Port of Kalama interpretive center details convergence of highway, rail, water

By Marissa Luck, November 1, 2014, The Daily News


Rail, road and river transportation have defined Kalama since its inception in the 1870s, and a new interpretive center at the port should bring that history to the forefront.


“Now we finally have a place where we can tell our history,” said Port of Kalama Executive Director Mark Willson last week.


The exhibit focuses on the city of Kalama as a transportation hub, chronicling changes in modes of transportation from pre-settler indigenous canoes to the massive commercial vessels that now plow through the Columbia River.


The interpretive center took more than a decade of designing, consulting with the Cowlitz County Historical Society, collaborating with community groups and applying for more than $400,000 in grants.


In the outer ring of the exhibit, educational plaques, replicas and video motifs draw the viewer through the town’s history. It starts with a 27-foot dugout canoe — handmade by native artist Robert Harju and blessed by the Cowlitz Tribe. The canoe is backdropped by a display describing how the tribes in the Lower Columbia area relied on the river for trading and cultural exchange.


The viewer then moves to a covered-wagon replica and touches on the story of Ezra Meeker, an Ohio-native who first settled in the region with his family in 1850s. From there, viewers are taken to the story of the founding of Kalama by in the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1870s as the starting point for rail construction up to Tacoma.


A model of the Kalama ferry (later renamed Tacoma) shows how, before the bridge was built between Vancouver and Portland, freight trains would drive onto the boat itself to be carried across the river to Oregon. Moving from rail to road, the exhibit then features a Ford 1929 Model AA truck, the first commercial trucks used to deliver railroad ties during the construction of the line through the Pacific Northwest.


The inner ring of the exhibit is a testament to the modern use of the Port of Kalama, featuring touchscreens that offer live feeds of commercial ships moving cargo through the Columbia. Another touchscreen lets users examine the inner workings of contemporary a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train.


Port spokeswoman Liz Newman said last week the interpretive center can “help the young people in the town understand Kalama’s place globally. A lot of people don’t understand the reach we have.”


“We’re a port that moves between 9 and 10 million tons of cargo a year,” Wilson said. “I doubt most people in the community even know that, so we’re trying to tell that story.”


Wilson said there had been talk of opening an interpretive center in Kalama in the 1980s, but planning didn’t get underway until 10 to 12 years ago. That’s when the city conducted a community action plan and identified a need to tell the town’s story and attract local tourism, Wilson said. Port staff hope passersby will stop off I-5 to visit the new port building and exhibit.


The display was designed by the Portland-based exhibition company, Formations Inc. Replicas were stored at the Cowlitz County Historical Museum while the new port building was constructed. Wilson said several Kalama residents stepped forward to contribute small donations toward the display, and the port pitched in $45,000, too. Additionally, $400,000 in combined grants were provided by the Washington State Historical Society and the Federal Highways & Local Programs.


A portion of the grants hasn’t been used yet because the port staff want to find a piece of steam-powered locomotive with a connection to the North Pacific Railroad history — a rare commodity designers have yet to locate.


The stage for the exhibit is a concrete floor stained with green, tan and black colors, depicting a map of the Columbia River snaking pass railways and landmarks. The focus of the map is Kalama — where, as the city’s slogan says, “highway, rail and water meet.”


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