History of Riddle, Oregon

Riddle was founded in 1893 by John B. Riddle.  John named the city for his ancestors, the William H. Riddle family from Springfield, Illinois who settled on one of thirteen land claims that were made available in the Cow Creek Valley in 1851.  The Cow Creek Valley was also referred to as the Missouri Bottom and was 4 miles long and 2 miles wide.  The Donation Land Claims were 320 acres in size and by 1852 nearly all of these fertile agricultural lands were claimed.  Joining a party of other early pioneers, the Riddle family came to the Cow Creek Valley by way of wagon train. Their donation claim was north of Cow Creek Falls, at the base of “Old Piney”, where deposits of nickel were later discovered.  William Riddle was more ambitious than the average pioneer, a trait he passed on to his kids. Their first Oregon house was made of hewed logs. It was the Riddle homestead where the 1853 treaty between the Cow Creek Indians and the United States was signed.  This was the first ratified treaty in the Oregon Territory.

Early in the spring of 1852, other settlers began to arrive in Cow Creek valley.  One of these was John Smith, from South Bend, Indiana, who located a Donation Land Claim embracing the present site of the town of Riddle.  After establishing the claim, he returned to Indiana and asked his daughter and son-in-law, J.Q.C. Vandenbosch, to take over the claim.  The Vandenbosch family name appears on all abstracts of title to Riddle town property.

In 1866, Vandenbosch sold his claim to Abner and J.B. Riddle.  They bought the Vandenbosch Donation Claim of 320 acres, for $800.  They bought the Vandenbosch claim the same year that it was announced that the railroad would be extended from northern California clear through to Portland, Oregon. The next year the railroad route was surveyed and, wonder of wonders, it was proposed to go right through the middle of the Riddle’s new possession.  Abner took the land north of the surveyed center of the future railway line.  John took the land south of this line.

It was not until September 24, 1882 when the railroad reached the valley that a settlement began to develop. Abner and J.B. Riddle donated land for a town site, and a depot was located on it. The tracks arrived in what John platted as “Riddles”.  That same year John built the Riddle Hotel, right near the tracks. The first hotel that was built burned in 1885, so in 1886 they erected another magnificent structure.  It became a special attraction for honeymooners.  A large saloon was later annexed to the hotel and a new livery stable housed the guest’s horses.  It served as the social center of the entire Cow Creek Valley.  Minus the porch, it still stands in Riddle today, and houses the Masonic Lodge.  The little town which sprang up was named Riddle, sometimes called Riddleburg, and for 8 months it was the southern operating terminus of the railroad. It was reported that during the time that Riddle was the railroad terminus, “the place was ‘lively’ in the broadest of significance of the term, and it’s likely the peaceful citizens of Cow Creek Valley hope never to witness again”.

With the extension of the railroad on to California and the departure of “the horde which infested the terminus”, Riddle became a subdued but thriving village and shipping point for a small but prosperous community.  There were two hotels, a store, a warehouse, a saw mill, and a school house.  Placer mines –mostly gold, were being extensively worked in the hills & streams of the Cow Creek area.  A geologist from San Francisco, Will Q. Brown, was developing a nickel mine that was being worked with good results on ‘Old Piney’ (Nickel Mountain). The earlier planted fruit orchards were in full production.   Grain, hay, and livestock were in good supply.  Daily train service provided an outlet for diversified products, as well as an inlet for supplies.  This made Riddle no longer entirely dependent on stock raising and agriculture.  Along the South Umpqua River, the towns of Canyonville, Days Creek, Milo, Tiller, and Drew became dependent on the supplies & freight which came and left through the depot in Riddle.   People could leave Riddle at noon for Roseburg, do their shopping and return on the 6 pm train.  Riddle was chartered & incorporated as the “town of Riddle” on January 30, 1893.

The building of the railroad, the discovery of placer deposits of gold in Cow Creek Canyon and nickel ore on Nickel Mountain, made Riddle a boomtown for a number of years.  Business flourished for Riddle and the Southern Pacific Railroad until the advent of the automobile and the construction of highway 99, just east of town. The last large commercial buildings constructed in Riddle happened in 1922.  The communities on the South Umpqua River were better serviced by truck and many people started driving to Roseburg instead of taking the train.

A factor contributing to Riddle’s early economic growth was the prune.  In the first part of the 1900’s, many orchards in the valley began growing prunes.  When growers began exporting their crops via the railroad, much of the cultivatable land in the lower Cow Creek Valley was planted with prunes, walnuts and other crops that could be dehydrated.  The prune was a major export until around 1930.  The Rosenburg Brothers’ prune packing plant was the only industry in Riddle throughout The Depression.  Dried prunes from many orchardists in Douglas County were processed and shipped by rail from this plant.  This processing lasted long after the prune harvest and provided much needed cash income for many Riddle citizens.

The start of World War II, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, ended The Depression. Riddle’s population was around 214 persons.  When the war ended, logging and mining were the major industries supporting the local economy.  It was the railway access that advanced the development of lumber mills, coupled with an adequate water supply.  Lumber mills grew up like daffodils in the springtime throughout the Cow Creek Valley.  Many of these mills made a brief attempt as new business, or failed during the “1955 recession”.  The mills that survived greatly expanded and have since become a part of the Riddle landscape.   In l954, Hanna Nickel opened its Nickel Smelter, once more mining the same deposit that was discovered in 1865.

Although Riddle’s commercial area didn’t expand to its projected full potential, by the late 1950’s Riddle was host to a meat market, a grocery store, a garage, a machine shop, a tavern, a retail lumber yard, a restaurant/bar, a gas station, a theatre, a realty/insurance company, a mortuary, and a post office. The town’s population grew to 1,020 people by 1957 and with no land use laws, houses sprang up in every nook and cranny of Cow Creek Valley.  As the community continued to grow, a volunteer fire department was formed and a new city hall was built along Main Street.  Riddle became the industrial employment center for South Douglas county business & bedroom areas.

During the 1960 -70’s, Riddle’s population peaked at 1,245 persons.  The lumber mills were producing record amount of wood for homes, and other construction projects across the nation.  Nickel was at an all time high and Glenbrook Nickel (formerly Hanna Nickel) was exporting ore by truck & train to meet the needs.  Truck transportation was greatly improved with the completion of the Interstate 5 in 1966.  The 10.2-mile portion of Interstate 5, initially known as the Fords Bridge Unit and later referred to as the Myrtle Creek-Canyonville segment, was the first section contract of interstate in Oregon to be awarded following the passage of the 1956 Federal Highway Act. The contract was finalized on September 27, 1956, and construction was completed in 1959 at a cost of $5,500,000. The need for the Riddle train depot ceased to exist.  The last official passenger train went through Riddle on May 16, 1956.  The last freight train stopped at the Riddle Depot in the summer of 1978.

In the early 1980s, Riddle saw a large percentage of jobs lost when there was a major housing crash and the timber industry started shedding thousands of jobs.  That truly was a “Great Recession” that changed the community forever.  Every industry would recover the lost jobs through the 1980s, except for the timber industry, which would never again be as prominent a part of Oregon’s economy.  Glenbrook Nickel shut down the mine due to the economy in 1987.

The outlook for Riddle became bleaker in the 1990’s, as the Glenbrook Nickel Company closed the Nickel Mountain Mine and its adjoining smelter on March 31, 1998.  Nickel Mountain had been idle and on a care-and-maintenance basis since 1996 because of low prices for nickel ore.  The mine had been the sole domestic producer of primary nickel in the United States in recent years, operating on an intermittent basis—depending on the price of nickel. Glenbrook operated its smelter in Riddle at full capacity during 1997, processing mostly garneritic laterite ore from New Caledonia. The closure of the complex left almost 300 employees without jobs.

The new century brought new ideas, energy and hope to the Cow Creek Valley.   The prospective as a grape-growing region within Oregon began showing dynamic growth and dramatic potential for increasing tourism related to the Oregon wine trade.  This area consists of a series of valleys and undulating hills with a Mediterranean climate. The Umpqua River, which borders the east end of the Cow Creek Valley is the largest and most notable of the rivers in the region. Drier and warmer than the Willamette Valley wine region to the north, and cooler than the Rogue and Applegate wine regions to the south, the “Umpqua Valleys” have features of both those regions. The Umpqua wine region is cool enough to produce classic Oregon varieties like Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, the leading varietals. However it is also warm enough to grow Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It also has substantial amounts of Riesling and Chardonnay. A 2007 study of the possible economic impact of the “Umpqua Valleys” wine industry showed “Southern Oregon has the potential to realize an eight-year growth factor of 5,000 additional wine cluster-related jobs and $115 million in added income in the labor market.”  Winemaking has become southern Oregon’s most promising growth industry.  Farmland will be more productive. Local businesses will find a way to profit. Jobs will be created. Wine tourism dollars will be spent on lodging, restaurants, transportation and recreation, making Riddle one of the hottest new destination spots.

The 21st century found Riddle with six lumber mills doing business locally, nationally & internationally.   The reinvention of the old Riddle Nickel Mine site as a processing plant for sand products sold through out the U.S. and  globally.  And the winemaking industry taking a foothold in the landscape of the Cow Creek Valley.