You can’t tell the story of Darryl Nelson without Timberline Lodge; and you can’t tell the story of Timberline Lodge without Darryl Nelson.
Of the two, Timberline Lodge is far better known. Set just above the hem of evergreens at 6,000 feet on Mount Hood’s south slope, Timberline Lodge is Oregon’s most iconic historic lodge, beloved by generations of visitors. It proudly claims its place as one of the great lodges of the American West. It is considered a defining masterpiece of its architectural style, known as Cascadian. And it even had its brush with Hollywood in its cameo appearance as the “Overlook Hotel” in the 1980 horror classic “The Shining.”
Nelson, on the other hand, is so little-known in the public eye that he is essentially anonymous. You might catch a glimpse of him shuffling through the lodge as he totes his heavy toolbox. You may see him wrenching down a bolt with his fingers, thick and calloused from a lifetime of manual work. Dressed in a floppy fedora and frayed chore coat over his plaid wool shirt, he looks like he stepped into the present from the past, as if he had been one of the original blacksmiths of the lodge during the Great Depression. In many ways, he’s exactly that.
Hope in hard times
Timberline’s story starts in the hard times of the Great Depression. With millions unemployed and growing desperate, President Franklin Roosevelt initiated his New Deal, launching federal programs to create new jobs.
These new jobs would give people immediate paychecks to help feed their families, but just as importantly, the specific projects they took on were inspiringly large in scale and with the purpose of public benefit. They gave those who had been hopeless new hope, a place to apply their efforts, and pride in their work. In doing so, they would create, not just to get America through the hard times of that moment in history, but to make things of enduring value for generations to come.
The Works Project Administration, or WPA, hired artisans whose highly skilled trades could be put to work on public building projects — people such as stone masons, carpenters, and blacksmiths.
The Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, gathered the young generation to build trails, campgrounds and cabins in vast, undeveloped national forests and parks. These young workers had energy and brawn, but needed training. The older craftsmen of the WPA had experience and could mentor the CCC crews.
As the spring snow slowly began to melt in 1936, a combined force of WPA and CCC headed to the south flank of Mount Hood to break ground for a grand lodge.
All hands set to work as they raced to frame the lodge before the arrival of winter snows. Barely more than a year later, President Roosevelt himself was standing on the stone terrace, dedicating the lodge. In his speech, he predicted: “Here, to Mount Hood, will come thousands and thousands of visitors in the coming years.” He was right.
Forged from the mountain
The overall shape of the lodge was designed to match the form of the summit that rises behind it. At the center, a hexagonal cone, called the Head House, is a mirror of Mount Hood’s Crater Rock. From the Head House, two wings stretch to the west and east, like the two ridgelines of Hood’s summit.
The lodge was made of the raw materials of the mountain: built from the old-growth trees, hand hewn by adze and broad ax; the mountain’s stones gathered and lifted into place; and each lock and door knob and hinge forged from the blow of the blacksmiths’ hammers. It was a structure simultaneously rustic and grand.
“Even after all these years, I'm overwhelmed by the lodge and the grandeur and the effort that went into it by a lot of skilled craftspeople from all different mediums of craft,” Nelson said.
Fifty blacksmiths labored to create the ironwork of the lodge. “They gave their hearts and their souls when they did that work,” Nelson said. “They were so appreciative to have the work and I think they had a point to prove.”
A style all its own
To walk up the stone steps of Timberline, you enter a dark stone alcove. The cold basalt chills the air. Some say it feels like stepping inside the mountain itself.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright spoke of a feeling of “compression and release” and put the concept into many of his buildings during the era. Perhaps more simply, the architecture of Timberline’s entrance mirrors nature: it’s like entering a narrow cave and then suddenly stepping into a cavern.
From the small alcove, the room opens to the ground floor of the lodge. A fire crackles in a massive stone hearth. Many are drawn to its warmth. If you look closely, you may notice that the hefty fireplace andirons look a lot like they were made of old railroad tracks. They were.
“The rest of the iron work in the country we can see most anywhere, but Timberline iron work is Timberline iron work: there's nothing else like it anywhere in the country or the world,” said Nelson. “It’s a style all its own.”
Nelson’s story starts when he was 19, pounding horseshoes over an anvil. While attending farrier school, he learned about the tradition of decorative metalwork — shaping raw metal to be both beautiful and functional. After shoeing horses all day, he’d stay at his anvil, practicing his blacksmith skills.
“I shod horses for 13 years after going through horseshoeing school, the whole time trying to build up a blacksmithing business because I really found I enjoyed my time at the anvil more than I enjoyed the time under the horse,” he said with a chuckle.
As he was beginning to master the ancient craft of blacksmithing, Nelson learned that other blacksmiths were eager for connection and collaboration. In 1979, a group of about a dozen blacksmiths started the Northwest Blacksmith Association. They’d take turns hosting the group at their shops for what they called an “open forge.”
At one of the gatherings, Nelson met Russell Maugans.
“Have you ever been to Timberline Lodge?” Maugans asked. Nelson admitted he hadn’t. Maugans then shared with Nelson an unexpected story.
As a commercial airline pilot, Maugans had been assigned the flight between Atlanta and Portland. From his cockpit, he spotted the lodge on the side of Mount Hood. With each flight, his curiosity grew.
As soon as he had a long layover, Maugans rented a car to see the lodge up close. He immediately fell in love with Timberline and started asking questions about the iron work. He learned that Orion Dawson, known as “O.B. Dawson,” had been the lead blacksmith in the lodge’s construction.
He then looked up Dawson, hoping to meet the blacksmithing master. Dawson gladly welcomed Maugans and shared the techniques his smiths had used to build Timberline. Blacksmithing is traditionally a two-person job, according to Nelson. Maugans and Dawson developed a teamwork at the anvil, and a deep friendship.
Dawson died in 1977 at the age of 81. A few years afterwards, Maugans introduced Nelson to Timberline, and they took up the blacksmith teamwork, as Maugans shared with Nelson what he'd been shown from Dawson.
Eventually, Maugans became too old to continue his metal work, and the title of Timberline blacksmith was handed down to Nelson, the third generation.
'I made this for you'
At a blacksmithing conference where Nelson was presenting about his work on Timberline, an attendee asked: "Did you make the frog?"
"You saw the frog?" asked Nelson, surprised.
On Timberline’s main floor, in the display of the lodge's history, on the back wall, is a metal gate. It features rows of coyote head designs, a motif carried throughout the lodge, honoring the flora and fauna of the mountain. It has geometric patterns, another theme carried through the lodge, honoring the designs of the region’s Native American heritage. And — if you look very closely — on the upper hinge, the head of a bolt is hand-hammered into a tiny frog.
"Yes,” the man answered, “and when I saw it, I felt that you had made it for me."
"I absolutely did,” Nelson said.
To create the museum gate, Nelson invited other blacksmiths, to make it a group effort, just as the original smiths had worked. He coins it “in the spirit of Timberline.”
“There were 50 smiths that worked up there, they were all individuals, but you don't know any of their names,” he said. Similarly, Nelson and his modern smiths are essentially anonymous. They all signed their names underneath the gate with the frog. “You'd have to take a flashlight, hold it down there, to be able to see it,” he said. “But we know our names are there.”
Leaving his mark
“Personally, I like the anonymity myself,” Nelson said. “I'd really rather just kind of blow through there like a ghost.”
He often shuffles through the crowds, stopping to inspect a loose bolt or test a latch. Far too often a bolt will come loose; or perhaps more accurately, a visitor will loosen a bolt and pocket it as a souvenir. Nelson makes his rounds, noting the pieces he’ll have to make once again by hand.
“It’s a cycle,” he said.
His work seems so solid — thick metal scalloped by the blows of his hammer — that it could last forever.
“When you make something as a blacksmith, you think it will well outlast you,” he said. “It’s your form of immortality.” He rattled a window latch that had come loose, and then tightened it with his wrench, and continued his meditative thought.
“But everything wears out with time,” he said as he looked through the widow at the snow and rocks of the mountain. “Nothing lasts forever.”
Over the decades Nelson has apprenticed dozens of aspiring blacksmiths. Some have gone on to their own careers. Some have just gone on. No one has stepped up to take the hammer from Nelson when his Timberline tenure is done.
Climbing the stairs, his calloused hands slip over the handrails. The rails are sturdy, with the ends forged into solid pine cones. The metal is polished to a silver hue by the hands of some two million tourists a year.
These rails, like almost every piece of metal in the lodge, holds a story for Nelson. His stories are like those of a kindly grandfather, told with meandering plot lines, myriad details, a chuckle, a twinkle in the eyes — and at the end is more than just a punchline, but a point: an understated moral, that reveals what Nelson values, his relationship to Timberline, and how he wants to leave his mark.
Nelson recalls fondly the day he and Maugans installed the handrails. Before then, there were no handrails on the lodge’s many flights of stairs, perhaps because Timberline had been built in such a rush (or perhaps because it was constructed in an era before modern safety codes).
The two blacksmiths waited until after hours so their installation did not impede guest access between the lodge’s floors.
“And we'd planned it almost too good,” Nelson related, because by the time they’d installed the last handrail on the last flight, no one had come along. Nelson wanted to see if visitors would actually use his new rails.
Then, a small group of guests started to climb the stairs. Nelson watched one guest grab the rail and use it all the way up.
The two blacksmiths grinned. Then they watched the second guest round the corner and grab the rail and exclaim: “Look at these pine cones! Look at these twists! Boy, they don't make work like this anymore!"
Nelson grinned and chuckled as he repeated: “They don’t make work like this anymore.”