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Cowlitz County was one of the original counties of Washington Territory. Logging and milling have historically been the big part of the county's economy until the latter part of the twentieth century. A lumber mill led directly to the planned community of Longview, named after lumberman R. A. Long (1850-1934).

The original inhabitants of the lands drained by the Cowlitz River 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. The Upper Cowlitz, or Taidnapam, and Lewis River peoples spoke Sahaptin, which was more closely related to the languages of tribes east of the Cascades. The Mountain and Lower Cowlitz spoke Salish, which was related to the tribes of Puget Sound. 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 Cowlitz River and its tributaries.

Closer to the Columbia, the people known as the Chinooks lived. This tribeís economy and culture was oriented more toward the river whereas the Cowlitz was more an inland people whose lives centered on prairies and horses. All the tribes used the Chinook trade jargon. In 1855, the Cowlitz refused to sign the Chehalis River Treaty then being imposed on other tribes by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), since it would require the tribe to move in with traditional enemies on the Quinault Reservation. A small number of members who survived deadly diseases contracted from settlers moved to the Chehalis and Yakima (later renamed Yakama) reservations. Although landless and treatyless, the tribe continued to exist under strong leadership into the twentieth century. The Cowlitz today are a federally recognized tribe with headquarters in Longview.

The first Europeans to visit the county were British seafarers. Permanent settlers arrived from the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) at Fort Vancouver in 1825, and the first white man credited with ascending the Cowlitz River was HBC Factor George Simpson in 1828. In 1837, Canadian Simon Plamondon established Cowlitz Farms to support company operations and as a settlement for HBC employees who had completed their work contracts. In August 1841, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes traveled down the river as part of the U.S. Exploring Expedition and he used Mount Coffin to make astronomical observations. One of Wilkesís campfires accidentally destroyed the burial canoes on the rock.

The first American to settle in the future Cowlitz County was Scotsman Peter W. Crawford (1822-1889), who took a Donation Claim on the left bank of the Cowlitz near the mouth of the Coweeman on December 25, 1847. In 1884, he platted a city on the site, which he named after his home in Scotland, Kelso. Other settlers took up claims across the Cowlitz and farmed the bottomland. They formed the communities of Freeport, Catlin, and Monticello.

River steamers serviced settlements up the Cowlitz as far as Monticello, where travelers took to canoes or a trail that followed the river. Since the Columbia was the main highway, the county became more closely tied economically with Portland and Astoria than with the rest of Washington Territory. In 1872, the Northern Pacific started building a branch of the transcontinental railroad from Kalama through Kelso north to Tacoma. Regular service began in 1874. Travelers took a ferry from Kalama to Portland until the transcontinental railroad was complete in the 1880s. Aside from agriculture, logging became the principal industry of the county, particularly after mechanization in the 1880s. Rivers provided easy movement of logs and ocean-going ships could load finished lumber at mills.

In 1919, Kansas City lumberman Robert Alexander Long's Long-Bell Lumber Co. purchased stands of timber in Cowlitz County from Weyerhaeuser and he made plans for a large mill to process logs for the domestic and foreign markets. The mouth of the Cowlitz River offered both rail connections and deep water for ships. Long spent $2.6 million in 1922 to buy up 14,000 acres consisting of 245 separate pieces of property for the mill and for a community where the 4,000 workers and their families -- an estimated population of 12,000 to 15,000 persons -- could live. With guidance from his friend, Kansas City developer J. C. Nichols, Long embarked on the planned community of Longview. Among the names considered were Long-Bell and Longport, but all featured the name Long. Longview was Long's final choice. But since there was already a Long View, Washington, the Post Office Department rejected the planners' application for a post office. Long-Bell representatives convinced the three families of Long View, a desolate flag stop on the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad, to petition the Post Office Department to change its name. The community's price: $25 for a covered platform to protect mail sacks thrown from passing trains.

Longview grew around paved streets and the new Monticello Hotel. National magazines featured full-page advertisements. Sadly, in January 1923, during the process of construction, one evening while many workers were returning home from work to the nearby Kelso, the Allen Street Bridge collapsed in the state's worst bridge disaster, with at least 35 deaths. Nearby a new bridge was in the process of being built. It opened in March and the town of Longview was dedicated in July. By December 1923, there were 3,724 inhabitants. It was the largest community in the county.

Cowlitz County has experienced its share of natural disasters, mostly floods, which visited the lowlands almost annually. The most significant high water events were in 1867, which destroyed Monticello, two in 1933, and one all along the Columbia in 1948. The earthquake of 1949 did some damage and the Columbus Day windstorm of 1962 left trees and wires down and destroyed houses and barns. The roof of the R. A. Long High School grandstand ended up downwind. Weyerhaeuser estimated that more timber blew down than it could harvest in two years.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens (in neighboring Skamania County) on May 18, 1980, sent a 200-foot-thick lahar (flow of melted ice and snow, mud, and debris) flow down the Toutle River Valley into the Cowlitz. Roads and bridges disappeared along with any structures and vehicles in the way. The pyroclastic flows were so dramatic that the bottom of the Cowlitz silted up, raising the river 12 feet. Sediment also filled the Columbia, preventing ships for reaching or leaving Portland for more than a week. The landslide preceding the eruption buried Spirit Lake and the blast killed vegetation as far away as 23 miles. A total of 57 people died. The event had the unexpected consequence of producing a tourist attraction that brought business to the county.

Interstate 5 opened in the 1960s and Woodland became a bedroom community for Portland. In 2003, the county had approximately 94,900 residents.


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