Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 15, 2019

Get Out of the Car and Look Around. Centralia, Washington

Let’s go see a small town.

Centralia Tower St Brad Nixon 4432 680

To judge from the date and style of the architecture, it could be any one of 10,000 small towns in the U.S. Where is it? Minnesota? Kansas? Montana? Kentucky? Let’s look at the other side of the street.

Centralia street Brad Nixon 4407 680

Attractive, tidy, full of charming period detail. Still, merely a line of buildings from the first two decades of the 20th century that could, really, be almost anywhere. The deciduous trees are bare, but that happens across the entire U.S., north to south, east to west. In fact, this might be a small town in Canada, too, had I not said it was in the U.S.

That is North Tower Street in Centralia, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest. I’m writing about it for two reasons. First, it’s like every small town in America. Second, it’s unique, unlike anywhere else, and although those buildings resemble hundreds of thousands of others from the era, each one has a history of its own.

This is one of my common themes at Under Western Skies: You don’t get to know a place by driving through it. You have to get out and walk around, talk to people, go into the buildings and SEE it.Centralia Depot Brad Nixon 4414 680

Above, for example, is the 1912 railroad depot. Centralia — like most of the U.S. — was crushed by the bust of 1893. Most of the properties in town were delinquent on their mortgages, but the hard-pressed banks had no way of selling those properties, had they foreclosed.

As the new century dawned, things were again booming in Centralia, thanks to logging, mining and dairy farming. At its peak, the depot saw 44 passenger trains and 11 freight trains every day. Railroad Avenue — one block east of Tower — was lined with hotels and saloons. The depot was renovated in 2000, and the Amtrak passenger waiting room reflects a bygone era.

Centralia Depot Brad Nixon 4417 680

If you were a traveling salesman, lugging a case full of samples, just off the train from Tacoma, where would you go? If it were my situation, I’d walk two blocks west to the Lewis and Clark Hotel.

Lewis Clark Brad Nixon 4430 680

With 100 rooms, 65 with private baths, the Lewis and Clark opened in 1927, designed by Robert Reamer, who also designed the iconic Old Faithful Lodge at Yellowstone National Park.

Business in Centralia thrived during the first half of the century. The town built its still-operating library with a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, as I wrote here in my previous post.

Civic organizations also boomed, and the Masons erected an impressive lodge building across the street from the Lewis and Clark Hotel in 1923.

Centralia Masonic Brad Nixon 4428 680

Centralia continued to prosper, and — as one might expect — one of the cultural amenities included a large theater: The Fox, built in 1929.

Centralia Fox M Vincent 4860

Currently, the old house is undergoing renovation, with its re-opening planned for 2020. Note the “fly space” at the rear of building. That indicates that it was constructed to accommodate stage productions, not just films. Whether or not anything remains of its original theatrical orientation, I can’t say, but I hope it survives.

As late as 1937, Centralia benefitted from the final years of the Works Progress Administration’s ambitious public works projects, giving it a new downtown post office.

Centralia PO Brad Nixon 4449 680

Like many of the WPA buildings, the Centralia P.O.’s interior was ornamented with a mural. Titled “Industries of Lewis County,” by Washington artist Kenneth Callahan, who had a 50-year career as curator at the Seattle Art Museum. It’s somewhat obscured by equipment in the lobby and a protective plexiglas covering, but is an excellent example of the Social Realism style favored by a large number of the WPA’s artists.

Centralia Mural Brad Nixon 4446 680

The world, time and conflict lands hard on every town, everywhere. Centralia’s downtown park, named “George Washington,” after the town’s founder, a free African-American, has a monument which began as a tribute to leaders of a labor movement, killed in a violent confrontation on Armistice Day, 1919, known locally as the “Centralia Massacre.” In the ensuing years, it’s become a memorial to residents of Lewis County who lost their lives in two world wars and other conflicts: The Freedom Walk recognizes them, with the library in the distance behind a statue named “The Sentinel.”

Centralia monument Brad Nixon 4401 680

Lest we forget.

When traveling, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that everywhere is distinctive, different from everywhere else. Travel can be a homogenizing experience that flattens out the distinctions. Airports, freeway interchanges, strip malls and shopping centers all have the same things, the same brand names, the same commodities on offer.

But drive into town, get out of the car, walk around, look at what’s there: Everywhere’s different. People live there. They all have stories to tell.

I found a story, hidden in plain sight. I recognized it immediately, although the place doesn’t look like much amidst those buildings from the early 1900s on Tower Street.

Centralia Premier Brad Nixon 4437 680

Although it looks like a strip mall, it’s a survivor from the early automobile era. Built in about 1921, it was once the Premier Service Station. I haven’t found a photo of the site, but below is one shot in 1941 from the Tower Street side of the property, looking north along Tower past the Fox Theatre. The Texaco sign indicates it was still a service station in ’41. The Fox was showing “Rookies on Parade,” released that year, the first starring role for Bob Crosby, Bing’s younger brother, along with “The Trial of Mary Dugan,” 1929, starring Norma Shearer.

historic Texaco

Downtown Centralia’s coup de grace came not as another economic decline, as it did in 1893 and the Depression, but in drama on a volcanic scale. In 1980, Mt. St. Helens, about 30 miles away, erupted, destroying millions of board feet of lumber already logged by local industry. The old downtown isn’t what it once was, but it’s there to see, if you’re willing to exit interstate I-5 about halfway between Portland and Seattle, walk the streets and look around.

You won’t always find “the latest thing” or “the last word” in Centralia, a small town under western skies. Unless you credit the claim on the Fox Theatre:

MV C4865-LR Fox Theatre Centralia 680

© Brad Nixon 2019. Fox Theatre photos © M. Vincent 2019, used by kind permission. Research for this piece included the Living New Deal at this link, and the City of Centralia’s application for historic preservation status at this link.


  1. Nice picture of a small town. It kind of reminds me of Port Hope, Ontario.


  2. I suppose I don’t need to tell you how much in agreement with your basic premise I am: get out of the danged car, put down whatever electronic device you’re clutching, and look. Do more than look: ask, greet, smile. Forgo the drive through and find the café. Carry a map, not a GPS. Go old school.

    Even though the setting’s quite different, it’s a lesson that applies across life’s settings. Can’t get to the Grand Canyon or the Super Bloom? Find a vacant lot, walk through it, and bask in its uniqueness. See?

    The Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz once said, “I spent the summer traveling; I got halfway across my back yard.” That kind of approach would work in Centralia, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an excellent quotation by Agassiz. A name I hadn’t thought about for years, although he cropped regularly when I was kid reading about fossils, mineralogy, geology, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

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