Historic Stops on the Chehalis and Willapa Rivers and the Highway to Willapa Bay
Centralia, the busy trading center of Lewis County, was settled in the 1850s. First called Skookumchuck for the nearby river, it was changed to Centerville when the town was platted in 1875. This caused confusion with a Klickitat County town that already had the same name, so in 1884 it was given its present name to honor Centralia, Illinois.
A downtown park on Pearl Street between Main and Locust marks land homesteaded in 1852 by George Washington, an African American pioneer settler with an epic story of perseverance in a culture of prejudice. Borst Park, just west of Interstate 5 Exit 82, is named for homesteader James Borst. The park features the historic Borst Blockhouse and the Borst Home, a pioneer residence built in 1857.
Follow Harrison Avenue and Main Street east into downtown Centralia. Main Street USA is in full effect between Pearl and Tower Avenue, complete with hanging flower boxes. Stone and brick buildings sport large, colorful murals depicting local history. Several house antique malls. Pleasant, old residential districts lie north and west of the business district.
Four miles south on I-5 is Centralia’s twin city, Chehalis. Originally called Saundersville, the town was renamed in 1879 for a Native American word meaning “shifting and shining sands,” descriptive of the sandbars in its namesake river and the village at present-day Westport. Today, the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation — through which the Chehalis River flows — call themselves the “People of the Sands.”
The Lewis County Historical Museum in Chehalis is housed in the 1912 Northern Pacific Depot. Nearby is the historic Hotel Washington building, which no longer has lodging but is home to a restaurant/bar and an event venue. The old residential neighborhood on Pennsylvania Avenue south of West Street is a National Historic District featuring a variety of architectural styles.
Driving across the freeway, the Veterans Memorial Museum features displays of uniforms dating back to the Indian Wars, a weaponry collection and a 1942 Stuart tank used by the Army in North Africa. Adjacent to the museum, the Centralia-Chehalis Railroad & Museum offers steam train excursions on summer weekends. In addition to regular routes to Milburn and Ruth, special-event and holiday trips are scattered through the year.
State Route 6 follows the Chehalis River Valley west traversing farm country backed by wooded hills. Two miles west of Interstate 5 on Highway 6, the now-quiet rural hamlet of Claquato belies its bustling past.
From 1862 to 1872 this was the seat of Lewis County. The settlement sprang up on a pioneer road linking the Columbia River with Puget Sound; its Salish language name means “high ground.” The centerpiece of the community is the white-framed Claquato Church. Built in 1858, it is one of the state’s oldest churches.
The Floods of 2007
Farther down the highway flashes past the small town of Adna before encountering the lingering destruction of the Great Coastal Gale of 2007.
On Dec. 3, 2007, Southwestern Washington was inundated by floodwaters from a massive Pacific storm. Ten to 15 feet of water covered Interstate 5 at Centralia and Chehalis, closing the highway for four days and cutting off the Chehalis River Valley from the outside world. Eight Washington counties suffered $1 billion in damage.
Remnants of the destruction are still evident in sites just off Highway 6. Rainbow Falls State Park, a recreation area since the early 1900s with historic log structures and old-growth forest featuring western hemlock and Douglas fir up to 200 feet tall, suffered a washout of the access bridge near the diminished rapids of the Chehalis.
The bridge was not rebuilt, but the park remains open for picnicking, forest walks south of the highway and camping on the north side of the Chehalis River (accessible from Leudinghaus Road), where hikers and bicyclists on the 56-mile-long Willapa Hills State Park Trail can head west on a former rail line to South Bend near Willapa Bay. This route is considered one of the best rail trails in the Northwest.
Pe Ell was founded in the 1880s as a sawmilling center. Prosperous farms later flourished on the surrounding prairie, producing fruit, hops and dairy cattle. The town’s curious name is derived from the initials of pioneer settler Pierre Louis Charles. Many of the early settlers were of Polish and Swiss ancestry.
West of Pe Ell, Highway 6 winds through the densely wooded Willapa Hills, passing the sites of long-abandoned mill towns McCormick and Walville. Pluvius Summit, 3 miles west of the Lewis/Pacific county line and named for the plentiful rainfall of the region, marks the watershed divide between the Chehalis and Willapa rivers.
On Elk Prairie — the first sizable open space west of the divide — stands the village of Frances. Agricultural settlement on the prairie dates back to the 1880s. Many of the pioneers came from Germany and Switzerland. The Holy Family church building was built in 1892.
Lebam, 2 miles down state Route 6, prospered as a logging town after the Northern Pacific opened its branch line in 1893. Postal authorities objected to the towtan’s rather long original name of Half Moon Prairie, so the local postmaster suggested the reverse spelling of his daughter Mabel’s name. Repeated fires and the closure of sawmills in the 1920s sealed Lebam’s decline.
Just west of town, visitors are welcome at the Forks Creek Hatchery, founded in 1899, which has salmon ponds outside and accessible fishing for permanent wheelchair users.
The town of Menlo bustles during the Pacific County Fair in August. When the railroad established a station here in 1893 it was called Preston. Since a King County place already had that name, a pioneer suggested Menlo Park for his hometown in California.
The valley widens as state Route 6 continues west. Beside the highway is one of the Northwest’s more unusual heritage sites: the grave of Willie Keil, the “pickled pioneer” who died in Missouri just before his family was set to travel the Oregon Trail.
Farms give way to modest residences as you enter the outskirts of Raymond. Highway 6 joins U.S. Route 101 in the southern part of town. Located at the head of oceangoing navigation on the Willapa River, the city was founded in 1904.
Mills and lumberyards (many of them abandoned) line the river. This city boasted a population of nearly 7,000 before World War I, when 20 lumber mills and other manufacturing plants worked around the clock.
Among the interesting buildings in the central business district is the Raymond Timberland Library, a two-story Tudor cottage with stained-glass windows depicting nursery rhyme themes.
On the edge of downtown lie pedestrian trails and two attractions. Transport back to the 19th century at the Northwest Carriage Museum, home to one of the most extensive collections of horse-drawn carriages, including luxury vehicles, wagons, sleighs and buggies. Several vehicles were used in classic movies such as “Gone With the Wind” and “Virginia City.” The adjacent Willapa Seaport Museum provides a kid-friendly look at the life of mariners.
– Written by John King, last updated in November 2022.
– Top Image is of Chehalis River near Montesano. Photo by John Callery/Getty Images