For over 100 years, Bernert Barge Lines has been a family run company operating in the Pacific Northwest.
This rich and long-established history has helped to define the way Bernert Barge Lines operates today.
Joseph Bernert was born in 1847 on a farm near a river in Northern Germany. At age 19, he came to America to work on the great Mississippi River in New Orleans. The hot, humid climate changed his mind, and he traveled to California and then northward into Oregon, working odd jobs along the way.
After arriving in the Willamette Valley, Joseph discovered Walnut Eddy, located near present-day Hebb Park, below the Canby Ferry. He established himself by anchoring a string of logs reaching into the channel to catch fallen timbers that farmers rolled downstream after clearing land. Joseph trimmed them into logs and bound several logs into rafts to float downriver for sale to Moehnke’s lumber mill, just upstream from Willamette Falls. At first, he rode the rafts themselves, using a sweep as a guide. Later, he built an 18-foot, two-man rowboat with a blunt bow that he used to direct the raft down river, then hauled the boat onto a passing steamer to return upstream. The rowboats, however, were not very durable and had to be replaced every three to five years.
As the need for service increased, rafts were brought downriver from as far upstream as Eugene, and any stream along the Willamette deep enough to float logs. The timber industry was booming in the Northwest, and logs were needed for many industries, from construction to furniture to paper. Rivers formed the major highways for transporting logs from one place to another.
Around 1900, cars started appearing in the region. Joseph figured that if a car could run on a gasoline engine, then why not a boat? In 1907, he built the “Vanda,” complete with a 4-1/2 horsepower engine. Three years later, the “Flora” boasted a 19 horsepower engine. By this time, Joseph’s three sons were old enough to be viable business partners. Carl was born in 1891, Albert in 1894, and Joe in 1896. At age 6, the boys started following their dad and learning to work on the river. By age 16, Albert had purchased the “Vanda” from his dad.
In January 1912, tragedy struck. Joseph had just collected some money in Oregon City to purchase some logs. As he headed out of the Canemah boat basin in high river waters, he experienced difficulties. Although he had been hugging the shoreline, he was not close enough to land. The raging current eventually swept him and his boat over the falls, and his body was never found.
A New Chapter
Joseph’s widow and children survived on the food from their farm and work carried on by Joseph’s sons. When World War I arrived, Carl and Joe enlisted, but Albert stayed home to support the family. He continued to build up the business, buying the “Wauna” in 1917, the “Ramona” in 1920, and several other boats as time went on. When Carl and Joe returned home, they worked for Albert and others until they could establish their own companies.
Carl sold his own company to Knapton Towboat Co. and retired in 1946, then later died in 1948. Joe Bernert died in 1956, and his sons carried on his business as Joe Bernert Towing. His son Tom still runs the company today in Wilsonville, Oregon.
Albert’s company reached its peak on the Willamette in 1955, when he had 23 boats busy towing log rafts up to a mile in length. As more restrictions were made on river use, mills started closing down or switching methods, forcing Albert to make some radical changes to his business. He bought Shephard Towing Company, operated six of his boats on the Klamath River for five years, and built two log booms (one of which lasted until 1997). In 1968, he established barging services on the Columbia River, putting his son Bob in charge.
Albert’s company, Albert Bernert, Inc., officially became Bernert Barge Lines, Inc. in 1981. Albert remained involved with the company until his death at age 89. His son Bob and daughter-in-law Kathryn continued the tradition of service and ingenuity until their retirement in 2000. Today, the company is run by Bob’s family: son Ken, company president; daughter Lori, director of operations; nephew Jerry Grossnickle, chief financial officer; daughter Sue, who works the office at The Dalles, Oregon; daughter-in-law Diane, personnel ; and all their skillful and dedicated employees, who are like family.