We continue our Throwback Thursday series today by taking a look at the single most important route into and out of Lewis County by land. No, it's not Interstate 5, although that is the preferred route today — but here, we're going to take a look at a little trail that wagons blazed that some 160 years later has been upgraded, rerouted a few times and used heavily by automobiles.
Let's take a look at the Old Oregon Trail from its beginning all the way until what it is today!
The very first route blazed through Lewis County was the Old Oregon Trail, sometimes better locally known as the Cowlitz Trail, essentially a northward extension of the famed Oregon Trail route that brought settlers from Independence, Missouri to Oregon.
This route, however, brought people into Washington Territory. Settlers would have to ford the Cowlitz River, continue northward to the Cowlitz Prairie and then proceed even further north through villages that were just in the process of being constructed.
The story is best told by a monument erected in Chehalis, which itself was only a small village in that day known as Saundersville:
The Oregon Trail, stretching from Missouri to the Pacific, served as the most important route for settlers traveling west. As many as 1,600 wagons a day rumbled over the famous route. The northwestern most extension of the Oregon Trail was the Cowlitz Trail, which led from the Columbia River to Puget Sound. On this Trail was the village of Chehalis, first known as Saundersville.
In 1852, Ezra Meeker, his wife Eliza, and infant son journeyed over the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon pulled by oxen. After establishing his family on the banks of the Columbia River, Meeker traveled north over the Cowlitz Trail to find a permanent place to live.
One night, he and his brother camped under a cedar tree at the base of a hill in Saundersville, the spot on which this marker now stands. The Meeker family eventually settled in Puyallup.
Monuments to the Past
The Old Oregon Trail is marked by several small monuments, not the least of which is the John R. Jackson House. Jackson, one of the first settlers to Lewis County, built a home for his family just south of Mary’s Corner, and that building also served as an important stop for travelers. It was also a post office and courthouse for a time.
Several monuments to the Old Oregon Trail exist along the route, all placed by the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution at about 1916 or so. At least four are placed throughout Lewis County.
Reading further on the monument in Chehalis reveals the following:
In later years, Meeker feared that the nation was forgetting the history of the Oregon Trail and the thousands of heroic pioneers aho traveled it. So in 1906, when he was 75 years old, he took a wagon and a span of oxen back across the Trail to commemorate its part in settling the American West. Along the route from Puyallup to Missouri, Meeker asked 42 towns to erect monuments on the Trail.
Several towns erected markers during Meeker’s original trip. Other towns had to wait ten years, until the Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution provided funds to erect markers. Of the 42 towns asked to install monuments, Chehalis was one of three that did not fulfill its promise. This marker is hereby dedicated in Chehalis on April 29, 2006, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ezra Meeker’s historic trip, and to fulfill a promise of a century ago.
The marker in Toledo is somewhat hidden in plain sight: very unassuming, it can be found where Fifth Street splits off to the right from State Route 505. If you passed the giant Welcome to Toledo sign, you’ve gone a bit too far; the marker is literally right where the two roads meet.
Another marker just north exists at Matilda Jackson State Park, a day-use area with several picnic spots and overall a great respite during one’s travels.
The afore-referenced marker in Chehalis was built in 2006 and placed just outside City Hall on North Market Boulevard, which is what Jackson Highway becomes once entering the city.
Still another marker was placed at the entrance of Fort Borst Park in Centralia as well, itself home to a major historical site, the Historic Borst Home.
From Wagons to Automobiles
The Old Oregon Trail maintained its importance in the automobile era, as the Pacific Highway was commissioned by an act of the Washington State Legislature in 1913. When built, portions of the road generally followed the path of the trail from south to north through Lewis County. The highway brought people through Toledo and the Cowlitz Prairie, up through Mary’s Corner and the old community of Forest before leading directly into Chehalis and Centralia and beyond.
A roadbed was cut, and the highway started off as crushed gravel in most places. Automobiles couldn't go nearly as fast as cars today, and especially not with all the crushed rock underneath their tires. But nevertheless, a major connection to the major cities was established, placing Lewis County right in the middle of a direct route between Seattle and Portland — and points beyond.
What Route 66 is to the heartland of America, the Pacific Highway was to Washington and Lewis County in particular. No doubt many people continued the theme of the Old Oregon Trail by using the Pacific Highway to discover Lewis County and make their homes here.
Lewis and Clark State Park opened along the highway, which later became known as Primary State Highway 1, in the early 1920s, being touted as a living museum of an old-growth forest for all to enjoy; the park attracted thousands in its early years. The highway also connected to the National Park Highway further north, which took many people directly to Mount Rainier.
The Pacific Highway stretched from the Canadian border to Mexico, bringing travelers up and down the entire West Coast with easy access to the beaches of Washington, Oregon and California through auxiliary routes. A route that once brought wagons west was repurposed to bring a whole different audience of people into Lewis County with its connection to the southern states.
The alignment of the highway underwent several changes throughout its early years as automotive technology changed. The initial 15-foot width of the highway likely proved to be too narrow for continuous use, although some roads such as Laussier Road near Toledo that carried the highway’s original alignment maintain that width with no center line. Laussier is perhaps the best example of the highway's original construction in Lewis County.
Pacific Highway was later commissioned as a national route, U.S. Route 99, and photos collected by the Washington State Historical Society and the Lewis County Historical Museum show U.S. Route 99 making its way through Centralia and Chehalis using surface streets such as Market Boulevard and Tower Avenue. The highway infused life into the downtown corridors of Chehalis and Centralia especially, which were heavily marketed and advertised as the centerpoint between Seattle and Portland.
Lewis County’s towns were important stopping points for travelers along the highway, which was at the time the main north-south route through Washington state. Downtown Chehalis was a prominent spot, with a Greyhound bus terminal located on North Market Street just past the downtown corridor, across from the Northern Pacific railway depot. Downtown Centralia benefited greatly from the traffic, with several stores teeming with activity and movies being shown at the Fox Theatre regularly.
The importance of the Pacific Highway through Lewis County is immeasurable, simply because it provided the most critical link to points outside our area. In effect, it carried on the theme of the Oregon Trail as one of discovery and growth for the communities it served.
The Route Today
The Interstate Highway System was brought forth under the Presidential administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and it wouldn't be long until four-lane portions of U.S. Route 99 would become part of the new Interstate 5 beginning in the 1960s. With the coming of the Interstate system through Lewis County, U.S. Route 99's fate was sealed.
U.S. Route 99 was decommissioned in the 1960s, when the rapidly-increasing use of the new Interstate 5 siphoned most of the north-south traffic from the highway and reduced its importance to outside travelers. The iconic U.S. shields began to disappear from local streets, and several portions of the highway were given to state and local governments for their control. Several segments, especially through Seattle and its suburbs, are still signed as Washington State Route 99. Others, such as the portion through Lewis County, are known by different names entirely.
The lasting effect for several communities was that travelers were no longer required to pass through them; instead, visiting them became entirely optional if they chose to utilize the freeway.
The old Pacific Highway is largely intact as what we locally know as Jackson Highway, and is maintained by Lewis County Public Works. Coming from the south, you can connect to the old highway at the Barnes Drive exit (Exit 52) in north Cowlitz County, and follow it over the freeway and onto Jackson Highway. From the north, you just need to follow Old Highway 99 from Grand Mound and follow Harrison Avenue through Centralia, continue onto Main Street, then take a right on Pearl Street south through Centralia and continue on to the county line.
Most of the highway and some other roads connected to it are faithful to the original alignment of the Pacific Highway, although one stretch through the Lewis and Clark State Park is believed to vary somewhat. It is believed (and pointed out here by one member of a forum) that the original route of the Pacific Highway continued on a straighter path through the park, whereas Jackson Highway now curves westward for a brief time before curving back to the north again.
Much of the equestrian trail on the eastern side of the park likely carried the alignment of the old Pacific Highway and Old Oregon Trail, although this is not confirmed.
Jackson Highway doesn't carry nearly the amount of traffic that it used to, and many who live along it opt for this quieter environment. But so many remnants of history remain along its asphalt ribbon that can't be ignored.
Jackson Highway serves as a very important local connector to several communities, and the beauty of our region is prominently displayed along its shoulders. From stands of old-growth forest to the views of Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens, the scenery and topography along the highway today is much as it was in the early pioneer days.
Jackson Highway has quite the story to tell, dating back to its days as the Old Oregon Trail. Check it out for yourself as part of our Historic South Lewis County Road Trip, which takes you into several communities and parks the highway has served over the years!
Other Items of Interest
Read the entire Mohawk-Hobbs Pacific Highway Guide from 1926.
See the cover of a Pacific Highway travelogue, also from 1926.
It's outside our area, but here's U.S. 99 in Woodland.
Ever crossed the Columbia River into Oregon on I-5? Here's what it looked like in 1920.
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. 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!