Yacolt -- Thumbnail History

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 3/14/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9329
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Yacolt in north-central Clark County takes its name from "Yalicolb," a Klickitat word for "haunted place." The town of fewer than 1,500 residents lies in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, about 32 miles southwest of Mount St. Helens and 22 miles northeast of the county seat of Vancouver. The area was a gathering place where local Klickitat and Cowlitz tribal members met and traded with tribes from the coast and from east of the Cascades. The first homesteaders in the Yacolt area, the Eaton family, arrived in 1873. The next recorded settlers did not appear until 1887, and a count in early 1902 showed only 50 residents and 15 buildings. The "Yacolt Burn" of that same year, until 2014 the largest forest fire recorded in the state, brought a temporary boost to the economy when the town became the center of a massive timber-salvage operation. An influx of workers and the coming of the railroad encouraged the filing of the first plat in 1903, and the town voted to incorporate in 1908. The burst of prosperity did not last, and over subsequent decades Yacolt see-sawed between growing very slowly or losing population. It was 1990 before the town saw any significant influx of new residents, many of whom came to enjoy the natural beauty and rural lifestyle of Yacolt, while commuting to jobs in larger towns a short drive away.

Cowlitz and Klickitat

While the western reaches of Southwest Washington were long occupied by Chinook peoples, the inland areas, including what is now central Clark County, were dominated by the Cowlitz and Klickitat tribes. At their peak, the Cowlitz inhabited an area of 2.4 million acres and were divided into two main groups -- the Upper Cowlitz and the Lower Cowlitz. The Lower Cowlitz, of the Salishan-language group, ranged from near the banks of the Columbia in present-day Clark County to as far north as Mossyrock, in present-day Lewis County. The first record of contact with Westerners was in 1811, when explorers from John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company met a small group of Lower Cowlitz a short distance up the Cowlitz River from the Chinook burial ground of Coffin Mountain at present-day Longview. (Coffin Mountain no longer exists, having been leveled during the development of Longview.) Two years later, trappers from the Northwest Company also traveled up the Cowlitz river and encountered members of the tribe.

The Klickitat had originated near the Rocky Mountains to the east, but many had been driven west by the aggressive Cayuse tribe. Some crossed the Cascade Range, where they mixed with the Cowlitz and became known as the Western Klickitat. Both they and the Cowlitz relied for sustenance on fishing, hunting, and gathering fruits and root vegetables. The Klickitat were also known as exceptional horsemen.

Both tribes were also active traders, bartering everything from dried berries to slaves. The Klickitat, having tribal connections on both sides of the Cascades, especially prospered as intermediaries between the coast tribes and those living east of the mountains. Cowlitz women were admired for their skill in weaving watertight baskets of beautiful and intricate design.

The epidemics that ravaged Northwest Indian tribes in the 1820s and 1830s took a heavy toll on the Cowlitz and the Klickitat, although the Klickitat population was not as decimated as most others, probably because its members had less exposure to Westerners. In 1806, Lewis and Clark estimated the Klickitat population at 700-800, and the federal census of 1910 put their surviving number at 410, a serious loss, but far less devastating than the near-total destruction of many other tribes. But the identifiable Klickitat population plummeted later in the twentieth century, probably due to intermarriage with other tribes, and with the Yakamas in particular. In 1970, there were only 21 identified Klickitats remaining in Washington state, several of whom lived on the Yakama reservation.

Disease cut a wider swath through the Cowlitz people, but they proved more resilient as a tribe. An 1887 count put the Cowlitz population at only 127, a steep decline from the more than 1,000 estimated earlier in the century. In recent times this number has increased to more than 1,600, largely because the tribe has accepted as members those with one-sixteenth or more Cowlitz blood. After many decades of trying, the Cowlitz received final federal recognition as a tribe in 2002, and since that time new tribal enrollment has been restricted to newborns of existing members. Despite federal recognition, the tribe remains landless, its efforts to obtain a reservation at least temporarily shackled by bureaucracy and court decisions.

The Origin of "Yacolt"

The name "Yacolt" is derived from a Klickitat word that has the general import of "a haunted place." There are at least four irreconcilable accounts of how it came to carry that unpromising name. The one most often repeated holds that a group of Indian children who were gathering berries at the site disappeared into thin air, never to be seen again. It was assumed, consistent with Native-American beliefs, that they had been taken away by evil spirits.

Another account replaces the children with a beautiful and love-struck Indian maiden, who wandered into the woods and disappeared forever after her father rejected the suitor of her choice.

A third version, which blends elements of the first two, was passed on in 1901 by J. P. Banzer, an early settler:

"This is as it was told to me by an Indian and perhaps as told to him by his father or grandfather, for they had no written history and stories were handed down from father to son. This section where we are now sitting was, in the long ago and even in my time, a spot where wild strawberries and blueberries grew in abundance. The Klickitat Indians claimed the field and made their annual pilgrimage here to gather berries. On one occasion they found a number of Wilamie Indians, as they called them. A fight started and all the Wilamies were massacred, as they thought, but an Indian girl escaped. The next year, when the Klickitats returned, they heard someone singing the Wilamie death song and saw a maiden disappear in the distance. Several times they heard her sing. They said she was a spirit, the ghost of her people. The word 'spirit' in Indian tongue is Yacolt and that is the Indian version of the naming of this territory" (Trail Breakers, p. 61).

Yet a fourth explanation, and one that likely has its roots in common superstitions, is that portions of the town were built atop an Indian burial ground. In any case, "Yalicolb," the Klickitat word from which Yacolt is derived, was used by the Indians to describe the surrounding area long before Euro-Americans arrived, and the ominous name, however derived, did not seem to deter them from going there.

The First Settlers

When Joseph and Charlotte Eaton settled in the Yacolt area in 1873, it was the last stop for a family that had trekked across the plains from Wisconsin in 1852, homesteaded a donation land claim on the Lewis River the following year, then lost all they had built over 20 years in an 1873 flood. They decided to leave their Lewis River claim and moved to a new homestead on Rock Creek, just to the south of present-day Yacolt, where they became the first documented non-Indian settlers in the area.

Joseph Eaton opened a post office in his home in 1876, which he named Yacolt. Since the Eatons apparently had no neighbors for the next 11 years, it must have been a very leisurely operation. The arrival in 1887 of a family identified only as the Garners, who homesteaded 160 acres about a mile away, was to muddle the postal situation and cause a years-long disagreement over what to call the new community.

For some reason, Mr. Garner, who was known to have had five children, also opened a post office in his home, which he named after himself. The result was two post offices, with two different names, just a mile apart, serving what was clearly a very small population -- perhaps only three or four families. Understandably, this led to some confusion.

As towns and their post offices most always had the same name, for the next eight years the area around present-day Yacolt was known as either Yacolt or Garner, the choice perhaps depending on where one picked up one's mail. The dual, and dueling, post offices eventually caught the attention of federal postal authorities, and the Garner branch was deemed redundant in 1895 and forced to close. However, it appears from most sources that people in the area, with divided loyalties, continued to refer to the small community by one name or the other, and this would continue for another decade.

Records are scarce, but the names of a few other settlers appear in accounts of the Yacolt area in its earliest years. There were Fred and Horatio Fargher (sometimes spelled Farghuar or Farrgar) who immigrated from the Isle of Wight and were known to have sold land in the Yacolt area to some early settlers. Fargher Lake (now dry), located about five miles due west of Yacolt, is named for them. In 1891 or early 1892, Charles C. Landon (1854?-1953) and his wife, Catherine O'Brien Landon (1864?-1936), arrived from the Boston area. They homesteaded 160 acres in 1895 and a few years later divided it into 16 lots, which they sold to newcomers for homesites. This plat later became downtown Yacolt. The Landons had no children, and Catherine died at age 72 in 1936. Charles lived in the town until his death in 1953 at the age of 99.

Shortly after arriving in Yacolt, Charles Landon wrote to James Monroe McCutchen (1835-1922), the husband of Mary Landon McCutchen (1854-1924), who is believed to have been Landon's cousin. He urged him to move with his family to Yacolt from their hardscrabble ranch in Mound Valley, Nevada. In April 1892 James, Mary, and their eight children packed up and headed north. (James McCutchen's uncle, William McCutchen, had been one of the few survivors of the ill-fated Donner party of 1846-1847.) Stopping along the way to winter over, and to earn money, the family took nearly three years to complete its trek, but finally arrived in Yacolt in the fall of 1894.

Details on early life in Yacolt are hard to come by, but the experiences of the McCutchens were no doubt fairly typical. What they found at Yacolt was a small community of six families, including the Eatons and the Landons. With the addition of the large McCutchen brood, there were enough children to justify a school. One of the settlers donated land, and volunteers quickly built a schoolhouse. When the donor sold off his land just a short time later, it was learned that the property had never been legally transferred to the school. The new owner ousted the children and took over their schoolhouse as a residence.

Another family then donated a building to be used temporarily as the school and for the newly arrived McCutchen family's use as a home until they could build their own. Mary McCutchen taught classes in her living room in the winter of 1894, but turned the teaching duties over to others once their own first house was completed the following spring. A new one-room schoolhouse was built in 1895 on land donated by the McCutchen family from their homestead, and James McCutchen was elected to the town's first school board. A family named the Coles ran a dairy farm next to the school and provided fresh milk for the children's lunches.

James eventually built a large home to house his large brood, and the family raised beef and horses on a 300-acre ranch. In 1913 he and Mary donated the land for the Yacolt Cemetery. Sadly, in 1917 their youngest son, John Calvin "Cal" McCutchen (1888-1917) became the first family member to be buried there after he was killed in a logging accident. Another son was to die in the same manner, and two others were injured while plying that dangerous trade. Members of the McCutchen family have lived in Yacolt for five generations, and at least one descendant of James and Mary lives there today (2010).

Into the Fire: The Yacolt Burn

Over three blazing days in September 1902, the largest forest fire in recorded state history to that point (and for more than a century thereafter, until surpassed in July 2014 by the Carlton Complex fire in Okanogan County) raged through 350 square miles of Clark, Cowlitz, and Skamania counties. The inferno reached the very edge of Yacolt, then turned north, largely sparing the townsite proper but destroying nearby homes and buildings. Before rains doused the blaze on September 13, it had taken 38 human lives, killed countless wild and domestic animals, and destroyed at least $30 million worth of lumber (at 1902 prices). Yacolt's close call was noted in Burning an Empire: The Story of American Forest Fires, written in 1945:

"The fire tore down the hill and paint began to blister on the fifteen buildings that comprised Yacolt. Some of the elder folk looked at the spectacle and said it was the end of the world, sure enough. The entire population went to a near-by creek and stayed there all night. Next morning they found Yacolt blistered here and there, but intact. The main fire had stopped less than half a mile from the settlement and had been hot enough to make paint run from that distance" (Holbrook, Burning an Empire).

In fact, the entire population did not flee to a nearby creek. The Coles, who owned the dairy farm next to the school, buried their valuables, bundled up their children, and fled on horseback to Camas on the Columbia River, some 20 miles to the south.

There were other dramatic accounts of those three days of terror. Frank E. Barnes, a former state senator from Cowlitz County, recalled just how far the impact of the inferno could be felt:

"The smoke darkened the sun, so that, although we were fully one hundred miles distant we had to use lights to run our mill and the chickens went to roost in daytime. All day, leaves would come floating through the air and light on the lake. When touched they dissolved into ashes. Many people believed the world was coming to an end. There were many funerals for victims of the fire" (Told by the Pioneers).

The fire was devastating, and at least 148 families lost their homes, including the McCutchens. In its aftermath, the largest timber company in the world was forced to rewrite its business plan, and this in turn started a years-long boom in Yacolt.

Out of the Ashes: Weyerhaeuser and the Railroad

In 1900, Frederick Weyerhaeuser and 15 partners bought 900,000 acres of prime Washington state timberland from the Northern Pacific Railway. At first the company was not interested in logging per se, but only in acquiring forested land and selling standing timber to local manufacturers, who would then arrange for its harvest. In the course of three days, the Yacolt Burn forced the company to remake itself.

Vast areas of Weyerhaeuser timberland were raked by the blaze, and tens of thousands of fir, cedar, and hemlock trees were left charred and dead. But under their blackened exteriors, most of the trees could still provide quality lumber. The company couldn't wait for others to come in and salvage the timber, and it quickly set up headquarters in Yacolt to do the job itself. Weyerhaeuser opened two subsidiaries in Yacolt, the Clark County Timber Company and the Twin Falls Logging Company, to manage the massive operation. Hundreds of loggers were brought in to carry out the exceptionally dirty and dangerous work, which was to take the better part of 10 years to complete. This is how, and why, the Weyerhaeuser Company moved from the property-ownership business to the logging businesses.

Just as the Yacolt Burn pushed the company to change, so it pulled Yacolt into the twentieth century. The small community of only 50 people and 15 buildings became, for so long as the salvage operation went on, a modest boom town. And it had some luck, too -- even before the fire, the Portland, Vancouver and Yakima Railroad was working feverishly to extend its tracks from Battle Ground to Yacolt, and the link was completed in 1903. This allowed the salvaged timber to be transported by rail all the way to lumber and paper mills in Vancouver and at other sites along the Columbia River.

Late in 1903 the railroad, now known as the Northern Pacific, started a once-daily passenger service from Battle Ground to Yacolt. As more people came to the small town hoping to land work on the salvage operation, a Vancouver newspaper, the Independent, was enthusiastic about the region's future:

"Keep your eye on Yacolt and Battle Ground. Both of these little towns are now experiencing booms that are almost phenomenal. During the past month there has been quite a movement in real estate in both places and a number of new buildings have been erected. The booms in both towns are occasioned by the increase in the logging business. The Columbia River Lumber Company have just established three camps on a spur near Battle Ground and in the Yacolt Country preparations are being made for an extensive logging business" ("History of the CPRR").

Yacolt was to prosper for several years, until the salvage operation was completed. With progress came both problems and opportunities. As early as 1903, applications to open two saloons in the previously dry town were submitted. There was at first no available housing for the influx of workers, and many had to live in tents. On the plus side, hotels, stores, restaurants, and churches eventually were built, and Weyerhaeuser provided the town with a hospital. In 1906 a two-story school was built to educate the influx of children, and by 1908 Yacolt's population had reached 500. Residents then voted to incorporate their town, and the first council meeting was held on July 31 of that year.

Things were going well in Yacolt. A 1909 article in The Coast magazine had this to say:

"Platted in 1903 and incorporated into a city in 1908 with a population of about 500, Yacolt today is a thriving and fast growing little city, with all branches of business represented. A large area of prosperous country surrounds the city, and farming, dairying, fruit raising and logging is carried on extensively. It is safe to say that near and around Yacolt there is standing timber amounting to a billion feet, and most of it is of the finest quality, yellow and red fir, cedar and larch predominating.

"Here is the headquarters of the Twin Falls Logging Company, one of the largest logging operators in the state, having twenty-five miles of logging roads and a monthly capacity of about 10,000,000 feet. It employs over 300 men, and its monthly payroll is about $25,000.

"Most of the soil, except on the rocky ridges, is fertile and the logged over lands are well adapted for fruit raising and grazing; vegetables of all kinds and of the best quality can also be raised" (The Coast magazine).

This view proved overly optimistic. Nothing lasts forever, and this is particularly true of natural resources. Yacolt's days of prosperity would soon draw to a close, its growth would stop, and it would slowly slide into reverse.

The Lean Decades

Yacolt made the most of its time in the sun, but even the vast, burned-over timber resource was finite, and salvage operations were completed by 1910. Green-timber logging continued until 1929, and then it petered out as well. On December 4, 1929, George S. Long, Weyerhaeuser's general manager, announced that the Clark County Timber Company would be closing its operations in the Yacolt area. His assessment of Yacolt's future was bleak:

"At Yacolt we have two or three worn out buildings, all vacant and without any perceptible value whatever, these including an old warehouse, a residence formerly occupied by our logging Superintendent, a hospital building, which has been robbed of much of its equipment, and one or two very small buildings of no value, in fact none of them have any value today for Yacolt is absolutely dead with no promise for a future life" ("History of the CPRR").

Just as The Coast magazine's outlook was too optimistic, Long's prognosis was too dire by half. True, Yacolt's population plummeted from 520 in 1920 to 295 in 1930. And by 1940 the Northern Pacific was running only one train a week to Yacolt, where the population had dwindled even further, falling to 207. But that was to be the low-water mark. The little town held on, and in the following decades it started to make small but measurable progress toward recovery.

Coming Back

One thing that kept Yacolt alive during the hungry years was the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal's Depression-era jobs program for the country's army of unemployed. From 1933 to 1941, the Corps planted seedlings in the Yacolt Burn area, built telephone lines and lookouts, and cleared snags to create fire breaks against further conflagrations, which were not at all uncommon.

In the last half of the twentieth century, the town of Yacolt slowly returned to some semblance of, if not prosperity, at least normality. By 1950 the population had rebounded, increasing to 411. Many people farmed, some had orchards or berry farms, a few still worked in what was left of the area's logging industry, and others ran dairies or raised beef cattle. People made do, and made it through. Population growth remained slow, however, and the total count for Yacolt in the 1980 federal census was just 544.

But then things changed. As commuting became a more acceptable option to many working people, the bucolic ambience of smaller rural communities like Yacolt drew many away from the cities. By 2000, the town's population had grown to 1,055, a near-100 percent increase from the count 20 years earlier. The estimated population as of April 2009 was 1,470, on track to nearly double again within a few years. But challenges do remain. The planned closure of the Larch Mountain Correctional Facility threatens to cost Yacolt up to 170 jobs, and work crews from that facility have been of great help to the town, putting  in 640 hours in 2009 alone helping out on local projects.

Despite some setbacks, things certainly aren't all bad in Yacolt today (2010). The town continues to benefit from its proximity to the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area. It has its own primary school, which is part of the Battle Ground School District, and in 2010 it opened a new town hall. And the railroad is back. Renamed the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad and operated by volunteers, the line runs a vintage steam locomotive pulling tourists on a 10-mile ride from Yacolt to the Lewis River valley.

These are challenging times for many towns and cities, and for the people who live in them, but Yacolt has seen worse. It survived the largest forest fire in the history of the state, made it through the darkest days of the Depression, and fought its way back from near extinction when its population fell by half over a 20-year span. Having weathered all that, there is no doubt that Yacolt, the smallest incorporated town in Clark County, will be around for a very long time to come.

Sources: Helen McCutchen Buell Whitworth, "The McCutchen Homestead," McCutchen Family Northwest website accessed February 23, 2010 (http://mccutchennorthwest.com/house.html); Helen McCutchen Buell Whitworth, "Yacolt, Early Years," McCutchen Family Northwest website accessed February 23, 2010 (http://mccutchennorthwest.com/yacolt.html); Told by the Pioneers: Reminiscences of Pioneer Life in Washington, Vol. 3, ed. by F. I. Trotter,  F. H.  Loutzenhiser, and J. R.  Loutzenhiser (Washington Pioneer Project: W. P. A. Sponsored Federal Project No. 5841, 1935), 109; Robert H. Ruby, John Arthur Brown,  A Guide to the Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest, revised ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 69-71, 95-96; Jefferson Davis, Ghosts and Strange Critters of Washington and Oregon (Vancouver, Washington: Norseman Ventures Press, 1999); "The History of the CPRR," Chelatchie Prairie Railroad website accessed February 25, 2010 (http://www.bycx.com/cprrhistory.htm); Clark County Population and Economic Handbook, Appendix (2005), "Yacolt," Clark County website accessed February 22, 2010 (http://www.clark.wa.gov/recycle/documents/SWMP/SWMP08/Appendix%20H-12%20Report%20Appendix.pdf); "Yacolt, Washington," The Coast magazine, Vol. 17, No. 4 (April 1909), p. 280; Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1923), 354; "History,"  Weyerhaeuser Company website accessed February 28, 2010 (http://www.weyerhaeuser.com/Company/CorporateAffairs/1900); "Gifford Pinchot National Forest Centennial 1908-2008," United States Forest Service website accessed February 22, 2010 (http://www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/04maps/documents/final-centennial-tear-map-back-5-14-2008.pdf); "Town of Yacolt," Municipal Research and Services Center of Washingotn website accessed February 22, 2010 (http://www.mrsc.org/cityprofiles/cityprofile.aspx?id=262); "History,"  Town of Yacolt website accessed February 22, 2010 (http://townofyacolt.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=18&Itemid=11); "Fargher Lake History," Lewis River website accessed February 24, 2010 (http://www.lewisriver.com/fargherlake/history/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington  State History, "Yacolt Burn, largest forest fire in recorded Washington history to that point, rages from September 11 to September 13, 1902" (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 14, 2014); Margaret Herring and Sarah Greene, "Forest of Time: Research at the Wind River Experimental Forest: 1908–1919," Forest History Society website accessed February 26, 2010 (http://fhsnb.oit.duke.edu/Publications/FHT/FHTSpringFall2001/herring.pdf); Clark Brown, "The Legend of How Yacolt Got Its Name," Trail Breakers magazine (Clark County Historical Society), Vol. 34, July 2007-June2008, pp. 60-62; "The Dispossessed: The Cowlitz Indians in Cowlitz Corridor," The Columbian, Summer, 1994, reprinted with permission on Cowlitz Tribe website accessed February 23, 2010 (http://www.cowlitz.org/history/dispossessed.html); Rudolph C. Ryser, "Cowlitz Tribe," Center for World Indigenous Studies website accessed February 25, 2010 (http://cwis.org/cowlitz.html); "Mount Coffin," Columbia River Images website accessed February 25, 2010 (http://columbiariverimages.com/Regions/Places/mount_coffin.html); "Washington's 'Awful Coflagration' -- The Yacolt Fire of 1902," Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website accessed February 26, 2010 (http://wildfirelessons.net/documents/Washingtons_Aweful_ Conflageration_The_Yacolt_Fire_of_1902_FMT_Vol65_1.pdf); "Yacolt Cemetery Pictures," Rootsweb website accessed February 27, 2010 (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~waclacem/Yacolt/p29.htm); Helen McCutchen Buell Whitworth emails to John Caldbick, February 28, 2010 and March 1, 2010, in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, Washington.
Note: This essay was revised and updated on November 14, 2014.

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