All Over The Map: Searching for Washington’s historic smokestacks

May 13, 2022, 6:42 AM | Updated: 8:31 am

It was recently added to the state’s Heritage Register and it’s one of the tallest structures of its kind in Washington, so you may have to crane your neck and tilt your head back to get a good look at a towering century of Northwest history.

Onalaska is in Lewis County, about a hundred miles south of Seattle and roughly 10 miles east of I-5. It’s an old timber town – so much so, the mascot of Onalaska High School is the Loggers.

The recent addition to the Washington Heritage Register is a tall and skinny artifact of an old mill that closed 80 years ago. The official name is the “Carlisle Lumber Company Smokestack,” which now stands in Carlisle Lake Park.

John Blair is a native Onalaskan who led the Heritage Register nomination process.

“You can see it from a lot of different places, especially on the hillsides looking down into Onalaska,” Blair told KIRO Newsradio on Thursday. “It’s about 225 feet tall, so it’s very noticeable. And it’s just a big concrete tower, a very tall and incredible landmark.”

Blair told KIRO Newsradio that the smokestack has been there for as long as he can remember and is a beloved part of the local landscape and horizon. In the research he did for the Heritage Register nomination, Blair was determined the smokestack was built sometime in the 1920s, but exactly when is unclear. Carlisle Lumber Company first built a mill at Onalaska in 1916; the stack was part of the electric-generating steam plant built to power the mill around 1920.

But why so tall?

“It was to take the smoke out of the area where the mill was and to disperse it above the town,” Blair said.

Onalaska was a company town named by Carlisle Lumber after Onalaska, Arkansas, where Carlisle also had a mill. The name’s origins purportedly come from a Scotch poet named Thomas Campbell and a line from his 1799 poem, “Pleasures of Hope” – in reference to Unalaska, an island in the Aleutians.

Now far he sweeps, where scarce a summer smiles,

On Behrring’s rocks, or Greenland’s naked isles;

Cold on his midnight watch the breezes blow,

From wastes that slumber in eternal snow;

And waft, across the wave’s tumultuous roar,

The wolf’s long howl from Oonalaska’s shore.

Unalaska” (spelled “Oonalaska” by the poet) is an anglicization of an Indigenous Aleut word; “Onalaska” is an alternate spelling that took hold in Arkansas – as well as in Washington, and supposedly, in two other Carlisle mill locations in Wisconsin and Texas.

John Blair is retired and serves as a board member of the not-for-profit group called Onalaska Alliance which manages the privately-owned by publicly accessible park where the smokestack stands. Also in the park is the old mill pond, now called Carlisle Lake. It’s a popular fishing spot because it has its own hatchery run by those Loggers from the nearby high school.

Blair says that the six-month effort to nominate the enduring chimney to the Washington Heritage Register is part of a larger strategy to attract visitors to explore the history of Onalaska and spend money at local businesses, such as The Carlisle Bar & Grill, a history-themed restaurant his brother recently opened in town.

When the sprawling Carlisle mill complex was shut down in 1942, what had been as many as 900 jobs all went away and nearly wiped out Onalaska’s economy. After the closure, fire later damaged much of the mill, and then most of the buildings were demolished. The stack was left standing because it was too expensive and dangerous to tear down.

John Blair says big earthquakes in the Northwest in 1949, 1965, and 2001 didn’t damage the stack, nor did at least one attempt by Onalaska High School students in the 1960s to knock it over with dynamite detonated at the stack’s 12-foot diameter base. Openings in the stack’s lower reaches that were once possible for people to climb inside were bricked over many years ago.

The Search for Other Old Smokestacks

All Over The Map would love to get help from KIRO listeners to identify and collect photos of other historic smokestacks in Washington and the greater Pacific Northwest – much like we did a few years ago, with listener help, for old locomotives.

For example, two smokestacks come immediately to mind. One is in Monroe, right along the south side of US Highway 2 – and now standing alone in the middle of a grocery store parking lot, but originally built for a Carnation Milk Condensery. The other is in Stanwood, just south of town across SR-532 – left over from the old Hamilton Lumber Mill, and soon to become part of Stanwood Hamilton Landing Park.

KIRO Newsradio would like to hear about the history of other smokestacks, but we especially want to see current photos taken by listeners – not just grabbed off an image search – so that we can assemble an online gallery of smokestack images to share via MyNorthwest. We will happily credit photographers. Please send you smokestack photos via email to [email protected].

Along with sharing photos with your favorite radio station, John Blair encourages those other Evergreen State towns with smokestacks to think about nominating their local specimens to the Washington Heritage Register.

“I would encourage anybody to get it on a historic register, especially if there’s any history connected to it,” Blair said. “We’re a small town, and so it helps. We’re trying to highlight things and promote tourism and different things like that.”

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 or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Searching for Washington’s historic smokestacks