Kalama -- Thumbnail History

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 10/28/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21343
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Kalama is a small city located along the Columbia River in Southwest Washington's Cowlitz County. Non-Indian settlement in the area began by the 1850s. The town became the Cowlitz County seat in 1872 and things looked rosy until the Northern Pacific Railway moved its headquarters from Kalama to Tacoma -- an economic blow. Kalama was incorporated on July 16, 1890. In 1920 the Port of Kalama was established, eventually becoming one of the top five ports on the West Coast for shipping dry-bulk goods. In 1922, the county seat was transferred to Kelso -- another disappointment for the town. Floods are frequent in Kalama, and one of the worst occurred in 1948, when downtown businesses were covered under three feet of water. Another catastrophic flood occurred in 2015. Kalama boasts an array of antique shops, fishing and boating opportunities, and the tallest single-tree totem pole in the Northwest, carved for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair and on display in Marine Park.


Some believe that the name Kalama comes from a Native American word, translated variously as "beautiful," "stone," or "pretty maiden" and transcribed as either "Calamet" or "Calama." A 1902 U.S. Geological Survey bulletin suggested that Kalama might be taken from another Indian word, Okala kalama, said to mean "goose."

Others maintain that the town was named for John Kalama (1814?-1870?), a carpenter from the Hawaiian island of Maui who came to the Pacific Northwest on a fur-trading vessel in the 1830s. Kalama married a Nisqually woman, Mary Martin, and worked on a farm repairing fish barrels, among other jobs. Mary died early and John remarried; he had a daughter about whom little is known and a son called Peter (1864-1947).

The first recorded land claim in the Kalama area came in 1853. The previous year Ezra Meeker (1830-1928) of Ohio, who would become a prominent Washington pioneer, made his way to Portland, Oregon, traveling on a wagon train with his wife Eliza (1834-1909), their one-month-old baby, and his brother Oliver (1828-1861). The brothers began searching for property to claim on the Lewis River, which flows into the Columbia River some 15 miles upriver of Kalama, but found nothing to their liking. They rowed farther down the Columbia and, on January 20, 1853, they staked a claim to a plot of land surrounded by oak trees near present-day Kalama. Ezra built a small log cabin there with a fireplace, a window, and a front door facing the river. Ezra and Eliza planted potatoes and onions, aided by two oxen, Buck and Dandy. Ezra Meeker sold the property in 1854 to John Davenport and moved his family farther north, eventually settling in Puyallup.

Most of the early settlers who remained in the Kalama area made their living by cutting and hauling cordwood to the riverside to fuel the many steamships that plied the Columbia.

The Railroad Arrives

In 1870, Kalama was selected as a western terminus for the Northern Pacific Railway line being constructed from Duluth, Minnesota, to the Pacific Coast. The railroad purchased several lots in Kalama on which to construct terminal buildings, a round house, machine shops, offices, and other railroad-related facilities. The Lake Superior and Puget Sound Company took title to property not used by the railroad and built a three-story hotel called the Kazano House. The company also laid out the town, advertising lots to prospective buyers as far away as the United Kingdom.

"Elaborate posters were displayed and circulated purporting to show 'brownstone' fronts and similar construction at Kalama. The boosters laid out town lots more than a mile back of the town and made sales in the east, in England and Scotland. Many of the prospective investors came to the town, found the advertising untrue, and abandoned their contemplated investments. Many of those who invested in the lots in the hills abandoned them and the lots were later sold for taxes" (Kalama ... Centennial History, 33).

By the early 1870s, there were about 300 people living in Kalama. The town had four hotels, two grocery stores, three saloons, one brewery, one printing shop, two shoe shops, one barber shop, two churches, one machine shop, one school, and a Masonic Hall. Most of the structures and sidewalks were built 15 to 20 feet above ground level because the nearby river flooded the streets so often.

Kalama was incorporated by the territorial legislature in 1871 and made the county seat of Cowlitz County in 1872. The future was looking rosy for the town, but an unexpected turn of events was just around the corner. When the Northern Pacific finished its rail line from Kalama to Tacoma in 1873, it decided to move its headquarters to Tacoma -- a brutal blow to Kalama residents. Within a few years, the population dropped to fewer than 100, and in 1877 the territorial legislature disincorporated the town. More disruption occurred when a large fire engulfed the town center in 1879, destroying several buildings.

Kalama continued to be an important transit hub. The Northern Pacific laid tracks along the left bank of the Columbia River to the little town of Goble, Oregon, across the river from Kalama, and cars were ferried from Goble to Kalama by a vessel named Tacoma, before continuing by rail to the city of Tacoma.

"The Tacoma was in service so long a period and Kalama residents became so attached to the old ferry that the Northern Pacific officials felt obligated to assure Kalamans that the boat would be kept in service even after the rail section between Vancouver and Kalama was completed. This section [Vancouver to Kalama] was first named the Washington and Oregon Railroad, but was actually owned by the Northern Pacific. Difficulties aplenty were encountered in bridging the Lewis River, so the opening of the line was considerably delayed. But the line was finally completed and the first train from Vancouver to Kalama passed over it on May 1, 1903" (Kalama ... Centennial History, 50-51).

Kalama served as the Cowlitz County seat from 1872 until 1922. To aid with administrative duties, county officials purchased the Kazano House Hotel in 1874 and redesigned it for use as a courthouse -- the first courthouse in the county.

Kalama Grows Up

The first postal service was established in Kalama in 1868. In 1871, the Vancouver Steamboat Company was making daily stops in Kalama to deliver the mail by boat. At one point, bids were entertained to establish a ground route but it was a challenging enterprise because of the river's seasonal floods. In 1882, a postal carrier named H. Classen used a rowboat for a portion of his route. The first post office in Kalama was located in a building owned by Clarence Chambers, who served as postmaster from 1889 to 1892.

Kalama's first school opened in 1871 in a one-room space in the Masonic Hall that rented for $10 a month; that was increased to $15 a month the following year. Early records showed 94 children aged 4 to 21 attended classes. A local paper reported at the time, "The education of Young America in Kalama has been attended to, by a school being improvised and in full operation, under the management of a young lady, late of Salem" (Kalama ... Centennial History, 83). A few years later, a dedicated two-story schoolhouse was built. In 1896, to accommodate a growing populace, a $5,000 bond was approved by voters to build an even larger school with four classrooms. The 1896 school was torn down in 1921 and a new grade school was built on the site; a high school followed two years later.

The town's fire department was established in 1889. Its bylaws specified that the department be composed of 10 to 15 men between the ages of 15 and 50, all residents of Kalama. By 1896, the town was the proud owner of a fire bell, which cost $65.98, and 400 feet of fire hose.

Setting Up Communications

From 1886 to 1916, Kalama supported five newspapers, but only one -- the Kalama Bulletin -- had staying power. The Bulletin published its first issue on March 15, 1889, with William Hite Imus (1862-1950) as publisher. Born in Mount Ayr, Iowa, Hite moved to Colorado as a teenager in 1878 and then to Oregon the following year. Imus married Fannie E. Peterson and became a lawyer in 1888. The family relocated to Kalama in 1889.

As the town continued to grow, Kalama residents in 1890 voted to incorporate again, and Imus was elected mayor of the newly reincorporated town. After serving two terms as mayor, Imus went on to hold a succession of public positions, including Kalama postmaster (1897-1913), president of the Kalama School Board (1902-1911), and county clerk (1917-1922), among other posts. He died in Vancouver, Clark County, on December 21, 1950.

The first telephone in Kalama was installed in 1904 by the Pacific Telephone Company. It was located in a pool hall owned by Green Monroe Coffey. Anyone wishing to make a telephone call had to visit Coffey's establishment. In time, Coffey and A. L. Watson owned the first private telephones in town but there was no switchboard so they could only call each other. In 1905, the Kalama Local Telephone Exchange established offices in the building next to the pool hall, and there it remained until 1954.

Just after the turn of the twentieth century, adventurers and opportunists flocked to Kalama to look for minerals beneath the earth's surface but that venture was short-lived. "Veins of various kinds of ore were found in the vicinity, attracting many mining men to town and in 1902, a great mining carnival was held in celebration of the Darnell Mine and Mill. The excitement died out, however, when it was found production costs would be excessive due to the inaccessibility of the ores" (Kalama ... Centennial History, 37-38).

Business and Civic Leadership

Many organizations wielded great cultural and economic influence on the small towns and cities of Washington. The Kalama Women's Club and the Business Men's Club were no exceptions. In 1917, the Women's Club initiated a local public library with 1,000 volumes. Without a permanent home, the library was first housed in a millinery shop, then a drug store, and then a confectionary shop. The collection outgrew all these spaces and finally the library was given an empty room in city hall to use. At this point, 1,500 books had been amassed.

In 1919, local business leaders met to promote formation of a public port district in Kalama in an effort to improve shipping conditions and take better advantage of the town's strategic location at one of the deepest points along the Columbia River. The following year, the Port of Kalama became the state's second public port on the Columbia after Vancouver. Timber that had previously moved by rail would now be shipped by deep-draft vessels. In fact, "when the Port opened its motto became 'Where the rails meet the water.' It was not long before deep-draft vessels were hauling huge amounts of lumber, grain, and frozen fish from the port every year" (Caldbick, "Deep-draft Ports ..."). During World War II, the Port of Kalama was a supply base for lend-lease shipping to Russia, playing an important role in the war effort. A century after its formation, 30 companies were located at the Port, employing more than 1,000 people, and it was one of the top five ports on the West Coast for shipping dry-bulk goods, such as soybeans, corn, and wheat.

After Kelso replaced Kalama as the Cowlitz County seat in 1922, the old courthouse, formerly the Kazano Hotel, was torn down. Some of the materials were salvaged and later used to build the Community Building, which remained in use in the 2020s. In 1924, Kalama City Hall burned down, but the books from the library housed in City Hall were saved. When the Community Building, funded under the federal Works Project Administration, was planned and constructed in the 1930s, the original courthouse vault was incorporated into one of the Community Building offices. The library -- now numbering 3,000 volumes -- was also part of the planning process and given a dedicated space in the Community Building. The town clerk took on the duties of city librarian, receiving an additional $150 a year in salary. By 1965, the librarian was paid $65 a month.

A History of Flooding

Flooding occurred often along the Columbia River. A disastrous flood in 1894 buried the railroad bed under ten feet of water. Passengers who wanted to travel from Kelso to Portland had to board a ferry to cross the Columbia River until rail services were restored. Another flood for the record books occurred in the spring of 1948, when the Columbia River reached 31 feet (flood stage is about 16 feet).

"The flood of May-June 1948 in the Columbia River Basin was the greatest in the basin since the historic flood of 1894 and the most disastrous in respect to monetary loss ... At least 51 persons lost their lives, and property damage has been estimated to exceed 100 million dollars. Land inundated by the flood included about 250,000 acres of farm land, on which the growing crops were destroyed. More than 20,000 acres of land was damaged or destroyed by erosion" (Floods of May-June 1948 ..., 1).

Kalama had water three feet deep in parts of the downtown core. It remained flooded for several weeks, forcing Kalamans to come up with creative ways to communicate with the outside world. The post office, for example, set up temporary quarters a block off 1st Street, and military amphibious vehicles brought the mail from Kelso to Woodland, about 10 miles south of Kalama, from where it was trucked into Kalama by the highway patrol. The Kalama Telephone Company transported two telephone operators, Cleda Vivian and Stella Cooper, in a rowboat so they could keep the phone lines open. Workers suspended the switchboard from the ceiling in an effort to keep it dry.

Severe flooding occurred again in 1996 and then in December 2015. In the 2015 flood, three feet of water covered downtown shops, City Hall, and the public library. Emergency vehicles were moved to higher ground and City Hall was temporarily relocated to the old Heritage Bank building. A landslide hit one home, trapping the resident inside. When a public-works employee tried to assist, he too got trapped by the floodwaters. Both were rescued without serious injury. The post office had its own problem:

"Postal Service workers Greg Haggard and Mike Coppinger were getting ready to tow delivery trucks from a flooded lot outside the post office. Flooding was 'pretty bad' inside the post office, Haggard said. Mail was taken to the Longview Post Office to get sorted, he said. 'Some did get wet but they have a way of drying it out'" (Palau).

A Touch of Hollywood

Despite their town's small size, Kalamans have found themselves hobnobbing with Hollywood from time to time. In 2008, a pivotal scene in Twilight, a film adaptation of the first book in the immensely popular young-adult vampire series by Stephanie Meyer, was filmed in Kalama. The filming took place in a parking lot at Kalama High School, a stand-in for Forks, in Clallam County on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, where the story is set. After the first movie was released, producers moved subsequent films to locations in British Columbia.

Another Kalama connection to stardom lies with the Brando family. Christian Brando (1958-2008), son of Academy Award-winning actor Marlon Brando (1924-2004) and his first wife Anna Kashfi (1934-2015), lived on a ranch outside Kalama.

"After Christian, who was already having serious problems with drugs and alcohol, dropped out of school at 16, he spent much of his time in Kalama, a small town in Washington ... For the rest of his life Christian felt he could find some elusive peace there, 1,000 miles from Hollywood and his warring parents. He loved the forests, he loved fishing and he loved working with his hands. There, and on his trips back to LA, he worked on and off as a tree-trimmer and a welder" (Goodwin).

In 1990, Christian was convicted of manslaughter for shooting his half-sister's boyfriend and served more than four years in a California state prison. After his release, the Kalama ranch provided respite from the limelight for Christian and his famous father.

"Marlon not only approved of the move but became a frequent visitor to Kalama himself ... He also loved spending time at the Heritage Square Antiques, a former general store in Kalama ... Marlon would sit in the mezzanine of the shop, where he could watch the comings and goings of Kalama residents undisturbed" ("The Brandos in Kalama").

Christian Brando died of pneumonia in 2008 at the age of 49 and is buried in Kalama Oddfellows Cemetery on a hill above the Columbia River. His mother Anna Kashfi, who died in 2015 at the age of 80, was laid to rest nearby.

Methanol Plant Controversy

Kalama's strategic location on the Columbia River created many economic opportunities for the community. One of the most controversial was proposed in 2014 by NW Innovation Works, a joint venture formed by CAS Holdings, a commercial offshoot of the Chinese Academy of Science. The idea was to build a methanol plant at the Port of Kalama at a cost of $1.8 billion that would create the chemical for export to China. The proposal set off a multi-year battle that pitted environmentalists against developers. Project advocates maintained that the plant would offer a cleaner alternative than the plastics produced from coal-based methanol currently used in China and would also provide jobs for the region. Environmentalists, including Columbia Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, cited the long-term pollution effects of greenhouse gases produced by the plant.

Washington State Department of Ecology spent years reviewing the permit application. In 2019, the state found "significant information missing from the project's supplemental environmental impact statement and inadequate analysis of the project's potential effects on Washington's environment. The required information focuses on two key areas: specific details on the proposed mitigation plan to address the project's in-state greenhouse gas emissions, and a thorough, comprehensive analysis of the project's global and in-state greenhouse gas emissions" ("Ecology Finds Application Incomplete ...").

On January 19, 2021, the permit was denied. Laura Watson, Department of Ecology director, "cited the certainty of what she termed 'the extremely large' carbon footprint of the project. State officials said that the plant would emit nearly 1 million metric tons of carbon emissions in state and 4.8 million metric tons globally, which would include methane releases during the production of natural gas" (Bernton, "Washington State Ecology ..."). Port of Kalama officials vowed to continue the fight. Port executive director Mark Wilson told The Seattle Times: "It's disheartening that after six years of robust expert review ... unnecessary barriers should continue to be raised ... It is difficult to see the logic of this decision or the equitable application of state law" (Bernton, "Washington State Ecology ...").

Kalama Events -- Yesterday and Today

Just outside the town of Kalama is the community of Cloverdale, famous for its strawberries. At its peak, about 40 farm families -- many of whom had Finnish roots -- would pick as many as 700,000 quarts of berries in a single growing season. After the final harvest, the families gathered to celebrate the end of the harvest. From these roots grew the Kalama Strawberry Festival, first celebrated in June 1938. The festival's centerpiece was a giant 22-foot strawberry shortcake. Other highlights included outboard-motorboat races, a fat man's race, and water fights. A queen and her court presided over the Queen's Ball.

A strawberry blight and changing interests put a halt to the festival in 1951 but it was resurrected several times, including in 2015 to mark Kalama's 125th anniversary. That year, Hole-e-Rollers Bakery in Longview baked the traditional strawberry shortcake, using 504 eggs, four gallons of oil, and 12 gallons of frosting, among other ingredients. The cake measured more than 16 feet long and served 1,300 people.

Every July the town hosts the Kalama Fair, which includes a parade, princesses, queen's coronation, and 4H activities. The Kalama River-to-River Run/Walk is held around the same weekend. In August, downtown Kalama is filled with antique and classic cars for the Untouchables Car Show. The event attracts some 300 cars each year; proceeds support scholarships to Lower Columbia College for local high school graduates.

At Marine Park, a five-acre public park at the Port of Kalama, four totem poles are on view. One of them, at 140 feet, is said to be the tallest one-piece totem pole in the Northwest, sculpted from a single Western Red Cedar. It was created for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair but local carver Don Smith (1933-1996) did not finish it in time so it was never transported to the fair. Some purists dismiss the work because Smith, whose grandfather was Cherokee, was not a Northwest Coast Indian. In the 1970s, he was adopted by the Kwakiutl tribe as an honorary chief and took the name Chief Lelooska. In 2018, tree rot was discovered in the giant totem and the pole was lowered to the ground as a safety precaution.

In 2018, the hotel chain McMenamins built the Kalama Harbor Lodge, which has been a boon to the local economy. Its colonial décor resembles the Pioneer Inn in Lahaina, Maui, a nod to the Hawaiian roots of John Kalama. In 2020, Kalama recorded 2,844 residents. The city's website noted that Kalama offered "eight different restaurants, numerous antique shops, an easy access gas station and mini-mart, grocery store, credit union, auto parts and repair, liquor and tobacco shop, beauty shops, a local dentist and other amenities all within an eight block quaint downtown area" ("Business").


HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Berry Farming in Washington" (by Eleanor Boba); "A Group of Kalama Residents Meets to Organize Port of Kalama on December 22, 1919" (by Catherine Hinchliff); "Deep-draft Ports of Washington" (by John Caldbick), "Kalama incorporates on July 16, 1890" (by Rita Cipalla), http://www.historylink.org (accessed October 28, 2021); "Business," City of Kalama, website accessed October 1, 2021 (https://www.cityofkalama.com/business); "Recreation," Port of Kalama, website accessed October 4, 2021 (https://portofkalama.com/recreation/); Kalama, Washington: A Centennial History, ed. by Violet A. Johnson (Kalama: Clark County Genealogical Society, 1990); Tom Palau, "Perfect Storm Brings Downtown Flooding to Kalama," The Daily News (Longview), December 9, 2015 (https://tdn.com/); Floods of May-June 1948 in the Columbia River Basin (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949), copy available at U.S. Geological Survey website (https://pubs.usgs.gov/wsp/1080/report.pdf); "The Brandos in Kalama," August 11, 2020, McMenamins blog accessed September 30, 2021 (https://blog.mcmenamins.com/the-brandos-in-kalama/); "Remembering the Finns' Cloverdale," May 31, 2018, McMenamins blog accessed October 21, 2021 (https://blog.mcmenamins.com/remembering-the-finns-cloverdale/); Deanne Revel, "13 'Twilight' Film Locations in the Pacific Northwest You Can Visit in Real Life," August 3, 2020, Seattle Refined website accessed September 29, 2021 (https://seattlerefined.com/travel/13-twilight-film-locations-you-can-visit-in-real-life); Christopher Goodwin, "The Boy Brando Lost," The Guardian, February 24, 2008 (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/feb/24/familyandrelationships.marlonbrando); Hal Bernton, "Washington State Ecology Department Rejects Permit for Kalama Methanol Plant on Columbia River," The Seattle Times, January 19, 2021 (www.seattletimes.com); Hal Bernton, "Board Hits Brakes on $1.8 Billion Methanol Plant Planned for Kalama," Ibid., September 19, 2017; "Ecology Finds Application Incomplete for Kalama Methanol Project" (press release), October 19, 2019, Washington State Department of Ecology website accessed October 3, 2021 (https://ecology.wa.gov/About-us/Who-we-are/News/2019/Oct-9-Ecology-statement-on-Kalama-methanol); "Remembering Chief Lelooska," Sydney of Oysterville website accessed October 3, 2021 (http://sydneyofoysterville.com/2013/remembering-chief-lelooska/); Regina Scott, "Cool 19th Century Places to Visit: Kalama, Washington," October 5, 2018, Nineteen Teen blog accessed September 29, 2021 (https://nineteenteen.blogspot.com/2018/10/cool-19th-century-places-to-visit-kalama.html).

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