Can you imagine being able to bike, walk or ride a horse almost all the way to the Pacific Ocean from Chehalis or vice versa? Slowly but surely, that dream is becoming a reality along a corridor that was once used by steam trains more than 100 years ago.
On this Throwback Thursday post, we take a look at what is now known as the Willapa Hills Trail, in its heyday a major railroad line that brought passengers and timber through west Lewis County.
The Origin of the Railroad
The history of the railroad goes all the way back to 1890, when a railroad company started to build the line from Chehalis to South Bend. Both South Bend and Chehalis were growing, and with rail being the primary transportation at the time, it would only be a matter of time before trains were making their way between the two cities.
The original plans called for the line to reach Yakima, but a year before the railway was completed, that plan was shelved.
Those trains that rolled between Chehalis and South Bend didn’t just serve the cities; it seemed they stopped just about everywhere in between, and with good reason. The timber industry had a strong presence in many towns across Lewis County, and the western part of it was no different. Mills were built at Littell, Dryad, Doty and Meskill, among others, necessitating stations at every one of those towns.
The line was completed in about 1893, and the line stretched through some of the most beautiful rural scenery Lewis County has to offer. As a bonus, the line also ran next to and crossed the Chehalis River on its way out to the sea.
The line brought a variety of freight from community to community, but perhaps the biggest commodity was the one abundant throughout Lewis County: timber.
The Timber Industry
According to a the Summer/Fall 2006 edition of the Pacific County Historical Society Sou’wester, as many as 29 stations were built along the entire route. Chehalis built a depot in 1883, and a larger structure was built just south of the old one in 1912, serving as the western terminus of the route.
The line, owned since 1898 by the Northern Pacific Railway, from Chehalis served the following communities in this order: Claquato, Littell, Adna, Ceres, Meskill, Mays, Dryad, Doty, Pe Ell, McCormick and finally Reynolds before continuing west into Pacific County at Walville. Nearly all of those towns had mills or some sort of operation involving shipping timber.
Photos kept on file by the Washington State Historical Society and Lewis County Historical Museum show lively scenes of the mills in operation at several locations such as the Doty Lumber & Shingle Company. Several of those companies had rail spurs built to serve their logging operations or to move lumber between mills. The timber industry was thriving, and the Northern Pacific Railroad was a key cog in its operation.
The depots that served each community also took in a fair number of passengers, bringing people by train to see the verdant landscapes of western Lewis County and Pacific County out to South Bend.
In the 1920s, two passenger trains and two freight trains would use the line daily.
The Railroad Line’s Demise
The railroad would exist and do well for about 40 years, give or take, before the popularity of automobiles would begin to cut into the railroad’s importance. The State Legislature commissioned construction of several highways that would link up throughout the state and create the Primary State Highway network.
Over the years, trains became fewer and far between. Lumber mills in several of the towns shut down during the grip of the Great Depression in the 1930s, leaving very few traces they ever existed. In fact, very little evidence of places such as the Doty Lumber & Shingle Company remain, and longtime local residents might in fact be the best keepers of the history of the once-thriving mill.
Passenger service would run until 1954, when the South Bend Flyer made its final run.
In subsequent years, Burlington Northern would purchase the rail line and it would continue to see use as a freight line until decommissioning the route in 1990. A once-thriving railroad would no longer function as such, and its future would remain unclear for a few years at least.
Repurposing the Corridor
Seeing an opportunity, Washington State Parks took ownership of the rail line in the 1990s and began converting it for a new use: a rails-to-trails project that aimed to bring pedestrians, bicyclists and equestrians to Lewis and Pacific Counties.
The past few years have seen the trail transform into a corridor that has hosted thousands of people for recreation. The rails and railroad ties were removed, giving way to a crushed gravel surface along most of the trail in Lewis County. In more recent years, 5.5 miles of the trail have been paved between Chehalis and Adna — and that stretch has proven the most popular.
The trail also provides space for horseback riders who want to get out and enjoy nature, and several trailheads offer horse trailer parking. It’s not uncommon anymore to see a mix of people jogging, leisurely walking, cycling and riding horses during one visit to the trail.
Perhaps the neatest feature of the trail is still its history, as much of the old infrastructure that graced the old railroad remains intact. Two major bridges spanning the Chehalis River west of Chehalis have been redecked specifically for trail use, and if you stop and look for a second at the bridge just west of the Hillburger Road trailhead, you’ll be able to see that the structure predates the 20th century.
More Work to Be Done (But They’re Almost There!)
Most of the trail in Lewis County is usable at this point, with a full 23 miles of trail between Chehalis and Pe Ell open. From there, work still needs to be done to connect the corridor between Pe Ell and eastern Pacific County. As it stands, 5.5 miles of the trail is paved from Chehalis to Bunker Creek, with the remainder being crushed gravel that is suitable for bikes with tires wider than those of thin road or race bicycles.
Washington State Parks and Lewis County Community Trails have consistently worked to bring funding for several projects to improve the trail, and those projects will open up a major recreational connection, which will undoubtedly bring people from across the region to explore one of the most beautiful passageways in the state.
In effect, the trail now serves much the same purpose as the railroad that once ran along the same stretch once did: to bring people to and through Lewis County so they can enjoy the natural beauty we all love here.
More About the Trail
Check out our page on the Willapa Hills Trail, complete with updated information on trailheads, parking and other access points.
Willapa Hills Trail Fans on Facebook is a tremendous resource to find updated info about trail conditions and see photos from trail users.
Here’s a very well-done Google map of the trail from start to finish, with waypoints, obstructions and more listed.
For More Information...
The Lewis County Historical Society and the Lewis County Historical Museum keep a lot of our region's treasured history within its walls. From exhibits to historical documents and files, the museum has it all.
The museum, located at 599 NW Front St. in Chehalis, contains a vast repository of images and more that are worth seeing and learning about!