On January 8, 1875, George Washington (1817-1905) and his wife Mary Jane file the plat that establishes the town of Centerville, soon to be renamed Centralia, in Lewis County in Southwest Washington. George Washington, a pioneer from Virginia, is the son of an African American slave and a woman of English descent. For the next 30 years, he is a leading citizen, promoter, and benefactor of the town he founds.
Washington was born in Frederick County, Virginia, on August 15, 1817. When his father, a slave, was sold and taken from the area soon after George’s birth, his mother left him with a white couple named Anna and James Cochran (or Cochrane), who raised him. While George was still a child, the Cochrans moved west to Ohio and then Missouri. As an adult, Washington tried his hand at several businesses in Missouri and Illinois, but was frustrated each time by discriminatory laws. By 1850 he decided to head farther west in the hope of finding more freedom. The Cochrans joined him, and on March 15, 1850, the family set out with a wagon train heading west. They settled first in Oregon City, but within a few years crossed the Columbia River into what would soon become Washington Territory.
Staking a Claim
In 1852, Washington began a claim where the Skookumchuck River joins the Chehalis River, becoming the fourth settler in the area where he would later found the town of Centralia. The spot had long been a home of the Chehalis Indians, and Washington recognized the river junction as a prime spot for a settlement. He cleared land, built a cabin, and began farming. Because Oregon Territory had passed a law barring settlement by African Americans, Washington had James and Anna Cochran file a claim under the Donation Land Claim Act for 640 acres in the area. When the claim was proved up by four years residence, and Washington Territory, which did not bar African American ownership, had come into existence, the Cochrans deeded the property to Washington.
When he was in his 50s, some years after Anna and James Cochran had died, Washington met and married Mary Jane Cooness (or Cornie), a widow of African American and Jewish descent. In 1872, the Northern Pacific Railroad, advancing north from the Columbia River to Puget Sound, crossed the Washingtons’ land. They recognized that their land would be a central point on the railroad between Kalama, on the Columbia, and Tacoma, on the Sound, and decided to start a town on the site. Over the supper table, they laid out a town centered around a little store that their neighbor Isaac Wingard operated nearby.
Platting the Town
On January 8, 1875, the Washingtons filed the plat for their town, which they called Centerville, at the Lewis County courthouse in nearby Chehalis. The initial plat consisted of four blocks platted into lots, which Washington offered for sale at $10 per lot to anyone who would settle in the town. Washington later filed additional plats, adding to the size of the town. The Washingtons gave land to their Baptist congregation for a church and cemetery, and helped build the church. They also set aside land for a public square, which became Centralia’s City Park, now named George Washington Park.
The town grew steadily. But while settlers liked the location, and the favorable terms Washington offered, they did not care for the name Centerville, in part because the town was confused with one of the same name near Goldendale, Klickitat County. By 1883, the name was changed to Centralia, based on the suggestion of a settler from Centralia, Illinois. In 1886, Centralia was incorporated.
By 1889, when Washington Territory became a state, the population of Centralia was nearing 1,000. Those were boom times, and within little more than a year, the population had climbed to more than 3,000. By 1891, George Washington had sold 2000 lots.The Washingtons donated $10,000 to the building fund, and William and Jane Bryan donated five acres of their homestead for the school grounds. (Bryan was a former valet from Pennsylvania; his wife was a former slave from Virginia.) The new Grace Seminary became a city landmark; although the building was razed in 1938, the area is still known as Seminary Hill.
A Civic Leader
Mary Jane Washington died in 1888. George Washington remained an active civic leader in the town he and his wife had founded. He was noted for his willingness to help fellow residents in many ways, including selling property for little money down, offering loans at no interest, and providing work when no other was available.
Washington’s assistance became crucial when the panic of 1893 hit and Centralia, along with the rest of the country, went into an economic downspin for most of the decade. On his own initiative, Washington organized a private relief program for needy residents. He drove to Portland, Oregon, by wagon to bring back tons of staples like rice, flour, and sugar, which he distributed along with lard and bacon that he bought wholesale in Chehalis. Washington declined to foreclose on mortgages he held, and when other properties went up for auction, he bought them to save the town from absentee ownership or bankruptcy. Although population and property values declined, Centralia survived and by the end of the decade began to rebound, entering the twentieth century with a population of around 1,600.
Washington remained active and involved in business and civic affairs until shortly before his death on August 26, 1905, 11 days after his 88th birthday. The mayor proclaimed a day of mourning, asking that all businesses close during Washington’s funeral, reputed to be the largest in Centralia’s history. The funeral was held at the Baptist church Washington had supported, and the founder of Centralia was buried in the cemetery he had donated.