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Kalama, located in Cowlitz County, Washington, is a city within the Longview Metropolitan Statistical Area, with a population of 2,959 as per the 2020 census. The origin of Kalama’s name is rich in history and has multiple narratives. According to “Washington State Place Names” by James W. Phillips, the name was given by General J.W. Sprague of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1871, deriving from the Indian word “calama,” meaning “pretty maiden.” This naming has an interesting backstory; Lewis and Clark Journals in 1806 mentioned “Kalama” in various forms like “Cath la haws Creek,” “Calams River,” and “Calamas,” referring to the current Kalama River. Moreover, in 1811, Gabriel Franchère wrote about an Indian village at the Kalama River’s mouth called “Thlakalamah.”
Historically, Kalama was first inhabited by Native Americans, especially from the Cowlitz Indian Tribes. Another account ties the town’s name to John Kalama, a carpenter from Maui who arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the 1830s. John, who married a Nisqually woman named Mary Martin, was known for various jobs, including repairing fish barrels. After Mary’s death, John remarried and had two children, Peter being one of them.
Kalama’s first white settler was Ezra Meeker and his family in 1853. Though Meeker soon moved to Puyallup, he sold his land to John Davenport, leading to permanent settlement in the area. In the early 1870s, the Northern Pacific Railway selected Kalama for its terminus and headquarters, causing rapid population growth. This development led to the construction of various facilities, including a dock, sawmill, roundhouse, and community infrastructure. The city saw a population boom, reaching about 5,000 people, but this declined after the railroad’s headquarters moved to Tacoma in 1874.
Kalama was unofficially incorporated in 1871 and served as the county seat until 1922. It was historically significant for the Northern Pacific Railway’s ferry service from Goble, Oregon, which was a crucial link in rail service until the construction of major rail bridges near Portland.
The city’s motto, “Rail Meets Sail,” captures its historical significance as a key transport hub. Today, Kalama holds a unique place in Washington’s history, with its diverse narratives and rich cultural heritage.
Kalama, Washington, began its journey as a key location for the Northern Pacific Railway. In March 1870, General John W. Sprague chose a site near the Kalama River’s mouth to establish the starting point of the Northern Pacific’s Pacific Division. This decision set the foundation for the town’s development and connection to the broader Pacific Northwest region.
Construction kicked off in April 1871 with a significant workforce, driving the ‘first spike’ in May of the same year. The railway extended north toward Puget Sound, reaching Tacoma before encountering financial difficulties. By January 1874, scheduled rail service between Tacoma and Kalama was operational. This development was concurrent with the completion of the Portland-Hunters rail line across the Columbia River in 1883, and the transcontinental Northern Pacific Railroad was completed near Helena, Montana, later that year.
Kalama further expanded its transportation capabilities in October 1884 by introducing the railroad ferry Tacoma, initiating a 25-year ferry service across the Columbia River. Initially, the ferry encountered challenges with crossing times due to tidal influences, leading to a relocation of the ferry slip to Goble for more efficient operations.
The city itself, as per Cowlitz County GIS data, spans 3.83 square miles (9.9 km²). Kalama is accessible via several exits from Interstate 5, which divides the town’s industrial district along the riverfront and the business district on the east side. The residential areas are situated uphill to the east and on the cliffs above the town, offering stunning views of the Columbia River. A vital Portland-Seattle rail connection runs parallel to the interstate, underscoring the town’s continued significance in regional transport.
Kalama enjoys a warm-summer Mediterranean climate, with moderate, dry summers and no average monthly temperatures exceeding 71.6 °F (22.0 °C). This climate contributes to the town’s appeal as a desirable place to live and work, with its natural beauty and strategic location enhancing its quality of life.
As of the 2010 census, Kalama, Washington, had a population of 2,344 people living in 967 households, with 665 of these being family households. The city’s population density stood at 846.2 inhabitants per square mile. In terms of housing, there were 1,070 units, averaging a density of 386.3 per square mile.
Kalama’s racial demographic was predominantly White at 91.3%, with other races including African American, Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander, and others making up the rest—additionally, 4.9% of the population identified as Hispanic or Latino of any race.
Household dynamics in Kalama showed a diverse range. About 31.6% of households had children under the age of 18, and 52.0% were married couples living together. Single-female households made up 11.5%, while single-male households were 5.3%. Non-family households constituted 31.2%, and individuals living alone who were 65 years of age or older accounted for 10.6%. The average household size was 2.42, and the average family size was 2.88.
The population of Kalama spanned a broad age range. The median age was 41.4 years, with 23.5% under the age of 18, 6.3% between 18 and 24, 24% aged 25 to 44, 29.5% aged 45 to 64, and 16.6% aged 65 or older. The gender distribution was nearly balanced, with 48.8% male and 51.2% female.
Kalama’s history and development are deeply intertwined with its role as a transport hub. From its origins with the Northern Pacific Railway to its current status, Kalama has evolved while maintaining its unique charm and strategic importance in the Pacific Northwest. The town’s beautiful setting, historical significance, and convenient access make it a unique and appealing destination in Washington State.