Castle Rock is a small city in Cowlitz County, located on both the east and west banks of the Cowlitz River between the Willapa Hills rising to the west and the western base of Mount St. Helens to the east. It is about 10 miles north of Longview and Kelso, which are located where the Cowlitz meets the Columbia River. First homesteaded in 1852, Castle Rock took its name from a huge rock near the river given that name because it was shaped like a castle. The settlement lay on the main transportation route connecting the Columbia and Puget Sound. Military Road was completed through Castle Rock in 1861 on the west side of the Cowlitz and the Northern Pacific Railway was completed in 1872 on the east side of the river. Castle Rock was incorporated on June 20, 1890. The city grew slowly through the years, reaching a population 2,370 in 2021.
Early Settlers near "the Rock"
Castle Rock dates its origins to 1852, when a party of settlers that included many members of the Huntington family and some friends arrived in wagon trains pulled by ox teams from St. Joseph, Missouri, to start new lives in the Cowlitz Valley. The party included William (1816-1894) and Eliza Jane Koontz (1823-1896) Huntington, their children, and William's brothers James, Benjamin, and Jacob. They found that most of the land along the lower Cowlitz River had already been staked out in donation land claims, so they followed the river north to find better prospects. They filed a 500-acre donation land claim on the east side of the Cowlitz, a claim at Sandy Bend on the west side of the river, and a claim south of Castle Rock on the east side of the river.
William and Eliza Huntington and John (1821-1907) and Jane Hanley (1823-1889) Beek were the first to file land grant claims where the town of Castle Rock now stands. The Huntingtons lived in a log cabin next to a huge barren rock (now covered with trees and other vegetation) resembling a castle rising more than 100 feet above the Cowlitz River, which William Huntington named "Castle Rock." The Beek claim was north of the Huntington claim -- the two homesteads intersected where Cowlitz Street in downtown Castle Rock is now located.
More settlers traveled the Oregon Trail to Castle Rock in 1853. That March, Henry (1810-1889) and Elizabeth Miles (1810-1860) Jackson arrived from Illinois in a prairie schooner pulled by an ox team. They were accompanied by two sons, Elisha (1828-1894) and William M. (1830-1887), and Cynthia Anna Jackson (1835-1922), Elisha's young wife. The Jacksons took a land claim in what would become Castle Rock on the west side of the Cowlitz River and built a log cabin. William (1803-1876) and Hannah (1811-1920) Cagle also followed the Oregon Trail that year.
In the fall of 1853, the first Christian (Campbellite) Church opened. William Huntington served as an elder there for more than 40 years. In 1854 Henry Jackson built a colonial-style home with a large porch overlooking Scantigrease (later Delameter) Creek on the west side near what is now the intersection of Delameter Road and Cline Road. The Jacksons' new home, which became known as "Jackson Inn" and also as "Jackson Hall," was the largest building in the area. The first Restoration Church in Washington State held services at Jackson Inn. Jackson's son William later filed his own land claim near his father's in Delameter Valley.
On April 21, 1854, Cowlitz County was created, and the settlement of Monticello, where the Cowlitz River joins the Columbia, became the county seat. Two months later on June 1, William Huntington was appointed postmaster at Castle Rock. Outgoing mail was kept in a tea-box in his home, then carried by canoe down the river to Monticello twice a month, with incoming mail carried back upriver. (The Monticello area would later become the city of Longview and the county seat would move several times, ending up in Kelso, across the Cowlitz River from Longview.)
During the Indian Wars of 1855-1856 forts and blockhouses were built for communities to provide a safe refuge from the hostilities. At Castle Rock William Cagle built a fort named Fort Cagle near Delameter Creek (presently a home at 155 Delameter Lane) on the west side of the Cowlitz River and Henry Jackson built a blockhouse called Fort Arkansas at the southeast end of Arkansas Creek. No fighting occurred in the area and the fort and blockhouse were never used.
Around the same time, William (1828-1902) and Elizabeth Marshall (1830-1900) Whittle, arrived in Castle Rock with their three children. They would go on to have seven more children. The Whittles filed a claim north of Huntington claim on the west side of Cowlitz River. William Whittle built the first sawmill in northern Cowlitz County on Arkansas Creek in 1859. Whittle would go on to have many area firsts including the first meat market, the first ferry, and the first store in Silver Lake, a few miles east of Castle Rock.
In 1859, the first formal school was held at the Cagle home. The first teacher, William W. Marshall (1826-1889), was Elizabeth Whittle's brother. Children from the east side of Castle Rock crossed the river by boat to attend the school on the west side. For many years, the Beeks and Huntingtons were the only families living near "the Rock" on the east side of the river, as the west side of Castle Rock developed first.
John Robin (1837-1923) came to Castle Rock from Prince Edward Island, Canada, on September 15, 1859, as a single man. He established himself operating mills and in 1865 married Martha Ellen Stock (1847-1905). The couple had five children: Frederick Ulysses, Mary Eliza Lydia, Thomas Winsor, John Charles, and George Ernest.
Castle Rock Grows Up
On December 7, 1859, Henry Jackson was appointed postmaster. In 1860, Jackson's wife Elizabeth passed away and he later married widow Cynthia Louise Burbee (1811-1898), who became the host of Jackson Inn. In 1861, the Fort Vancouver to Fort Steilacoom Military Road was completed on the west side of the Cowlitz River and the post office moved across the river to a small room in the Jackson Inn. Travelers by stagecoach along Military Road could stop at the inn for a meal and rest. The stagecoach drivers could unwind and change horse teams. The Jackson Inn hosted some well-known customers over the years, including Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818-1862), the first governor of Washington Territory, and later woman-suffrage advocates Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) and Abigail Scott Duniway (1834-1915) during their 1871-1872 lecture tour of Oregon and Washington.
William Huntington became United States Marshal for Washington Territory in 1861, serving until 1869. In 1872, Huntington was appointed postmaster again and the Castle Rock post office moved back across the river to his home on the east side. The Northern Pacific Railway was completed along that eastern side. At first the local station consisted of just platforms where passengers could stand and flag down a train; eventually a small depot building was constructed. Stagecoaches stopped traveling the military road and the Jackson Inn was no longer a layover for travelers.
Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, the late 1860s and 1870s brought a substantial increase of settlers migrating to the west, many of them veterans looking to obtain land and start new lives. Searches on genealogical databases identify more than 60 Civil War veterans living in Castle Rock alone. One notable resident was Captain George Robinson Pyle (1826-1882). A civil war veteran, Pyle arrived in Cowlitz County in 1876 and filed his first land claim at Silver Lake. His wife Sarah Elizabeth Hoar Pyle (1832-1910) and their three daughters, Annie Myrtle, Mary Minnie, and Laura Eva, arrived later with James Wesley Studebaker (1850-1928), each driving a wagon team. Sarah Pyle became a school teacher, taking a boat across Silver Lake to work every day.
Here Comes the Bride, a Mercer Girl
On April 7, 1876, Edwin Ruthven (1839-1925) and Antoinette Josephine Baker (1838-1916) Huntington moved from Monticello to Castle Rock with their children: Eunice Winsor, Frederick Baker, Zervia, and Anna Lowell. Their marriage 11 years earlier was one result of a famous episode in early Washington history.
In 1864 Asa Mercer (1839-1917), a young Seattle teacher recently named President of the University of Washington, devised a scheme to bring unmarried women from the East to the region. Noting that men outnumbered women among settlers he decided to recruit unemployed young eligible women to marry and help populate the area. Those who took his offer became known as "Mercer Girls." They arrived in May 1864 and within months most had found teaching jobs and married.
Antoinette Baker was among the women who accepted the opportunity. Baker taught for one term at the University of Washington. By the end of her term she was recruited by William Huntington, who had been at court in Seattle in his capacity as U.S. Marshall, to go to Monticello to teach. Baker received her teaching certificate and started teaching at Monticello where she met her future husband, Edwin Huntington. They married on February 21, 1865, in Monticello. Asa Mercer's plan worked well -- most of the young women on the first voyage, and those in a second group that arrived in 1866, "became teachers, as well as wives, mothers, and grandmothers" (Muhich). More than 100 years later, the Mercer Girls story formed the basis for the TV series Here Come the Brides (1968-1970).
The Castle Rock School District was organized in 1876, the year that Antoinette and Edwin Huntington moved to Castle Rock. There were 13 students that first year, and school was held in the Huntington home, with Antoinette Huntington teaching classes in the front room. In May 1880, Huntington was selected as the School Superintendent of Cowlitz County. She taught children in her home until 1883 when the first public school building was built on the south side of what is now Front Street. That building served as a school until the second public school was built in 1889.
Mills and Trains
George Pyle and James Studebaker purchased John Beek's 300-acre homestead Castle Rock in 1879 for $1,500. The Pyles built the first milled-lumber home in Cowlitz County, referred to as Pyle Cottage. George Pyle did not live to enjoy the fruits of the growth of his family and Castle Rock as he died in 1882 of bronchitis. Sarah Pyle subsequently opened a store in her home with their daughter Laura. This was the first store and restaurant selling merchandise and meals in Castle Rock.
John Robin and his son Thomas (1869-1934) established the Robin Shingle Mill in 1883, the first in the area to produce cedar shingles using western red cedar that grew there in abundance.
The Northern Pacific's transcontinental rail line, which by 1884 ran all the way to Seattle, promoted continuing growth on the east side of Castle Rock. The railway company distributed literature back east praising Western Washington, prompting many people to move to the area. The Northern Pacific received a grant of an estimated 300,000 acres of land to sell in Cowlitz County, much of it on the east side of Castle Rock. With the influx of new arrivals, it was a time of building homes and businesses.
In 1885, the Robin Shingle Mill shipped its first carload of shingles east of the mountains. The mill could produce around 130,000 shingles daily with about 40 employees. The next year, George F. McClane (1850-1916) established the area's first newspaper, the Cowlitz County Advocate. The first issue was published on July 3, 1886. Henry Jackson's son William and his wife Mary were jointly appointed postmaster in 1887. They served only nine months due to William Jackson's death later that year.
Washington became a state on November 11, 1889. Seven months later Castle Rock incorporated on June 20, 1890, becoming an official town.
On March 13, 1891, Lawrence Kelly (1843-?) was arrested in Castle Rock in possession of a large quantity of opium. Kelly was known throughout the Puget Sound region as a successful smuggler, having been smuggling anything he could to make money since 1865. He had boarded a train in Tenino with an obvious large satchel bag. Inspector Charles J. Mulkey (1851-1904) of Tacoma was already on the train, having boarded in Olympia. Mulkey immediately recognized Kelly and his huge bag. He asked Kelly what was in the bag, and Kelly said clothes. Mulkey opened the bag, which was full of opium in 65 cans valued at $450. Mulkey arrested Kelly at 2 p.m. in Castle Rock. He served time in McNeil Island off and on.
In 1892, a new larger train depot was built on the west side of the tracks at the end of A street. The new depot featured "separate waiting rooms for men and women, a ticket office, restrooms, and a baggage warehouse" (Urrutia, 16). The second floor housed the station agent's quarters.
Building and More Growth
By 1899, the town had three churches, two hotels, two drug stores, one meat market, two restaurants, two lodging houses, a photography gallery, two millinery and ladies' furnishing stores, six merchandise stores, a grocery store, a dry-goods store, a hardware and furniture store, a sporting goods store, a notion store, two bicycle supply and repair shops, a harness shop, two barber shops, two saloons, a livery stable, doctors, dentists, a lawyer, and a newspaper.
Castle Rock had a good water system but many residents still had wells and hand pumps. Despite the electric light plant near downtown owned by Charles Forsythe (1849-1933), coal oil was the source that most residents depended on. Manufacturing plants included four shingle mills, two sawmills, and a boot and shoe factory. As in most early settlements in Washington, most buildings were made of wood and the streets were unpaved. On June 18, 1899, the Seattle Post Intelligencer wrote:
"Castle Rock is one of the liveliest and at the same time one of the most substantial towns in Western Washington; has tributary to it the Toutle, Silver Lake and Arkansas valleys; is the nearest outlet, both river and railroad, to the St. Helens mining district and there is every reason to believe that the future of Castle Rock is a grand one" ("Castle Rock")
On the other hand, the roads contained trash, animal droppings, dirt, and water or dust depending on the season. There was an occasional crosswalk made of wood. After 1900, thanks to volunteer firemen, hydrants, two-wheeled hose carts, and some luck, there were no fires recorded.
In 1900, the only high school in Castle Rock and Cowlitz County received a large donation from Moses Brown (1827-1900), a wealthy resident, to establish a library in his memory. An engraving on his tombstone states:
"In Memory of Moses Brown, the donor of a fund for the purpose of purchasing a library for the use of the public school of Castle Rock" ("Moses Brown").
The Cowlitz River Runs Through It
On Thursday, November 15, 1906, Castle Rock was confronted after 24 hours of nonstop stormy weather with heavy rains that nearly paralyzed and swallowed the town. The Cowlitz River was overflowing it banks and flooded all the towns in its path to the Columbia River. The flood tied up train service coming north from Portland. Passengers were stranded between Castle Rock and Olequa, a small village about eight miles north of Castle Rock. The flood washed away the wooden suspension bridge that crossed the Cowlitz near Olequa between Castle Rock and Winlock. All the wires were carried with it, breaking communication by telephone and telegraph.
The river was very high raging through downtown Castle Rock, causing losses for the shingle mill. Thirty houses, along with barns, logs, and more, were washed away. The Cowlitz River cut a waterway through the center of town. Many residents were driven to higher ground for safety. There were narrow escapes but no lives were lost.
Automobiles were becoming more reliable and appearing all over Washington. The first area mail delivery by automobile was made in 1909 by Enoch Mansell (1868-1928) from Castle Rock to Silver Lake. As roads improved the increasing use of automobiles allowed mail to be delivered to scattered farms, ending the need for little post offices managed in people's parlors or small caged spaces in stores. Soon the old system of trails and water transportation, and eventually even railroad service, would become secondary to automobiles.
A new 300-foot Castle Rock High Bridge was built over the Cowlitz River. It opened for service on a cold, stormy Saturday, November 5, 1910. More than a hundred people came by train and wagon to celebrate. The bridge would be replaced in 1926 and again in 1963.
On September 23, 1911, the Northern Pacific started to run trains through a large cut over new double tracks just east of downtown Castle Rock. A depot on the new route was planned about a quarter mile away from the old depot, and outside the existing city limits. But the trains were diverted onto the new tracks before the depot was completed. This meant everyone had to wait out in the weather until the building was finished.
On May 22, 1913, Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) and State Highway Commissioner William Roberts, along with other officials, drove from Olympia through Centralia to the southern Cowlitz County line on an inspection trip of the new Pacific Highway. Along the way they would discuss current conditions of the highway with local officials. They were met at the county line by representatives from Cowlitz County who accompanied them down the highway to a meeting in the Castle Rock Hotel (formerly Spencer Hotel).
With the new, although still unpaved, Pacific Highway, Castle Rock was located on three north-south transportation routes -- the highway, the Cowlitz River, and the rail line, with regular runs between Portland and Seattle passing through each day. By 1915, the town had Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, German Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches serving large numbers of residents. The Robin Shingle Mill operated in Castle Rock with other mills near the town. Paul Knautz owned the Savoy Hotel with his wife who managed and operated the kitchen. Candace Arminta Andrews Dennis (1853-1934) managed the Castle Rock Hotel. There was one bank in town, with J. A. Byerly as its president and G. L. Buland as cashier.
By the summer of 1922, the state highway department began paving at Castle Rock, with the highway constructed through town along the old Northern Pacific right-of-way (today's Huntington Avenue). About two miles south of Castle Rock on the highway was a curve that became known as "Devil's Elbow" -- a steep rounded hillside on a very narrow curve with blind spots at both ends. Drivers could not see oncoming cars approaching. Many ended up swerving to avoid an accident and, if unlucky, an accident could result in death.
Two From Castle Rock
Harold Clinton Johnson (1922-2002) was born in Castle Rock on January 14, 1922. Nicknamed "Hap," he served in the Navy during World War II from 1942 to 1945. Johnson earned 16 tree-topping world championships, three axe-throwing world championships, and one speed climbing crown. This led to a career in sports shows and logging exhibitions around the country.
Johnson was a guest on Arthur Godfrey's television show You Asked For It, and worked as double for actor John Wayne in the 1960 movie North to Alaska in climbing and stunt scenes. He performed at world fairs in Seattle, New York, and Montreal. At the age of 65 he stopped performing in logging shows.
Grant Arthur "Bud" May (1933-2010) was an army veteran and a well-respected longtime local news reporter. After completing his army service, he immediately began his career working for The Daily News in Longview and settled with his wife Betty Eaton May in Castle Rock. May reported on sports, police and criminal activity, the courts, local history, and other news. He was active in the Castle Rock Exhibit Hall Society, the Castle Rock Elementary reading tutors' program, and a host of other activities. Grant and Betty May lived in Castle Rock for more than 50 years before Betty died in 2005. Grant May died in 2010.
The Mountain, the River, and the Town
In 1990, Castle Rock celebrated the 100th anniversary of its incorporation with a celebration in its new Exhibit Hall and an invitation in the Cowlitz County Advocate to "Come visit the Mountain, the River, and Our Town Galleries" (Urrutia, 4).
On October 16, 2002, residents celebrated the 150th anniversary of the town's original settlement. Organizations, businesses, and individuals contributed to the success of the event. Historical photos were provided by descendants of pioneer families and displayed in store windows, historical buildings, and the Castle Rock Exhibit Hall.
The Association of Washington Cities, in its 2004 awards, recognized Castle Rock for community excellence on the Castle Rock Riverfront Trail project. By 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Castle Rock's population had reached 2,370.
Castle Rock takes pride in its historical roots. Collections in the Cowlitz County Historical Museum in nearby Kelso preserve the town's history, making it available to anyone interested. The City of Castle Rock proclaims itself the "Gateway to Mount St. Helens" (Castle Rock website) and it also offers access to some of the most beautiful country on the Cowlitz River.
The town provides a variety of activities to enjoy. Downtown there are shops, restaurants, antique stores, and lodging. In summer the Mountain Mania Festival is held and the town is decorated and lined with beautiful flowers. The 52-mile-long Spirit Lake Memorial Highway carries visitors from Castle Rock to the Mount St. Helens blast area with spectacular views along the way.
The Castle Rock hill is now forested, covered with vegetation. This makes it hard to find pathways for the curious to climb the town's namesake.