After a 35 year journey, the Morton Interpretive Center Museum and Historic Depot is finally open for visitors. The complex offers both cultural opportunities and amenities. Inside the Interpretive Center is a museum run by the Cowlitz River Valley Historical Society (CRVHS). There is also a visitor’s center, complete with maps and information on things to do in the area, and a pop-up library, which is partially supported by the Randle Timberland Library. The complex also features the historic Milwaukie Road Depot and public restrooms.
The Interpretive Center’s grand opening was June 13, 2019. But to understand the long struggle to make the complex a reality, we must travel back a bit further than that.
The Milwaukie Depot
While Morton is synonymous with logging, the history of the railroad runs just as deep. At one time, the small community of Morton was extremely isolated. The terminus of the Tacoma-Eastern Railroad was eight miles beyond Mineral in Glenavan. It was another five miles over forested hills and creeks to reach Morton. According to an essay by Morton historian Teddy Peterson, the journey out of Morton to the outside world took two weeks by horse and wagon along rugged trails.
Logging in Morton necessitated the extension of the rail line and in 1910 the Milwaukie Road Depot was built to accommodate the railroad to Morton. The depot featured an apartment upstairs for the stationmaster and his family. With two trains arriving daily from Tacoma, the depot became the area’s hub. People could now travel with relative ease and receive goods from far off places.
Morton’s connection to the railroad increased as it became the “Rail-tie Capital of the World.” Its extensive production of ties and the world’s longest tie-docks earned Morton the title. In the 1940’s and 1950’s rail-ties were shipped all over the world to recover the damage caused by World War II.
The last stationmaster moved out of the Depot in 1967 and it was finally closed when the last logging train left Morton in 1980. After years of partial vacancy, the building needed some work. But as the last remaining two-story train depot in Washington State, it was worth the effort.
On March 22, 1984 Alice Boutain, president of what was then called the Eastern Lewis County Historical Society, signed a bill of sale for the Milwaukie Road Depot which sat near the north edge of Morton. The depot was purchased from the Chehalis Western Railroad for the sum of $10.
But there was a catch.
The depot must be moved, and to retain its status as a National Historic Site, the depot must sit within 18 feet of railroad tracks. So began the hunt for the right property and the funds to purchase it. In the meantime, restoration work began.
In her essay, Teddy Peterson recounts a funny restoration story, “Several years before the depot closed, it was upgraded with running water… A flushing toilet was installed in the shipping warehouse on the first floor. While planning for its long-awaited move, when checking the foundation, what a surprise! Under the toilet in its privacy closet, very strategically placed as a workable solution for typical plumbing, was a wheelbarrow! There was no limitation on mountain creativity in those days.”
In 2005 after nearly 20 years of hoping and planning, grant writing and fundraising, the depot was finally moved with much fanfare to its current location on Main Street. The move was featured on the History Channel’s show Mega Movers and broadcast in the spring of 2006. Alice Boutain, who had purchased the building for the historical society all those years ago, was onsite at the age of 96 to finally see the dream become a reality.
The Interpretive Center
Part of the overall plan for the Depot was the construction of an Interpretive Center. But a number of problems existed which delayed its opening. This is when Betty Hutchison got involved. Betty did extensive work with Morton’s Fire Mountain Arts Council, which included acquiring the Tiller Art Center next to the Roxy Theater. Betty decided she wanted to help jump-start the Interpretive Center since the building was being underutilized. The historical society had a monthly meeting there but that was about it.
“I’m going to go down the street and open that building if it kills me,” Betty recalls thinking.
A big part of the project for her was the pop-up library.
“We wanted a library,” says Betty, “but we didn’t want it at the expense of our neighboring town’s libraries. So, we decided to have a pop-up library. We get a librarian from Randle twice a month.”
Another piece was opening the new Museum.
“We had a museum before,” explains Betty, “but then there was a flood and the items were packed up for quite some time. A group was meeting on Wednesdays for one hour. I figured it would take forever to get everything open. So, when Becky found out we were going to get the library, she came over the first day, looked around and said, ‘we can take care of this.’”
That’s how Becky Starr Justice of Morton Town and Country Flowers became the Chairman of the Museum Committee.
“She arranged everything,” says Betty, “decided what was going to go in each case and then Kathy Coleman did the research on whatever items she chose. Kathy typed it all up. John Miller laminated it. Several of us worked over about two and half months.”
But the project didn’t end with the grand opening.
“It’s a work in progress,” says Betty. “We are going to feature a different family quarterly. That gives local families a chance to be featured with artifacts from their family. We want to change it all the time to keep people coming back.”
With a project of this magnitude and longevity, Betty says it has been a community effort. “Over time there have been many folks that have helped in so many ways and done so much to keep the history of Morton. It is a community effort that continues and is always a wonderful work in process.”
More to do in Morton
There is more to do while visiting Morton. Simply wander down Main Street. The Fire Mountain Arts Council runs the Roxy Theater which plays films three days a week, and also has live performances. Next door is the BCJ Fine Art Gallery which features local artists. Down the street is the Bear Ridge Smokehouse, which sells jerky and summer sausages suitable for picnicking. Across is the Rivers Coffehouse and Bistro which is especially popular with locals. The Rabbit Hole thrift shop is a sweet little store next door. There is a farmer’s market on Saturdays at Gust Backstrom City Park, as well as a local swimming hole. So check out the Morton Interpretive Center and stick around to enjoy all the fun Morton has to offer!