Posted By Toutle Trekker

Toutle River bolt drive (Cowlitz Co. Historical Museum photo)Cowlitz Co. Museum Photo

While sitting here on virus lockdown, I’ve had some time to research the history of the Toutle River.  Sometimes the past is key to the present, and nowhere is this truer than in river access.  In Washington, the state owns the beds and shores of “navigable” rivers.  In the cases where a river has moved, or the state has sold the bed,  navigable rivers are still subject to a public easement for river based activities like boating and fishing, even where they flow over private land.  This principle is called the “Public Trust Doctrine” and basically it says, the public always has certain rights to waterways, even if the title is privately held. 

OK, I’m no lawyer, and some of this is a bit grey-area, but if you want to learn more, check out online “The Public Trust Doctrine and the Coastal Management Zone in Washington” by the state Department of Ecology. 

The key question then becomes, “What makes a river navigable?”  There are state and federal standards, but the basic rule is that if a river is used, or capable of being used, for useful commerce in its natural condition, then it is a navigable river.  The courts decide navigability, and the history of how a river was used at statehood is the deciding factor. 

Digging through online newspapers, history books, and numerous Cowlitz Historic Quarterlies, I’ve compiled evidence that the Toutle River was our original highway of commerce.  Even locals might be surprised to learn that the region’s first industry wasn’t logging timber for lumber, but was cutting cedar shingle bolts for roofing.  By 1883 Castle Rock had its first cedar mill on the banks of the Cowlitz River, and the bolts to supply it, were floated in from the Toutle River.  For nearly forty years, the industry was the cornerstone of settlement and development in the Toutle valley.  Homesteaders relied on the sale of shingle bolts for nearly all of their hard cash.  Laborers lived from one cedar drive to the next.  Censuses of the time have listed occupations such as “riverman” and “river driving laborer”.  In the 1890’s, when floods flushed bolts out to sea, the economy of Toutle nearly collapsed. 

My great-grandfather had a bolt camp in Kid Valley across from where 19 Mile House is today.  He lived on-site and employed several workers.  Great-grandma was the cook.  They cut the cedar into lengths of about 56 inches, and would create a chute of logs to slide the bolts down to the river bank.  Each bolt was branded with the owners mark, and with the higher water, the lengths of cedar were floated downstream in annual “bolt drives”.  Men walked along the shore, prodding the bolts along and breaking up jams.  Because drives could take weeks, a cook boat and blanket boat followed with supplies.  I’ve found references to bolt drives from Spirit Lake down the entire North Toutle River, from Soda Springs on Green River, and far up the South Toutle.  One famous photo shows 5000 cords (a stack 4’ x 4’x 8’) of bolts in a jam on the South Toutle River!  Smaller creeks were also used to move bolts, sometimes with the aid of “splash” dams, which would release water to flush the bolts downstream. To a lesser extent, logs, ties, and specialized 7-foot bolts also took the trip.

By 1930 much of the cedar along the rivers and streams had been cut, and soon logging trains and roads replaced the rivers for getting the wood out.  But the history of these forgotten cedar drives could be the gift of the past to the present.  Someday a judge or court could affirm that the Toutle River is “navigable” based on this robust history of commerce, ensuring that we can float or fish forever.  But that determination has not been made yet. 

What does all this mean for today?  Can you float by: YES, absolutely.  Can you walk along the shore?  Most probably.   Always stay below the high water mark, do not cross private uplands, and for good measure carry a fishing pole and a fishing license, since "fishing" is listed as a right  alongside navigation.

See it: The Castle Rock Riverfront Trail passes the location of cedar mills on the Cowlitz River, with an interpretive board about that history.  From Exit 49, turn toward downtown Castle Rock, cross the railroad bridge, and take the next right into the trailhead parking lot.  The mill site is "downstream" 1/4 mile.

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