Kalama (“pretty maiden”), is on a narrow flat at the confluence of the Columbia and Kalama Rivers. It began in 1853 when Ezra Meeker, noted pioneer, arrived and built a cabin near the present townsite. Leaving his wife and son here for a time, he continued north with his brother to locate land claims in the Puget Sound country.
Although numerous claims were settled along the Columbia and Kalama Rivers in the succeeding decades, the town did not come into being until 1870, when the Northern Pacific Railway selected a point within the district from which to begin construction northward to Puget Sound. On February 15, 1870, the Northern Pacific broke ground for the line, and soon 750 Chinese and 500 other laborers were employed. The town boomed.
A ferry across the Columbia River to Goble transported trains to Oregon. General J. W. Sprague of the Northern Pacific in 1871 named the town for the Kalama River. From 1872 it was the seat of Cowlitz County, until the election of 1932 transferred the seat to Kelso. Kalama’s strategic importance as a rail and water terminal was ended in 1887 when the Northern Pacific completed its main line across the Cascades to Puget Sound; the branch line was then built south from Kalama to Portland, Oregon. The misfortune of the town was crowned soon after by a fire, which destroyed 25 buildings. However, the long deepwater harbor adjoining the railroad aided in keeping it a shipping point, and Kalama proclaims itself the city “Where Rail Meets Water.” By the 1940s, within the radius of one block there were a port dock, the deepest on the Columbia River, three transcontinental railroads, and a US highway.
Kalama remains a typical river town; its main thoroughfare, First Street, follows the river bank, from which the residential section rises steeply. Through the 1940s sawmills and the Kalama Port Dock accounted for most of its income. Strawberries were an important crop on surrounding farms, and the Cloverdale-Lewis Co-operative Berry Association packed and shipped annually 3,000 barrels of berries at their plant at the Kalama Port Dock. The sub-irrigated soil of the district was particularly suited to commercial mint raising.
There was also substantial salmon fishing in the Columbia River at this point through the 1940s, and a fish company shipped annually 600,000 pounds of frozen fish to Europe. Caviar, packed in glass jars, was also exported. The fish business here was started by C. A. Doty, a Northern Pacific branch agent with diversified interests. Ordered by the railroad company to choose between his job and his other enterprises, he resigned from the Northern Pacific and devoted his time to the fishing industry.
Today, people from all over flock to Kalama for its famous Chinook, steelhead, and sturgeon fishing. When summer swings around people take to the waters of the Columbia and Kalama rivers. Stop and visit the world’s tallest totem pole or take do some antique shopping in what is touted as one of the Northwest’s “biggest antique districts.”