Kalama is a quaint town in Southwest Washington, located on Interstate 5, 40 miles north of Portland, Oregon. With a population of 2,718 (2018), Kalama offers small town values and charm.
Kalama was first settled by Native Americans, particularly members of the Cowlitz Indian Tribes. In 1853, the first white settler was Ezra Meeker. In early 1870, Northern Pacific Railway scouts came to Cowlitz County to find an ideal terminus along the Columbia River. After a failed negotiation for a Donation Land Claim in Martin’s Bluff, four miles south of Kalama, Northern Pacific officials purchased 700 acres in Kalama for the terminus of the new railroad as well as a new headquarters. The population swelled with employees of the Northern Pacific Railway.
Kalama originated with a stake driven by Gen. John W. Sprague of the Northern Pacific Railway who in March 1870 selected a spot near the mouth of the Kalama river to mark the beginning point of Northern Pacific's Pacific Division. Northern Pacific built a dock, a sawmill, a car shop, a roundhouse, a turntable, hotels, a hospital, stores and homes. In just a few months in 1870, the working population exploded to approximately 3,500 and the town had added tents, saloons, a brewery, and a gambling hall. Soon the town had a motto: "Rail Meets Sail". Recruiters went to San Francisco and recruited Chinese labor, who moved to their own Chinatown in a part of Kalama now called China Gardens. The population of Kalama peaked at 5,000 people, but in early 1874, the railroad moved its headquarters to Tacoma, and by 1877, only 700 people remained in Kalama.
Kalama was unofficially incorporated on November 29, 1871. It served as the county seat of Cowlitz County from 1872 to 1922. Kalama was the northern terminus of a railroad ferry operated by the Northern Pacific Railway from Goble, Oregon. This was a critical link in rail service between 1883 when the service began until 1909 when the major rail bridges in Portland were completed.