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Most Notorious — Penchant for fighting, generosity made logger Bob Barr a legend

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Bob Barr grabbed his rifle and stomped off toward the doctor's house. He wasn't a tall man, just five-foot-10 by one estimate. But with big arms and a stocky-yet-limber frame, he could fight like a badger.

Barr, a well-known logging contractor, had just learned that one of his loggers had blown himself up while fishing — with dynamite. Barr brought the logger, Jake Nordvik, to an osteopath, but the practitioner needed another doctor to administer anaesthetic, and because of his specialty, other doctors would have nothing to do with him.

"Hold on," Barr told the osteopath. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

Barr soon returned holding another doctor at gunpoint. The doctor monitored the anaesthetic while the osteopath amputated Nordvik's arm. There was so much blood. But Nordvik lived, partly thanks to Barr, who it seems would do just about anything for the 300-plus loggers he employed more than a century ago.

Years later, others would dispute the story, saying a doctor willingly came to assist with Nordvik's surgery. But the tale, recounted by longtime Kelso doctor Frank Davis in 1977, is a classic chapter in the legend of R.H. "Bob" Barr.

There was Bob Barr the drinker. Bob Barr "the mightiest logger of them all." Bob Barr the millionaire. Bob Barr the gentleman and humanitarian. And, of course, Bob Barr the fighter.

"The Barr guys would fight at the drop of a hat," said Bill Ammons, whose family has run a Kelso barbershop since 1933 and used to cut the Barr clan's hair. "They could plain fight and drink."

In fact, a man at the Imperial Hotel in Portland was once overheard talking about "a little Scotchman up in Kelso who could have taken Joe Louis any day." There is little question that he was talking about Barr.

Most Notorious Series
This is the 27th in a weekly series about the area's most notorious citizens of the past and present. By notorious, we mean people who are widely and often unfavorably known. Our subjects don't have to be lawbreakers, but they must raise eyebrows. They can be cantankerous and irascible, famous for one deed or a body of work.

Barr settled in Cowlitz County in 1891, and by 1895 had become a partner in the Cowlitz Logging Co. He eventually took over the outfit. He also established a shingle mill at the Port of Kalama and ship material to California and China. He once boasted he was a millionaire and that he could write a check for a half-million if he wanted to. He said he had at least that much invested in his equipment.

Barr set up logging camps along the Coweeman River and employed creative tactics for getting his logs down to the mills near the Columbia. He strung cables. He imported "steam donkeys" — giant winches — from Michigan. He built a monster "splash" dam that, when unleashed, was a hazard to anything in its path.

Workers floated logs in the pond behind the dam. When it was full, they'd break the dam loose, and the river would sluice and blast the logs downstream. Barr wasn't the only logger to employ the destructive tactic, but his "Big Dam," as it was known, was infamous. Like its owner, it was "hell for stout."

The "logs banging down the river were a danger to people, livestock and crops," Virginia Urrutia wrote in her book, "They Came to Six Rivers: The Story of Cowlitz County." By 1928, Urrutia wrote, "companies working splash dams had such a threat of lawsuits that they had to stop the practice."

Those who knew Barr said he could be humble and generous. During the Great Depression, one distant relative said, he would make sure that his loggers had food. And an article in the Cowlitz Historical Quarterly said Barr "never asked a man to do a job he couldn't or wouldn't do himself" and that he was "quick to help people in need."

"I remember once he took a wagon load of supplies to a family whose house had burned," one county resident told the quarterly in the late 1970s. "Bob was there the next day."

One acquaintance even questioned whether Barr's battle-worn prestige was overblown, suggesting that Barr had only gotten in a few fights and the reputation stuck.

Barr was born to Scottish-Irish parents in Ontario, Canada, on Dec. 4, 1872. He learned to stick up for himself the hard way in Canada's tough logging camps. By the time he arrived in Cowlitz County, he was still throwing punches. But it appears he is remembered as much for his defeats as his victories.

He is said to have taken on six or seven men in a Portland saloon. By some accounts, Barr won the fight. By others, a man stepped in to rescue him.

Barr is also said to have come across a "big Swede" carrying a large pack near town and, from atop his horse, declared, "I'm Bob Barr and if you can lick me, I'll give you a good job." The Swede beat Barr soundly, and Barr promptly hired him.

A blacksmith who fought Barr in one of his camps decided he was out of a job and started packing after defeating his boss. When Barr came across the despondent man, he insisted he stay. "Put all that stuff back," Barr told him. "You're the only guy in camp that can lick me and I need you around." The blacksmith stayed in Barr's employ for three more years.

Davis, the Kelso doctor, wrote that Barr "would come to my office and was always showing me how loggers fought." When another logger, Colb Morse, put Davis in a stranglehold, the doctor remembered the tips and fought his way loose.

Morse, who considered Davis a friend, was mortified when he sobered up. But Barr told Davis, "You got a great reputation among the loggers. It's all over camp that you licked Colb Morse!"

It was all routine in the hardscrabble days of Cowlitz County's logging camps, saloons and brothels. But some wanted nothing to do with it.

Vivian Barr, who married Ted Barr, a distant relative of the pioneer logger, said there was a schism between the rough-hewn side of the clan and other Barrs who pursued what they considered more respectable pursuits.

Ted's father, who was also named Bob, first came here work for his uncle — the fist-slinging, log-flushing Barr — but later became the dock superintendent at the Port of Longview.

"When I first started dating Ted, my parents were very much concerned which Bob was his father," Vivian Barr said last week. "There was a little concern at first in my family, because the other family had a different reputation."

As the years pressed on, she said, "we avoided as much as possible too much contact with that side of the family. That sounds terribly snobbish, but that's the way it was."

Sources: The December 1977 Cowlitz Historical Quarterly; "They Came to Six Rivers," by Virginia Urrutia.

in a 1977 issue of the Cowlitz Historical Quarterly


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