All Over The Map: How’d you like to spend Christmas in Christmas Canyon?

Dec 17, 2021, 5:05 AM | Updated: 12:05 pm
USGS map published in 1998 shows Christmas Canyon along the North Fork of the Lewis River east of Cougar, Washington. (USGS) The area where Christmas Canyon was created, as it appears on a 1919 USGS topographic map. (USGS) A story by Leverett Richards for The Oregonian in January 1934 includes a photo of Christmas Canyon and a diagram describing how the new part of the landscape was created. (The Oregonian)

While it took a listener to solve the mystery of the origins of Thanksgiving Island, it’s no secret where the name for Cowlitz County’s Christmas Canyon comes from.

Christmas Canyon is not far from Mount St. Helens in Southwest Washington – near the town of Cougar, and what’s now called Beaver Bay Campground. This incredibly young part of the landscape was named at the end of 1933 – in the middle of the darkest days of the Great Depression – following a cataclysmic weather and geological event.

The details about what happened that late December nearly 90 years ago come from newspaper accounts published in January 1934. Most of the eyewitnesses to the creation of Christmas Canyon were men who were stationed in that area at Civilian Conservation Corps – or CCC – camps. The CCC was a New Deal-era program from the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt to put unemployed men to work making improvements to public lands, in this case, the old Columbia National Forest (later renamed for Gifford Pinchot).

A big flood of the Lewis River had struck the Woodland area in December 1933; Woodland is near where I-5 is now, not too many miles north of Vancouver, Washington. The flood came from a combination of heavy rains along with warm temperatures that melted snow in the foothills and at the base of Mount St. Helens.

Close to the volcano, in an old lava flow immediately south of the mountain and not far from the North Fork of the Lewis River, rain and melted snow created a huge underground reservoir – or, at least, all that excess water filled in the millions of cubic feet of porous material beyond its carrying capacity.

At some point a few days before Christmas – probably around Dec. 21, 1933 – that underground backlog of runoff suddenly broke loose. A little trickling brook called Dry Creek became a torrent, and all those untold millions of gallons of water tore through the landscape between the lava crust area and the river.

The massive and violent rush of water created a new geographic feature just north of the Lewis River which was named – because of the time of year, of course – Christmas Canyon. An article in The Oregonian in 1984 describes Christmas Canyon just after its birth as “more than 300 feet deep, 500 to 600 feet wide and more than a quarter of a mile long.”

Credit for the name “Christmas Canyon” – and for “Pandemonium Creek,” the name given the torrent of water that temporarily replaced Dry Creek – goes to a newspaper reporter for the Clark County Sun and The Oregonian named Leverett Richards. In late December, Richards went to investigate the situation near the Lewis River when he heard that CCC workers had been cut off by the new canyon and creek, and were hand-building a new bridge in order to be able to cross and get back to town. He used the colorful new names in stories he wrote for The Oregonian.

Richards also made a second visit to the area in early 1934 and found what were believed to be the origins of the washout – evidence of the huge temporary backlog of underground water and the violent flood. One of the highlights of Leverett Richard’s reportage is how he describes the location of the CCC camp where the workers building the bridge were based: “near Olie Peterson’s hermit hangout a mile and a half east of the new creek.”

Perhaps, as KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross notes, Mr. Peterson was something of an inspiration to Harry Truman, another resident already living in the area, who would become famous in the days before the 1980 eruption of Mt. Saint Helens.

The name Christmas Canyon was used informally for decades and Christmas Canyon was even printed on a few maps. It wasn’t added to the official list maintained by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ Board on Geographic Names until 1984. According to The Oregonian, the nomination was submitted by an elderly logger from Kelso named Willard Reese, who remembered what had happened 50 years earlier.

Other yuletide-inspired place names in the Evergreen State include Christmas Creek in Jefferson County (given that name on Christmas 1892). Boxley Creek, which flows into the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River in King County, is also known as Christmas Creek, thanks to a flood in December of 1918.

Special thanks to Lee Corbin for suggesting this topic and for sharing his Christmas Canyon research.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: How’d you like to spend Christmas in Christmas Canyon?