A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

October 2003

White River Rapscallion
An Insight into C. D. Hillman

by J. Clark McAbee

Everyone knows the phrase "there's a sucker born every minute" and the White River Valley had its own proponent of that business philosophy. Clarence Dayton Hillman was an early 20th century land developer and opportunist. C.D. cut a broad swath from Everett to Berkeley, Ca. with his land dealings in Auburn, Algona and Pacific City being right in the middle of it. A self-made millionaire, Hillman owned and sold property all over Puget Sound, Oregon and into California. His ads ran in area newspapers drumbeating the fabulous potential of his real estate. Land that typically was logged off, and good for perhaps no more than stump ranching. Hillman Land Co.'s newspaper ads and flyers touted incredible farmland available with railroads and manufacturing springing up to serve this fertile farmland for sale at rock bottom prices.

Portrait of C. D. Hillman
C. D. Hillman's signature

Hillman was born in Michigan in 1870 and before his tenth birthday arrived had lost both parents. Possessing only a second-grade education he nevertheless set off with his brother to California to make their fortunes. Legend has it he overheard the specifics of a real estate deal on a train, preempted the deal, and used the tip to turn a profit of $5,000. C.D. was now a real estate man. When one digs into local land development it is amazing the number of local communities that Hillman either developed or tried to. Most of these properties were platted between 1896 and 1911.

Hillman's ads were typical of gay nineties bombastic commercialism. "Free Milch Cow With Every Tract." Some of his more outrageous claims included "wheat twice the height of a man" and "strawberries the size of teacups." With the exception of the fertile White River Valley most Hillman properties failed to yield much in the way of bountiful crops. C.D. even had his own logging company called C.D. Hillman Logging in Snohomish County. As part of his "Birmingham Seaport Project" he purchased the Port Susan Logging railroad north of Everett. Birmingham was his most elaborate scheme. He constructed a phony town with storefronts, an inoperable but convincing looking sawmill and populated the whole shooting match with actors. The logging locomotive and cars were used to take the prospective buyers out to see the fertile land. The author spoke to one man in the Newcastle area who recalled that Hillman once traded his own father a steam logging donkey engine for some work he'd done. Hillman was always looking to turn a quick profit.

Typical Hillman Investment Co. ad
Typical Hillman Investment Co. ad,
from the museum's Leslie newspaper collection.

Boston Harbor was a similar scam in Olympia where a flourishing seaport to rival Boston, Massachusetts was to be developed by Hillman. He made generous use of advertising circulars sent in the U.S. mail as a big part of his campaign. This mail fraud was to be the cause of his temporary demise. America prior to World War One was still in love with the idea of boomtowns. The Yukon gold strike, the more recent Nome gold strike and the lumbering boom in the Puget Sound area all fired the imaginations of the inexperienced and newly arrived immigrant class flooding the West. A class ripe for the picking, or so C.D. thought.

Former Mayor of Algona Durrell R. McAbee once stated there were two reasons the city of Algona was laid out so uniquely: the nearby railroads and C.D. Hillman's garden tracts shell games. C.D. didn't appear very concerned that he sold some of his garden plots to more than one buyer! There were examples of land deals involving lots at the bottom of Green Lake (yes, Hillman owned the Green Lake area when it was considered remote) and out of towners arriving in Algona and Pacific sometimes found families already living on their rich "garden plots." Local Hillman developments included Pacific City, Auburndale, Jovita Heights, Valley City (Algona) and others. Indeed, it may well have been the following incident that provided a catalyst leading to Hillman's indictment for thirteen counts of mail fraud. Under the heading of Algona News, the March 19th, 1910 edition of the Auburn Argus reported:

"Mr. And Mrs. John Hankins of Puyallup were up Sunday to see their property which they had bought of C.D. Hillman and held a warranty deed. They found the property all right on Eight Avenue, and also found it fenced and a large two story house which was occupied by the Brown Family. As Mr. Brown holds a contract for the property with all payments made to date, it is evident that the property has been sold twice and both claimants will go to Seattle Saturday to have the matter adjusted by Hillman. It is to be hoped that the trouble will be settled to the satisfaction of all parties."

Hillman's advertising on a roof
Hillman's advertising lingo can be seen on this vintage photo taken about 1910
in Valley City (Algona). The whitewashed roof could be seen and read
for several hundred yards:
VALLEY CITY LAND Chicken Ranches ... Acre tracts, Building Sites Etc. VERY EASY TERMS.
Photo courtesy of the King County Library, Algona-Pacific Branch

Clarence Dayton Hillman "was indicted in October, 1910, for the offense of using the United States mails to defraud. (Hillman v. United States)." In a scene that would have made for an entertaining episode of the TV show Cops on September 21st, 1910 two deputy United States marshals and one postal inspector showed up at Hillman's Seattle offices with a subpoena for the company books. C.D. was absent so the subpoena was served to "Edward D. Manning, a bookkeeper of the defendant, commanding him to be and appear before the federal grand jury then in session in the city of Tacoma at 10 o'clock the next morning." The offices were those of the Boston Harbor, Steamship & Land Company, The Hillman Investment Company, and the C.D. Hillman Snohomish County Railroad & Land Company, all corporations in Washington State.

The books in question dealt with land deals, expenditures and agents employed by Hillman going back to September 1st, 1907. Hillman's attorneys of course contested that the books were wrongfully produced for the grand jury: "the deputy marshals and post office inspector in insolent and arrogant manner demanded of Manning the delivery of the books; that Manning refused to comply, where upon the officers procured boxes in which they placed the books, documents and papers, and procured a dray and carried away" the entirety to Tacoma and the grand jury.

What was Hillman's crime? The following quote from the Federal Reporter summarizes the indictments: "that the plaintiff...used the mails in a scheme to defraud...acquired in his own name and in the name of the various corporations... unimproved lands remote from cities or towns, difficult to access, and of little value, platted the same into town sites, advertised them widely in newspapers and circulars which he distributed through the mail, with a view to attracting as purchasers persons who were unacquainted with the value of the lands and inexperienced in real estate transactions and without knowledge of where the...lands were situated...that he fraudulently pretended and represented to such persons that he intended to build and cause to be built great seaport and manufacturing cities... that various railroad companies named intended to build their railways to such lands,... that he intended to build steam and electric railways to said town sites...whereas he well knew, that he did not intend to build or cause to be built..." the railroads, seaports, cities, factories or farms. Hillman led the unsuspecting buyer to believe that poultry, cattle and other domestic ranches were going concerns and available for low, low prices-pure fiction and fraud!

In a serendipitous development the inaugural April 1911 edition of the Auburn Republican newspaper carried this headline and story:


C. D. Hillman Convicted
C. D. Hillman, the wealthy real estate dealer, has been convicted by a jury in the United States District Court of using the mails for the purpose of fraud, and sentenced to serve time at McNeil Island, and in addition a sentence of twenty days in the county jail was imposed for contempt of court in sending circulars to prospective jurors. Bail was set at $200,000 with an additional $15,000 supersedeas bond by Judge Dunworth who in addressing the defendant, made the following cutting remarks: "Not only have you personally wronged poor people, but you have maintained a corrupt organization that has been a force of evil in the community. Undoubtedly many of your employees are honest, but many of them are not. I sentence you to two years and 6 months on McNeil Island upon each count in the indictment. The terms are to be served concurrently. In addition you are to pay a fine of $400.00 upon each account, or in all $5200.00 and the cost of the trial."

C. D. appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court who refused to hear the appeal. Hillman served 18 months on McNeil Island and returned to California but kept a house in Seattle. His family awaited his freedom, lodged in the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego. Upon release he continued to sell land and even approached in 1929 no less a personage than George S. Long, General Manager of the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company, asking Long if he would be interested in thousands of acres of timberland in five different Oregon counties. The old salesman still could pitch; stating in his offer: "We have owned this land for fifteen years. We are leaving very shortly for a three year trip around the world so please make us your best offer. Respectfully Yours, C.D. Hillman." Long politely declined.

Map of Auburndale tracts
Map of Auburndale tracts.

Hillman died in California in 1935 while visiting his Paso Robles ranch. His body was returned to Seattle and buried in Lake View Cemetery but the grave was never marked. This seems oddly fitting for the old rascal since his garden plots weren't always surveyed where they were supposed to be! Still, his legacy is undeniable. Hillman's land plats describing real estate up and down the West Coast are recorded and read by thousands with his plat names secure for posterity in numerous county land departments. What more could a showman ask for?

J. Clark McAbee  July, 2003 All Rights Reserved

Auburn Argus, Auburn Republican, Weyerhaeuser Archives, Historylink.org, Kroll Maps, and Tall Timber Short Lines were all used for reference.