Nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains less than 25 miles northeast of Vancouver, Yacolt was once a gathering place for local Indians to trade with coastal and intermountain tribes. The Klickitat word Yacolt means haunted valley or a place of evil spirits. It may have come from an incident when five children were lost picking wild berries. The demon, Yacolt, had taken them, so the story goes.
The Yacolt Burn
Another kind of demon visited the area from September 11 to 13, 1902. The Yacolt Burn, the worst fire in Washington’s history, killed at least 38 people and left at least 146 families homeless. The flames reached the town of Yacolt and then turned north. Homes, churches, barns, and livestock were lost.
Fanned by unusually dry winds from the east, the fire traveled about 30 miles in 36 hours and destroyed 238,920 acres in Clark, Cowlitz, and Skamania counties. About 12 billion board feet of timber went up in flames.
The sky was so dark that some residents thought a mountain had erupted, and a steamboat on the Columbia River had to use a searchlight to navigate. Newspaper reports from the period say that in many cases people were saved only by rushing to the creeks, where they were joined by wild deer, bear, and coyotes fleeing the wall of fire.
Logging and the railroad
After the fire, loggers salvaged a great deal of lumber from the area and it became a hub for lumber shipping in Washington state via the Battle Ground, Yacolt, and Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.
The person behind the railroad was apparently Vancouver businessman L.M. Hidden. In 1886 Hidden and five associates left Vancouver to survey a proposed railroad that would serve Vancouver and Yakima by way of Klickitat Pass. A year later the Vancouver, Klickitat, and Yakima Railroad was incorporated with $1 million in funding.
While the line never made it to Yakima, it did transport lots of lumber to markets in Vancouver and Oregon, especially through the 1920s. This included much of the wood salvaged after the Yacolt Burn in 1902.
The town was also growing. Yacolt was one of two post offices created by early settlers in the area. The other was Garner. In 1908, six years after the fire, residents selected the name Yacolt over Garner and the town was incorporated with that name.
Lewis and Clark railway information: www.clark.wa.gov/public-works/transportation/railroad.html