Cowlitz County, Washington

map showing Cowlitz County, Washington along with the County's highway sign.



Introduction to Cowlitz County, Washington

Cowlitz County, in southwestern Washington, came into being on April 21st, 1854. Depending on which source you reference, the County land came from Clark County, Lewis County, or was an original county for Washington Territory. Certainly the county lines changed a great deal in the early days. What appears most likely, as we look at historical maps, is that Lewis County gave its southern section in the formation of Cowlitz County. Four days later, on April 25th, 1854, the western end of the new County became Wahkiakum County.

The County’s name comes from the original inhabitants of the region, a Native tribe today known as the Cowlitz. Over the years, many minor county line changes have occurred between Cowlitz, Clark, and Lewis Counties. It took its present shape in 1873 and has not changed since then. With a total land area of 1,139 square miles, it is the 28th of Washington’s 39 counties in size. The 2010 Census counted 102,410 residents in the County, placing it in twelfth place. (The 2019 census estimate shows a considerable growth in population, with 110,592 residents.)

The  Original People of Cowlitz County, Washington

The original inhabitants of Cowlitz County were the Cowlitz people.  (Note that two distinct people bear the name Cowlitz.) The Coastal Salish people known as the Lower Cowlitz or Cowlitz Proper lived along the lower reaches of the Cowlitz River. The Upper Cowlitz were not Salishan, but rather related to the Yakama and Klickitat tribes from east of the Cascades. They lived along the Upper Cowlitz River in what is now Lewis County. Authorities differ in the actual origin of the Upper Cowlitz, but it appears that they shared neither language nor culture with the Lower Cowlitz. The U.S. Government recognized the Cowlitz tribe only in 2000. Their tribal headquarters are in Longview, the largest city in Cowlitz County. In addition, the tribe owns and operates the Ilani Casino in Ridgefield, Washington, in neighboring Clark County.


Cowlitz County has had four seats in its one-hundred sixty-six years. Monticello served as seat from 1854 until 1865 when voters chose to move the seat to Freeport. With the construction of a rail line connecting the Columbia with Puget Sound, Kalama became an important center and in 1872, Cowlitz County voters chose to move the seat to that city. Only in 1922 did Kelso become the seat. The Court House (shown above) was built in 1923, with an addition in 1939 which doubled the size of the original building. By the 1970s, it became clear that the County needed more space, and a new Hall of Justice opened in 1975. Kelso, as noted is the County Seat, but Longview is the County’s largest city. The Hall of Justice sits on the line separating the two cities. One courtroom is actually within the Longview city limits.

The Cowlitz County Hall of Justice, Kelso/Longview, Washington
The Cowlitz County Hall of Justice
Kelso/Longview, Washington

Kelso, Cowlitz County’s Seat

One of the first non Native people to settle in the area, Scotsman Peter Crawford filed a donation land claim in 1847 along the Cowlitz River. Active in local politics, Crawford attended the Monticello Convention, but when his daughter needed medical care, Crawford moved his family to Vancouver. In 1884, he divided his Cowlitz River claim and platted a town which he named for his Scottish birthplace. The citizens of the new town filed for incorporation in 1890, a few months after Washington became the forty-second state.

Kelso’s population grew as timber and fishing drew new residents, but as both timber and fishing declined, so did the city. It would be more accurate, however, to say that growth declined. Census reports show major growth spurts between 1900 and 1910 (193.8%) and between 1920 and 1930 (181%), but in no decade has the population shrunk. The 2019 census estimate shows 12,417 residents in the City. The city’s website can be found at and in honor of its namesake, the City hosts a Highlander Festival each September.

Longview, Cowlitz County’s Largest City

Longview,Cowlitz County’s largest city, came into being as a planned community. R.A. Long, a timber man from Kansas City, founded the city at the confluence of the Cowlitz and Columbia Rivers. He envisioned a city of 50,000, and planned it out accordingly. At the time,it was the largest planned community to be built with private funds. Long built the city to house the workers at his mill, itself planned to be the largest lumber mill in the world.

The city’s population has grown steadily over the years, but the 2019 estimate shows 38,440 residents, far short of Long’s anticipated 50,000. Long began his city in 1921 and the town incorporated in 1924. By the 1930s, it was the 4th largest city in Washington. Named for Long’s Missouri farm, Longview today remains a timber town. Weyerhaueser and Kapstone Paper and Packaging remain important industries in the city, as well as the Simpson Timber Company. The Port of Longview, 66 miles upriver from the Pacific, ships many products west for export.

Within the city limits of Longview, two former Cowlitz County Communities lie.  Both Monticello and Freeport served as seat for the County, but floods destroyed Monticello.  Freeport, also subject to floods, ended up being absorbed by Longview.  Monticello is notable for hosting the Monticello Convention which called for the establishment of a new territory, separate from Oregon, north of the Columbia River.

Other Cowlitz County, Washington cities

All five of Cowlitz County’s cities lie along Interstate 5. In addition to Kelso and Longview, these cities include Castle Rock, Kalama, and Woodland. Castle Rock, named for a large rock formation on the Cowlitz River, has a 2019 estimated population of 2,298. Located in northern Cowlitz County, Castle Rock calls itself “the Gateway to Mount St. Helens.” Indeed, Washington Highway 504 runs from Castle Rock past Silver Lake to Coldwater Lake and the Mud Flows from the volcano.

Kalama, with a 2019 estimated population of 2,798, sits downstream from the confluence of the Kalama and Columbia Rivers. When the Northern Pacific Railroad built north from Portland, Kalama became their main station. The railroad used a ferry to connect Kalama with Portland, but as the rail lines moved north, so did the western headquarters, and Kalama lost out to Tacoma. The city did serve as the Cowlitz County Seat from 1873 to 1922.

Woodland, at the southern end of Cowlitz County, crosses the county line and is partially in Clark County as well. With an estimated population of 6,495 in 2019, Woodland is the third largest community in Cowlitz County. While the city straddles the county line, most of the residents are in Cowlitz County. An interesting fact about Woodland is that it was home to Hulda Klager, a German immigrant who raised lilacs. Having studied Luther Burbank, Klager set out to hybridize lilacs, dahlias, and other plants. She grew an extensive garden, and opened her home every year for Lilac Week. Upon her death, lilac lovers bought her property, had it declared a National Historic Site, and have continued to preserve her legacy.

The Small Towns of Cowlitz County, Washington

According to Wikipedia, there are 34 unincorporated communities and census-designated places in Cowlitz County.  Most of these lie along the I-5 corridor as well, with a few lying west of Longview off Washington State Highway 4.  Others lie along Washington State Highway 504, mentioned above as the main road leading to Mount St. Helens.  These communities are almost all quite small, which contributes to the 71% urban population of the County.  Two of them, Cougar and Yale, are the closest communities to Mount St. Helens. 

Mount St. Helens seen from Silver Lake
Mount St. Helens Seen from Silver Lake

Ryderwood, in the northwestern corner of the County, is fascinating in its own right.  Built orginally by R.A. Long as a town for the families of loggers, the town was supposed to be a replacement for the old-time logging camps.  Named for W.F. Ryder, Long’s logging operations manager, the town remained a company town until Long sold it in 1953.  Senior Estates, Inc. purchased the town for $96,000 and intended on turning it into a retirement community.  Today the town remains a retirement community, with a median age of 68.7 and with 69.9% of the town’s population over 65 years of age.

Cowlitz County, Washington, the Land of Six Rivers

Like most of Washington State, water defines Cowlitz County. In the south, the Lewis River marks the southern line separating Cowlitz from Clark County. The Toutle River and its South Fork flow down from Mount St. Helens across northern Cowlitz County. Roughly half-way between the Toutle and the Lewis, the Coweeman River flows westward out of the Cascades. Between the Coweeman and the Lewis, the Kalama River flows westerward for 45 miles entirely within Cowlitz County. The Cowlitz River runs north to south parallel to Interstate 5. And of course, the Columbia marks the southwestern border of the County, separating it from the State of Oregon.

Cowlitz County Lakes

Silver Lake, the largest in Cowlitz County, Washington
Silver Lake

The website lists twelve lakes in Cowlitz County. These range in size from ten acre Conradi Lake, which classifies as a “swamp,” to the reservoir backed up by Yale Dam which covers 3,612 acres, Yale Reservoir, however, lies along the Clark/Cowlitz County Line, so at least half the lake lies in the neighboring county. Coldwater Lake, covering 751 acres, also lies across a county line, with the upper end of the lake in Skamania County. The largest lake entirely within Cowlitz County is Silver Lake. Just shy of 2,000 acres in size.

Silver Lake is a popular spot for fishing, boating, camping and other outdoor recreation. Seaquest State Park, on the western shore of Silver Lake, has eighty-eight campsites of various styles. These include 3 sites set aside for bike campers. In addition, visitors can rent any of five yurts which have queen beds and bunk beds, sleeping a total of five. The Mount Saint Helens Visitor Center lies within Seaquest State Park, and is a popular tourist attraction.

Other lakes in Cowlitz County include Goat Marsh Lake (15 acres), Fawn Lake (23 acres), Kress Lake (25 acres),and Lake Sacajawea (48 acres). Larger bodies include Log Pond (141 acres), Merrill Lake (277 acres), and Castle Lake (279 acres). also lists Swift Number Two Forebay, which appears to be upstream of Yale Lake and just inside the Cowlitz County line. It covers 91 acres, and like Yale Lake, it is an artificial lake created by Swift Dam Number Two on the Lewis River. All of these lakes support fishing, and most of the larger lakes have boat ramps. Lake Sacajawea is the only urban lake, lying within the city limits of Longview.

My Drives through Cowlitz County, Washington

Aside from driving between Portland and Seattle on Interstate 5, I have made two trips to Cowlitz County, Washington.  The first, on September 4th, 2016, had me driving in circles around the city of Kelso as I looked for the County Court House.  Much to my amazement, none of the locals I asked for help had a clue where I should look to find their seat of government.  Eventually I did find the building, and also photographed the Spanish-style Assembly of God Church across the street.  Having achieved my goal of capturing the Court House, I headed west on Washington Highway 4 toward Cathlamet, the seat of neighboring Wahkiakum County.

Roughly one month later, I was back in Cowlitz County, this time looking for more rural views.  I left Interstate 5 at Castle Rock and drove east on Washington Highway 504 to Silver Lake.  After driving a ways along the North Fork Toutle River, I turned left onto Washington Highway 505 toward Toledo in Lewis County.  

A Cowlitz County Farm

Future trips to Cowlitz County will see me driving further east on 504, right up to Mount St. Helens.  I will also spend time in the northwestern corner of the County, visiting Ryderwood, which apparently can only be reached using Washington State Highway 506 from Lewis County.  Finally, I would like to drive Highway 503 along the Lewis River to see the lakes that form the border between Cowlitz and Clark Counties.  

I also need to spend more time exploring Longview and Kelso, especially in light of the number of historic buildings in those two cities.  And what visit would be complete without a stop at Hulda Klager’s lilac gardens?  Gives me a lot to look forward to.



2 Comments on “Cowlitz County, Washington

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