Centralia is a city in Lewis County, Washington, United States. It is located along Interstate 5 near the midpoint between Seattle and Portland, Oregon. The city had a population of 18,183 at the 2020 census. Centralia is twinned with Chehalis, located to the south near the confluence of the Chehalis and Newaukum rivers.
In the 1850s and 1860s, Centralia's Borst Home, at the confluence of the Chehalis and Skookumchuck Rivers, was the site of a toll ferry, and the halfway stopping point for stagecoaches operating between Kalama, Washington and Tacoma. In 1850, J. G. Cochran and his wife Anna were led there via the Oregon Trail by their adopted son, George Washington, a free African-American. The family feared Washington would be forced into slavery if they stayed in Missouri after the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Cochran filed a donation land claim near the Borst Home in 1852 and was able to sell his claim to Washington for $6,000 because unlike the neighboring Oregon Territory, there was no restriction against passing legal ownership of land to African Americans in the newly formed Washington Territory.
Upon hearing of the imminent arrival of the Northern Pacific Railway (NP) in 1872, Washington and his wife, Mary Jane, filed a plat for the town of Centerville, naming the streets with a Biblical theme, and offering lots for $10 each with one lot free to buyers who built houses. Washington also donated land for a city park, a cemetery, and a Baptist church. Responding to new settlers' concern about a town in Klickitat County with the same name, the town was renamed Centralia by 1883, as suggested by a recent settler from Centralia, Illinois, and officially incorporated on February 3, 1886. The town's population boomed, then collapsed in the Panic of 1893, when the NP went bankrupt; entire city blocks were offered for as little as $50 with no takers. Washington (despite facing racial prejudice from some newcomers) made personal loans and forgave debt to keep the town afloat until the economy stabilized; the city then boomed again based on the coal, lumber and dairying industries. When Washington died in 1905, all businesses in the town closed, and 5,000 mourners attended his funeral. The city bestowed an honor to Washington in 2023 by declaring August 15th, his recognized birthday, as Centralia's Founder's Day.
The boom lasted until November 11, 1919, when the infamous Centralia Massacre occurred. Spurred on by local lumber barons, American Legionnaires (many of whom had returned from WWI to find their jobs filled by pro-union members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)), used the Armistice Day parade to attack the IWW hall. Marching unarmed, the Legionnaires broke from the parade and stormed the hall in an effort to bust union organizing efforts by what was seen to be a Bolshevik-inspired labor movement. IWW workers including recently returned WWI veteran Wesley Everest, stood their ground, engaged and killed four Legionnaires. Everest was captured, jailed and then brutally lynched. Other IWW members were also jailed.
The event made international headlines, and coupled with similar actions in Everett, Washington and other lumber towns, stifled the American labor movement until the economic devastation of the 1930s Great Depression changed opinions about labor organizations.
The town's name was originally a reference to the town's location as the midway point between Tacoma and Kalama, which were originally the NP's Washington termini. This central moniker continued to have longevity when it became the midpoint between Seattle and Portland, Oregon after the constructions of Interstate 5 and its predecessor, U.S. Route 99.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 7.56 square miles (19.58 km), of which, 7.42 square miles (19.22 km2) is land and 0.14 square miles (0.36 km) is water.
This region experiences warm (but not hot) and dry summers, with no average monthly temperatures above 71.6 °F. According to the Köppen Climate Classification system, Centralia has a warm-summer Mediterranean climate, abbreviated "Csb" on climate maps. Temperatures are usually quite mild, although Centralia is generally warmer in the summer and colder in the winter than locations further north along the Puget Sound.
As of the census of 2010, there were 16,336 people, 6,640 households, and 3,867 families residing in the city. The population density was 2,201.6 inhabitants per square mile (850.0/km2). There were 7,265 housing units at an average density of 979.1 per square mile (378.0/km). The racial makeup of the city was 85.1% White, 0.6% African American, 1.4% Native American, 1.0% Asian, 0.3% Pacific Islander, 7.4% from other races, and 4.1% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino people of any race were 16.1% of the population.
There were 6,640 households, of which 31.6% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 37.7% were married couples living together, 14.4% had a female householder with no husband present, 6.1% had a male householder with no wife present, and 41.8% were non-families. 33.8% of all households were made up of individuals, and 15.8% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.41 and the average family size was 3.06.
The median age in the city was 34.8 years. 24.7% of residents were under the age of 18; 10.7% were between the ages of 18 and 24; 25.7% were from 25 to 44; 22.3% were from 45 to 64; and 16.6% were 65 years of age or older. The gender makeup of the city was 48.3% male and 51.7% female.
As of the census of 2000, there were 14,742 people, 5,943 households, and 3,565 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,990.6 people per square mile (768.1/km). There were 6,510 housing units at an average density of 879.0 per square mile (339.2/km2). The racial makeup of the city was 89.76% White, 0.44% African American, 1.25% Native American, 0.94% Asian, 0.30% Pacific Islander, 4.94% from other races, and 2.38% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino people of any race were 10.22% of the population.
There were 5,943 households, out of which 29.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 41.7% were married couples living together, 13.0% had a female householder with no husband present, and 40.0% were non-families. 32.7% of all households were made up of individuals, and 16.9% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.40 and the average family size was 3.02.
In the city, the population was spread out, with 25.2% under the age of 18, 10.5% from 18 to 24, 25.7% from 25 to 44, 19.4% from 45 to 64, and 19.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 37 years. For every 100 females, there were 89.8 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 86.6 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $30,078, and the median income for a family was $35,684. Males had a median income of $31,595 versus $22,076 for females. The per capita income for the city was $16,305. About 13.6% of families and 18.0% of the population were below the poverty line, including 24.4% of those under age 18 and 10.8% of those age 65 or over.
Founded as a railroad town, Centralia's economy was originally dependent on such extractive industries as coal, lumber and agriculture. At one time, five railroad lines crossed in Centralia, including the Union Pacific Railroad, Northern Pacific Railway, Milwaukee Road, Great Northern Railroad and a short line.
The explosion of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, devastated the local lumber industry, as 12 million board feet of stockpiled lumber and 4 billion board feet of salable timber was damaged or destroyed. Unemployment surged to double digits, and the town lost most of its retail base.
In 1988, London Fog opened the first factory outlet store in the Northwest, choosing the location because it was the midpoint between major northwest cities. Their success spawned the region's first factory outlet center, creating a tourist shopping destination. This led in turn to the redevelopment of the vintage downtown marketplace as an antique, art and specialty store destination.
Chehalis Mints was founded in the city in 1994 and produces various mint and mint chocolate candies, with a specialty in butter mints. The company's products are sold primarily in the Pacific Northwest.
As extractive industries faced decline, Centralia's development refocused on freeway oriented food, lodging, retail and tourism, as well as regional shipping and warehousing facilities, leading to 60 percent growth in population since the 1980s.
Additional development of regional distribution and transportation facilities, along with in-migration from retirees from more populated counties to the north, have helped diversify the economy, though unemployment remains stubbornly high and per-capita income well below the state average.
On November 28, 2006, it was announced that TransAlta, the largest employer in Centralia and operator of the Centralia Coal Mine and Centralia Power Plant, would eliminate 600 coal mining jobs. Despite fears to the contrary, there was little noticeable economic effect upon the City of Centralia as a result. Data indicated that Centralia was experiencing growth both in its light industrial areas as well as its core business district, the historic downtown Centralia. The mine has since undergone a reclamation to fill, regrade, dredge water sources, and plant new trees. As of 2023, half of the reclamation project was considered complete. The site has been determined as a potential recreation area once the recovery processes are complete.
The power plant, completed in two unit stages in the early 1970s and owned by TransAlta since 2000, is Washington state's last energy factory powered by coal. At its peak, it generated energy ample enough to power Los Angeles. The plant is situated on 11,000 acres (4,500 ha) and is expected to permanently close in 2025 based on an agreement reached with the state in 2011. The first phase of the shutdown was completed in 2020. The energy produced until its closure is used by Puget Sound Energy (PSE) and according to 2022 figures, 14.5% of PSE's electric load came from the TransAlta coal plant, enough to supply power to 300,000 homes. Future plans include the operating of several green energy facilities, including generating power via hydrogen and fusion, and the decommissioning of the Centralia Coal Mine is expected to incorporate renewable energy machinery as the coal plant closes. The company created a $20 million fund for training and educational work programs for remaining employees of the plant.
The Carnegie Library is located in Washington Park and was originally built in 1913 followed by a remodel in 1977–78. The library is now part of the Timberland Regional Library system.
Centralia Union Depot was built in 1912 and features red brick architecture, vintage oak benches, and internal and external woodworking throughout. The renovated depot, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is currently served by Amtrak and Twin Transit.
Located in Fort Borst Park are the Fort Borst blockhouse and the Borst Home. The blockhouse is a log structure that was built in 1856 and was used as grain storage during local wars with Native Americans. Originally constructed near the confluence of the Chehalis and Skookumchuck rivers, the building was moved twice, in 1915 due to an alteration of the Chehalis River's course, and then in 1922 to its present-day site in the park. Joseph Borst, an Oregon Trail migrant, purchased the blockhouse from the U.S. government in 1857 and his family would use the building as a residence until he built the Borst Home next to the structure in 1864. The house was constructed near a toll ferry crossing that existed at the time and the home site contains a replicated one-room schoolhouse and a church. The Borst Home, but not the blockhouse, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).
Centralia is host to various other NRHP sites including the George E. Birge House, the Hubbard Bungalow, and the Wesley Everest Gravesite. The NRHP-listed Centralia Downtown Historic District is home to McMenamin's Olympic Club Hotel & Theater a registered historic hotel and restaurant that opened in 1908.
Seattle-based rock band Harvey Danger used Centralia as a metaphor in its song "Moral Centralia," found on the 2005 album Little by Little.
Murals are found throughout historic downtown Centralia. Examples include murals depicting the founder of Centralia (Centerville) named George Washington, Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show and an abstract mural depicting the 1919 Armistice Day Centralia Massacre, also known as the Wobbly War.
Centralia is part of the ARTrails of Southwest Washington initiative. The cooperative, begun in 2003, showcases local artists, art studios and galleries throughout the region, and holds an annual autumnal studio tour that incorporates events in smaller towns within Lewis County. ARTrails opened a gallery for its members in the city in 2015 and the Centralia Train Depot is used as the nexus of the tour.
George Washington Park, in Centralia's downtown district, is home to the Centralia Timberland Library. The park contains the statue, The Sentinel, and the Freedom Walk War Memorial, both honoring Centralia soldiers who lost their lives during World War I. The statue, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is also a remembrance to the deaths that occurred during the city's 1919 Armistice Day Riot. The Freedom Walk was built in 1993 and presents the individual names of veterans who perished in military combat since the First World War.
Along the Skookumchuck River, near Hayes Lake in the shopping district, lies the 4.5-acre (1.8 ha) Riverside Park. The land, originally developed by a local rotary club, was donated to the city in 1983. The park contains a 44,000 square feet (4,087.73 m) skate park and a covered playground. The Fort Borst blockhouse was temporarily relocated to the site in the late 1910s.
A sports complex known as Bob Peters Field is situated at the Centralia College campus. Named after a long-serving athletic director at the school, the 4.0-acre (1.6 ha) site hosts fields for baseball, softball, and soccer. It was completed in 2023 and was built, in part, by using over $3 million of student fees.
A community pool, known as the Veteran's Memorial Pearl Street Pool, was built in the 1950s in Centralia's downtown district. Known succinctly as the Pearl Street Pool, it once contained a bathhouse. The city owned and oversaw operations of the facility until the 1980s when it was transferred to a local nonprofit. Centralia would regain possession of the pool in 2008 but would shut it down in 2011 due to a combination of expensive repairs and maintenance, lack of funds, and a decrease in staffing. Since its 2011 cessation, various city and community groups have made improvements to the recreation parcel by adding a playground and spray park. Despite several attempts to raise funds by tax levies and bonds to cover the $5 million renovation and rebuild costs, the pool has remained unfunded since its closure. In 2022, the city council voted to place the decision to perpetually close the site on a voter ballot but in 2023 rescinded the decision after another failed levy attempt and made the ceasing of operations at the pool permanent. The city would fill the pool with dirt, for liability and injury concerns, months later. A second community pool, created by a bond passed in the 1970s, is run under a joint contract between the city, the school district, and a local fitness company. Given the moniker, the Centralia Community Pool, it is open to all residents but priority for use of the facility is first given to children and school activities.
Centralia's largest park is Fort Borst Park located at the junction of the Chehalis and Skookumchuck rivers. The park contains the original Borst Home, a reproduced schoolhouse, and replicated pioneer church from the 1860s that was completed in 2021. The park hosts an annual Christmas-themed "Fort Borst Park Drive-Through Lights" that includes a food drive and also raises funds for the park department.
Located within Fort Borst Park is Centralia's NW Sports Hub. Officially opened in 2014, the 76,500 square feet (7,107.08 m) complex is owned by a various group of Centralia government bodies and businesses. The hub contains enclosed buildings that house numerous volleyball and basketball courts and fields for indoor baseball and soccer. An attached outdoor component encompasses a mixture of previously built Little League and adult baseball fields, tennis courts, additional soccer fields, and the Centralia High School track stadium that can seat 3,500 people. The use of the complex is given first priority to the community over events held by private entities but the sports compound hosts various tournaments for high school sports, competitions for the Greater Seattle League, and planned college scouting events for local athletes.
Centralia is a non-charter code city with a council–manager form of government. The City Council consists of seven members with positions one through three being at-large positions.
Although slightly less so than Lewis County as a whole, Centralia is conservative and leans Republican.
Centralia College is the oldest continuously operating junior college in the state of Washington, and was founded on September 14, 1925.
Centralia's leading newspaper is The Chronicle, ranked seventeenth in the state based on weekday circulation, and serves most of Lewis County. There are also several community-based newspapers that are published bi-weekly, such as The Lewis County News and The East County Journal.
The Centralia area is served by two AM radio stations, KELA - 1470 AM and KITI - 1420 AM. The FM station, KCED - 91.3 FM operates from within the city. Radio broadcasts are accessible from nearby Chehalis stations KMNT - 104.3 FM and KACS - 90.5 FM. Centralia is able to pick up Winlock station KITI-FM - 95.1 FM as well as the transmission of KZTM - 102.9 FM from Olympia.
Amtrak, the national passenger rail system, provides service to Centralia station, stopping at the town's renovated 1912 railroad depot. Amtrak train 11, the southbound Coast Starlight, is scheduled to depart Centralia at 11:45am with service to Kelso-Longview, Portland, Sacramento, Emeryville, California (with bus connection to San Francisco), and Los Angeles. Amtrak train 14, the northbound Coast Starlight, is scheduled to depart Centralia at 5:57pm daily with service to Olympia-Lacey, Tacoma and Seattle. Amtrak Cascades trains, operating as far north as Vancouver, British Columbia and as far south as Eugene, Oregon, serve Centralia several times daily in both directions. BNSF trains in Centralia's downtown rail yard and on the mainline serve local and regional shippers, but can affect the timeliness of Amtrak service and are a noisy reminder of the days of the town's heyday as the crossroads of four major railroads (Union Pacific, Milwaukee Road, Great Northern and Northern Pacific).
- Charlie Albright, pianist
- Calvin Armstrong, American football player
- Ann Boleyn, singer
- Bob Coluccio, baseball player
- Merce Cunningham, modern dancer
- Noah Gundersen, singer
- Soren Johnson, video game designer
- James Kelsey, sculptor
- Craig McCaw, entrepreneur
- Angela Meade, operatic soprano
- C. D. Moore, U.S. Air Force general
- Patricia Anne Morton, first woman to serve as a Diplomatic Security special agent
- Lyle Overbay, baseball player
- Tavita Pritchard, American football coach
- Jimmy Ritchey, country music songwriter and record producer
- Detlef Schrempf, NBA player