History of the Cowlitz County Peace Officer

Cowlitz County has had a colorful history. Through it all, the Peace Officer has always been there. From the first Sheriff who who had to perform a public hanging to the deputies who had to corral a maurading elephant. Join me as I gather the facts and true stories that describe the journey of the law enforcement officer in Cowlitz County from 1854 through today.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cowlitz County's First Jail

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the Cowlitz County Fairgrounds, behind an old log cabin, is a black monolith of a structure with a quaint little roof and a small sign resting beneath the eaves that reads:

Cowlitz County’s FIRST JAIL

Now, being the astute observer that I am (and that’s a joke by the way), you would think that I would have been all over this when I began my journey through the history of Law Enforcement in Cowlitz County. Well as it turns out, and I hate to admit this but, I have never seen this before two weeks ago. I’ve lived in this area since 1975 and, like many other people that I’ve talked to, have passed right by this lost piece of history a million times.

But can this be Cowlitz County’s first jail? The idea and prospect began to intrigue me. However, as I’ve been told, beware of anything labeled as ‘the first’, ‘the biggest’, ‘the best’ or ‘the last’. The main reason being, anyone can say it, but not everyone can prove it. So to believe that this is the first jail is great in concept, but it must be proven.

This rustic looking cage is roughly 10’ x 8’ and is made of steel with an aged coat of black paint. There are two separate cells with doors that are at opposing ends of the structure. The top is covered with a small roof that was obviously constructed and installed when the structure arrived at its final resting place. However, the real roof is a steel mesh that matches the front. It appears as though it wasn’t homemade because it has an air of professionalism to its design. The uniformity of the rivets and the precise bends in the iron straps give it a look as though it was manufactured in a factory. A wall separates the two individual cells and allows the bunks to hang in tandem like reflections on each side of the wall. The age appears to be period although time hasn’t been kind to it. You can see where the weather is really beginning to take its toll. Rust permeates the back and edges along the seams allowing daylight and pine needles to coat the interior floor. The worst part is, there are no markings to be found to indicate who built it.

In speaking with David Freece at the Museum, he said that according to a November 20th, 1969 Daily News article, the jail was originally in the Kalama Courthouse and then moved to the Fairgrounds from Woodland where it was donated to the Cowlitz County Historical Society.

The 1890’s

The frontier was alive and well in Cowlitz County in the late 1800’s. Recorded in the Commissioner Meeting minutes in May of 1891, Jacob Umiker was paid $9.50 for “7 wild cat scalps and 1 cougar”. At the August 6th, 1891 Commissioner meeting, Harvey Johnson was paid $5 for one gray wolf scalp at the same meeting that the Commissioners stated they will no longer pay money for wild animal hides killed in Cowlitz County.

Although part of the frontier, the County was growing by leaps and bounds. Roads and bridges were being built and the County was establishing its future. The Kazano House in Kalama, an old hotel, was purchased by the County and was to become the courthouse. Once established, the courthouse, like today, was the hub of activity for the County.

From 1889-1893, Sheriff Ben Holmes was busy keeping order in the County. From attending County Commissioner meetings to housing prisoners, by all accounts Sheriff Holmes stayed busy. In 1891, his projected yearly salary was $1,550 and when needed, he would get help from his part time deputies.

One of the many duties that Sheriff Holmes was tasked with was guarding and housing prisoners. One of those prisoners was Robert L. Day. According to Leland Jackson’s book, “Early Castle Rock and North Cowlitz County, Washington”, Robert Day had the dubious distinction of being the first man hanged in Cowlitz County. With no testimony of the case preserved, Jackson wrote:

“…a coroner’s jury, called by Dr. J.E. Stevens, found that Day shot Thomas C. Beebe with a Winchester rifle near Day’s home on the Lewis River October 9th, 1891. J.T. Thornton was foreman of the jury which convicted Day of first degree murder.”

Jackson went on to describe how an impromptu necktie party was put on by friends of Beebe but was thwarted by Sheriff Holmes when he hid Day in the attic of a downtown store.

This situation may have prompted the need for a new, more secure jail to ensure the safety of the prisoner. Coincidently on November 2nd, 1891 (less than a month later), W.A. Williams spoke to the County Commissioners as a representative of the Pauly Jail Company. Williams stated that he could provide the County with a new jail cell. The Commissioners asked to recess until the next day so they could further consider the matter.

On November 3rd, 1891 10 O’clock in the morning. W.A Williams again stood before the County Commissioners and describes his one cell jail. The County agrees and a contract is written stating that:

“…W. A. Williams, contracting agent for the Pauly Jail Company of St. Louis, is hereby engaged to put a one cell jail in the jail room of the court house for $2,000.”

The contract is signed and Williams also agrees that if the Jail is ever in need of moving to anywhere in the County, he will do so for $50.

On November 6th, 1891, the following bills were allowed by the Commissioners:

Thomas Chatterson, One pair of handcuffs, $5
Ben Holmes, Boarding prisoners for 148 days, $148
Ben Holmes, Guarding prisoners 50 days at $1.50 per day, $77
Ben Holmes, Expenses as Sheriff for Aug, Sept, and Oct., $3.25
Ben Homes, Sundry expenses as Sheriff, $25
W.F. Morgan, Moving jail cell and barring windows, $30
L. Geoff, Justice for State V. Robert Day, $2.25
Thomas Chatterson, Constable for State V. Robert Day, $15.60

Just as a side note, throughout the Commissioners meeting records, A.G. Hoggett is noting for doing a lot of work for the County. He was paid to be a Deputy and a Bailiff during court and he frequently hauled lumber and firewood to the courthouse for $1. In February of 1892, A.G. Hoggett was paid $8 for, “hauling the jail to the courthouse”. Although unknown if they are related, John Hoggatt later served as Sheriff from 1919-1923. The spelling of the last names is slightly different but most names in the Commissioners records were spelled differently with each entry.

It appears as though Robert Day remained in custody from the time he was sentenced until the day of his execution. Day was visited by Dr. J.C. Darnell on May 6th, 1892. Dr. Darnell was paid a $1.50 for, “one visit and medicine for R. Day”. According to Leland Jacksons book;

“The hanging of Robert Day at 11:15 am on June 3rd, 1892, was the big social event of the summer. When Sheriff Holmes sprung the trap on the gallows in an open courtyard behind the courthouse, an estimated 1,550 to 2,000 persons from throughout the area were on hand to watch.”

The Cowlitz County Museum has possession of a photograph that is purported to be of this very event in which Robert Day, after being led from his jail cell, was hanged for murder. In the eerily grainy picture, when looked at closely, you can see a person in a robe with a dark hat, who appears to be a priest. You can also see the dark hood over the condemned mans head with the hangman’s noose hanging loosely around his neck with the knot calmly resting against his chest. Today, the building is the Community Building in Kalama and an addition has been built where the gallows once stood.

In the Commissioners records from June 21st, 1892, Sheriff Ben Holmes and D.C. Grave were paid $45 and $46.50 respectively for, “Death watch for R.L. Day”. J. Ballard was paid $18.25 for, “Coffin and box for R.L. Day”. A.G. Hoggatt and Lewis Wicks were each paid $3 for, “1 day Bailiff” and Hoggatt got an additional $1 for, “hauling lumber” which may have been used to build the gallows. Ben Holmes got an additional $7.71 for, “lumber and freight”. He also got $3 for, “sundries for Day” and when it was all said and done, Sheriff Holmes was paid $6 for, “Digging the grave of R.L. Day”.

Back to Today

The Pauly Jail Company is alive and well and have celebrated over 150 years of business as jail builders. According to the Pauly Jail Company’s website:

“Pauly Jail Building Company is part of our country's rich history of westward expansion, American ingenuity, and successful entrepreneurship. It was 1856, wilderness and wastelands were quickly becoming territories and states, and our judicial system was faced with the problem of how to house prisoners in those remote areas that were without proper detention facilities. P.J. Pauly, Sr. of St. Louis, Missouri, saw this as a tremendous opportunity.
Mr. Pauly and his family were steamboat blacksmiths on the Mississippi River, and they had the skills to design and build steel cages that could be mounted on flatbed wagons to create portable jail cells, the perfect solution to the detention problem of that day. The quality of workmanship of these Pauly jails set the industry standard and launched the Pauly family into the forefront of this new area of business. Over time, the name "Pauly" came to be associated with traditional jail and prison construction throughout the United States, and drew special recognition with the unique Patent Rotary Jail which remains an historical testament to American inventiveness.”

I sent a request to the company in hopes of getting some more history about their jail cells to help determine if the cell sitting at the fairgrounds is in fact, the cell that was sold to the County in 1891. I’ve also requested information about the salesman, W. A. Williams in the hopes that we can learn what his role was in much greater detail. ~DcU


  1. History Detective Darren has picked up something that has been a passion of mine for many years; Cowlitz County law enforcement. Though mine has been more specific to the department I grew up with; the Sheriff's Office.

    Les Nelson is my Papa. He was a deputy for many, many years until he retired after three terms as the county sheriff. I have lots of stories that I will tell as time allows me to comment on Darren's history lessons.

    I'll begin here: This story was told to me by both my father, and Gus Harkey.

    Sometime in 1949 or 1950, my dad was shoeing horses down off of River Road in Kelso. Dad was making his living as a ferrier at the time.

    A friend of dad's, Gus Harkey, was a deputy sheriff. Gus pulled in the driveway where dad was shoeing and got out to visit with dad. Gus asked dad whether he had ever thought about a job as a lawman. Dad said that he'd never really given it much thought. Gus said that he was quiting and that if dad was interested, Gus would give dad his uniforms.

    The next day, dad and Gus went to the Sheriff's Office where dad got introduced to Sheriff Bud Reynolds. Sheriff Reynolds told dad that if he thought he was interested in being a deputy that he should go ride around for a couple of days and see what he thought. That's what he did.

    Now, a couple of days later, dad was in the office when Sheriff Reynolds came out and was looking around. He spotted dad and said, "Did you decide whether you want to be a deputy or not?" Dad said that he thought he'd like to give it a try, so the sheriff had dad come in his office, where he handed him a badge, a gun, a set of car keys and a piece of paper. On the paper was an address in Rose Valley where some fellow was complaining someone had put sugar in his gas tank.

    Dad took a look at the fellow's gas cap laying on the ground, a little sugar around the filler, and said, "Yep, I think you're right."

    That was all there was to it. It's a much different world today. Deputy's train for nearly a year before they are allowed out on their own. But the calls haven't changed that much.

    More later.

    Cap'n Mark

  2. Hey, were is the scan of the hangin'. I know it's a little morbid, but I'm fascinated with your description.

    I wonder if the Kalama Community building is haunted with Mr. Robert Day's ghost? Something to think about.

    - Big Daddy Andy