Kelso, Washington serves as the county seat of Cowlitz County and has a population of just under 12,000. The small city borders Longview, Washington and is part of the Longview-Kelso metropolitan area with a population of 102,000. Known to the natives as Tiahanakshih, Kelso was home to one of the original Cowlitz Indian village sites that prospered along the Cowlitz River. In the late 1800s the city was incorporated and named after the founder’s hometown of Kelso in Scotland. Today, the tribal office for the Cowlitz Tribe is located in nearby Longview, Washington.
Due to its convenient location on I-5, Kelso provides easy access to nearby cities, mountains, and beaches. Kelso is only 45 miles from Vancouver, Washington, about 50 miles from Portland, Oregon, 120 miles from Seattle, Washington, and about 80 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Often referred to as the “Three Rivers” area, Kelso is located at the confluence of the Cowlitz, Coweeman, and Columbia rivers. Kelso was once the center of commercial smelt fishing and was referred to as the Smelt Capital of the World. Residents and visitors of the area take advantage of fishing for salmon, sturgeon, steelhead, and trout in the many rivers and lakes in Cowlitz County and the surrounding area. Kelso’s location also provides easy access to several winter ski resorts in Washington and Oregon such as White Pass and Mount Hood.
The area is also home to the annual Highlander Festival, a festival of dancing, games and events celebrating Kelso’s Celtic heritage. Kelso High School is the primary public high school in Kelso. Students are referred to as “Hilanders” and pay tribute to the city’s Celtic history through bagpipe performances in traditional kilts at sporting events and other school activities. Schroeder Field, the Kelso High stadium, draws crowds from around the area, particularly for the rivalry football games between Kelso and R.A. Long High School, referred to as the “Battle of the Plaid.” Schroeder Field seats 5,000 people and is the largest stadium in the Greater St. Helens Football League. The Kelso School District also includes 7 elementary schools and two middle schools.
The area is home to several parks and additional sports fields as well. Tam O’Shanter is a 38-acre park located adjacent to Kelso High School. The park is home to the new Rister Stadium, Heerensperger Field, concession stands, five baseball fields, three softball fields, a soccer field, a basketball court, horseshoe pits, picnic areas, restrooms, a disc golf circuit, and a large playground. In the summer, families visit the Catlin Rotary Spray Park to picnic and enjoy the water spray play area. Other parks include the Rhododendron Gardens and the Lads & Lassies Park. The Kelso Rotary Skate Park includes 10,000 square feet of bowl and street elements for skateboarders and is open year round. Riverside County Park sits alongside the Cowlitz River and is a common place for fishing, picnics, and various celebrations, such as birthdays and family reunions.
Kelso is also home to the historic Kelso Multimodal Transportation Center, which is serviced by Amtrak as well as commercial and intercity bus services. The station was originally built in 1912 for the Northern Pacific Railway. Early Kelso was inhabited primarily by loggers and became known as “Little Chicago” for its numerous taverns and brothels. “Little Chicago” drew loggers from all over the area until the FBI finally forced the town to shut down the brothels, taverns, and gambling establishments in the 1950s. Residents and visitors in the area can learn more about the history of Kelso and the surrounding area at the Cowlitz County Museum located in Kelso.
Kelso is a small town that is starting to grow. Right next to I-5 is the Three Rivers Mall, which is home to the new Regal Premium Experience 12 screen movie theater. The Kelso Regal Cinema is a facility with state of the art technology for the ultimate movie going experience. The theater includes digital projection in every auditorium, a crystal-clear picture, Real D 3D projection and stadium seating, which allows for a fully unobstructed view. The Three Rivers Mall is also the new location of the Kelso Public Library as well as the newly opened Planet Fitness.