The town of Kelso, Cowlitz County, with a population in 2018 of 11,925, lies 125 miles south of Seattle and 80 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. The town was founded by Peter W. Crawford, a surveyor born near Kelso, Scotland, who immigrated to the Midwest in 1843. In 1847 he headed to Oregon Territory and registered a land claim on the Cowlitz River. In 1884, after moving to Vancouver, Washington, Crawford divided his claim into 500 lots, which he sold to create the town of Kelso, incorporated in 1890. In 1922 it became the county seat, replacing Kalama. Kelso grew quickly in the early 1900s as residents leveraged its location and natural resources. Surrounded by loggers working in the nearby hills, the town acquired a rowdy reputation and was known at one time as "Little Chicago." Besides lumber and shingle mills, Kelso thrived on fishing, particularly smelt. But when old-growth timber vanished and millions of smelt had been fished out, the town began to wane. A regional airport and Amtrak station returned some vitality, as did a historical museum, regional shopping mall, and annual Highlander Festival that celebrates the community's Scottish roots.
Kelso's Early Days
Peter W. Crawford (1819-1889) founded Kelso in 1884 on land he had claimed in 1847. His was the first legal claim in Cowlitz County. Born near Kelso, Scotland, a popular market town at the confluence of the Tweed and Teviot rivers, Crawford was trained as a surveyor. In 1843 he immigrated to the United States, first to Michigan, where he became deathly ill with malaria, and then to Indiana where he joined his brother Alexander. After teaching school and working as an accountant in Chicago, Crawford signed on to drive an ox team headed to Oregon Territory. The wagon train left Valparaiso, Indiana, in April 1847 and arrived at Switzler's Landing on the Columbia River on November 22, 1847.
With several other bachelors, Crawford made his way to the Cowlitz River by rowboat. He liked what he saw and decided to put down roots, registering his claim in Oregon City on December 25, 1847. The principal inhabitants of the area were members of the Cowlitz tribe, part of the Southwestern Coast Salish and Sahaptan peoples. In 1855 about 6,000 Cowlitz tribal members were living in longhouses in villages along the Cowlitz River, and their ancestors continue to reside there today.
Two years after Crawford reached the Cowlitz in 1847, Massachusetts-born Seth Catlin (1791-1865), his wife Agnes Redpath Catlin (1806-1885), and their children arrived there. Catlin staked his claim to land that would eventually become West Kelso (called Catlin initially) and most of downtown Longview. Like Crawford, Catlin was active in local politics and attended the Monticello Convention. Known as the Sage of Monticello, he was elected president of the upper house of Washington's first territorial legislature. Catlin died on July 25, 1865, at the age of 73 and is buried in Catlin Cemetery in Kelso.
Work and Marriage
For the next few years, Crawford traveled throughout the area, surveying the towns of Vancouver, Astoria, Milton, Oregon City, Rainier, and St. Helens, among others. Two memorable events happened in Crawford's life in 1854: he became a U.S. citizen and, at age 39, he married 19-year-old Zillah Patterson (1836-1888) in Vancouver, Washington. The couple had five children, three of whom died as young adults.
In 1881, to be closer to medical care for his invalid daughter, Crawford and his family moved to Vancouver, where he was later elected Clark County supervisor. He was also a justice of the peace and notary public, and served as one of 44 delegates to the 1852 Monticello Convention, where a group of settlers successfully petitioned the U.S. Congress to carve a new territory from land north of the Columbia River.
In 1884, Peter Crawford decided to divest himself of his long-held claim along the Cowlitz. He divided his farm into 500 lots and named the town Kelso after his Scottish roots. A man named A. E. Edlin bought the first lot for $25 and built a general store with a post office. Crawford donated lots for a Presbyterian church, a school that had 20 children enrolled when it opened in 1887, and a courthouse. By 1888 Kelso was home to about 350 people.
Kalama, Kelso, Catlin, and Longview
In 1871-1872 the Northern Pacific Railroad came to the Cowlitz Valley and built a one-track line to carry passengers and freight along the east bank of the Cowlitz between Kalama and Commencement Bay in what was then called New Tacoma. Kelso residents were ecstatic at the prospect of its economic potential, but it never materialized. In 1884 Crawford donated three-and-one-half acres to the community to build a small wooden train depot.
Near the end of the 1880s, Washington Territory petitioned to join the Union as the 42nd state, and the residents of Kelso started preparing for incorporation. Crawford resurveyed the town and registered the new plat with the auditor's office in Kalama on December 22, 1888. On May 10, 1890, 51 Kelso residents voted to incorporate; the vote was 50 to 1. Crawford did not live to see Washington become a state in November 1889. Suffering from stomach cancer, he died in Vancouver on June 10, 1889. His wife had died 11 months earlier, on July 26, 1888.
In 1908, the unincorporated town of Catlin was annexed by Kelso after a connecting bridge across the Cowlitz River was built. The area became known as West Kelso. In 1922 voters moved the seat of Cowlitz County to Kelso from Kalama, where it had been located since 1872.
In 1923, across the Cowlitz River, the company town of Longview was created by lumber baron Robert Alexander Long (1850-1934), president of the Long-Bell Lumber Company. Kelso hoped that the two towns might merge their fortunes but Longview rebuffed the offer, setting off a rivalry that would last for decades. In 2017 Longview had three times the population of Kelso and was home to several major timber-product companies and the Port of Longview.
No Shortage of Saloons
Kelso grew steadily through the early 1900s. Advertisements in The Kelsonian in 1908 listed these local establishments, among others: A pharmacy, florist, several groceries, confectioner, lime and cement business, steam laundry, engine repair, theater, mortician, plumber, and jeweler. There were up to 10 lumber and shingle mills, supplied by the seemingly endless stream of timber.
When the loggers came to town on the weekends, there were two things on their minds: liquor and women. Most of the card rooms, billiard halls, and brothels were clustered in West Kelso. Some of the early saloons were Gumm's, Gem, and the Old Corner Saloon. Strain's Hall, built in 1898, was used for parties and dances. For those who did not want to imbibe, the Luther Short Ice Cream Parlor was a popular place, but the wilder action went on for decades:
"Prostitutes and bootleg booze spawned a rough reputation for West Kelso, which became known as 'Little Chicago' during the 1930s ... From time to time, police would stage raids and arrest women, but the houses continued to operate until the 1950s, when the FBI forced the mayor to shut them down. Even then, at least one brothel, the Strand Hotel, remained open until the mid-1960s because the madam paid off police. Today, most of the old buildings that housed brothels have been torn down and Kelso's wild nights are but a distant memory" ("Four Things ...").
Through the first half of the twentieth century, Kelso's fortunes were tied to logging, but as the old-growth forests began to disappear the mills started to close. The Crescent Shingle Mill, the last one in town, was sold to pay taxes in 1962 and burned down two years later.
Smelt Capital of the World
Nestled between the Cowlitz and the Coweeman rivers, Kelso was a fishing paradise and smelt was king. This small, oily, bony fish has a distinctive odor and taste and had captured the attention of explorer Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), as noted in his journal of 1806: "I find them best when cooked Indian stile, which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden spit without any previous preparing whatever … They are so fat they require no additional source, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted" ("Dwindling Smelt Runs ...").
Smelt fishermen would stand in their boats and use long-handled dip nets to scoop up the fish. Often, one dip would pull up so many smelt that it was difficult to empty the heavy load. When the fish were running, the shoreline teemed with people fishing from the water's edge, while others waded in to reach the main mass. By the mid-1900s, Kelso was known as the smelt capital of the world. In 1952 a popular smelt-eating contest began, and each year a smelt queen, known as the Queen of the Eulachon (another name for the fish), was crowned.
In 1926, three tons of smelt fetched about $25. The fish were boxed, salted, and shipped by rail throughout the United States and across the ocean to Asia. From 1938 to 1992 the commercial harvest could be as high as 6 million pounds annually, although the average was closer to 2 million pounds per year. By 2006 that figure had dropped to 43,000 pounds, most likely because of habitat loss, climate change, and sediment from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.
The Cowlitz tribe asked the government for federal protection of the smelt, and in 2010 the fish was listed as threatened. "Today, smelt have vanished from the Sacramento River in California, the Klamath in California and Oregon and the Rogue in Oregon. The Columbia River system, including the Cowlitz, is now the last watershed south of the Canadian border with any smelt runs" ("Dwindling Smelt Runs ...").
Collapse of the Allen Street Bridge
In one of the worst bridge disasters ever seen in Washington state, the Allen Street Bridge, also known as the Kelso Bridge or the Cowlitz Bridge, collapsed in 1923. The two-lane wooden drawbridge, which opened in 1906 to connect Kelso and Catlin, had been in disrepair for months, and a replacement bridge was nearly completed (it went into service less than two months after the bridge collapse).
A month before the accident, the area had seen torrential rains, and rivers in both Washington and Oregon were at flood stage, full of logs and debris. Just minutes before 5 p.m. on January 3, 1923, mill workers were hurrying home and the bridge was jammed with pedestrians, cars, and horse-drawn wagons. Suddenly a support cable at the east end of the bridge tore loose, causing the two supporting towers and the bridge's middle span to tumble into the river.
Most of the pedestrians on the bridge scrambled to safety; even most of those who had been thrown into the water were able to reach the shore. Divers were brought in the following day to help with rescue operations, but their work was halted repeatedly because of heavy rain, followed by snow and freezing temperatures. Two bodies were recovered within days; 18 people were reported missing. Additional bodies turned up for the next 18 months. The death toll was never precisely finalized, but thought to be around 17 people.
With its riverside location and rail station, Kelso was a transportation hub for southeastern Washington. In 1912 a brick train station was built for $30,000 to replace a smaller wooden one. Amtrak started service to Kelso in 1981, and the station was remodeled in 1994 for $3.3 million. The new station was renamed the Kelso Multimodal Transportation Center and was the region's first transportation facility to offer both rail and bus service.
Kelso embraced the aviation age, as well. In May 1941, Kelso-Longview Regional Airport opened on an old dairy farm. The airport was also known as Molt Taylor Field, named for Moulton Taylor (1912-1995), inventor of the Taylor Aerocar, one of the world's first flying cars, who grew up in Kelso and lived in Longview. (Only six Aerocars were built; the design never entered production.) In 2009 the airport was renamed the Southwest Washington Regional Airport and is maintained by the cities of Kelso and Longview, as well as the Port of Longview.
In 1954, state engineers constructed a bridge across the Cowlitz River at Kelso and named it the Peter Crawford-Cowlitz Way Bridge. A new $24 million Allen Street Bridge opened on June 16, 2000.
Nation's First Skateboard Park
On April 1, 1966, Kelso unveiled the nation's first skateboard park, an undertaking so novel that it was written up in Popular Science magazine. The 600-foot plywood track was built on stilts over a cushion of sand in West Kelso at the corner of West Main Street and West Side Highway. Users were charged 50 cents an hour during the day, which went up to 75 cents an hour at night. The track was designed and built by Vern Salsbury (1933-2000), a longshoreman and Longview resident who enjoyed home-remodeling projects.
Unfortunately for Salisbury, the track was not a big money-maker and was torn down two years later. "The problem was it was wide open and you could only use it on good days in summertime ... So I think that was one of the problems that defeated it for him, was he couldn't get year-round use out of it" ("Kelso Was a Skatepark Pioneer ...")
A River of Debris
On May 18, 1980, life in Kelso and many other communities in the Pacific Northwest was dramatically altered by the eruption of Mount St. Helens, which killed 57 people and devastated a 230-square-mile area. Around noon that day, Kelso residents got word that a river of logs, sand, mud, and other debris was quickly headed their way down the Cowlitz River:
"By two o'clock, the mass could be sighted from the Cowlitz Way-Peter Crawford Bridge and the Allen Street Bridge. The crowd was moved from the bridges and told to seek high places elsewhere from which to watch. At 3:00 p.m. the bridges were closed to traffic ... Parts of house roofs, garments, a trailer house, a shed, plastic jugs, cans, even a refrigerator bounced along with the mass ... Tugboats were employed to move through the masses. Men aboard used poles and gaffs to break up jams ... A tugboat or two was sunk or overturned but with all of the potential for disasters no serious accident happened" (Summers, About Kelso ..., pp. 130-131).
On May 22, 1980, President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924), accompanied by several congressmen, arrived at the Kelso airport by helicopter from Portland. The Washington Post reported,
"A small crowd at the airport here applauded when Carter, dressed in a blue suit, tan raincoat and thick-soled work shoes, stepped off his helicopter into the cold rain. He went from the Kelso Airport to the Cascade Middle School, which is serving as an evacuation center for 47 refugees from the volcano area. The president walked through the center, chatting and shaking hands with the people gathered there" ("Carter Flies Over ...").
The East Kelso Landslide
Another natural disaster occurred in October 1998, when a large tract of land in an East Kelso development known as Aldercrest started to move downhill, ever so slowly, six to 12 inches a day. Before long the street began to buckle and house foundations cracked. The government declared the area a federal disaster site and gave homeowners a choice: take a government buyout and abandon your home, or stay and keep your fingers crossed. The residents were given four months to decide.
About 120 people moved, and more than 20 years later there is little trace of the Aldercrest development: "Nature has reclaimed the entire hillside, hiding one of the most destructive landslides in U.S. history under a cover of green. A 125-foot cliff at the top of the slide is invisible behind a lush blanket of alders, evergreens and blackberries. Almost everything has been hauled away by contractors" ("Kelso Landslide ...").
In 2018, Kelso was home to 11,925 residents and covered seven square miles. Its largest employers were in healthcare, education, and social services, followed by manufacturing and retail. The city continues to honor its Scottish roots in several ways: There's an official town tartan, and an annual Highlander Festival, started in 1982, that includes a parade of the clans, highland-dance competition, and traditional highland games. The activities are held in Tam O'Shanter Park, which at 38 acres is the city's largest recreational park. Kelso also maintains a sister-city relationship with Kelso, Scotland.
In 1949 the Cowlitz County Historical Museum, which documents the history of early life in southwest Washington, was founded. The Children's Discovery Museum is located within the town's Three Rivers Mall, the only enclosed regional shopping center in a 40-mile radius. In 2019, Kelso had two high schools (grades 9-12), two middle schools (grades 6-8) and seven elementary schools (grades K-5).