Cathlamet -- Thumbnail History

  • By Linda Elliott
  • Posted 2/03/2009
  • Essay 8917
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As you approach Cathlamet by water, this small town still retains the look of a turn-of-the-century riverfront village. The only incorporated town in Wahkiakum County, this historic community rising up the hillside from the northern banks of the lower Columbia River has seen its share of history float by its shores. Long before the town of Cathlamet came into being, the land on which it stands was a Native American village occupied by the Wahkiakum or Cathlamet Tribe. The name "Cathlamet" (Kathlamet) is said to have come from the local Chinookan language spoken there that refers to a "rocky shore.”

Early Days

In that time, it was the site of the largest Native American settlement west of the Cascades, which could have numbered from 500 to 1,000 people and was clearly one of the main centers of Indian strength on the lower river. The Cathlamet Indians led by Chief Wahkiakum were a Chinookan tribe but today the band is no longer a distinct group. In those days the salmon, elk, deer, and bear were plentiful and they were very skilled in fishing and tracking game.

In 1774, the Spanish ship Santiago, sailing north from Mexico, passed by the mouth of the Columbia River. The next year the Spanish explorer Bruno de Hezeta sailed to the Pacific Northwest and on August 17, 1775, mapped the mouth of the Columbia, which he considered a bay and named Bahia de la Asuncion. Seventeen years later, on May 11, 1792, American fur trader Robert Gray (1755-1806) became the first non-Indian to enter the great river, which he did on the Columbia Rediviva. Gray named the river and remained for nine days, trading with the Chinookan inhabitants of the area. At the time British explorer George Vancouver (1758-1798) was also in the region, and in October 1792, Vancouver sent Lt. William R. Broughton up the Columbia in the Chatham. Broughton sailed past Cathlamet and Puget Island.

In 1805 when Lewis and Clark were nearing the end of their long and arduous journey to the Pacific Ocean, they made a stop in Cathlamet to trade with the native people there, and again met them on their way east in 1806. In later years, Queen Sally of the Cathlamet Tribe was able to recall her memories of Lewis and Clark and told stories of them coming to the area when she was a young girl. The tribe also met with the fur traders who followed. Unfortunately, the traders also brought diseases into the villages of the Wahkiakum and the Cathlamet. By the late 1830s many of the native peoples had been decimated. 

Birnie's Retreat

In 1846 James Birnie (1800-1864), a Scottish immigrant, and his wife, Charlotte, brought their 10 children to the village of Cathlamet. It was here that Mr. Birnie, formerly of the Hudson's Bay Company, established a trading post called Birnie's Retreat. Birnie's Retreat soon became a thriving business trading furs, fish and other goods to the river travelers on their way to Astoria. At that time, there were still between 300 and 400 hundred Native Americans still inhabiting the village. Charlotte Birnie was also of Native American heritage, being half Kootenai and half French Canadian and this heritage contributed to good relations with the local tribe, who were responsible for much of what the Birnie's traded. The Birnies were known for their kindness and generosity and soon others began to settle in Cathlamet.

Rose Birnie, sister of James, arrived in Cathlamet in 1850 to teach her brother's now 12 children and she became Wahkiakum County's first schoolteacher. She later married a former Hudson's Bay clerk, George Roberts. Their home, built in 1857, is now known as the Julia Butler Hansen Heritage Center and is the oldest home left in Cathlamet. In 1851 the post office opened its doors with James Birnie as the first postmaster.

In the early spring of 1851, another true pioneer came to the area. William Strong was a native of New York and a Yale graduate. He came to Cathlamet to take advantage of a land claim. He was highly regarded and heavily involved in politics and law and eventually became a territorial judge. Judge Strong’s district included all of what is now Washington, Idaho, and Montana north of the 46th parallel, and west of the Rockies, as well as the county of Clatsop in Oregon. He and his wife, Lucretia Robinson, lived in a home near the current location of the Wahkiakum Historical Museum until they moved to Portland in 1862.

In the 1850s, the future U.S. president Captain Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), then in his early 30s, was stationed at the Columbia Barracks, a U.S. Army base on the Columbia River near the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver. Captain Grant made several trips by river to Cathlamet and spent time with the Strong family. He wrote in his memoirs that measles and smallpox were very often fatal for the bands of Indians living along the Columbia River.

Birnie’s Retreat continued to grow and was eventually renamed Cathlamet as settlers arrived in the region to take advantage of opportunities to lay claim to land.  Immigrants began to arrive from Great Britain, Sweden, and Norway. Once here they began to build a new life based on what they did in their homelands -- logging, fishing, and farming.

Trees and Salmon

Beginning in the 1840s, a number of successful lumber mills in the vicinity of Cathlamet harvested and processed softwoods (mainly cedar and Douglas fir) and furniture-grade maple and alder for export.

Both the native populations and early European settlers depended heavily on the abundance of salmon in the nearby Columbia River. The early salmon trade in Cathlamet focused on salting and exporting fish purchased from native fisherman. In the 1860s, numerous salmon canning facilities were constructed throughout the region. These canneries quickly became one of the main employers. Operations like the Warren and Waterford Canneries in Cathlamet initially owned boats and equipment and employed fisherman to harvest salmon for their canneries. Many brands sprang up from the lower Columbia area.

Another group of immigrants that came to the area as pioneers of a sort, were the Chinese. They were first hired as butchering crews for the local canneries. In Cathlamet they lived in what was called The China House located next to the cannery. By 1880 there were well over 500 Chinese living in the county.  They were here from about 1870 through the early 1900s. Most seemed to have worked as servants and, besides working in the canneries, did gardening and odd jobs for other people in town.

A Town and County Seat

Cathlamet became the Wahkiakum County Seat in 1854 and was officially incorporated in 1907. During the same year the Cathlamet Commercial Club was organized to support and help the new businesses opening along Main Street.  The early lives of settlers here were certainly harsh and dangerous at times, but the creation of this new community based on fishing and farming and family soon flourished despite all the hardships and disease.

New modes of transportation along the river increased the numbers of people that were able to visit and homestead in Cathlamet. A network of passenger and freight boats linked Cathlamet and other lower Columbia River communities with both Portland and Astoria.

Crossing the River 

In 1925 Walter Coates started a ferry service with two wooden boats running from Cathlamet to Puget Island and then on to Westport, Oregon. Passengers could then take the ferry from Cathlamet, drive across the island on a dirt road and take another ferry to the Oregon side of the Columbia River. Foot passengers would get to ride in a Buick touring car along with the Captain and crew.

Coates sold his boats in 1932 and alternate modes of transportation were used until a bridge was built in 1938 and dedicated in 1939, taking people from Cathlamet to Puget Island.  The ferry from the island to Westport continued until the 1960s when it was taken over by Wahkiakum County. A new ferry named Wahkiakum was built in Hood River, Oregon, at the cost of $45,000. It began operations in 1962 and still continues today (2009). The Wahkiakum has a capacity of 14 cars and 36 passengers and takes 10 minutes to cross the Columbia. It is the last ferry to operate on the lower Columbia River.

Health and Education    

Another service hard to receive in this isolated community was medical help.  At first the only options were to go by boat to Portland or Astoria, but finally, in 1927, Dr. Harold Fritz and his wife arrived. His first task was to vaccinate against smallpox, which was nearing epidemic levels.  He even traveled by train to the outlying logging camps and to the local schools to make sure all were treated.

Education opportunities were another challenge in the remote town.  Very early schools were often held in the settler’s homes until small school districts were formed.  William Strong became the first superintendent.

Logging and Farming

In 1929 the Crown Willamette sawmill was built in Cathlamet creating much-needed jobs for the early inhabitants. Soon after, many other logging companies were formed, as there was certainly no shortage of trees or men to cut them down.

Due to the isolation, farming was a must, but wasn’t always easy. With the land heavily forested and the amount of rain that fell, it was a daunting task to get land cleared and ready for crops. Cathlamet had cattle-breeding farms, dairy farms, and mint and cucumber fields. For many years agriculture was a very successful way of life for many years. 

However after the 1940s the number of farms began to diminish, either sold off or used for other purposes. With the decline of the logging camps, the need for beef and vegetables was less and the advent of new roads made it easier for shoppers to travel to Longview or Astoria to get their goods. By the 1990s only a handful of small farms remained.

In town, Main street continued to grow and prosper, with new businesses such as the Elco Theater, which opened in 1936, City Hall was built the next year and even a funeral home the year after that. 

Julia Butler Hansen

A noted citizen of Cathlamet was Julia Butler Hansen (1907-1988), born Julia Caroline Butler in 1907, the daughter of Donald C. Butler (1865-1916) and Maude (Kimball) Butler (1880-1963).

Her father was sheriff of Wahkiakum County and her mother, Maude (Kimball) Butler, was a visual artist. In 1960 she was named Washington’s Mother of the Year. The Kimballs had settled in the area in 1886 and managed two logging camps near Cathlamet.

A true pioneer, Hansen, known by many as “The Grand Lady in Washington Politics,” was the first woman to hold several different political jobs. She was first woman to chair the Wahkiakum County Democratic Council and to serve on the Cathlamet City Council. She was the first woman speaker pro-tem of the Washington House, the first woman to chair its Roads and Bridges Committee, the first woman to serve on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, and also the first woman to head a major appropriations subcommittee.

Rightly so, Mrs. Hansen is honored by the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge for the Columbian White-tail Deer, established in 1972 in Cathlamet; the Julia Butler Hansen Elementary School, opened in 1994 in Olympia; and the Julia Butler Hansen Bridge connecting Cathlamet to Puget Island, Washington. National Wildlife Refuge is a designation for certain protected areas of the United States managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hansen married Henry Hansen, a logger and fine craftsman, and they were parents of one son, David.  She retired from politics in 1981 and lived in Cathlamet until her death in 1988.

Her former home is now the Julia Butler Hansen Heritage Center and is one of the oldest houses in Cathlamet. It is filled with antiques and original items, and is also available for tours. You can see the paintings of her mother, Maude Kimball Butler, who painted the daily activities of early life along the Columbia. You can also see the desk that Julia worked from for those many years she was involved in local and national politics.

Life After Crown

Logging and fishing dominated the economic and social life of Cathlamet until the late twentieth century. Prominent lumber and paper-pulp companies, such as Crown-Zellerbach and Weyerhaeuser, remained major employers within the region until the onset of the timber industry’s steep decline in the 1980s. At its Cathlamet paper mill, Crown-Zellerbach supported some 260 employees from 1961 to 1981, when it began its layoffs. In response the locals starting sporting shirts and hats made locally that proclaimed, “There is life after Crown” and truly there was.

Today, several smaller logging companies operate near Cathlamet. Self-employed contractors or Gypo-loggers (a term used to describe a logger with his own equipment, and who mostly acquired small timber sales) continue to log on land owned by Weyerhaeuser and other major forest product manufacturers. Some neighboring communities still do support paper and pulp mills, but the scale of these logging enterprises has been greatly reduced over time.

Fishing the Salmon

Like the logging industry, commercial and recreational fishing in the area have undergone dramatic changes over the past 100 years. Cathlamet fishermen mainly harvested salmon by gillnetting, but traps and seines were also popular ways of harvesting their catch. During the height of the salmon boom, Wahkiakum County canneries processed a whopping 85 percent of the salmon pack on the Columbia River.

Throughout the Cathlamet region the salmon industry went into a rapid decline in the latter part of the twentieth century, Despite this, commercial fishing remains important in Cathlamet not only as an income, but as a way of life passed down from one generation to the next. To supplement the sometimes very small income earned by fishing on the Columbia, some commercial fishermen based in Cathlamet travel to Alaska or fish in nearby Willapa Bay, Grays Harbor, or Puget Sound. Some also engage in albacore trolling or crab fishing on the coast.

In 1971, the Town of Cathlamet constructed the Elochoman Slough Marina, which is used by sport fishermen seeking sturgeon on the Elochoman River or salmon and steelhead on the Columbia River.  Sport fishing enjoys increasing importance as a revenue generator for the town with the marina full during Spring Chinook season and for the local Salmon Derby. In the 1980s, the Cathlamet Town Council also constructed a public dock on the Columbia River to attract small cruise ships, fishermen, boaters, and other river travelers to area businesses.

Cathlamet Today

Today, Cathlamet maintains a working commercial waterfront and mainly symbolic links to its history as a logging community, but the town is also increasingly reliant on its status as a destination for tourists and other recreational visitors. There are many historic homes, both private and public buildings, in Cathlamet that are more than a century old, making the town a popular site for film crews, and the area has been featured in at least two major motion pictures.

 Several events are held throughout the year attracting both locals and visitors, including Bald Eagle Fest, Wooden Boat Festival, Buzzard Breath Chili Cook-off, just to mention a few. T

The Cathlamet of today retains its small town character even as it continues to attract new residents from much outlying metropolitan areas. Cathlamet is still the county seat of Wahkiakum County, and remains the only incorporated town within the County. The old waterfront still boasts a booming tugboat operation and other small commercial businesses.

Main Street houses an inn, several restaurants, a grocery store, flower shop, pharmacy, banks, and other small businesses including the local newspaper, the Wahkiakum County Eagle. The historic Pioneer Church has been lovingly preserved by the Pioneer Community Association and can be found behind the Town Hall and library at the east end of Main Street. The Wahkiakum Historical Museum on River Street contains an eclectic accumulation of historical artifacts, photos, and much more for those who are interested in the areas very distinctive history. When you visit Cathlamet, you can expect to encounter a unique welcome and some friendly, helpful inhabitants who are proud of where they live.


Sam McKinney, Reach of Tide, Ring of History: A Columbia River Voyage (Portland, Oregon: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1987);  Thomas Nelson Strong, Cathlamet on the Columbia: Recollections of the Indian People and Short Stories of Early Pioneer Days in the Valley of the Lower Columbia River (Portland, Oregon:  Binfords & Mort, 1906); Sharlene P. Nelson and Joan Lemieux, Cruising the Columbia and Snake Rivers (Seattle: Pacific Search Press, 1981); Irene Martin, Lewis and Clark in the Land of the Wahkiakums (Tollhouse, California: Scrub Jay Press, 2003); Irene Martin, Beach of Heaven: a History of Wahkiakum County (Pullman: WSU Press, 1997); Keith G. Hay, The Lewis & Clark Columbia River Water Trail (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2004); The Columbia River Sun, January 17, 1907; "Cathlamet, Washington," NOAA community profile ( Washington/Cathlamet_WA.pdf); Town of Cathlamet website accessed January 2009 (; Longview Daily News, August 14, 1989;, The Online Encyclopedia of Washingont State History, "Captain Robert Gray becomes the first non-Indian navigator to enter the Columbia River, which he later names, on May 11, 1792" (by Kit Oldham) and "Bruno de Hezeta (Heceta) party lands at future site of Grenville Bay and claims the Pacific Northwest for Spain on July 12, 1775" (by Antonio Sanchez), (accessed February 7, 2009.

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