CENTRALIA, Wash. – Before outlet malls and fast-food restaurants decorated the highways, lumber mills, mining and manufacturing drove the engines of Western Washington’s small-town economy.
A web of railroads, rivers and roads earned Centralia the nickname “Hub City” in the early 1900s. Halfway between the Columbia River and Puget Sound, the town thrived as factories turned out shingles and gutters, household goods made from brass and iron, ice, cigars, bottled milk and marble.
Today, vacant storefronts and “For Lease” signs in empty windows remind visitors that no town is immune from the current economic downturn, but Centralia is used to making it through hard times. The downtown area survived the Great Depression, the decline of the timber and mining industries and the construction of Interstate 5.
Historic hotels and taverns that once teemed with loggers, miners and railroad workers now house antique and vintage shops, small restaurants, even an urban winery.
It takes about 90 minutes to drive to Centralia from Seattle, but riding the rails is more in the spirit of this trip.
7:30 a.m. – All aboard
Railroads have been a part of Centralia’s history since Northern Pacific started laying tracks in 1872. The town founder, George Washington, the son of a black slave, plotted out a four-block area near the tracks that became the town of Centerville, later renamed Centralia.
Stand in any spot more than an hour and you’re likely to hear a train horn. Amtrak trains make five trips daily to and from Seattle, skirting Puget Sound (ask for a water-view seat on the west side of the coach) with views of pebble beaches, whitewashed ferries and snow-capped mountains.
Passengers arrive at a depot built in 1912, and restored with curved ceilings, brass water fountains and original oak seats.
Walk west one block to Tower Avenue, one of two main drags (the other is Pearl Street) in the historical center. Most everything is within an easy stroll.
9:15 a.m. – Salmon scramble
Step inside the McMenamins Olympic Club, 112 N. Tower, with its Tiffany-style lampshades, mirrored bar, tile floors and wooden tables arranged around a big potbelly stove.
Think back to the early 1900s when Centralia was booming. This “gentlemen’s resort,” as it was called, is where men came to drink and spend their money.
Restored a few years ago by Oregon’s McMenamin brothers as a hotel, pub, theater, restaurant and pool hall, the Olympic Club was one of the few bars to survive prohibition. A tunnel in the basement to the nearby railroad tracks served as a conduit for moving booze in and out of the saloon.
Make breakfast here your first stop. There’s a kids’ menu with Amaretto French toast for $3.50. You and a friend can split a salmon scramble and a side of flapjacks infused with the brewery’s Terminator Stout.
Rainy-day plan: Come back later for one of the $3 first-run movies shown three times daily in the old-time theater furnished with stuffed couches and antique tables.
10 a.m. – Treasure hunting
Hunting for a vintage stove or bathtub? A red wagon, pie tins or a feather boa?
Chances are you’ll find a treasure or two in Centralia’s many antique malls and collectibles shops.
Most of the low-rise brick buildings used to house hotels and brothels on the upper floors. Catwalks connected the buildings, making it easy for the ladies to walk from one building to another to reach their clients.
Stop in the Shady Lady, 216 N. Tower, for a short history lesson from owner Holly Phelps, and maybe a tour of one of the 15 closet-sized former bedrooms upstairs.
Walk up the spiral staircase and peek inside a corner boutique called the Man Cave. Note the old newspaper clippings with headlines such as “Prostitute trampled on bridge by train.”
Other shops worth a stop:
• Centralia Perk Cafe, 101 S. Tower, in the Dr. Matz building, actually a former bank building, built in 1819, which also housed the offices of the town dentist.
Order an espresso from the takeout window and play a game of checkers at a sidewalk table, or wander inside for a root-beer float. Notice the pressed-tin ceilings and the unique “break room” inside the vault, where owner Linda Hamilton sometimes catches a cat nap.
• Slusher’s Coin Shop, 107 N. Tower. Coins aside, this is the place to go for a Hawaiian shirt. The store is divided down the middle, coins and military collectibles on one side, racks of $10 floral-patterned shirts on the other.
• Heymann Whinery Etc., 212 N. Tower. When Bob and Flossie Heymann outgrew their garage, they moved their wine-making operations downtown next to a shop they opened a few years earlier.
The Heymanns specialize in fruit wines made from Northwest fruits and berries. Stop in for a free tasting and a peek at the bottling and labeling operations. Ask to sample the soon-to-be-released Chocolate-Raspberry Merlot.
Noon – Berry Fields forever
The Berry Fields Cafe in the Centralia Square Antique Mall, 201 S. Pearl, is a 1950s-style diner with wooden floors, ceiling fans and a healthy breakfast and lunch menu with vegan and vegetarian choices.
The pies displayed in a big glass case make a good argument for eating dessert first. All are made fresh daily with whatever is in season; recent selections included blackberry, marionberry, apple and peach.
Take some time to wander around the mall in the elegantly restored former Elks Lodge. Antiques dealers have filled the nooks and crannies with furniture, glassware and vintage signs.
But prices can be high, so true bargain-hunters might want to walk across the street to the Visiting Nurses Foundation thrift shop, 222 S. Pearl. Proceeds fund home health and hospice programs.
1 p.m. – Murals and more
Murals around town depict bits and pieces of Centralia’s colorful history. Founder George Washington wears a brown suit and pocket watch and sits next to his dog in a mural painted on the side of the KeyBank building, 201 W. Main St.
More controversial is the large mural on the front of the Centralia Square Antique Mall. It recalls what’s commonly known as the Centralia Massacre, a violent confrontation on Armistice Day 1919 between American Legionnaires and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) labor union, resulting in six deaths.
Contributing to a lively modern arts scene (Centralia College is nearby) is Central Glass Works, 109 W. Main, where visitors can watch glassblowers in action.
North of the Amtrak station, Rebecca Staebler’s HubBub shop, at 505 N. Tower, sells one-of-a-kind pottery, hats, jewelry, shoes and decorative household items in a 100-year-old building decorated in 21st-century style.
Check out the backyard patio with its fire pit and the front half of a turquoise VW microbus converted into a bar.
2 p.m. – Outlet shopping
Anyone who’s driven between Seattle and Portland has likely noticed the Centralia Outlets flanking both sides of Interstate 5. The discount stores can be reached by bus from the Amtrak station.
Get off on the east side of I-5 for the Nike and Helly Hansen clearance stores. Visit the west side for other stores such as Coach, Dress Barn and Eddie Bauer (and if you’re hungry, a stop for pot roast or chicken fried steak at Country Cousin).
3:45 p.m. – Pool and a pint
Wait for the train back to Seattle over a quick pint ($3.25) in the Olympic Club’s backyard patio. Happy hour starts at 3 p.m.
Trains sometimes run late, so kill the time with a few games of pool ($5 an hour). The heavy wooden tables are original fixtures.
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