Lewis and Clark's Columbia River
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Lewis & Clark's Columbia River - "200 Years Later"
"Cowlitz River, Washington"
Includes ... Cowlitz River ... "Cow-e-lis-kee River" ... "Knight's River" ... Smelt ... Eulachon ... Mount St. Helens May 18, 1980 Eruption ... Mount St. Helens 2004 Eruption ... The Golden Age of Postcards ...
Image, 2007, Near mouth of the Cowlitz River, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Near the mouth of the Cowlitz River, looking upstream. View from Washington State Highway 432. Image taken January 28, 2007.


Cowlitz River ...
The Cowlitz River originates in the Cascade Mountain Range and flows west from its source at Mount Rainier, and then south to where it empties into the Columbia River at Longview, Washington, approximately Columbia River Mile (RM) 68. The River is located seven miles downstream of the Kalama River, and approximately 40 miles downstream of Vancouver, Washington. The mouth of the Cowlitz River lies directly across from Rainier, Oregon. Cottonwood Island is the island just upstream of the mouth. Downstream from the Cowlitz River is Fisher Island and Fisher Island Slough. Three miles upstream from the Cowlitz on the Oregon side is Prescott Beach, where Lewis and Clark spent the night of November 5, 1805. Lewis and Clark passed the Cowlitz River on November 6, 1805 and again on March 27, 1806. The called the river by the Indian name of ""Cow-e-lis-kee River".

Image, 2006, Cowlitz River at Castle Rock, click to enlarge
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Cowlitz River at Castle Rock, Washington. Image taken August 12, 2006.


Cowlitz River Drainage ...
According to the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority website (2004), the 151-miles of Cowlitz River drainage covers approximately 2,480 square miles, originating on the eastern and southern slopes of Mount Rainier, from where it flows west through a valley heavily influenced by alpine glaciers and then turns south and flows to the Columbia River. Runoff from portions of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens drains into the Cowlitz. The principle tributaries are the Coweman, Toutle, Tilton, Cispus, Ohanapecosh and the Clear Fork Rivers. The Toutle River is the largest, draining 512 square miles and enters the Cowlitz River at River Mile (RM) 20. The Cispus River (RM 89.8) is the most significant tributary in the upper Basin and drains 433 square miles. The upper Cowlitz Basin is made up primarily of andesite and basalt flows and associated breccias and tuffs. Areas adjacent to volcanic peaks are generally mantled with pumice deposits. The western portion of the Cowlitz River valley lies within the northern end of the Puget-Willamette Lowlands, and has moderate relief with a broad floodplain and elevations seldom exceeding 500 feet.

Lewis and Clark and the "Cow-e-lis-kee River" ...
Lewis and Clark passed the Cowlitz River on November 6, 1805, and again on March 27, 1806. Clark made no reference to a name for this river on his November 6 entry.

"... the head of a long narrow Island close under the Starboard Side, back of this Island two Creeks fall in about 6 miles apart ..." [Clark, November 6, 1805]

In Clark's 1805 entry, Nicolas Biddle added the notation [Moulton, 1990, vol.6]:

"... an Island in the mouth of the large river Cow e lis kee 150 yds wide --- 9 miles lower a large creek Same Side ..."

The name of the river does show up on Clark's "Estimated Distances in Miles" chart, made at Fort Clatsop during the winter of 1805-1806.

"... 13 miles to the Enterance of Cow-e-lis-kee River on the Stard Side, 150 yards wide about the mouth and up this river the Skil-lut Nation reside rong Inds. Acct., Campd. I killd. Phest. ..." [Clark, Winter 1805-06]

On March 27, 1806, on the return trip, Clark writes:

"... The principal village of the Skil-lutes is Situated on the lower Side of the Cow-e-lis kee river a fiew miles from it's enterance into the Columbia ...     The Cow e lis kee river is 150 yards wide, is deep and from Indian information navigable a very conslderable distance for canoes.     it discharges itself into the Columbia about 3 miles above a remarkable knob which is high and rocky and Situated on the North Side of the Columbia, and Seperated from the Northern hills of the river by a Wide bottom of Several Miles, to which it united. I Suspect that this river Waters the Country lying west of a range of Mountains which passes the Columbia between the Great falls and rapids, and North of the Same nearly to the low country which Commences on the N W. Coast about Latitude 4o [blank] North.     above the Skil lutes on this river another nation by the name of the Hul-loo-et-tell reside who are Said also to be numerous.     at the distance of 2 miles above the village at which we brackfast we passed the enterance of this river; we Saw Several fishing camps of the Skillutes on both Sides of the Columbia, and also on both Sides of this river. ..." [Clark, March 27, 1806]

The "remarkable knob" Clark mentioned is the now-gone Mount Coffin, now in the flats of Longview's port. By 1841, Charles Wilke's "Map of the Oregon Territory", the spelling "Cowlitz" was in use.


Views of the Cowlitz River ...
Good views of the Cowlitz River can be had from many places in Longview and Kelso, Washington, and the mouth of the Cowlitz can be seen from across the river at Rainier, Oregon. The Cowlitz River also flows through Castle Rock, located at Cowlitz River Mile (RM) 17.

Image, 2003, Mouth of the Cowlitz River with Cottonwood Island, click to enlarge
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Mouth of the Cowlitz River, Washington, with Cottonwood Island. Cottonwood Island is on the right. Image taken August 2, 2003.
Image, 2004, looking at mouth of the Cowlitz River, with Mount St. Helens, click to enlarge
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View towards the mouth of the Cowlitz River, with Mount St. Helens. The mouth of the Cowlitz River is difficult to distinguish in this view from the Columbia River shore at Rainier, Oregon. A truncated Mount St. Helens is barely visible along the skyline. Image taken February 21, 2004.
Image, 2004, Cowlitz River towards mouth, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Cowlitz River, Washington, one mile upstream mouth, at Longview, Washington. Cowlitz River towards mouth, looking at the Washington Highway 432 Bridge, from Gerhardt Gardens Park, Longview, Washington. Image taken February 21, 2004.
Image, 2006, Allen Street Bridge, Cowlitz River, Kelso, Washington, click to enlarge
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Allen Street Bridge over the Cowlitz River, Kelso, Washington. View from West Kelso. Image taken August 12, 2006.
Image, 2006, Cowlitz River from the Kelso Bridge, click to enlarge
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Cowlitz River from the Kelso Bridge. Image taken August 12, 2006.
Image, 2006, Cowlitz River from the Kelso Bridge, click to enlarge
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Cowlitz River and Kelso, Washington, from the Kelso Bridge. Image taken August 12, 2006.
Image, 2006, Cowlitz River from the Kelso Bridge, click to enlarge
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Cowlitz River, with the otters on the Kelso Bridge. Image taken August 12, 2006.
Image, 2006, Cowlitz River at Castle Rock, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Cowlitz River at Castle Rock, Washington. Image taken August 12, 2006.


Smelt runs ...
On February 24, 1806, Lewis and Clark wrote their first description of the Eulachon, the "Pacific Smelt" (Thaleichthys pacificus).

"... This evening we were visited by Comowooll the Clatsop Chief and 12 men women & children of his nation ...   The chief and his party had brought for sail a Sea Otter skin some hats, stergeon and a [s]pecies of small fish which now begin to run, and are taken in great quantities in the Columbia R. about 40 miles above us [Cowlitz River] by means of skiming or scooping nets. ...   I find them best when cooked in Indian stile, which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden spit without any previous preperation whatever. they are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted ..." [Lewis, February 24, 1806]

The Cowlitz River has long been famous for its smelt runs where fishermen lined the banks and could reach their limit in one dip of their nets. Unfortunately the runs have declined and the Pacific Smelt is now on the endangered list.
[More]


Penny Postcard, Columbia River Smelt Co., Kelso, Washington, ca.1915
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Penny Postcard: Columbia River Smelt Company, Kelso, Washington, ca.1915
Penny Postcard, "Shoveling Smelt, Columbia River, Oregon.". Label on box in image says: "From The Columbia River Smelt Co., Kelso, Wash.". Published by Louis Scheiner, Portland, Oregon. Made in U.S.A. Divided back. Card #R-28824. In the private collection of Lyn Topinka.


Early Cowlitz River ...
On October 27, 1792, Lieutenant William Broughton of the George Vancouver expedition, named the Cowlitz River "Knight's River". "River Poole" might possibly be Fisher Island Slough.

"... The northern shore, instead of being the steepest, now consisted of low, flat, sandy, shores, through which, nearly opposite ot their dinner station, where the river was about half a mile wide, two other streams fell into it. The westernmost was named River Poole, and the easternmost Knight's River; this last is the largest of the two; its entrance indicated its being extensive, and by the signs of the natives, they were given to understand, the people up that river possessed an abundance of sea-otter skins. ..." [Vancouver, October 27, 1792]

Lewis and Clark called the river "Cow-e-lis-kee" (see more information above).

"... 13 miles to the Enterance of Cow-e-lis-kee River on the Stard Side, 150 yards wide about the mouth and up this river the Skil-lut Nation reside rong Inds. Acct., Campd. I killd. Phest. ..." [Clark, Winter 1805-06]

The 1825 map of the Hudson's Bay Company called "Columbia River, Surveyed 1825" (printed 1826), called the river "Cowlitch River".

The Hudson's Bay Company arrived on the Cowlitz River in 1828, when HBC Factor George Simpson ascended the river. In 1837, Simon Plamondon of Canada established Cowlitz Farms to support company operations and as a settlement for HBC employees who had completed their work contracts.

In 1838 a map compiled by the Bureau of Topographical Engineers showing "... Various Trading Depots or Forest occupied by the British Hudson Bay Company ..." labeled the river "Cowlitz R.".

In 1841, Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Exploring Expedition called the river "Cowlitz River".

Early settlement along the Cowlitz River began in 1847.

"... The first American to settle in the future Cowlitz County was Scotsman Peter W. Crawford (1822-1883), 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. ..." ["HistoryLink.org" Website, 2006]

From the 1858 U.S. Coast Survey "Coast Pilot":

"... From the entrance to the mouth of the Cowlitz river the general course of the Columbia is E. by N., and the distance in a straight line 46 miles from the bar, and by the windings of the river about 52 miles. The Cowlitz runs N.Nw., and is navigted by canoes about 15 miles to the Cowlitz Landing. At this place travellers take mules or horses to go through to Puget's Sound, a trip of 50 miles. On the west bank of the Cowlitz are a few small houses, locally known as the town of Monticello. On the south bank of the Columbia, opposite the Cowlitz, is another settlement, called Rainier. ..."

In 1894 the U.S. Board of Geographic Names made official the name "Cowlitz River". Earlier name for the river were "Coweliske River" and "Tawalitch River".

From the 1903 NOAA "Coast Pilot":

"... Cowlitz River enters the Columbia River about 54 miles from the entrance. It has been under improvement by the Government, and is navigated by light-draft steamers that ascend to Toledo, about 40 miles above its junction with the Columbia. A considerable amount of farm and dairy produce is handled by them; lumbering is also extensive. ..."

Robert Hitchman in Place Names of Washington (1985) says the Indian name for the river was "Ta-wa-l-litch", meaning "Capturing the Medicine Spirit", a phrase referring to Indian youth who were sent to prairies along the river to seek their guardian spirits.

In 1918 the "Long-Bell" Lumber Company established itself on the northern shore of the Cowlitz River where the Cowlitz met the Columbia. By 1923 the planned community of Longview, Washington was dedicated.


May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens ...
The May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens affected the Cowlitz River. Massive lahars (debris flows) of mud and debris came down the Toutle River into the Cowlitz, and ended up spilling into the Columbia River. In the summer that followed massive dredging efforts were taking place trying to open shipping channels in the Columbia. In late 2004 Mount St. Helens once again became active, this time providing specatacular backdrops to views along the Columbia River.
[More]

Image, 2005, Longview, Washington, with steaming Mount St. Helens, click to enlarge
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Longview, Washington, with a steaming Mount St. Helens. The mouth of the Cowlitz River is located just to the right (but not in) this picture. Mount St. Helens began erupting again in 2004. Image taken January 2, 2005.


"The Golden Age of Postcards" ...

The early 1900s was the "Golden Age of Postcards", with the "Penny Postcard" being a popular way to send greetings to family and friends. Today the Penny Postcard has become a snapshot of history.

Penny Postcard, Cowlitz River and Kelso, Washington, ca.1905
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Penny Postcard: Cowlitz River and Kelso, Washington, ca.1905. Penny Postcard, ca.1905, "Tow Boat, Cowlitz River, Kelso, Wash.". Published by E.C. Kropp, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, made for Dunham and Abbott. Undivided back. In the private collection of Lyn Topinka.
Penny Postcard, Cowlitz River, Long Bell Lumber Mills, ca.1930
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Penny Postcard: Cowlitz River and the Long Bell Lumber Mills, Longview, Washington, ca.1930. Penny Postcard, ca.1930, "Long Bell Lumber Mills, Mt. St. Helens in Distance, Longview, Wash.". Image copyright Brubaker Aerial Surveys. Published by Wesley Andrews, Inc., Baker, Oregon. Card #518. In the private collection of Lyn Topinka.
Penny Postcard, Columbia River Smelt Co., Kelso, Washington, ca.1915
Click image to enlarge
Penny Postcard: Columbia River Smelt Company, Kelso, Washington, ca.1915
Penny Postcard, "Shoveling Smelt, Columbia River, Oregon.". Label on box in image says: "From The Columbia River Smelt Co., Kelso, Wash.". Published by Louis Scheiner, Portland, Oregon. Made in U.S.A. Divided back. Card #R-28824. In the private collection of Lyn Topinka.


From the Journals of Lewis and Clark ...

Clark, November 6, 1805 ...
A cool wet raney morning we Set out [from their camp at Prescott Beach] early at 4 miles pass 2 Lodges of Indians in a Small bottom on the Lard Side I believe those Indians to be travelers. opposit is <the head of a long narrow Island close under the Starboard Side [Cottonwood Island], back of this Island two Creeks fall in about 6 miles apart,> [Cowlitz River delta, Longview, Washington. Today the "two Creeks" are the Cowlitz River and Coal Creek Slough.] and appear to head in the high hilley countrey to the N. E. opposit <this long Island is 2 others one Small and about the middle of the river> the other larger and nearly opposit its lower point [today the location of Walker Island and Lord Island complex], and opposit a high clift of Black rocks [Green Point, location of Mayger, Oregon] on the Lard. Side at 14 miles; ...     here the hills leave the river on the Lard. Side, a butifull open and extensive bottom [Clatskanie River delta] in which there is an old Village, one also on the Stard. Side a little above both of which are abandened by all their inhabitents except Two Small dogs nearly Starved, and an unreasonable portion of flees— The Hills and mountains are covered with Sever kinds of Pine— ...     Some willow on the waters edge,   passed an Island 3 miles long and one mile wide [Crims Island ... Crims Island is separated from the Oregon shore by the Bradbury Slough.], <one> close under the Stard. Side below the <long narrow Island> below which the Stard Hills are verry from the river bank and Continues high and rugid on that Side all day, ... [Lewis and Clark pass, but do not mention today's Germany Creek, Abernethy Creek, and Mill Creek]     we came too to Dine on the long narrow Island [Crims Island] found the woods So thick with under groth that the hunters could not get any distance into the Isld. ...     river about one mile wide hills high and Steep on the Std. [cliffs of Oak Point] no place for several Miles suffcently large and leavil for our camp we at length Landed at a place [Eagle Cliff and Cape Horn, Wahkiakum County] which by moveing the Stones we made a place Sufficently large for the party to lie leavil on the Smaller Stones Clear of the Tide     Cloudy with rain all day we are all wet and disagreeable, had large fires made on the Stone and dried our bedding and Kill the flees, which collected in our blankets at every old village we encamped near     I had like to have forgotten a verry remarkable Knob [Mount Coffin, Longview, Washington, now destroyed] riseing from the edge of the water to about 80 feet high, and about 200 paces around at its Base and Situated <on the long narrow Island> [Longview, Washington area, the Cowlitz River delta] above and nearly opposit to the 2 Lodges we passed to day, it is Some distance from the high land & in a low part of the Island [Cowlitz River delta]






Clark, March 27, 1806 ...
a rainey disagreeable night     rained the greater part of the night     we Set out this morning verry early [from their camp on Walker Island] and proceeded on to two houses of the Skil-lute Indians on the South Side [downstream of Rainier, Oregon] here we found our hunters who had Seperated from us last evening.     the wind rose and the rain became very hard Soon after we landed here we were very friendly receved by the natives who gave all our party as much fish as they Could eate, ...     resumed our voyage at 12 oClock. The principal village of the Skil-lutes is Situated on the lower Side of the Cow-e-lis kee river [Cowlitz River] a fiew miles from it's enterance into the Columbia. ...     The Cow e lis kee river [Cowlitz River] is 150 yards wide, is deep and from Indian information navigable a very conslderable distance for canoes. it discharges itself into the Columbia about 3 miles above a remarkable knob [Mount Coffin] which is high and rocky and Situated on the North Side of the Columbia, and Seperated from the Northern hills of the river by a Wide bottom of Several Miles, to which it united [today the cities of Longview and Kelso, Washington]. I Suspect that this river Waters the Country lying west of a range of Mountains which passes the Columbia between the Great falls and rapids, and North of the Same nearly to the low country which Commences on the N W. Coast about Latitude 4o [blank] North. ...     at the distance of 2 miles above the village at which we brackfast we passed the enterance of this river [Cowlitz River]; we Saw Several fishing camps of the Skillutes on both Sides of the Columbia, and also on both Sides of this river. ...     late in the evening we passed the place we Camped the 5th of Novr. [Prescott Beach] and Encamped about 4 miles above at the Commencement of the Columbian Vally on the Stard. Side [near Goble, Oregon] below Deer Island [Deer Island, Oregon]. ...

[between Prescott Beach and Goble lies Coffin Rock, a basalt feature on the south side of the Columbia, now located on property owned by the Trojan Nuclear Facility]

Saw Cotton wood, Sweet Willow, w[hite] oake, ash and the broad leafed ash the Growth which resembles the bark &c. these form the groth of the bottom lands, whilst the Hills are almost exclusively Covered with the various Species of fir heretofore discribed. the black alder appears on Maney parts of the hills Sides as on the bottoms. before we Set out from the 2 houses where we brackfast we Sent on two Canoes with the best hunters, with orders to pro ceed as fast as they Could to Deer island [Deer Island, Oregon] and there to hunt and wait our arrival. we wish to halt at that place and repare 2 of our Canoes if possible. the Indians that visited us this evining remained but a Short time, they passed over to an Island [Sandy Island ???] and encamped. the night as well as the day proved Cold wet and excessively disagreeable. we Came 20 miles in the Course of this day.





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*River Miles [RM] are approximate, in statute miles, and were determined from USGS topo maps, obtained from NOAA nautical charts, or obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website, 2003

Sources:    Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority website, 2004; "HistoryLink.org" Website, 2006, "The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History"; Hitchman, R., 1985, Place Names of Washington, Washington State Historical Society; NOAA Office of Coast Survey website, 2005; U.S. Geological Survey's Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) website, 2006; Washington State Historical Society website, 2013; Washington State University website, 2005, "Early Washington Maps: A Digital Collection";

All Lewis and Clark quotations from Gary Moulton editions of the Lewis and Clark Journals, University of Nebraska Press, all attempts have been made to type the quotations exactly as in the Moulton editions, however typing errors introduced by this web author cannot be ruled out; location interpretation from variety of sources, including this website author.
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April 2013