The original inhabitants of the lands drained by the Cowlitz River were variously called The Cawalitz, Cow-a-lidsk, Cowalitsk, Cow-e-lis-kee, Cowelits, Cowlitch, Co-litsick, Kawelitsk, Cowalitsk, Kowlitz, Kowlitz, but the most common name is Cowlitz. The Upper Cowlitz, or Taidnapam, and Lewis River peoples spoke Sahaptin, which was more closely related to the languages of tribes east of the Cascades. The Mountain and Lower Cowlitz spoke Salish, which was related to the tribes of Puget Sound. At the time of first contact with Europeans and Americans, there were as many as 6,000 members of the tribe who lived in cedar-plank longhouses in about 30 villages along the Cowlitz River and its tributaries.
Closer to the Columbia, the people known as the Chinooks lived. This tribe’s economy and culture was oriented more toward the river whereas the Cowlitz was more an inland people whose lives centered on prairies and horses. All the tribes used the Chinook trade jargon.
In 1855, the Cowlitz refused to sign the Chehalis River Treaty then being imposed on other tribes by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), since it would require the tribe to move in with traditional enemies on the Quinault Reservation. A small number of members who survived deadly diseases contracted from settlers moved to the Chehalis and Yakima (later renamed Yakama) reservations. Although landless and treatyless, the tribe continued to exist under strong leadership into the twentieth century. The Cowlitz today are a federally recognized tribe with headquarters in Longview.
The first Europeans to visit the county were British seafarers. Royal Navy Lieutenant William R. Broughton (1762-1821) sailed up the Columbia in the H.M.S. Chatham in October 1792 as part of the Capt. George Vancouver Expedition to explore the region. He named Puget’s Island and Oak Point, but he learned that he was not the first European on the river. Broughton encountered the brig Jenny of Bristol and named Baker’s Bay for her master. He also charted a large rock, 400 feet high, as Mount Coffin because it was used as a native burial site.
The U.S. Army’s Corps of Discovery led by Lewis and Clark paddled down the Columbia from the east and attempted to land at Mount Coffin on November 5, 1805, but were pelted with rocks by an Indian guarding the burial ground. The explorers camped near the mouth of Kalama Creek and mapped the mouth of the Cowlitz.
Permanent settlers arrived from the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) at Fort Vancouver in 1825, and the first white man credited with ascending the Cowlitz River was HBC Factor George Simpson in 1828. In 1837, Canadian Simon Plamondon established Cowlitz Farms to support company operations and as a settlement for HBC employees who had completed their work contracts. In August 1841, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes traveled down the river as part of the U.S. Exploring Expedition and he used Mount Coffin to make astronomical observations. One of Wilkes’s campfires accidentally destroyed the burial canoes on the rock.
The Cowlitz became an important artery for trappers and for communication with Fort Vancouver subposts at Cowlitz Farms and Nisqually Farms. Travelers took canoes up the Cowlitz to Cowlitz Landing where they followed Indian trails to Puget Sound. This route became the basis for road building, rail lines, and ultimately Interstate 5.
The first American to settle in the future Cowlitz County was Scotsman Peter W. Crawford (1822-1889), who took a Donation Claim on the left bank of the Cowlitz near the mouth of the Coweeman on December 25, 1847. In 1884, he platted a city on the site, which he named after his home in Scotland, Kelso. Other settlers took up claims across the Cowlitz and farmed the bottomland. They formed the communities of Freeport, Catlin, and Monticello.
In 1851, settlers north of the Columbia met at Cowlitz Landing and petitioned Congress to form a new territory separate from Oregon Territory. When no action was taken, delegates met again in the home of Harry Darby Huntington (1811-1882) at Monticello in November 1852 and drafted another plea for a new territory to be called Columbia. This resulted in H.R. 348 creating Washington Territory.
The Washington Territorial Legislature formed Cowlitz County on April 21, 1854. Monticello became the county seat. In 1865, voters moved the county seat to Freeport just upstream. In 1872, Northern Pacific Railroad employees and contractors swelled the voter rolls. In a new election, the seat moved down the Columbia to Kalama. The Kazana Hotel became the courthouse. But Peter Crawford's Kelso yearned to be the capital of the county. In 1923, after seven attempts over 40 years, voters moved the county seat back up to Kelso. The Kelsonian headline proclaimed, "Cowlitz County Casts Largest Vote in History; Settles Long Battle and Brings County Seat to Rightful Location" (Urrutia, 138).
Woodland, near the mouth of the Lewis River grew around a farm built by Squire and Millie Bozarth in 1852. Pioneer Ezra Meeker settled at what would become Kalama in 1853, but Meeker was a restless man and soon moved on to Puget Sound. The honor of founding Kalama goes to the Northern Pacific Railroad, which picked the spot on the Columbia in 1872 to start building a line to Tacoma. In 1854, William Huntington, cousin of the founder of Monticello, settled across the Toutle River from a crude hotel operated by Scotsman James "Hardbread" Gardiner. The Toutle was about halfway between Cowlitz Landing and Monticello and a logical rest stop for travelers. When the new post office needed a name, Huntington christened it Castle Rock after a large rocky outcrop nearby.
River steamers serviced settlements up the Cowlitz as far as Monticello, where travelers took to canoes or a trail that followed the river. Since the Columbia was the main highway, the county became more closely tied economically with Portland and Astoria than with the rest of Washington Territory. In 1872, the Northern Pacific started building a branch of the transcontinental railroad from Kalama through Kelso north to Tacoma. Regular service began in 1874. Travelers took a ferry from Kalama to Portland until the transcontinental railroad was complete in the 1880s. Aside from agriculture, logging became the principal industry of the county, particularly after mechanization in the 1880s. Rivers provided easy movement of logs and ocean-going ships could load finished lumber at mills.
R. A. Long’s city
In 1919, Kansas City lumberman Robert Alexander Long's Long-Bell Lumber Co. purchased stands of timber in Cowlitz County from Weyerhaeuser and he made plans for a large mill to process logs for the domestic and foreign markets. The mouth of the Cowlitz River offered both rail connections and deep water for ships. Long spent $2.6 million in 1922 to buy up 14,000 acres consisting of 245 separate pieces of property for the mill and for a community where the 4,000 workers and their families -- an estimated population of 12,000 to 15,000 persons -- could live. With guidance from his friend, Kansas City developer J. C. Nichols, Long embarked on the planned community of Longview. Nichols recommended careful control of land use through zoning and an orderly arrangement of residential, commercial, and industrial elements. Construction of dikes and drainage canals to protect the valley from floods cost another $3.25 million. Long went deeply into debt to build his new logging and milling operations and the planned community.
Among the names considered were Long-Bell and Longport, but all featured the name Long. Longview was Long's final choice. But since there was already a Long View, Washington, the Post Office Department rejected the planners' application for a post office. Long-Bell representatives convinced the three families of Long View, a desolate flag stop on the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad, to petition the Post Office Department to change its name. The community's price: $25 for a covered platform to protect mail sacks thrown from passing trains.
Longview grew around paved streets and the new Monticello Hotel. National magazines featured full-page advertisements. Sadly, in January 1923, during the process of construction, one evening while many workers were returning home from work to the nearby Kelso, the Allen Street Bridge collapsed in the state's worst bridge disaster, with at least 35 deaths. Nearby a new bridge was in the process of being built. It opened in March and the town of Longview was dedicated in July. By December 1923, there were 3,724 inhabitants. It was the largest community in the county.
In June 1924, the Long-Bell mill opened as the largest lumber producer in the world. It featured special catwalks so that visitors could view the giant logs being fed into the saws. Weyerhaeuser opened a mill of its own next to the Long-Bell facility in June 1929 and became the area's largest employer. Mount Coffin, on the site of the Weyerhaueser mill, was dynamited for gravel and for building stone. The Longview Fibre mill turned wood waste into pulp and paper. In 1930, a spectacular steel bridge linked Longview with Rainier, Oregon across the Columbia. The Longview Bridge was eventually renamed the Lewis and Clark Bridge.
Not all of the planned community's plans worked out. Long built his own railroad, the Longview, Portland and Northern and an impressive depot in the new city. The major lines stopped in Kelso and tried to serve both communities. When the draw bridge over the Cowlitz washed out in December 1933, the beautiful new depot was left stranded. It served later used as a hospital, then was demolished. The planners of the 1920s did not consider an airport and that amenity became Kelso's.
Like everywhere else, the Great Depression hurt production and employment in the county. The lumber business started sagging in 1927 and the hoped-for payrolls at the huge mills did not materialize. The mills stayed open and Weyerhaeuser alternated work days so that more men could take home pay. Schools closed for short periods and teachers were paid in warrants, which were redeemed at discounts. Sacajawea Park, property of Long-Bell, fell delinquent in its taxes to the tune of $79,325. The city almost lost the public space to private development to satisfy the tax lien.
In 1936, county voters approved the formation of a public utilities district. Longview voters, most of them closely tied to the Long-Bell Co. opposed it. With help from Wall Street, the PUD purchased the assets of the Washington Gas and Electric Company in 1940 just as cheap hydroelectric power began to flow from Columbia River dams. The Cowlitz PUD cut electric rates twice in the first year of operation.
Lower Columbia Junior College (later Lower Columbia College) grew out of a dream of R. A. Long’s and the leadership of the Kiwanis who organized community support in 1934. Despite the hard times, the citizens of the county raised in one week most of $5,000 needed to start classes. On October 2, 1934, 53 students started classes in rooms rented at R. A. Long High School in Longview just five months after organizing began. With backing from the timber companies, courses in forestry were offered at logging company facilities.
World War II meant a return to prosperity and the construction of an aluminum plant in Longview by Reynolds Metals Co. The aluminum built airplanes for the war and the plant employed 500 workers. The mills produced badly needed wood and paper products and Weyerhaeuser’s fully bleached sulfite pulp helped produce smokeless gunpowder. Longview Fibre manufactured Victory Boxes. The end of the war saw returning veterans resume and exceeded the expansion of Longview halted by the Depression. The Depression had almost killed the Long-Bell Co., and profits during World War II kept it alive, but only for a time. In 1956, R. A. Long’s heirs merged with International Paper. In 1960, the Long-Bell plant, once largest in the world, but no longer profitable, closed and was demolished.
Cowlitz County has experienced its share of natural disasters, mostly floods, which visited the lowlands almost annually. The most significant high water events were in 1867, which destroyed Monticello, two in 1933, and one all along the Columbia in 1948. The earthquake of 1949 did some damage and the Columbus Day windstorm of 1962 left trees and wires down and destroyed houses and barns. The roof of the R. A. Long High School grandstand ended up downwind. Weyerhaeuser estimated that more timber blew down than it could harvest in two years.
The eruption of Mount St. Helens (in neighboring Skamania County) on May 18, 1980, sent a 200-foot-thick lahar (flow of melted ice and snow, mud, and debris) flow down the Toutle River Valley into the Cowlitz. Roads and bridges disappeared along with any structures and vehicles in the way. The pyroclastic flows were so dramatic that the bottom of the Cowlitz silted up, raising the river 12 feet. Sediment also filled the Columbia, preventing ships for reaching or leaving Portland for more than a week. The landslide preceding the eruption buried Spirit Lake and the blast killed vegetation as far away as 23 miles. A total of 57 people died. The event had the unexpected consequence of producing a tourist attraction that brought business to the county.
Interstate 5 opened in the 1960s and Woodland became a bedroom community for Portland. In 2003, the county had approximately 94,900 residents.