By Holly Chamberlain previous story | next story | all stories
Named from the Chinook term for “smoke on the water”, the lower Columbia River community of Skamokawa was based historically on the economic triad of fishing, farming (especially dairying), and logging. Residents of “little Venice” used waterways such as Skamokawa Creek, Steamboat and Brooks sloughs, and the Columbia River as their highways, and early buildings were oriented with their main entrances facing the water. Visitors arrived by boat as well, often courtesy of the steamboat which traveled between Portland and Astoria.
Euroamerican settlement was well underway here by the 1850s, and by the mid-1870s, the number of residents merited a road district, store, post office, and the first school. Continuing growth as the century moved to a conclusion meant that the community needed a larger, more permanent school. The 1894 Skamokawa Central School was designed by Portlander Allen Riley, who was a draftsman for architect Phillip Chappell-Browne at the time. Constructed by contractor Masten, Lowell, Madden, and Sweet, the two-story wooden building with pedimented portico and bell tower was opened with a community picnic and program of speakers.
School consolidation in 1926 meant closure of the Central School a year later. The building was threatened with demolition in the 1930s during the construction of State Highway 4 but the Fraternal Order of Redmen, which had been active in Skamokawa since 1902, saved the building by moving it up the hill above the highway route and turning it into a meeting house. The decline of the fraternal movement nationwide and locally, however, led to abandonment of the building and its subsequent deterioration.
The non-profit Friends of Skamokawa Foundation, formed in 1985, purchased the building, listed in the National Register in 1976, and worked toward its rehabilitation for use as a museum and cultural center. They were helped along the way by the Washington Trust, which helped highlight the building’s early needs with tours for members organized by Carolyn Feasey. Subsequently, the Friends of Skamokawa Foundation received a Valerie Sivinski Washington Preserves Fund grant
in 1999 for an historic photo display, and another in 2012 toward restoration of the signature bell tower.
From school to fraternal hall to museum, with a move along the way, the Redmen Hall welcomes visitors today as the River Life Interpretive Center where they will find exhibits about the unique early history of Skamokawa.
This story is part of a series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. Please consider making a special gift
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