Surveyor Peter Crawford founded Kelso in the 1840s. A Scottish native, Crawford fell in love with the area and named it “Kelso” after his hometown in Scotland.

Kelso Washington

In the 1840’s, Kelso was founded along the banks of the Cowlitz River by a surveyor named Peter Crawford. He named the town after his Scottish home. Kelso has a unique historical past. It holds a story of struggle against competition in business and professions, its disasters and its faith in itself to overcome all odds and to expand, grow and progress in every way. The complete and colorful history of Kelso is recorded in detail in a book by local resident/author Camilla Summers (deceased). Her book, ‘About Kelso’, takes the reader from the time before Peter Crawford through the effects of the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980.

The earliest known inhabitants of Kelso were Native Americans from the Cowlitz tribe. The Cowlitz people were separated into the Upper (or Taidnapam) and Lower (or Mountain) Cowlitz tribes, who were members of the Sahaptin and Salish language families, respectively. In 1855, European explorers noted that there numbered over 6000 individuals of the Cowlitz Tribe.

Kelso was founded by Peter W. Crawford, a Scottish surveyor, who, in 1847, took up the first donation land claim on the Lower Cowlitz River. Crawford platted a townsite which he named after his home town of Kelso, Scotland. The original plat was dated and filed in October 1884. It became incorporated in 1889.

In the late 19th century and into the first part of the 20th century, Kelso was the center for commercial smelt fishing on the Cowlitz River. In 1910, according to the Oregonian Newspaper, 5,000 tons of fish were caught. The Kelso Chamber of Commerce created the slogan in 1956 and became known as the Smelt Capital of the World. The Cowlitz River has historically had heavy runs of smelt and were shipped to markets around the country. Smelt numbers have declined significantly in the past several decades possibly due to overharvesting, global climate change and habitat loss.

Pieces of the mysterious 1947 Maury Island incident took place in Kelso. A military aircraft carrying suspicious slag-like material, supposedly from a UFO, crashed in southeast Kelso.

On May 18, 1980, being only 24 miles (39 km) away, Kelso residents experienced the shock wave caused by the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Called the largest volcanic eruption in historic times in the contiguous United States,[12] Kelso received large amounts of volcanic ash through the air and from the massive mudflow caused by the eruption transported by the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers. Many areas of the city, including the Three Rivers Golf Course are built on volcanic ash dredged from the Cowlitz River by inmates in state custody and volunteers.

The Cowlitz County Historical Museum provides many exhibits on the history of the local area.

Start your Next Great Adventure in Kelso!

Kelso Events Calendar

Today, the city continues to honor its roots with the annual Highlander Festival, which features piping and dancing, golf tournament, and parade.

Latest Past Events

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Cowlitz County Tourism
1900 7th Ave Lonview, WA 98632