Centralia -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 2/12/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8487
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Centralia's location halfway between the Columbia River and Puget Sound makes it a natural place for people to settle. It is situated in Southwestern Washington on the Chehalis River at its confluence with the Skookumchuck River. For thousands of years people have relied on the natural resources of the area -- timber, fish, fertile land, coal, and a level plain amidst rolling hills -- to build their lives and communities. Even today, as the region relies less on its natural resources, its central location on the plain that wends its way among the hills between Seattle and Portland has enabled the town to remain vital.           

Rivers and Prairies

The plain surrounding the Chehalis River, which the Upper Chehalis who lived there when American settlers arrived called nsul, offered a number of ideal homesites. The q[w]aya band of the Upper Chehalis located some of their villages at the confluence of the Skookumchuck and Chehalis, at Grand Mound Prairie to the northwest of the confluence, and at Fords Prairie just west of today's Interstate 5.

The Chehalis River brought the first American settlers to the area. Colonel Michael Simmons (1814-1867) led a group of men north in 1845, intending to claim land on Puget Sound. Traveling from the Columbia River, they came up the Cowlitz Trail, following waterways until they reached the confluence of the Skookumchuck and Chehalis rivers. From there they traveled overland because the Chehalis River turned westward. One member of the party, George Waunch (1812-1882) returned to the confluence and settled on land now known as Waunch Prairie, just north of today's downtown Centralia.

The next spring Joseph Borst (b. 1801) settled on the north bank of the Chehalis River, just downstream of the confluence, and Sidney (1801-1866) and Nancy (1806-1898) Ford settled north of Borst on what is now Fords Prairie with their children. Both Borst and the Fords had recently arrived in Oregon Territory (which until 1853 included what is now Western Washington) from the Midwest.    

The land lay open to settlement only in the settlers' minds. Until 1846 Britain and the United States shared the territory jointly under the Convention of 1818. Then, even though the United States gained ownership in the eyes of the international community, the resident Indians had not signed treaties ceding any land. American law recognized their ownership until such treaties were signed. Therefore, even after the Donation Land Act of 1850 set up the provisions for claiming tracts of land, the settlers in Oregon Territory were squatters until treaties were reached with each tribe.

In February 1855 Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens sought to make a treaty with several tribes, including the Chehalis, Quinault, Chinook, and Cowlitz. The Upper and Lower Chehalis are actually two separate tribes, but Stevens treated them as one. Upon learning the treaty would not include the actual location of the reservation and that they would have to share it with several other tribes, they declined to sign.

George Washington

In 1851 George Washington (1817-1905), who would later found Centralia, arrived at the confluence. Washington claimed squatter's rights to a tract east of the Skookumchuck and north of the Chehalis on what was known as Skookumchuck Prairie. His was a squatter's claim because since he was a black man Oregon Territory law prevented him from owning land.

As more settlers arrived in the area, Washington worried about losing his land to white settlers. Washington asked his former guardians, James (d. 1859) and Anna (d. 1867) Cochrane (a white couple), to file on his land to prevent anyone else from filing on it. The Cochrans later sold the land back to Washington once Washington Territory's laws did not prohibit his ownership.

Having settled, at least temporarily, his land ownership dilemma, Washington sought to put to rest his tenuous position in Oregon Territory. Oregon territorial law barred blacks from living in the territory. In 1853 Washington petitioned the territorial legislature for an exemption to this law, which they granted in January 1853.

Skookumchuck: Complex and Diverse

These early years of settlement cannot be explained in terms of Indian removal and white settlement. Instead, a complex and diverse group of people and relationships made up the early community that was called Skookumchuck. Settlers came from all over the United States and from foreign countries. The Upper Chehalis lived amongst the settlers, regularly returning to their old village sites on the new settlers' claims.

The Upper Chehalis followed their usual way of life and worked among and with the settlers. Some ferried travelers and their belongings across the rivers, others worked on farms and in houses. Washington, like others in the valley, shared his land with them each summer when they returned to dig camas and gather berries. They interacted often enough with the settlers that Sidney Ford Sr.'s 4-year-old daughter Lizzie spoke Indian languages as well as the trade lingo Chinook Jargon, as did her older brothers, who would serve as interpreters for Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens.

Interaction with the white settlers also brought diseases. A smallpox epidemic in 1852 decimated the Upper Chehalis population. At least 275 Indians died in the vicinity of Skookumchuck. American settlers burned the Upper Chehalis village named 'aqáygt at what is now Grand Mound after its remaining residents deserted it. Other disease outbreaks took more lives. Between 1841 when the Wilkes Expedition estimated the Upper Chehalis population at 700, and a census in 1854, the population dropped to 216. This loss does not reflect those lives lost to European diseases prior to 1841.

The lack of good roads in the 1850s and 1860s limited the American settlers' access to markets and the cash economy. In order to raise cash they often worked at nearby settlements. One winter Joseph Borst found himself in need of wheat. He worked at the Hudson's Bay Company farm splitting rails for 50 cents per hundred. He then purchased the wheat he needed from the Company at four dollars per bushel. Another local farmer, Patterson Luarck (b. 1814), hauled wood to the mill at New Market and worked for a while at the Ward and Hay's mill there.

Military Road, the first road to come through the valley, connected Fort Vancouver on the Columbia to Fort Steilacoom on the Sound in 1857. It passed through Skookumchuck just west of where Interstate 5 runs today. With the road came regular mail service when the Skookumchuck post office opened on Fords Prairie. In the 1840s, settlers got their mail when they made annual trips to Fort Vancouver. After 1854 Henry Windsor carried the mail up the Cowlitz Corridor on a mule. The road also provided a more reliable transportation route north to New Market.

Although the Upper Chehalis did not participate in the Indian uprising in 1855-1856, many of the homesteaders worried about possible attacks and banded together to build Fort Henness, a stockade at Grand Mound Prairie. The 100 by 130 foot fort housed 224 people beginning in October 1855. They organized the men into Company F of the First Regiment of Washington Territorial Volunteers, led by Captain Benjamin Lee Henness.

Several local residents declined to help build or to live in the fort. George and Mary Waunch stayed at their farm. George Washington took the Cochrans to live there but remained on his own farm where he had built a small stockade. Patterson Luarck dismissed the need for the fort and wrote in his diary, "I for one thought the building of a fort not only unnecessary but injurious to our friendship with our neighboring Chehalis Indians. Therefore I did not help built the fort" (Helgerson, 165).

After the uprising, the situation of the Upper Chehalis did not change. They remained both treaty-less and living amongst the homesteaders until 1864 when the Interior Department set aside land by executive order for a Chehalis reservation. Some of the Upper Chehalis settled on the reservation, but others continued to live among the American settlers.

While Skookumchuck had a post office, a stagecoach stop, and a store or two in the area, it remained more or less a cluster of settlers for 30 years. The Americans farmed and raised livestock for their own subsistence and bartering with neighbors. They took any surplus they produced to Tumwater or Olympia on annual trips. Limited access to markets, given the distance and rough road, limited their involvement in the broader economy. 

Centerville (Centralia)

The Military Road had increased traffic and commerce in the area, but its influence would pale in comparison to the coming of the railroad in 1872. The Northern Pacific Railroad, staggering along under mismanagement and financial difficulties, finally managed to finish a section of railroad between Kalama and Olympia. Although far short of its transcontinental goal, it opened the Cowlitz Corridor to the outside world.

The railroad crossed George Washington's property to the east of the rivers. George, his wife Mary Jane (1841-1888), and his stepson Stacey Coonness (b. 1863) platted a town named Centerville, because of its central location on the railroad line, in January 1875. The town grew to 50 residents in the first year.

A store owned by Isaac Wingard already operated at the townsite and the post office had moved to James and Mary Tullis' home in 1867, at what is now 1st Street and Euclid Way, just north of Washington's land. Soon after the railroad began service, Joseph Young built the Pioneer House hotel where Main Street and Tower Avenue intersect today and Clem Crosby built another store to the south of Wingard's.

The railroad brought access to outside markets for farm produce and timber. The railroad also brought employment. A number of local men worked providing cordwood to the Northern Pacific for their locomotives. While it brought in cash, it did not come easily. One early arrival, Abbott Townsend, remembered his dad's work: "The pay was $1.30 a cord out of that you paid 10cts for timber and from 25 to 30 cts a cord to have it hauled and in it the tools they had in those days it took a good man to have 25 or 30 cords a month" (Life in Centerville, 2).

Growth and Development

Public school opened in 1869 at Washington's old log cabin by the river. Anna Stevens, the first teacher, came west as a "Mercer Girl," one of the young female teachers brought west by Seattle resident Asa Mercer (1839-1917). A dearth of young women in the territory led Mercer to make several trips to the East Coast to recruit teachers. The school soon outgrew the cabin and the town built a one-room schoolhouse on what is now Rock Street between Cherry and Chestnut in 1875.

By the end of the 1880s newspaper articles boasted of the town's prosperity and the abundance of the resources it rested upon. Centralia, as it name became in 1883 to end the confusion with another Centerville in Eastern Washington, had coal and gold mines in nearby hills in addition to the remarkable old growth forests. In town they had hotels, shops, flourmills, shingle mills, a door factory, and sawmills. Late in the 1880s and into the 1890s the population grew from just over 300 to about 5,000. The town incorporated by an act of the legislature in 1886.

The financial panic of 1893 stopped all the economic activity short. Without logging camps producing logs, the rest of the local economy slowed. People moved away in droves, dropping the town's population to just 1,200. So few people wanted a piece of Centralia that an entire city block sold for 10 dollars.

No government assistance programs existed to help people through the hard times. George Washington, a very wealthy man even in the depression, distributed rice, flour, and sugar, bacon and lard to those who had fared less well.

Hub City

After 1898 the economy began to improve and Centralia's real boom began. The town grew to 1,600 in 1900 and to 7,311 in 1910. Railroad branch lines connected the town to outlying areas. In the early twentieth century, nearly 60 trains passed through town daily. The web of rails, rivers, and roads centered on Centralia gave the town its nickname, "Hub City."

The railroad cars filled with goods manufactured in Centralia at the turn of the century. Centralia Shingle Mills produced twenty-two million shingles in 1898. The Wooden Eave Gutter Factory produced thousands of feet of gutters daily. Mining operations extracted coal, iron, and gold. American Iron and Brass Foundry made household hardware and equipment for mills. Other manufacturers produced millwork, bottled drinks, work gloves, ice, cigars, pottery, milk, and marble products.

Labor and Logging

The 1920s brought slower growth and tensions in the logging industry. Some loggers sought to organize into unions to improve working conditions. In the Red Scare rhetoric of the day, those seeking to organize threatened the very existence of democracy in America. But the conditions in the logging camps were so dismal they left little choice for loggers except to seek outside help to improve their lot.

In Centralia the tension came to a head in 1919, after the Armistice Day parade. Members of the American Legion who had just finished marching in the parade continued on to the local Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) union hall. Shots were fired and four Legionnaires lay dead when it was over. Authorities arrested the Wobblies (as the I.W.W. members were known) and put them in the city jail.

Vigilantes returned to the jail that night and pulled one of the Wobblies, Wesley Everest (1890-1919), out of jail and took him to a bridge over the Chehalis River and hanged him. The following March, seven other Wobblies were convicted of murder in the death of one of the Legionnaires (two others were acquitted). 

From Depression to War

The Great Depression did not decimate the town as the panic of 1893 had, but times were hard. Centralia residents created their own relief fund to help members of the community. Several sawmills in town closed in 1929 and 1930 because of the slowdown in the lumber industry. Over time the abandoned mills burned down. Mills never regained their presence in Centralia after the Depression.

After World War II, Centralia remained a logging and mining town, but some new industry started up in town. In the 1960s a coal-powered steam-generation plant opened just outside of town. It provided power from coal mined nearby in the state's largest open-pit mine.

Modern Times

In the 1950s two more roads grew the web that encompassed Centralia. In 1951 the White Pass Highway crossed the Cascades and opened a direct route to Eastern Washington. The road opened markets on both sides of the mountains -- timber products went east and agricultural products came west. The road also brought tourists for skiing, hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing.

Interstate 5 bypassed downtown Centralia in 1955 and began shifting development to the freeway corridor. At the same time, the logging industry continued its steady decline, hastened by restrictions placed on logging in the 1980s to protect spotted owl habitat. Downtown Centralia reinvented itself as a historical district in the 1980s and has found new life as a shopping destination.

When the TransAlta coal mine closed in 2006, 600 people lost their jobs, but the economy had other supports to keep it afloat. Freeway-linked jobs at distribution centers and the outlet mall and in manufacturing firms provided a new avenue of growth. Centralia's central location between the large metropolitan areas around the Columbia River and Puget Sound still makes it an ideal location for commerce, ensuring the community's future.


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Note: This essay was corrected on November 6, 2014.

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