Under different circumstances, Onalaska would have ended up a ghost town. Like many other company towns in western Washington, it could have folded up when its company went out of business in the late 1930s.
Like Bordeaux in Thurston County just 40 miles away, Onalaska was essentially supported by one company. Unlike Bordeaux, which is now just a series of ruins among the woods, Onalaska survives as a small, unincorporated community in Lewis County.
The story of Onalaska starts in New York state where George Pennell was born in 1840. He eventually moved west to Kansas, where he began working in the timber industry. There, he joined forces with William Carlisle and they began the wholesale timber operation William Carlisle & Company. After the construction of the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893 pumped capital into many Midwest timber firms, including Carlisle, the two partners began to expand.
And they began establishing little Onalaskas across the country.
Before Kansas, Carlisle had lived in Onalaska, Wisconsin. When it came time for his partnership to begin establishing company towns, he chose to copy what, to him, was a beautiful name. Before the Lewis County town, they had established Onalaskas in Texas and Arkansas.
The partnership first set foot in Washington in the 1890s when they logged a few thousand acres near Centralia. They eventually expanded their holdings to over 50,000 acres and built two company towns around two mills. Carlisle, located near the Copalis River in Grays Harbor County, was founded in 1913, and Onalaska (with its own mill) in 1916. By the 1920s the Carlisle mill boasted a workforce of over 300, putting out nearly 250 rail cars of lumber a month.
Like a lot of the American economy, the peak of the timber industry in Onalaska was in 1929, just as the national economy was hurtling toward the Great Depression. While the immediate impact of the stock market crash wasn’t felt in Onalaska for a few years, the tightening of credit kept the Carlisle company from expanding their timber holdings, which put their company on a timeline. When their last tree was cut, their mill in Onalaska would shut down.
Even though the family firm endeavored to keep the mill open, the lack of money, together with the crisscrossing labor strife caused by personality conflicts and the economic pressure of the depression, led to the mill closing for the first time in 1935. It opened again later that same year, but with non-union employees, leading to a late summer and early fall of protests and violence that rocked the small timber town.
Outside help in the form of the state patrol had to deploy to Onalaska in the summer of 1935 to put down organized protests by labor organizers. Bombers blew up a train track, shots were exchanged, and all the while the Carlisles were fighting in court the step they took to exchange union workers with non-union replacements. The family ultimately lost in 1938 and reopened with union workers.
For decades, a good portion of the workers at the Carlisle mill were of Japanese descent. They lived in a segregated neighborhood in Onalaska and were paid less than their white counterparts. Like other Japanese along the Pacific coast, Onalaska’s Japanese community was forced into internment camps for the duration of World War II.
The notable difference between Onalaska and other so-called company towns probably saved it as a community. The fact was, it wasn’t really a company town. Despite the major employer dominating the landscape, the merchant community stayed independent and was able to carry on after Carlisle left town.
While most of the houses built in Onalaska before the 1940s were built by Carlisle employees from Carlisle lumber or directly by the company, the family made a decision that also kept the town alive. Instead of just abandoning the housing parcels when business died, the family sold the structures off, making sure they helped their bottom line as they folded their tents. This also kept residents in Onalaska.
Lastly, because Onalaska was once a booming mill town surrounded by farmland, it became an important transit point for farmers who were either selling to the local community or having their goods shipped somewhere else.
Today the only evidence of the Carlisle family’s dominance in Onalaska is the more than 200 foot smokestack that had been a centerpiece of the mill. It now stands on the shore of the old mill pond, west of the town itself. The old mill pond has been converted into a fishing lake, and it is still stocked with rainbow trout annually by the state.