Remembering the short life of William A. Nelson

A section of the found photo ...

Last Monday I was dying, well not really, but it felt like it at the time. I got myself to the office at noon and somehow got the paper put together. In the afternoon as I was just getting ready to go back home and back to bed I got a phone call from the Shaw family.

They were cleaning out the family home and had come across a large photo. Erin Queen from Forks Avenue Real Estate suggested they call me and see if I knew anything about it.

They told me the photo was of Company D 10th Engineers, (Forestry) Camp America University Washington, D.C., August 1917. I told them maybe it had something to do with the Spruce Division. They thought maybe it had something to do with their grandmother Minnie. I suggested if nobody wanted it, to at least loan it to the Timber Museum, since it was forestry related. (Which they did.)

There is nothing like a family mystery to bring me back from death’s door, so through my feverish fits I did some research. I found that the photo was not related to the Spruce Division, but was, in fact, a group of foresters that went to France to help the French with their need for wood products during World War I. The forestry engineers worked in France to provide the Allied forces with the timber necessary for the war effort.

Then I thought there must be someone in that photograph from the West End. I contacted Rod Fleck, who is familiar with military records, to see if he could find a roster of names of the company and he found the name.

William A. Nelson was born in Beaver in 1895 to Nels and Sofia Nelson. He had three sisters Helma, Minnie and Ada. After he served in World War I, he returned home and after working for a time as a timber faller and later on the county road department, he became a Clallam County sheriff.

Nelson went to great lengths to get the bad guys regardless of the conditions. He was known as a fearless lawman. At a young age he learned the use of firearms from one of his sisters, herself a crack shot. Although, when he was 8, he shot one of his fingers off.

He was just 26 in 1920 when he began serving as sheriff. In 1922, he was elected to a four-year term.

During his tenure, Nelson captured Discovery Bay murderers Charles Butt and T.H. Riley. He forced them to surrender single-handedly in their cabin on the Hoh Trail.

Nelson once arrested a whiskey runner who threatened to shoot anyone who tried to take him to jail.

“You have two minutes to decide,” Nelson told him, “After that, you are coming along with me one way or the other.”

The man gave up.

But it may have been Nelson’s fearlessness that led to his death. On March 30, 1924, Nelson died in a Seattle hospital succumbing to injuries received while forcing open a door in the line of duty.

It was speculated at the time that his health had been damaged by being gassed while serving in World War I and exposure to the elements while watching for bandits and whiskey runners in damp woods.

Coincidently, Monday, March 28, the day the family called me, also was William Nelson’s birthday and Wednesday was the anniversary of his death.

Sometimes I think people that have passed on just want us to remember them … a butterfly on a sunny day or a penny on the ground … or an old photo in the attic … So here is to remembering William Nelson, thank you for your service to our country and to our county.