had to wait for its station.
Complaints began to mount on the poor condition of the hastily built railroad and the unethical methods of Holladay's management. He was in financial trouble and lost his railroad empire.
He died a poor man in 1887 begging his brother for funds to live on. In that same year, the Southern Pacific took over the Oregon and California Railroad including the West Side line.
If the Oregon and California Railroad had not come through Free Orchards, Thomas R. Cornelius would not have moved there. Without his foresight, the town would not have had the great advantage of his warehouse beside the track to provide for shipment of grain and other produce. Free Orchards also would not have had the other enterprises established by Cornelius, including his creamery, sawmills and store as well as his support of the construction of the school and church. Thus, it is not surprising that by common consent the town changed its name to honor it's leading citizen.
Thomas R. Cornelius died June 24, 1899, after devoting 28 years to help build the community which bears his name.
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