Port of Kalama's new administrative building to include center recounting city's history

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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When the Port of Kalama decided to build new administrative offices, it saw an opportunity to tell the story of how the small Cowlitz County town, tucked in a tight spot between the Columbia River and rugged hills, came to be.

Now, after years of discussion and planning, the port has authorized construction of a $4.5 million waterfront building that will include the Transportation Interpretive Center, where the story of how transportation shaped Kalama will be told.

The three-member Port of Kalama commission this week awarded a construction contract to Olympia-based Berschauer Group for the 13,500-square-foot building, to be completed by next fall.

The building, which will be on port-owned land near the Columbia River, will resemble a traditional waterfront warehouse of the 1800s. The interpretive center will focus on the area's history as a regional commercial and transportation hub and will house cultural artifacts, memorabilia and replicas of the past.

The city exists because its constrained geography made it a hub for rail, road, and of course river transportation, noted Liz Newman, the Port of Kalama's marketing and communication manager. One of Kalama's most important moments took place in the spring of 1871, when Gen. John W. Sprague drove the first spike of the transcontinental Northern Pacific Railroad. The city was incorporated later that same year.

The site was chosen because it was in an area without winter ice, was easily accessible to ships coming upstream on the Columbia, and was convenient to Oregon's Willamette Valley by steamship, according to historical accounts.

The interpretive center will include transportation equipment and other artifacts, some of which have been on loan to the Cowlitz County Historical Museum, Newman said.

The building will house the port's administrative staff of about 16 employees. It will be slightly south of the port's existing administrative building at 380 West Marine Drive, which is located on the marina that's often congested in the peak fishing season, Newman said.