Editor’s note: Reporter Eric Schwartz and photographer Brandon Swanson are kayaking the length of the Chehalis River. On Saturday they paddled from Claquato to Fort Borst Park, passing by the homestead of Centralia’s founder. After taking Sunday off, they left this morning for Rochester and onward to where the river meets the Pacific Ocean at Grays Harbor.
CENTRALIA — More than 100 years before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech, another African-American also had a dream.
George Washington, the son of a slave from Virginia, wanted to form a city at his property near the junction of the Skookumchuck River and the Chehalis River, just north of today’s Mellen Street bridge.
According to the book “Centralia: The First 50 Years,” Washington staked a squatter’s claim on the land surrounding the convergence in 1852, becoming the fourth settler to make a claim in the area.
“With his own hands he made a rough one-room log cabin close by the Chehalis River. … He hewed the timbers himself and gathered the rocks and sticks and mud with which to make his fireplace. The floor was of hard-packed dirt,” wrote Dorothy Mae Rigg in “The First Fifty Years.”
Washington had arrived in what is now Washington state after a harrowing journey that took him from his birthplace in Virginia to Missouri, where he got a bitter taste of racial discrimination when a white man refused to pay him for a load of lumber, according to a biography of Washington printed in The Seattle Times in 1969.
From there he moved to Illinois, where he encountered another discriminatory law which required him to post a bond of $6,000 to guarantee his good behavior in the state.
He decided to move west by wagon train in 1850, and his adopted parents J.G. Cochran and his wife came with him. After running into a law in the Oregon Territory forbidding an African-American from owning land, Washington and the Cochrans split from a wagon train there and headed north, according to multiple documents available at the Lewis County Historical Museum.
At the convergence of the Chehalis and Skookumchuck rivers, Washington began laying the seeds of what would become Centralia.
“The First 50 Years” gives several accounts of his interactions with the American Indian tribes of the region who returned to the junction of the two rivers to fish for salmon. The land had been a burial ground after a smallpox epidemic wiped out 200 of them, according to the book.
“Washington lived in peace with his neighboring Indians,” Rigg wrote. “They called him ‘Noclas,’ meaning ‘black face,’ and also ‘Myeach,’ meaning ‘black or charred wood.’”
Washington’s claim of 640 acres was originally made by the Cochrans, since the Oregon Territory’s law barring him from owning property remained intact. Within a couple of years, the law was changed and the Cochrans sold the property to Washington.
In 1852, the Northern Pacific Railroad pushed its line west across Washington’s homestead. He took advantage of the new stream of settlers and laid out a town site dubbed “Centerville,” later changed to “Centralia.”
Washington eventually moved away from the banks of the Chehalis River, where as a settler he had operated a pole ferry. There is no marker designating the first home of Washington, just across from the border of what is now Fort Borst Park in Centralia.
Eric Schwartz: (360) 807-8245