The city has the brisk air of a small metropolis, compact with stores and business blocks. The industries of the town are assembled along the highway, paralleling the Cowlitz River.
In 1847 the founder, Peter Crawford, a surveyor from Kelso, Scotland, took up a land claim in what is now the northeast section of the town. It was on the main artery of travel between Vancouver and the Puget Sound country; many pioneers on their way north stopped here, and, attracted by the rich bottomland along the river and the timbered hills, decided to go no farther. Gradually, a settlement took form, and in 1884 Crawford platted a townsite, naming it Kelso for his home town in Scotland. Logging on the forested slopes made Kelso an important lumber center, and the town spread west across the river and absorbed the villages of Freeport and Catlin, which now constitute West Kelso.
Kelso was known as “little Chicago” early in its history because of the large number of taverns and whorehouses that catered to local loggers. The economy continues to be based largely on wood products. After the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, many areas of the city were built on volcanic ash that was dredged from the Cowlitz River from the mudflow caused by the volcano’s eruption.