Actually, it’s where the river, railway and roadway intersect; but that’s getting a little ahead of the story.
The original inhabitants of the area were variously called The Cawalitz, Cow-a-lidsk, Cowalitsk, Cow-e-lis-kee, Cowelits, Cowlitch, Co-litsick, Kawelitsk, Cowalitsk, Kowlitz, Kowlitz; but the most common name is Cowlitz.
At the time of first contact with Europeans and Americans, there were as many as 6,000-members of the tribe who lived in cedar-plank longhouses in about 30-villages along the river and its tributaries.
In the Lewis and Clark journals, Lewis and Clark refer to the river as “Cath la haws Creek” (1805,) while Ordway calls the river “Calams” and Whitehouse calls the river “Calamus” (1806.)
The river is a 45-mile tributary of the Columbia River, in the state of Washington. It begins on the southwest slope of Mt. St. Helens and flows west-southwest and enters the Columbia River.
While steep in its upper reaches, at the lower 8-miles it is flat to moderate. At the mouth, there’s a town. The town’s motto is “The Little Town with the Big Aloha Spirit.”
The town is named after the river; the river is named after a Hawaiian, John Kalama.
John Kalama was born in Kula, Maui in 1814; he left home at sixteen to seek employment. John joined a fur-trading vessel returning to the Northwest Coast of America.
Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) records indicate Kalama started working there in 1837, and continued working for the firm until 1850. He worked at several of the HBC posts, Nez Perces, Snake Party, Nisqually, Fort Vancouver and Cowlitz Farm.
HBC was a fur trading company that started in Canada in 1670; its first century of operation found HBC firmly focused in a few forts and posts around the shores of James and Hudson Bays, Central Canada.
Fast forward 150-years and HBC merged with North West Company, its competitor; the resulting enterprise now spanned the continent – all the way to the Pacific Northwest (modern-day Oregon, Washington and British Columbia) and the North (Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.)
Fur traders working for the HBC traveled an area of more than 700,000-square miles that stretched from Russian Alaska to Mexican California and from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
Ships sailed from London around Cape Horn around South America and then to forts and posts along the Pacific Coast via the Hawaiian Islands. Trappers crossing overland faced a journey of 2,000-miles that took three months.
By 1824, HBC employed thirty-five Hawaiians west of the Rocky Mountains. It is estimated that by 1844 between 300 and 400-Hawaiians were in HBC service in the Pacific Northwest, both in vessels and at posts. By 1846, Hawaiians made up half of the Hudson’s Bay workforce.
Hawaiians worked as trappers, laborers, millers, sailors, gardeners and cooks; however, HBC employed more people at agriculture than any other activity.
The daily routine was work from sun up to sun down, with only Sundays off. Kalama’s service record notes he was employed as a Middleman and Laborer.
Kalama met and married Mary Martin, one of five daughters of Indian Martin, chief of the Nisqually tribe in southern Puget Sound. He and his wife lived at the mouth of the river which now bears his name, the Kalama River (Calama River is an old variant name.)
He hunted, fished and trapped for many years, and the area soon became recognized as his domain. (The Kalama family also once owned land where Fort Lewis now stands.)
John and Mary had one son, Peter Kalama, born in 1860. When Peter was about seven years old, Mary died and Peter went to live with other members of the Nisqually tribe. Peter graduated at the top of his class at Chemawa Indian School. (Naughton)
John Kalama married a second time and had a daughter, but there are no other records of this second child. John died around 1870. (KalamaCofC)
The town on the river was first settled in 1853 by Ezra Meeker and his family. One year later, Meeker moved to north Puyallup, Washington, but he sold his Donation Land Claim to a Mr. Davenport, who, with a few others, permanently settled in the area.
The present day City of Kalama was born in 1870 when the Northern Pacific Railway Company (NP) purchased 700-acres for the terminus of the new railroad and turned the first shovel of dirt.
The town was officially named in 1871 by General John Sprague, an agent for the Northern Pacific; Sprague adopted the same name as the Kalama River that runs through the area just to the north of town. (KalamaCofC)
Near the present day location of the Kalama Marina, the Northern Pacific Railroad began construction of the first mainline rails in the northwestern United States on March 19, 1871; Northern Pacific established its headquarters in Kalama (the headquarters was later moved to Tacoma.)
This western rail would ultimately connect with work started on February 15, 1870 near Carlton, Minnesota, creating a transcontinental line across the northern portion of the United States.
Kalama was selected because Northern Pacific engineers determined it was down-river from winter river ice, the Columbia River channel depth was the same as at the river’s bar at Astoria, and it was close to Portland and the Willamette Valley.
Since the Columbia was the main ‘highway,’ this area became more closely tied economically with Portland and Astoria. The first regularly scheduled trains between Kalama and Tacoma began January 5, 1874.
Kalama was entirely a Northern Pacific railroad creation. Northern Pacific built a dock, sawmill, car shop, roundhouse, turntable, hotels, hospital, stores and homes.
In just a few months into 1870, the working population exploded to approximately 3,500 and the town had added tents, saloons, a brewery, and a gambling hall. Soon the town had a motto: “Rail Meets Sail”.
The population of Kalama peaked at 5,000 people, but in early 1874, the railroad moved its headquarters to Tacoma, and by 1877, only 700 people remained in Kalama.
It’s now home to about 2,500 (in town and about 5,500 in the surrounding area.) Kalama is also home to one of the tallest single-log totem poles in the world (140-feet tall,) carved by Chief Lelooska.
River and Railway: check … what about the Road?
Interstate 5 (I-5) runs through Kalama, with 3-exits serving the town and surrounding community (I-5 runs from Mexico to Canada.)
Its path follows an old Indian trail connecting the Pacific Northwest with California’s Central Valley. By the 1820s, trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company were the first non-Native Americans to use the route of today’s I-5.