Small Town Near the Cowlitz River Has Rich Past

A Cowlitz Indian village, a white settler’s mill, and now a salmon hatchery have all occupied the general area where the town of Salkum was born.

William and Lucretia Hammil were some of the first white settlers in the area.

“The next time you walk in here, everyone will know who you are and what you drink. If you were going to Portland to pick something up or whatever, they’ll know.”
–Robin Meier

Coming from Virginia via Tumwater, Mr. Hammil build a grist mill on Mill Creek near the Cowlitz River to grind grain and produce lumber.

His water-powered mill was built on falls in the creek. The falling water pounded and bubbled out of a hollow in the creek, giving rise to the town’s name.

Salkum reportedly means “boil up” in a local Indian dialect.

These days, Salkum features a bar called the Brown Shack and a thrift store named God’s Closet. The two buildings are across the street from each other.

According to bartenders, Salkum is a good place to make new friends, even if you’re just a friendly stranger passing through town.

“The next time you walk in here, everyone will know who you are and what you drink,” said Robin Meier. “If you were going to Portland to pick something up or whatever, they’ll know.”

Salkum is also home to Chelk, an elk that herds cows on an angus farm. The animal will often drive cattle around the field, stop them, and then turn the whole lot around and drive them back to the other end.

The orphaned animal also keeps a soft spot in its heart for the calves with which she shares the field. Chelk will often watch over the younger animals, scaring off ornery steers and the farm’s lone bull.

Although the farmers, Jim and Annie, prefer to remain anonymous, if you buy one or two drinks for patrons of the Brown Shack, they will likely direct you to where you can view the novel beast. Inquire locally about permission to see Chelk.

In less recent history, lifelong Salkum resident Van McDaniel remembers stories of a Cowlitz Indian village where the large salmon hatchery is located today.

Occasionally a sternwheel paddleboat would ply the river past Toledo to bring supplies to the Hammil mill and infant Salkum community and haul commodities to market when the water was right.

McDaniel said the town moved up to the highway at the area of the Salkum Community Church, where it had a blacksmith shop and inn for travelers.

When the highway moved the Chehalis Mill Company in town migrated again, eventually ending up about 1½ miles to the north of Hammil’s original mill.

Tidy timber company houses still line the main roads of Salkum, memories of the Chehalis Mill Company that brought the town into prominence.

The company built a dam on Mill Creek (farther upstream than Hammil’s had been a generation before) and created a long, narrow mill pond that extended almost to Stowell Road, McDaniel remembers.

The mill company moved to Oregon, probably in the late 1930’s, McDaniel said.

Victor Talbott’s father bought the mill property and dismantled the spillway, selling the usable wood and busting the rest up for firewood — ending the glory days of Salkum as a mill town.

His father also bought a half-interest in the Salkum grocery store about 1928, eventually taking over sole ownership of what became the “Salkum Save More Store.”

After his father died he, his mother and sister built what is now the Salkum Supermarket across the street.

The original grocery store was torn down, partly to make way for a widening of what was Jordan Road, and is now known as Stowell Road.

“It was just kind of in the way,” he remembers.

Other old frame timber buildings in the town often burned — he remembers a lot of fires in his youth, including a store, dance hall and meat market that turned to cinders while he slept.

“It used to have bananas on the stalk hanging in front of the store,” Talbott said. “It cooked the bananas.”

Salkum had no fire department at the time, although Talbott and other area residents later formed one.

Before that the Onalaska fire department would make an appearance — for what it was worth.

An Onalaska fire truck responded to a fire at G. Ghosn’s store, but with no water they couldn’t help, Talbott remembers.

“There was snow on the ground, so they stood across the street and made snowballs (to) throw at the fire,” he said. “They couldn’t do anything else, I guess.”

Ghosn later moved to Mossyrock and started a store and a movie house now known as the G Theater, Talbott added.

Many of the homes in Salkum were built by and for the Chehalis Mill company, including a row along Stowell Road on the north side of town known as Mill Row.

“They weren’t modern homes,” he said. “Usually they had a faucet on the back porch, that was their main supply of water.”

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