In 1818, when the strapping young Canadian fur trader, Simon Plamondon, first laid eyes on the sweeping Cowlitz Prairie with its stunning three-mountain view, little did he know he would be instrumental in shaping the history of that region.
After his initial exploration of the Cowlitz River area near present-day Toledo, Plamondon reported that he had found a river valley with abundant fishing, plentiful trapping, friendly natives, and an open prairie “ready for the plow.”
The Hudson’s Bay Company encouraged the French-Canadian to settle in the area, and Plamondon did just that—marrying a Cowlitz Indian chief’s daughter, taking up a donation land claim, and becoming the first white man to settle in what would later be known as Southwest Washington. Due to his influence, other retired Hudson’s Bay Company employees settled near Plamondon, and in 1838, St. Francis Xavier Mission, the first Catholic mission in Washington, was established to minister to these early settlers and to bring Christianity to the natives.
Seeing the prairie’s potential for agricultural development, the British fur-trading company established Cowlitz Farm just north of present-day Toledo. Operated by Puget Sound Agricultural Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company subsidiary supplemented the needs of its HBC Pacific trading posts. Native Americans, French Canadians, and Hawaiians came to work there. During the mid-1800s, the thriving 1,800-acre corporate farm and ranch produced thousands of bushels of wheat, oats, barley, and potatoes in addition to raising hundreds of cattle, sheep and horses.
The nearby Cowlitz River became the lifeline that linked the Hudson’s Bay Company settlement to the world. From Cowlitz Landing, near present-day Toledo, local natives ferried countless loads of grain and salt beef in canoes and flat-bottomed boats called batteaux down the Cowlitz River to the Columbia. From there, the Cowlitz Prairie-grown food continued its journey by ship to posts along the Pacific Coast and as far away as Hawaii and Alaska.
By the early 1850s, Cowlitz Landing played yet another vital role in Pacific Northwest history. It served as an important stopping point for Oregon Trail pioneers hoping to start a new life north of the Columbia River. Those heading to Puget Sound made the tedious journey from Vancouver by canoe or batteaux up the Cowlitz River, disembarking at Cowlitz Landing. From there, they continued the last leg of their journey by land.
Many pioneers trudged by foot, wagon, or horse along the muddy path further on to Tumwater or Olympia. Weary travelers enjoyed the gracious hospitality of John and Matilda Jackson who’s nearby log cabin homestead, the Highlands, was a welcome rest stop along the Cowlitz Trail. A few decided to put down roots in the promising communities of Cowlitz Landing and Warbassport that sprouted up near the bustling river port.
In 1851, several men gathered at Cowlitz Landing to draft a resolution asking Congress to divide the Oregon Territory at the Columbia River. This historic Cowlitz Convention ultimately resulted in the creation of the new Washington Territory in 1853.
In 1861, the steamboat Belle churned its way up the Cowlitz River to the landing, marking a new era of growth for the river community. Soon steamship companies offered regular runs to and from Portland carrying everything from passengers and produce to mail and freight. The 24-hour journey by steamboat was a vast improvement over the 10-day canoe trip! With paddle wheels slapping the water and smoke pouring from black smokestacks, the steamboats not only brought news from the outside world but also a sense of excitement. On Saturday nights when The Kellogg was in port, the captain gave a community dance on board. The town band showed up, and people danced until the early hours of the morning.
In 1881, when Captain Kellogg of Kellogg and Company purchased an acre of land from the Rochons to build a new warehouse and terminal about a mile upstream of the old Cowlitz Landing, he gave Mrs. Rochon the honor of naming the new town. As if on cue, a new sternwheeler named Toledo passed by the Rochon’s riverside home. Glancing out her window, Mrs. Rochon caught sight of the bold letters spelling the ship’s name…and the rest is history!
The new town of Toledo, fittingly named after a steamboat, became the head of navigation on the Cowlitz River. It was incorporated in 1892 and soon grew into a bustling center of business and commerce thanks to the region’s prosperity and the town’s prime location on the shipping route.
In its heyday, Toledo boasted several hotels, saloons, drug stores, general stores, a furniture factory, cigar factory, sash and door factory, a millinery, photography studio, shoe shop, along with several sawmills and gristmills. Over the years, local farms produced grain, potatoes, hops and dairy products. (Toledo’s annual Cheese Days is a nod to the town’s proud dairy heritage.) The eventual arrival of automobiles, trucks, and modern highways brought an end to the iconic steamboat era. The last paddle wheeler left Toledo in 1918.
Today, scenic State Route 505 passes right through historic downtown Toledo, earning the small town a new claim to fame as the Gateway to Mount St. Helens. Although steamboats no longer grace its shores, Toledo’s visitors can stop by the town’s quaint Steamboat Alley where a colorful mural pays tribute to the town’s name and proud river history.