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.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

One Cell Jail Cell

When I initially wrote about Cowlitz County’s First Jail (January 22nd Blog), I new at the time that the jail cell sitting at the Cowlitz County fairgrounds was not the first jail in the county. The first jail in fact was a room used to store firewood in the Kalama courthouse.

That revelation was a bit disappointing since having the jail cell that housed the three men hanged for murder in Cowlitz County would have been an important piece of history (in my mind anyway). Well, this is where the other interesting phone call that I received comes in.

Once again, thanks to Leslie Slape at The Daily News, I received a call from Walter Hanson who lives outside of Woodland. He left me a mysterious message saying he had information about the jail that is sitting at the Fairgrounds. More importantly, he mentioned that the jail cell at the Fairgrounds was not the first jail. How did he know this? He knew this because HE has the original jail cell.

I immediately called Walter back and set up a time to meet with him at the Burgerville in Woodland the following Monday. When I arrived at Burgerville, I met up with a lively bunch of gentleman who I had the pleasure of losing the daily coin flip affording me the opportunity to buy everyone’s coffee. The discussion was lively and a bit reserved since none of them knew who I was.

One of the gentleman (96 years old), and I’m sorry but his name has slipped my mind, stated that his father knew Robert Day. Robert Day, as you’ll recall, was the first documented hanging in Cowlitz County. According to him, the only reason Robert Day hanged that June day was because he fired the first shot. As the story goes, Robert Day and James Beebe were having an ongoing property line dispute. When they stepped out onto the road to settle the dispute, shots were fired and James Beebe died.

Subsequently, I’ve been told that the family of Robert Day and James Beebe still reside in the Lewis River Valley and I’m hoping to meet each family to learn more about what really happened on that day. The rest of the conversation bounced all around that morning before it turned back to the original reason I was there, to hear about the jail cell.

Walter said that he has been in possession of the jail since the late 1960’s. According to him, the jail cell that he has was from the courthouse in Kalama. When the City of Woodland incorporated in 1906, they built a new city hall and jail. (According to my records, Woodland did in fact build its town hall and jail in 1906. It was 16’ x 24’ and cost the city $285.) The cell, according to Walter, was given to Woodland to use since they didn’t have a cell for their jail. The cell was used in the Woodland jail for years before it ended up underneath the stairs at the original fire hall.

Nobody really paid any attention to the iron cell under the stairs other than to store junk inside of it. As time went on, the cell made it’s way out into the back of the public works lot and then eventually to a private business in downtown Woodland where it was used to store fertilizer. When word came out that the cell was to be cut up for scrap, Walter Hansen recognized the historical value of it and offered to take it for preservation purposes. He cleaned it up and painted it battleship gray. The cell was then mounted onto a trailer and he used it in events like the Planter’s Day parade. Since then, it has been stored in the barn on his property collecting dust.

We then drove to his property and I had the opportunity to see the jail cell. Wrapped in the darkness of the aging barn, resting atop a trailer with flattened tires, sits the piece of history I’d been looking for. A large, square, gray, …… thing. It was a 10’ x 10’ ugly piece of metal. And boy was it ugly. No windows and no bars, simply a large, square, gray…. thing. At first sight, I actually had to try and figure out what I was actually looking at.

We walked around to the back of this, thing, and Walter opened the stiff, iron door to reveal the emptiness of the interior. Nothing but blackness. Using a flashlight, you could see that there was no floor thanks to the years of fertilizer. You could also see where the bunk once hung from the wall but is now forever lost to history. On the door is a small port window that Ben Holmes would have opened to pass meals to Robert Day.

Could this be the jail cell that W.A. Williams sold to the county commissioners in 1892 for $2000 (which is the equivelant of $45,000 in today's money)? Is this the cell that housed the three men hanged by the County? If this is the jail cell purchased to protect Robert Day, what a fantastic piece of history sitting before me. Now, keep in mind, I haven’t proven that this is in fact the original jail cell, yet, but I’m confident it’s close. ~ DcU ~

1 comment:

  1. Finally, a picture. Keep researching and keep posting. Very cool stuff.

    - Good Rat Andy