A Look Back at the Watery History of a South Lewis County City
The wild river winding its way southwest toward the mighty Columbia brought early pioneers to Lewis County and the Puget Sound aboard shallow, stone-chiseled canoes and flat-bottomed bateaux, provided passengers travel upstream aboard steamboats that hauled farmers’ produce downstream and loaned its name to the first newspaper ever published in Toledo.
But over the decades, the Cowlitz River also claimed the lives of many people and overflowed its banks, destroying longhouses, homes and livestock.
After the Corp of Discovery traveled overland to the West Coast in 1804-05, Meriwether Lewis explored the lower portion of the Cowlitz River near its confluence with the Columbia River and present-day Kelso and Longview, and camped beside the “Cowlitskee” March 27, 1806, according to William West, an early Chehalis pioneer, but Lewis never reached the land in the county that now bears his name.
Upstream about 30 miles, nearly 5,000 Cowlitz Indians lived in longhouses on either side of the river named after the Salish tribe, in the area of present-day Toledo, according to Roy Wilson, honorary chief and spiritual leader of the Cowlitz and author of nearly 40 books. They drew water from the river, fished for salmon and smelt, and traveled in canoes.
By 1811, John Jacob Astor had established the Northwest Fur Co. trading post at Fort George on the Columbia River, which later merged with the Hudson’s Bay Co. In 1818, one of the company’s intrepid employees—a Quebec native named Simon Bonaparte Plomondon, who was only eighteen—canoed up the Columbia and then paddled up the Cowlitz River. There he was captured by the Cowlitz tribe, but because he carried no weapons and spoke a little Chinook jargon, Chief Scanewa released him after a few weeks. The tall, lanky teenager promised to return with trade goods, and kept his promise, returning with clothing, food and other items for the tribe. He then married one of the chief’s daughters, Thasemuth, later baptized Veronica. Their first child was born in 1821. Plomondon remained on the Cowlitz Prairie just northwest of Toledo for the remaining eight decades of his life.
In 1833, he helped establish the Puget Sound Agricultural Co. at Fort Nisqually, and later that decade, the 5,000-acre Cowlitz Farm, on the northwestern bank of the Cowlitz River, northeast of present-day Toledo. Both were owned by the Hudson’s Bay Co. Plomondon also farmed his own land and recruited French-Canadian Catholic priests to establish a mission on the prairie. Plomondon built a sawmill and the state’s first brick kiln on his farm. In 1846 he was a member of the Oregon Provisional Government’s Legislature.
For many years, the Hudson’s Bay Co. shipped produce downstream on bateaux and travelers disembarked from the river at what was referred to as Plomondon’s Landing, later called Cowlitz Landing, about a mile and a quarter south of present-day Toledo on the river’s northwestern bank.
In 1844, John Robinson Jackson, a British-born naturalized American, traveled west on the Oregon Trail and later ventured northeast up the Cowlitz, seeking land to homestead. He was headed for Puget Sound, but stopped at Marcel Bernier’s cabin near present-day Napavine. Returning south, he staked his claim on property he called The Highlands, today known as Jackson Prairie, and began building a cabin in the spring of 1845. Col. Michael T. Simmons and his companions, who camped near Washougal during the winter, passed the half-built cabin when they brought their families in October to Puget Sound, where Simmons established New Market, today’s Tumwater.
On Dec. 21, 1845, the Oregon Provisional Government carved out Lewis County from the Vancouver district. Lewis, the mother of all counties, encompassed all the land north of the Columbia River and west of the Cowlitz River north to present-day Sitka, Alaska. The following year, when the British and Americans signed the Oregon Treaty, the British controlled all the land north of the 49th parallel while Oregon Territory covered the land to the south.
Thousands more emigrants followed the Oregon Trail and plied the Cowlitz River north to claim land of their own, especially after Congress adopted the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which promised 320 acres of free land in the west to single men and 640 acres to married couples if they improved the property. Many pioneers traveled the Cowlitz River in bateaux or canoes. Some followed the Cowlitz Trail north to the Puget Sound; others established homesteads on nearby prairies or along the Cowlitz River.
For example, the Layton, Davis, and Prince families arrived at Washougal in the fall of 1850 and traveled up the Columbia and the Cowlitz rivers by bateaux, disembarking across from Cowlitz Landing and walking seven miles to Eadon, which is now called Layton Prairie. Under a large cedar tree on the southeastern side of the Cowlitz River, right across from Taylor Landing, Francis Layton married Rebecca Prince Oct.14, 1851, in a ceremony officiated by Cowlitz Farm’s overseer George B. Roberts. The couple had a dozen children and resided on the prairie the remainder of their lives.
A small blockhouse was erected in 1849 for protection of settlers at Cowlitz Landing, where produce was loaded and unloaded at a wharf where canoes and bateaux docked. Just north of Cowlitz Landing lived Indian George, an expert canoe maker, with his wife and three daughters.
Captain E.D. Warbass established a claim near Cowlitz Landing in 1850, and within two years, Warbassport featured a sawmill, grist mill, store, tavern and small hotel. A stage line—a horseback service using animals rented from nearby farmers—left Cowlitz Landing for parts north in the early 1850s. Mail service began in 1851, and by 1853, mail arrived once a week via bateaux and canoe at Cowlitz Landing, where it took two days to deliver it the sixty miles to Olympia. In 1854, the government contracted with Henry Windsor to carry the mail in one day the ninety-five miles from Rainier, Ore., to Olympia.
The town and the landing became known as one community, Cowlitz Landing, a central place for early pioneers to congregate for special events. That’s where 26 settlers living north of the Cowlitz River gathered Aug. 29, 1851, and agreed to ask Congress to create Columbia Territory and build military roads north of the Columbia River to Puget Sound. After a second convention at Monticello the following year, Congress created Washington Territory on March 2, 1853.
That provided even more reason to celebrate in July, when the first U.S. flag in Washington state, sewn by local women from material Jackson ordered from San Francisco, fluttered from a “liberty pole” erected beside the river at Cowlitz Landing during an Independence Day celebration July 4, 1853. Early pioneer couples marched to music as they paraded to the dinner table on the banks of the river. At a nearby grove, Jackson and the Rev. J.W. Goodell and others spoke to the assembled people.
Cowlitz Landing provided a respite for Mrs. Issac I. Stevens, wife of Washington Territory’s first governor, who wrote about her first trip up the Cowlitz River from Monticello (present-day Longview) with her husband and four small children in November 1854.
“We were placed in the canoe with great care, so as to balance it evenly, as it was frail and upset easily. At first the novelty, motion and watching our Indians paddle so deftly, they seize their poles and push along over shallow places, keeping up a low, sweet singing as they glide along, was amusing,” she wrote. “As we were sitting on the flat bottom of the canoe, the position became irksome and painful. We were all day long on this Cowlitz River. At night I could not stand on my feet for some time after landing. We walked ankle deep in mud to a small log house, where we had a good meal. Here we found a number of rough, dirty looking men, with pantaloons tucked inside their boots, and so much hair on their heads and faces they all looked alike.”
But the next evening Margaret Stevens found herself treated to gracious hospitality provided by Jackson and his wife, Matilda (Koontz) Jackson, describing it as much superior to that received elsewhere on their journey. She described Mrs. Jackson as “a very superior woman, but with such a sad, sad face.”
Perhaps the death of her husband, Nicholas Koontz, crossing the Snake River in 1847 caused her sadness. And three years later, on June 1, 1857, tragedy struck again when her eldest son, Henry, only 19, drowned while he and two other men were crossing the swollen, turbulent Cowlitz River at Cowlitz Landing.
The Cowlitz River has claimed many other lives throughout the years, among them 19th century fisherman John Fritz, who was found dead in a fish net; Earl, the son of William and Elizabeth Taylor who arrived in Toledo in the late 1880s, drowned in the Cowlitz River while crossing in a boat en route to Winston Creek country, where he was working as a logger; 16-year-old John Kelly of Randle who died Aug. 27, 1934, after a new suspension foot bridge collapsed; 42-year-old Robert Steele of Onalaska, whose bulldozer plunged into the river near Harmony April 4, 1961, when part of the bluff caved in; Stella Montgomery, 37, of Toledo, whose body was found in the Cowlitz in 1961; hunter Andy McDonald of Seattle whose pickup was swept into the flooding river in the Packwood-Randle area in November 2006; and Nathan Richard Hiatt, 81, who slipped into Wallers Creek (a tributary of the river) behind his Winlock home during heavy flooding Dec. 3, 2007.
As the flow of immigrants increased along with the agricultural products shipped downstream to Portland markets, the canoes and bateaux proved insufficient. The first steamer, Bell, started plying the river in 1861, followed by many others that navigated between Portland and Cowlitz Landing during the next four decades. The 109-foot-long sternwheeler Toledo, built in Portland in 1878 for Joseph Kellogg and Co., had a four-foot hold and 22-foot beam, powered by two steam engines. It started carrying passengers and goods to the landing and produce back downstream in 1879.
Three years later, Captain Oren Kellogg bought an acre from the Rochon family upstream from Cowlitz Landing where present-day Toledo is to build a warehouse. During a celebratory dinner party, hosted by Augustus and Celeste Rochon, the captain suggested that Mrs. Rochon name the new town where the warehouse was located. Gazing out the window of their home beside the Cowlitz River, she spied the steamer Toledo docked outside and named the town after the steamship, according to The Toledo Community Story, which the Toledo Historical Society will be selling during Toledo Cheese Days. The Toledo operated on the Cowlitz for 13 years, captained by Edward and Charles Kellogg, with Toledo’s George Day as a deckhand and W.H. Hurst and his wife, both of Toledo, as stewards.
Among the farmers shipping produce was Philip Harmon, who arrived in the 1880s and built near the Cowlitz River, where the family drew its water. They hauled 175 sacks of potatoes at a time to the riverbank for loading on steamers that took them to Portland. They also sold eggs for fifteen cents a dozen and butter for twenty-five cents a pound.
Carl Motter, who arrived at Chehalis in 1894, bought hay, potatoes and hops along the Cowlitz River and lived on the steamer Northwest. The steamer owners gave him a berth and meals, since his business was all they had during some trips.
Other steamers operated on the river—the Kellogg (refurbished and renamed the Madeline), the Rescue, and the Northwest (which ran from 1889 to 1907). Many settlers turned out every Saturday to see the steamer arrive and unload.
The Oregona, the last steamship to reach Toledo, arrived April 14, 1918.
In the 1870s, a schoolhouse built of rough boards with a shake roof on property donated by Thomas A. Pearson was located beside the Cowlitz River. The boys often left school at noon to swim in the river, returning in time for the school’s dismissal. Six miles downstream, the first schoolhouse was built in the Old Cowlitz Bend area on the east side of the river in 1884.
The first settlers near the landing crossed the Cowlitz River by boat, until July 4, 1883, when W.E. Colby launched a ferry providing service between Toledo and Eadonia (Layton Prairie) on the southeastern bank of the river. The ferry enabled those living on the southeastern side of the Cowlitz to shop at Toledo.
According to Louis Extine, who shared recollections for the 1953 edition of The Toledo Community Story, “They wore out one ferry boat and built a new one, and to celebrate the new one, they had a dance, which was held on the ferry boat. This was probably in 1888.” The ferry later burned.
Toledo’s first newspaper— The Cowlitz River Pilot—debuted July 9, 1886, providing news of the community of 150 residents, but owner and publisher Frank Owen moved it to Winlock in 1888. The river also lent its name to a grist mill in the 1890s—the Cowlitz River Milling Co., which operated 24 hours a day producing 150 barrels of flour daily. It burned in the early 1900s.
The Methodist Church was built on the southeast bank of the Cowlitz at Eadonia with a parsonage nearby, but it was condemned for the Highway 99 right of way. By 1900, the town had nearly 300 people.
Olson Brothers Garage used the old Kellogg warehouse and operated a garage in downtown Toledo. The Scout Lodge, built on the bank of the Cowlitz north of the Community Hall, also served as a classroom when the schoolhouse ran out of room.
Local residents wanted a bridge built across the Cowlitz, and by 1892, the first wooden wagon bridge constructed from local lumber milled by Reason Lacey “Doc” Calvin opened. The community held a huge celebration to mark the bridge’s completion, and soon Fredrick Williams, who operated a general store at Eadonia, moved his store to Toledo, where it was referred to as “The Old Curiosity Shop.”
Ida Lyon, who grew up on the Betty farm a mile northeast of town, recalled the approach to the bridge, with a long flight of steps built to the floor of the bridge. “How vividly I remember occasions when a step would be broken and how difficult and dangerous the climb to the top would be,” she recalled in the Toledo Community Story. During heavy flooding, when the bridge approach washed away, John Schnurstein hauled schoolchildren across the river.
A new bridge was constructed over the river in 1919 for relocation of Highway 99 and opened July 4, 1920, with a celebration. A plaque on the bridge honored World War I veterans from Lewis County towns.
That span lasted 35 years, when that state constructed a new bridge across the river, completed in 1955. Finally, in June 1993, a Seattle contractor began constructing a $4 million replacement of the Cowlitz River Bridge, which was completed in late 1994, featuring two twelve-foot lanes with four-foot shoulders and a six-foot sidewalk on the south side to enable pedestrians to reach South County Regional Park.
In addition to agriculture, many of the settlers felled trees for logs and rolled them into the Cowlitz River, guided by men with peaveys as they floated to sawmills in Kelso. Workers also cut shingle bolts along Salmon and Cedar Creeks and the Cowlitz, dumped them into the water and floated them downstream to Castle Rock or Kelso. Shakes and shingles were shipped to Portland by boat. Toledo had two small shingle mills in the early days.
In 1923, the Winlock-Toledo Logging and Railroad Company started operating and constructed a railroad bridge across the Cowlitz River and track ran through Toledo on Maple Street to haul logs to a mill in Winlock. The company closed during an economic slump in 1929 at the dawn of the Depression.
“Doc” Calvin hauled his threshing machine from farm to farm to help neighbors harvest grain, and operated a portable sawmill, which he also moved to cut lumber. So did Extine, who described loading the threshing machine onto the steamboat to float down the Cowlitz River, where it was unloaded to thresh on another farm.
Loggers felled trees and held them behind booms before sending them downstream, but at least in one case, waiting for higher prices proved disastrous. Joe Ryan wrote that his father felled timber in the 1890s and, for three years, held his logs inside a boom in high water on Salmon Creek, waiting for the prices to increase, before flushing them into the Cowlitz and floating them to Portland. But in 1896, the rivers and creeks flooded, water rose to three feet on Third Street in Portland, and debris hit the boom, which gave way, letting all those logs rush into the Cowlitz and then Columbia River. River pirates gathered the logs with tugs, hid them in sloughs, and later sold them.
Ryan said his mother cried for days upon hearing that his father’s hard-cut logs were lost.
People living along the Cowlitz River have experienced horrendous flooding through the decades, with one of the earliest and worst recorded floods in 1867, when steamer service was discontinued temporarily when high water nearly washed away Cowlitz Landing.
At that time, W.B. Gosnell, who owned the state’s first piano in 1859, reported that during the flood, the family evacuated its homestead for several days and the large, oblong rosewood piano floated almost to the living room ceiling.
It flooded heavily in 1887, and in November 1896, the Cowlitz River rose more than 10 feet in three days, sweeping away the piling approaches to the four-year-old bridge at Toledo, damaging local homes, and carrying logs downstream. The river changed course, cutting in two the homestead of Alex Hinkley and his wife, leaving the house and buildings on one side and his cleared fields on the other. The water swept away much of the cleared lowlands, along with the carrots and potatoes planted there. The steamer Northwest lay at the Toledo wharf for a week until the water dropped enough for her to pass beneath the Olequa Bridge, which was erected in the 1870s as a railroad bridge southeast of present-day Vader.
“When the river is low she can’t get over the bars; when the water is too high she can’t get under the Olequa Bridge,” a Toledo resident said at the time. “A most unaccommodating river is the Cowlitz.”
The flooding also interfered with smelt and salmon runs. In the early 1890s, smelt swam above Toledo eight to 10 miles—once almost to Salkum—and people caught them in gallon buckets. They often provided meals for the settlers, who at times even used the fish to fertilize gardens and feed chickens and hogs. But commercial fishing depleted the smelt, which today travel upstream only as far as Castle Rock. Sport fishing for salmon, steelhead, and trout continues on the river at the heart of the Toledo community.
Flooding in 1906 caused enormous damage in the growing community of Toledo. Again the high water washed away the bridge approaches, damaging homes such as that of A.L. “Fred” and Metta (Hanken) Calvin, who rebuilt at a higher elevation near the river. To attend school, their children used to cross the river in a rowboat. Two years later, in March 1908, a log jam backed up behind the Toledo bridge.
Some of the winter flooding in Toledo was alleviated in 1921, when a flume was built to divert high water from Bill Creek into the Cowlitz upstream from the town.
However, in December 1933, record heavy rains brought horrendous flooding and mudslides to the community, destroyed bridges and killed livestock. Vader farmer A.H. Compton lost a team of horses and five cows trapped in his barn near the Cowlitz, while J.T. Ritzman, who farmed on the river’s southeast side, also lost a team of horses. Flooding closed Highway 99 and traffic was diverted to Vader through Castle Rock. Sixty-one Toledo area farmers and ranchers estimated their losses at $160,812.50.
High water Dec. 13, 1946, forced several families to evacuate their homes, including D.F. Higby, who lived across the river from Toledo but moved to Winlock temporarily as water surrounded his farm. The Wallace family relocated machinery to higher ground and prepared to evacuate, and Harland Shepardson used a boat to reach his farm.
In late 1975, heavy rains, warm temperatures and melting snow caused damage in Toledo, where water covered Nick Askin’s construction equipment, causing $20,000 damage to his property on the southeast side of the Cowlitz River where he operated a rock pit.
A decade later, Lewis County bought a former gravel pit along the Cowlitz River and leased additional property to build the 43-acre South Lewis County Regional Park, which was dedicated in June 1995 and features a picnic shelter, jogging trail, open play area, horseshoe pits, volleyball court, parking area and restrooms.
In late November 1995, heavy rains and snowmelt resulted in Toledo’s worst flooding since 1933, made worse when Tacoma City Light officials determined they needed to release high water from behind the Mayfield and Mossyrock dams, pouring water at 62,000 cubic feet per second, rather than the average flow of 13,000 cfs.
Water rushed down the Cowlitz River, wiping out the 1960s Kirkendoll dike and washed out Collins Way, leaving 14 families without access to their homes. The water also flooded IFA Nurseries, sweeping away 40,000 tree seedlings, and inundated homes and parks in Toledo.
Damage was repaired at a cost of more than a million dollars, but the Cowlitz continued to shift course, cutting a channel through Don Wallace’s 1,000-acre farm and eating away the bank beneath the city’s sewage treatment plant. In January 2006, floodwaters ripped out the bank between the Cowlitz River and Salmon Creek, and flooding in November that year further eroded the bank behind city hall, which was expected to cost $1 million to rebuild.
In recent years, the city has obtained grants to replace the wastewater treatment plant, build a new two-lane boat ramp with a small parking lot along the Cowlitz River at the intersection of Front and Augustus streets, and erect a small gazebo near the miniature park near the boat launch and fishing platform.
Today, the river remains important to Toledo, which now has a population of about 725. A steelhead derby is planned on the river July 25.
By Julie McDonald / For The Chronicle