Longview celebrates 100 years with festivities, squirrel bridges
Mar 29, 2023, 8:59 AM | Updated: 12:40 pm
A centennial celebration is already underway — and will continue for most of this year — in Longview, the planned community which sprung forth in the southwest part of the state 100 years ago.
Longview is not just the place to cut across the Columbia River and bypass Portland to get to the Oregon Coast. It’s much more than that, though that is a pretty good reason to visit.
Longview is an intentional community, and its industrial founders thought of it as “Vision City.” It all made perfect sense a little over a hundred years ago when location scouts for a wealthy timber baron in Kansas City, Mo., set their sights on the thousands of acres of land required to build a new city.
According to lifetime Longview resident Reed Hadley, that timber baron – whose name was Robert A. Long, by the way, meaning he put the “Long” in Longview – was the catalyst for the perfect storm that resulted in Longview’s birth.
“We had a lot of timber, good transportation with the Columbia River and the Cowlitz River,” Hadley told KIRO Newsradio. “And we had a timber baron in the Midwest who was running out of forest. He looked out here and saw all the trees and decided to bring his mill out to Longview.
“They saw that [the area was mostly] floodplains,” Hadley continued. “So one of the first things they did was build dikes all around the city, and not just where the mill was going to be, but where the entire city was going to be.
“And from there, it took off,” Hadley said.
All that land reclamation – redirecting the Cowlitz River and building dikes and levees to create acres of space for commerce – is what made the new land (home to Cowlitz and other Indigenous people for millennia) inhabitable for a 20th-century project. It’s also the reason why no one else had built a settlement there of any size until Long, and his people purchased the real estate and invested in its development.
What the Long-Bell Lumber Company built was a sprawling mill complex and a lot of civic infrastructure, including things like roads, utilities, and schools. The company also sold land to those who wanted to build housing and retail.
Before Long and his people showed up, Kelso was already just across the Cowlitz River. It was founded in the 1880s, and to this day, a rivalry exists, though many think it would make sense for the communities to merge.
But a century ago, Hadley says, Kelso was marinated in sin.
“The founder of Longview was a very religious man, a teetotaler, and prohibition was in full swing when the city was created back in 1923,” Hadley said. “And he did not want his visitors to have to get off the train at Kelso because Kelso was full of brothels and taverns”
So, Hadley says, Long built a separate train depot across the river in Longview.
“That way, people would not have to go to Kelso,” Hadley said.
Robert A. Long passed away in the 1930s, so he never got to see Longview reach its full potential. Despite the Great Depression and then more recent dramatic shifts in the timber industry, which took their toll on that original vision of a hundred years ago, Longview endures as a unique Northwest community, says Hadley.
And Hadley isn’t just some guy from Longview. He’s the chair of the centennial committee, and his father chaired the 50th-anniversary celebrations back in 1973.
Looking ahead beyond the centennial, what does Hadley see for the future of “Vision City”?
“Where is Longview going? I think it’s maybe turning into more of a bedroom retirement community [because] we just can’t get the industry fired up,” Hadley said, though industrial activities are still happening along the town’s riverfront on the Columbia.
“The people that live here love it. We’ve got a beautiful park [and] it’s a great place for families, with a pretty low crime rate,” Hadley continued. “A lot of people who are retired are finding bargains here in the housing market and moving in.”
“But,” Hadley said, as a warning to any potential new residents, “we’re never going to be the entertainment capital of the world.”
Some of those current and currently happy Longviewers – Longviewites? Longviewarians? – might take issue with Hadley’s belief that the city will never become “the entertainment capital of the world.”
For instance, what about the historic and beautifully restored Columbia Theatre? Which Hadley says was actually saved by a volcanic eruption.
“It was built in 1923 [and] 1924, it’s a beautiful facility,” Hadley said. “And the Mount St. Helens eruption saved it. It was scheduled to be demolished on May 19, 1980. And then the mountain blew up, and people were too busy to knock it down.
“That’s a fact,” Hadley said
And not unlike how Mount St. Helens saved Longview’s historic theatre, a series of much smaller tragedies led to another civic amenity that easily classifies as world-class entertainment and which is unique to Longview, as far as anyone knows.
It all began roughly 60 years ago, says Hadley, when a man named Peters had an office in downtown Longview on Olympia Way.
“And he would see squirrels getting run over outside his window, and he felt sorry for them, so he constructed a bridge across Olympia Way,” Hadley said. “He called it the Nutty Narrows. And now have nine bridges across different roads, a couple of them have cameras on them, and squirrels actually use them.”
By “use them,” Hadley means the bridges — not the cameras. Though if squirrels were going to use cameras somewhere, chances are it would probably be Longview.
Most of those additional bridges are more recent than the original Nutty Narrows, Hadley says. The community began building new squirrel bridges about 11 years ago for an annual event called, naturally, Squirrel Fest. The 2023 edition will take place this August.
Hadley says festivities are underway now and will continue into the autumn. Highlights include an exhibit at the Cowlitz County History Museum, and a series of special events. The annual Independence Day event – the Go Forth Celebration – will have a centennial focus, and the second weekend in September will feature a gala celebration and lighted drone shows, as well as something called a “Pageant of Progress Parade” down Commerce Avenue.
For more information, visit the Longview Centennial web page.
And be sure to keep your eyes open – and your head up – for squirrels crossing Longview’s carefully planned, hundred-year-old streets.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.