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A History of Onalaska

By The Chronicle

The journey of the small town of Onalaska began in 1909 when William Carlisle and his family moved to the area to start up a new business venture.

Like many towns in Western Washington, the timber industry was the life blood for Onalaska. Carlisle, his son William A. Carlisle and his son’s wife came to the area to build a mill. They purchased the land in 1902, and construction began in 1914. Historical accounts say the Carlisles brought with them their own laborers, who had previously been employed at their mill in Grays Harbor, which had burned down.

The eldest Carlisle named the developing area, Onalaska — a name he had already given to his mill sites in Wisconsin, Arkansas and Texas. Supposedly, according to the book ‘A Land Called Lewis,’ the first reference of the name comes from a poem written by Thomas Campbell in 1851 that reads, “and waft across the waves’ tumultuous roar; The wolf’s long howl from Onalaska’s shore.” The word is said to have come from the Aleut language, “Al-ay-ek-sa” meaning “great land,” according to the book.

The Carlisle family distributed brochures beckoning people to move to the area from back east. The brochures said “come to a country of year-round warm climate, rich vegetation where cattle graze out all winter, and blackberries grow on every stump.”

Approximately 1,000 laborers had come to the town by 1913, and the town began to form orderly streets to replace wagon tracks through the timber. Onalaska’s first post office was established in 1915, the same year the Carlisle mill became operational. Carlisle had 225 homes constructed, and oversaw a workforce that included Greeks, Japanese and Swedes who each had their own cookhouse and bunkhouse.

In the years that followed, a railroad was constructed to reach Onalaska and the mill boomed – some accounts show that the mill, named the Carlisle-Pennell Lumber Company, was considered to be the largest inland mill in the world. But the great depression, the creation of labor unions, and a lengthy strike eventually spelled an end for the mill, and for the boom that was occurring. The mill closed, then reopened briefly in 1938 before closing permanently in 1942.

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