A group of Kalama residents meets to organize Port of Kalama on December 22, 1919.

  • By Catherine Hinchliff
  • Posted 2/26/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9736
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On Monday, December 22, 1919, a group of Kalama residents meets at the Kalama Business Men’s Club to discuss the formation of a port district. Kalama is located in Cowlitz County in Southwestern Washington, north of Vancouver. After circulating petitions and holding a hearing, Port of Kalama will be formed in an election held on March 17, 1920. Kalama citizens will elect Hite Imus, J. G. Gruver, and F. L. Jenkins as commissioners. The Port of Kalama boasts access to the Columbia River, a railway, and later (1950s), Interstate 5. In the 1920s, the Port will lease property to tie mills, shingle mills, and other timber operators. In the 1960s, it will become a focal point for the area’s wheat industry, leasing a new grain terminal to North Pacific Grain Growers Inc. The Port will also provide the site for a phenol plant for Dow Chemical. In the 1980s, the Port will build its second grain terminal, bringing Peavey Grain Company to Kalama. In 2009, the Port of Kalama’s more than 20 industrial tenants will employ some 900 people.

Early History of Kalama

Kalama, Washington, located on the Columbia River north of Vancouver and only 72 miles from the Pacific Ocean, had 2,505 residents in 2009.  

Kalama was first settled in 1853 by Ezra Meeker and his family. Only one year later, Meeker moved to north Puyallup, Washington, but he sold his Donation Land Claim to a Mr. Davenport, who, with a few others, permanently settled in the Kalama area. In early 1870, Northern Pacific Railway scouts came to Cowlitz County to find an ideal terminus along the Columbia River. After a failed negotiation for a Donation Land Claim in Martin’s Bluff, four miles south of Kalama, Northern Pacific officials purchased 700 acres in Kalama for the terminus of the new railroad as well as a new headquarters. The population swelled with employees of the Northern Pacific Railway.

In 1871, General John Sprague, a railroad agent, christened the new town Kalama, after the Kalama River, which was earlier named for a Hawaiian man named John Kalama. Kalama was given the slogan “Where Rail and Water Meet,” as well as “Where Rail Meets Sail” (Urrutia 2, 12). The population of Kalama peaked at 5,000 people, but in early 1874, the railroad moved its headquarters to Tacoma, and by 1877, only 700 people remained in Kalama.

As a railroad terminus, Kalama continued to be busy. At Kalama trains were ferried across the Columbia River to tracks in Goble, Oregon. The vessel Tacoma, the second largest ferry in the world at that time, took trains across the river from 1884 until 1908, when the Northern Pacific Railway completed a railroad bridge across the Columbia River at Vancouver.

Origins of a Port

During World War I, Kalama residents watched as large ships on the Columbia River passed Kalama en route to Vancouver or Portland. Though Kalama had one private dock at the Doty Fish Company as well as a ferry slip from the transfer Tacoma, Kalama residents could not hope to attract ocean-bound vessels without a large public dock. On the evening of December 22, 1919, a group led by Hite Imus, J. G. Gruver, and F. L. Jenkins decided to form the Port of Kalama. They hoped that the new port would be beneficial to Kalama citizens and improve shipping conditions.

On March 17, 1920, the people of Kalama voted to establish the Kalama Port District with Hite Imus, J. G. Gruver, and F. L. Jenkins as the Port’s first commissioners. On April 21, 1920, the three commissioners met for the first time in the law office of J.E. Stone. In order to get all the money they needed for port improvements, the commissioners proposed that the Port sell bonds.

In a special election on December 14, 1920, Kalama overwhelmingly approved the sale of bonds, 225 votes to six votes against. Using money borrowed through the sale of bonds at 6 percent per annum, the commissioners purchased six city blocks on the waterfront on the northern edge of town for $27,000. They then used an additional $55,000, to construct a dock at the foot of Kingwood Street, which had already become to some extent industrial area.

Early Industry in Kalama

Port of Kalama commissioners decided to raise revenue by leasing out Port properties to Kalama business people. From the 1920s until the early 1960s, the timber industry dominated the activity at the Port. Companies exporting logs and manufacturing shingles, ties, or veneer made up the principal leases for the first 40 years of Port history. During the 1920s, the Port leased property to business people from the local fishing, strawberry, and timber industries.  Bob Barr, who opened a shingle and tie mill and built a ramp from his mill to the Port dock, became the first successful businessman who leased property from the Port of Kalama. At one point in 1927, the Barr mill loaded five million shingles onto a steamship. Barr closed the mill in the late 1920s, but ready to take its place was the Blue Ribbon Shingle Mill, one of the first electric mills ever built. A Kalama resident, Walter McClelland, built the mill after asking for public subscriptions from Kalama businesses and a loan from the Kalama State Bank.

Though the Port of Kalama leased properties to a few successful businesses, it did not make enough income from its tenants to support the Port. By the late 1920s, the Port was land poor, and $40,000 in debt from taxes and maintaining its facilities. Despite the stock market crash in 1929, Kalama citizens voted on March 8, 1930, to ratify the $40,000 indebtedness of the Port of Kalama in order to save the Port. The the Port continued to have financial trouble as businesses forfeited leases and the Columbia River flooded its banks, damaging Port land. In the mid-1930s, the river current destroyed the supporting pilings of the Port dock, causing the whole structure to collapse. Repairs would cost $5319.25, but the Port did not even have the budget for the $250 industrial insurance required for the construction. Fortunately, the Works Progress Administration took on the project of rebuilding the dock.

In early 1933, Kalama citizens profited from a Tillamook, Oregon, forest fire. Salvaged logs were trucked to Lake Oswego, Oregon, rafted to Kalama, and loaded onto freight cars. Kalama had the advantage of being “Where Rail and Water Meet,” resulting in an easy loading process. During the late 1930s, commissioners tried and failed to attract some larger companies such as Aetna Paper Company. They did manage to get the Markle Lumber Company to sign a 10-year lease, but the commissioners worried as they watched the leased land sit undeveloped for the first 10 months.

During World War II, the Port of Kalama leased its dock to a Seattle salvaging company assigned at one point to strip the Spanish-American-War-era battleship Oregon to its hull. The salvaged iron was used in the war.

In 1948, the Columbia River flooded the Port’s property at the foot of Kingwood Street, sweeping most of its property along with its old dock away. This time the Port was able to replace the dock on its own.

Grain and a Chemical Plant 

After years of leasing property to shingle mills, veneer plants, and to businesses that loaded and shipped logs, the commissioners decided to attract other industries to the Port of Kalama. In the 1950s, there were signs that the lumber industry was losing steam. Locally, the Long-Bell lumber mill downriver in Longview was in the process of shutting down. Wanting to bring a new industry to Kalama, the Port began courting grain growers in Eastern Washington, Oregon, and Montana. They sought to convince grain growers that a grain elevator was needed on the Lower Columbia. By the 1950s, the Port of Portland, Oregon, already had a grain elevator on the Columbia River. However, the Port of Kalama spent 10 years arguing for an additional grain elevator in Kalama. They promoted the Port as a place where the river, railway, and a new interstate intersected. They set aside a 30-acre site two miles upriver from Kalama for a new grain terminal.

In early 1961, the North Pacific Grain Growers Inc. finally approved the Port of Kalama’s plan and construction began on a large grain storage and loading facility. On June 8, 1962, the Port of Kalama held a dedication ceremony for the new grain terminal. The plant, now called Cenex Harvest States, was enlarged in 1980. Its bins hold a total of 6.4 million bushels of grain. The plant also features a 750-foot dock with a loading gallery that can load 1,500 tons of grain per hour onto ships. There is also a rail car tipper that can dump 20,000 bushels of grain per hour.

The Port of Kalama further diversified its industries by attracting a chemical company. In June 1962, the Dow Chemical Company opened a chemical plant. Employees of the plant manufactured phenol, a waterproof adhesive chemical used to bond thin layers of veneer together into plywood. In its first few years at the Port, the plant’s production of phenol increased from 36 million to 50 million pounds per year.

Dow Chemical moved phenol production to a new plant in Texas in 1971. However, that same year, three young employees of Dow teamed up to form a new company, Kalama Chemical. The plant began manufacturing benzoic acid, used in agriculture as well as used by companies like 7-UP, Listerine, and Ben Gay.

Becoming a Deep-Draft Port

In 1963, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began dredging and diking activities for an improved navigation channel on the Columbia River. The federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1962 authorized the Corps of Engineers to create a channel 40 feet deep and 600 feet wide. The channel allowed the Port of Kalama to become a deep-draft port and to attract larger barges to its docks.

Congress first authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Columbia River in 1899. However, due to erosion and silt build up, the Columbia was only 12 feet deep in 1912. During this period, the Columbia channel at Kalama was on the Oregon side of the river, but the channel was narrow and had large, partially submerged rocks that made shipping dangerous. During World War I, the Army Corps of Engineers diverted the channel from the Oregon side of the river to the Kalama side. Sandy Island separated the Oregon side from the Kalama side and became a useful place to pump sand as the Corps dredged the river. The Corps of Engineers also got rid of a large sandbar near Kalama by installing jetties on Sandy Island and by doing additional dredging. After World War II, the Corps lengthened the jetties it had placed on Sandy Island, and gradually deepened the channel to 35 feet deep.

By 1963, many modern ships were drawing more than 35 feet and could not travel to the Port of Kalama. After much discussion with the Port, the Corps of Engineers created a berm, a man-made bank of earth, to both greatly reduce the chance of flooding on Kalama’s riverfront and to deepen the channel to at least 40 feet. With the new channel depth, Kalama could consider itself to be a deep-draft port.

As part of the 1963 navigation channel improvements, the Corps of Engineers dredged 767,000 cubic yards of sand. They used some sand to build the berm piled 18 feet above the river. The Corps stabilized the berm with rocks and logs. One portion of the berm, which served as a 600-foot-long breakwater for the riverfront, became the site of the new Port office, marina, boat launch, and parking lot. The Port of Kalama also used some sand to provide a base for a new industrial district.

Recreation in Kalama

In the 1970s, the Port of Kalama expanded its aims from bringing new industries to Kalama to providing opportunities for recreation. In 1974, the Port created a riverside park for Kalama and planted grass and trees on part of the berm constructed a decade earlier. They also added restrooms, drinking fountains, and picnic tables. In May 1974, the Port erected a 140-foot totem pole, thought by some to be the world’s largest totem pole, carved years before by Chief Don Lelooska of Ariel. The totem pole had been lying on its side in the north city limits of Kalama. After erecting the first totem, Kalama added three smaller totem poles to the park.

Port of Kalama officials also began planning for a marina in 1974, but voters rejected its first effort to secure funding. Later the Port realized it could float a $1.5 million revenue bond that would not depend upon taxes. On July 16, 1977, the Port of Kalama opened the 60-berth marina constructed between the breakwater berm and the shore. It later expanded the marina to 222 berths.

Shortly after opening the marina, the Port saw a demand for an RV park. Families using the marina’s boat launch on the weekends often brought their RVs with boats in tow to Kalama only to realize there were no overnight facilities to accommodate them. The Port constructed the Louis Rasmussen RV Park in the late 1970s for visitors and voters. The RV park was decommissioned in 2007 due to a lack of demand.

Logging, Continued 

Though the Port focused on bringing new industries and recreational to Kalama in the 1960s and 1970s, the lumber industry remained an important part of Kalama’s economy. In 1972, a man named Bob Sanders bought three mills from a large Kalama company called Gram Lumber. Sanders promptly closed two of the three mills and auctioned off equipment. In 1975, he opened a remodeled, more efficient mill and renamed the company RSG Forest Products. The mill produced dressed lumber, Douglas fir studs, and cedar fencing. The mill quickly became one of Kalama’s largest employers, employing 117 people in 2009. Gram Lumber continued to operate as a cedar mill, employing 69 people in 2009.

In 1976 the Port also became home to S. Madill, Inc. S. Madill manufactured large machinery used to yard logs, or to move felled trees out of woods. By manufacturing the yarders in Kalama rather than British Columbia, the Canadian company avoided high import tariffs on its U.S. sales. S. Madill, Inc., later renamed Madill Equipment USA, closed its Kalama plant in 2007.

Second Grain Elevator

In the early 1980s, the Peavey Grain Company, which exported feed grain, began to look for a new site for a grain elevator. Though the Ports of Vancouver and Portland were attempting to persuade Peavey, the Port of Kalama had 210 acres of land ready to be developed. However, the Port first needed to buy the property back from Weyerhaeuser. In 1976, it had sold the site to Weyerhaeuser on the condition that the lumber company would construct a mill within five years of closing the sale. When it failed to do so, the Port asked to buy the property back for $3 million. They had to raise the money in 120 days or the deal would not go through. Within 100 days, Peavey had agreed to help purchase the site in cooperation with the Port. The Port then arranged for $1 million in short-term bond issue warrants. However, it wasn’t until August 12, 1981, one day before the deadline, that the Port received a check from Peavey for $1,999,999.

In the fall of 1983, the Peavey grain elevator, a $50-million-dollar project, opened for business. It could load 2,200,000 bushels of grain into a ship hold in 36 hours, and it shipped five million tons of feed grain in its first year. After constructing the second grain elevator, the Port of Kalama became one of the top five ports on the West Coast for dry-bulk exports.

Steel Mill Opens

One of Kalama’s largest employers came to the Port in the 1990s. On September 19, 1995, an Australian company called BHP Steel USA Inc. announced it would open a $221 million steel mill on a 75-acre site at the Port. In 1997, the firm completed the mill and hired more than 200 people from the local area. The steel mill finished, rolled, and coated steel coils for use in the construction market.

In 2005, the Port of Kalama announced that the firm, independent from BHP and renamed Steelscape, Inc., would expand its operations into a new 37,520-square-foot building adjacent to its steel mill. BlueScope Steel, formerly BHP, reacquired Steelscape Inc. in 2007. In May 2009, Steelscape employed 249 people.

Port of Kalama Today

Because of the many successful businesses at the Port of Kalama, most of the Port’s income came from internal port operations from leases and other facilities charges. This income doubled between 1990 and 1995 and doubled again between 1995 and 2005. Due to its financial performance, the Port of Kalama stopped levying property taxes in 1996.

In May 2009, Port of Kalama businesses employed nearly 1,000 people. The Port shipped a total of 11.6 million (English) tons of cargo in 2010 (10.1 million metric tons). The Port of Kalama itself employed 14 people. In the early twenty-first century preserving the Columbia River’s natural environment has been extremely important to the Port of Kalama, which has preserved and improved three wetland parcels on its property. As the Port looks for new businesses, it has three goals: the creation of jobs for the people of Kalama, encouraging business investment, and finding companies that will help the Port continue to be good stewards of the environment.


R.H. Mitchell, “Port of Kalama” Cowlitz County News, December 26, 1919 in Violet A. Johnson, Kalama Washington -- A Centennial History (Vancouver: Clark County Genealogical Society, 1990), 95-96; Virginia Urrutia, Where the Highway, Rail and Water Meet: The Port of Kalama Story (Kalama: Port of Kalama, 1989); Drew Desilver, “New Direction for Natural Gas: Northwest,” The Seattle Times, November 15, 2005 (http://www.seattletimes.com); David Postman and Ralph Thomas, “State Workers Declare a Strike -- Picketing to Begin at Ports, DSHS,” Ibid., April 18, 2001 (http://www.seattletimes.com); Craig Welch, “Proposed Plant to Test Pollution Law,” Ibid., August 20, 2007 (http://www.seattletimes.com); J. Martin McOmber, “Both Sides Pressured to End Port Dispute,” Ibid., October 2, 2002 (http://www.seattletimes.com); “Freighter Loses Power, Rams Pier on Columbia,” Ibid., September 7, 1999 (http://www.seattletimes.com); “State Tax Break Attracts Steel Plant -- Cowlitz County Beats Out Oregon for 230 Skilled Jobs,” Ibid., September 20, 1995 (http://www.seattletimes.com); Mike Lindblom, “State Will Get $590 Million to Speed Up Rail,” Ibid., January 28, 2010 (http://www.seattletimes.com); Sally Gene Mahoney, “Slump in Exports Hitting Grain Terminals,” Ibid., May 4, 1985, p. B-9; Allan Brettman, “BHP Expects to Decide on Site by August,” The Daily News, June 29, 1995, p. B-1; “Ports Wage ‘Friendly’ War for Steel Mill,” Columbian, August 14, 1995, p. 1; Jeanette Steele, “Australian Firm Picks Kalama for Steel Mill,” Columbian, September 19, 1995, p.1; Michael Rose, “ADM Will Resume Shipping Grain from NW,” Puget Sound Business Journal, June 12, 1998, p. 31; Erik Robinson, “Ports Pledge Support for Channel Deepening,” Columbian, April 6, 2000, p. B-1; “Corps, Ports Sign Accord; Deepening Project Awaits U.S. Funding,” Columbian, June 24, 2004, p. C-1; Erik Robinson, “$1 Billion Energy Plant Proposed at Kalama Port,” Columbian, October 28, 2005, p. A-1; Vic Parrish, “Energy NW Continues to Seek Affordable Power,” Tri-City Herald, March 18, 2006, p. F-2; Erik Robinson, “Proposed Kalama Coal Power Plant Has Some Skeptics; NW Energy Coalition Questions the Need for Plant,” Columbian, June 20, 2006, p. A-1; Erik Robinson, “All Eyes on Kalama Power Plant,” Columbian, May 19, 2007, p. C-1; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History “Cowlitz County -- Thumbnail History” (by David Wilma) and “Deep-draft Ports of Washington” (by John Caldbick),  http://www.historylink.org (accessed October 27, 2010); Leila Summers “Kalama McMenamins Delayed” The Daily News, September 28, 2009 website accessed october 27, 2010 (http://www.tdn.com); M.L. Madison, “Madill Will Shut Down Kalama Plant,” The Daily News, October 27, 2001, website accessed October 27, 2010 (http://www.tdn.com);2010); Evan Caldwell “Port of Kalama’s Wave of Success Leaves Little Land to Meet Demand,” The Daily News, May 14, 2007, website accessed October 27, 2010 (http://www.tdn.com); Erik Olson, “Port of Kalama Focused on Adding Small Businesses to Industrial Park,” The Daily News, July 8, 2009, website accessed October 27, 2010 (http://www.tdn.com); Sally Ousley, “Port of Kalama Pioneer Ed Hendrickson Dies at 98,” The Daily News, February 2, 2006, website accessed October 27, 2010 (http://www.tdn.com); “Park Taking Final Form at Kalama Port,” The Daily News, October 22, 2007, website accessed October 27, 2010 (http://www.tdn.com); Leila Summers, “Kalama Port Presents Plan to Dream On,” The Daily News, January, 6, 2008, website accessed October 27, 2010 (http://www.tdn.com); Leila Summers, “Port of Kalama Expands Land Holdings,” The Daily News, April 13, 2008, website accessed October 27, 2010 (http://www.tdn.com ); Port of Kalama Comprehensive Plan 2009, Port of Kalama website accessed October 29, 2010 (http://www.portofkalama.com).

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