Saturday, October 8, 2011

In search of PNW History: Centralia

I got off work from the ICU earlier than expected today so I headed home and attempted to take a nap. Unfortunately I had already consumed such a quantity of coffee that the attempt at napping was a failure. So I decided to go on a small adventure to the nearby town of Centralia, Washington about a half hour south from where I live in Lacey, Washington. Centralia has always interested me but even with having probably driven past it about 500 times going north and south on I-5 between the Portland area and the Puget Sound area I had only stopped at the stores and restaurants right off the freeway, I had never been to the historic down-town.

My interest in Centralia had begun at an early age during some sort of history class at Maple Grove Middle School in Battle Ground, Wash. My, perhaps a bit morbid, curiosity as a teenage boy was piqued when I heard the story of a gun-fight and massacre which had occurred in my own home-state of Washington. I never forgot hearing that story and for close to 20 years I've wanted to go check out where the events took place.

On November 11th, 1919, Armistice Day, a conflict between the local chapter of the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) and the local American Legion erupted when the Legionnaires, marching in the Armistice Day Parade came under attack. It seems that there are very different versions of what exactly happened that day from the Wobblies and from the Legionnaires. One version of events would have a Wobbly firing on and killing one of the legionnaires as he stood on the parade route which precipitated the rest of the conflict and the further killings. The other version would have a small group of legionnaires breaking off from those marching in the parade to attack the IWW Union Hall and the Wobblies firing upon the legionnaires in self-defense. Whatever happened exactly, four legionnaires were shot and killed by Wobblies and five others were wounded. One of the Wobblies, also a WWI veteran, who had been arrested for the killings of at least two legionnaires was seized by a mob, beaten and then hung to death from a bridge on the evening of November 11th.

So this afternoon I headed down to Centralia and drove the mile east of the freeway to the historic downtown area that I've wanted to drive for many years but had never seemed to have the time. I was happy to find some free public parking and was pleased by my first impression of the city with its many small businesses and sidewalks busy with pedestrians. I started walking, figuring that I would find something historic without having to ask any questions or consult any maps. My first find was a park with an impressive memorial to veterans who have fallen in WWI up to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It turns out that this statue called The Sentinel was initially erected in 1924 in honor of the four legionnaires killed. From the park I headed back into town and decided I would ask people if they knew where the events of that November day in 1919 had taken place. To my disappointment the people I asked, including an older couple and long-time residents of Centralia, had no idea what I was talking about.

"The Sentinel"

I remembered that I had read a detailed account of the events on Wikipedia so I pulled out my iPhone and pulled up the page on the Centralia massacre and sure enough it had a location of where the events had taken place, 2nd and Tower streets. So I started walking in that direction. As I got closer to my destination the buildings began looking less and less historical and more and more run-down but I thought maybe I would at least find a plaque or something. But when I got to 2nd and Tower there was basically nothing there, just a grassy lot, a bowling alley and a nursery nearby.

Historic downtown Centralia

This event in Washington State History inspired bitter feelings for
many years. So maybe the people just wanted to forget about it and move on. I can understand that. But as a history-nerd I was a little disappointed. I wanted to find something more. But it was interesting to finally see a town I have driven by many times. It was also good to find a small diversion from all-consuming medicine. Hopefully in the future I'll also have time to go and explore some more local historic places and write some more posts like this one.


Ed said...

Centralia, PA also has a very interesting history... :-),_Pennsylvania

Matt said...

Ed, I actually read the history of Centralia, PA when I was getting ready to write this blog post. I just searched for Centralia and the Pennsylvania town came up. It was an interesting read. Hope all is well with you brother.