In the early 1900’s, the residents of Cowlitz County began to settle in and make Cowlitz County their home. Industry began to rise and generations of families started to firmly establish their roots through hard work and what we now affectionately refer to as, the daily grind.
The automobile was still new and exciting, allowing people to get out and recreate in places they otherwise didn’t have access to. They started to discover the beauty that Southwest Washington had to offer and individuals and families alike began to venture out for a much needed break from the everyday routine.
From swimming on a warm summer afternoon in the beautiful (yet cold) depths of Spirit Lake on the north side of Mt. St. Helens, to hiking in the uniqueness of the lava canyons outside of Cougar, there was plenty to do: snow skiing, exploring, fishing, and hunting. These new adventurists embraced these activities with a zest for life mixed with an ignorant passion that often times put them in situations that were dangerous and/or life threatening.
“People just don’t think.” A smiling Bob Reese comments while reflecting on his days with Lewis River Search and Rescue. “My father, Harry ‘H.L.’ Reese, moved up the Lewis River in 1933 and started the store (Reese’s Store) just west of Cougar. My father was active in the Boy Scouts in the Portland area and it continued when we moved here. We were all very active in Scouting and we all eventually became Eagle Scouts. This is where we learned how to build a fire, read a compass, first aid, and how to navigate through the woods.” Bob explained. “We really knew the area because we played in the caves and lava beds on the mountain all of our lives.”
With his brothers Bill and Leonard, Bob grew up in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens and was part of the Lewis River Search and Rescue team which was based at Reese’s Store. From the late 1930’s into the 1970’s, Reese’s Store was the hub of activity on the south side of Mt. St. Helens. If you planned to climb Mt. St. Helen’s, you stopped at Reese’s store to sign the climbers register. When you went hunting, you stopped at Reese’s store for coffee and an update on what was going on. So naturally, because of their outdoor skills and possibly the fact that they had the only telephone in the area for years, when someone needed help, they came to Reese’s Store to get Harry and his sons.
With their Boy Scout troop 348, known as “St. Helens Apes” because of their sponsor, the Reese’s would respond anytime someone needed help. Volunteering their time wasn’t necessarily something they thought about in those days. “It’s just what we did.” Bob reflects. “Volunteering is what the world is about and we had so many good, organized people around there it was really incredible.” The St. Helens Apes are best known for the caves that bear their name. The Scouts were believed to be the first to explore the caves at the base of Mt. St. Helens in the 1950’s, eventually becoming known as “The Ape Caves.”
But the Scouts weren’t alone. They often got help from the local foresters and loggers in the area who never hesitated to volunteer their time. “They were tough and strong.” Bob recounts, referring to the loggers. “With them, we rescued a lot of people from the caves and from the rivers. We would even climb trees to post warning signs for people to keep them out of certain sections of the river because we got tired of constantly rescuing them. We were busy every weekend.”
As rescues and recoveries go, Cowlitz County had its fair share and the volunteers managed to stay busy throughout the early 20th Century. In the early years, the Sheriff wasn’t always involved. A good deal of rescues and recoveries occurred with people simply going to Reese’s Store and the Reese brothers finding or helping them without the involvement of the Sheriff. “We had a sign across the road from the store that said ‘First Aid’ on it to let people know.” Leonard Reese explains over a cup of coffee in his home behind the original store. “Back then, everyone knew everyone and they all knew that my dad would do first aid whenever anyone needed it.” If the search or rescue mission warranted a phone call to the Sheriff’s Office, then they would make the call without hesitation.
On the north side of Mt. St. Helens the Longview Ski Club and Rob Quoidbach provided mountain rescue. “They had skills and resources that we didn’t have and they were around way before us.” Leonard explained. “We didn’t work with them much because we didn’t do much on the actual mountain. They dealt mainly with skiers and climbers. We dealt more with hunters and fisherman.”
Back then, like today, The Sheriff was ultimately responsible for all Search and Rescue missions within their jurisdiction. Being in charge of such an enormous task, it became evident early on that without the volunteers, the Sheriff’s Office could never do what it was legally bound to do when it came to Search and Rescue. Luckily there was no shortage of volunteers. Volunteering as a civic function really took off in the mid-1950’s in Cowlitz County with the establishment of the Cowlitz County Department of Civil Defense.
The Incorporation of Civil Defense
While outdoor recreation was growing in the 1950’s, so was the population. At the same time, the country was hiding in the newly established shadow of the emerging Cold War. Cowlitz County was hand-in-hand with the rest of the country horrified by the idea of an impending nuclear attack. To deal with the situation, The Cowlitz County Commissioners established the Office of Civil Defense on January 8th, 1956 and appointed Ed V. Berg as the acting director. Berg was responsible for developing a plan for dealing with various predictable emergencies.
In March of 1956, Berg published the Cowlitz County Civil Defense Plan which described that the Soviet Union had the capability of attacking the region with long range nuclear missiles but that Cowlitz County was not a likely target. The plan described that Cowlitz County’s main role would be to support the Portland and Puget Sound area evacuees if they were victims of a nuclear attack. The plan also outlined ways the community would deal with other emergencies like flooding.
The main threat to the Cowlitz County region was flood waters in the event that the Grand Coulee Dam was targeted and destroyed. According to a March 1956 Longview Daily News article, “Within 52 hours every living creature in Longview must be out of the city; or the rushing waters of the Columbia River will take away life.”
Watching the rivers and preparing for a disaster was an important role for Civil Defense in the early days with their small budget. Teaming up with the Army Corp of Engineers, Civil Defense made sure all the dikes were inspected and a close eye was kept out for rising flood waters. While not the true threat, the real fear continued to be of an all-out nuclear war. Fear not only from the impending nuclear attack, but also the fear of life after the attack. Unfortunately the public only knew what they were told by the government and the media and in Cowlitz County, it was no different.
The Daily News as well as the Oregonian and the Advocate published article after article about the threat of nuclear war. With headlines like, “Reds Have Mighty Force Ready”, “They’re at the Gate”, and my favorite, “Death Ray Next Weapon?”, the fear was a result of our own propaganda in an attempt to get people to act.
“The fear was very real.” Former Civil Defense Director Alan Slater describes. “I would go to meetings and my job was to explain to people how horrible nuclear war was going to be. But I wasn’t allowed to tell them that the County was going to help. I remember coming out of some meetings seeing women crying because they were scared and had no money to build the bomb shelters that the government was telling them that they needed to build. When I approached the County Commissioners about it, and describing what I felt were solutions, they disagreed and a short time later I was fired.”
The fallout shelter craze lasted into the early 1960’s when the public began to question the genuine need for such shelters and Civil Defense in general. People started to recognize the reality that if there was a full-scale nuclear war then a fallout shelter probably wouldn’t be much help.
Even with public opinion waning, the Department of Civil Defense pushed on. Recruiting was active and training was ongoing. At one point the Department of Civil Defense claimed to have over 10,000 volunteers locally available in case of an emergency. Schools practiced evacuation drills and nurses at the local hospitals were trained on the proper use of a Geiger Counters. Mass casualty exercises were held and volunteers were trained on everything from first aid to watching the sky for possible enemy aircraft.
“AIRCRAFT FLASH!” Bob Reese yells. “That’s what we would call out over the radio to stop all radio traffic. Then we would give our call sign of NECTAR BRAVO 30 to the Air Force base in Portland and then describe the aircraft flying over head.” Bob and Leonard explain. “It was our job to tell of any aircraft, all hours of the day. We would describe the plane, the direction of travel, whether they were flying high or low, number of engines, and anything else we noticed. We did it because we had a radio and a phone which most people didn’t have back then.”
Since communications were deemed essential, they became a big part of Civil Defense. Without communications, nothing could be done and the entire Civil Defense network would break down. Communication networks were established across the country. For Cowlitz County, the Lower Columbia Amateur Radio operators happily fulfilled that role. Thinking in a worst case scenario, if all communication devices were lost, Cowlitz County Civil Defense came up with a masterful plan: carrier pigeons.
In 1963, Cowlitz County Civil Defense was asked by the Washington State Civil Defense director, General E. M. Llewellyn, to set up a pilot program to augment the Civil Defense communications network with carrier pigeons. Dick Stephens of the Longview-Kelso Racing Pigeon Club came up with the idea following the breakdown in communications during the Columbus Day storm of 1962. The plan called for command posts to be set up at Ft. Columbia State Park and the Green Hill Academy for Boys near Chehalis.
The example for the use of pigeons was if an officer was out on a search or a rescue mission, outside the range of radios or if all communications were blocked or lost, then he would carry a pigeon with him. If a message needed to be sent, he would attach the message to the leg of the pigeon and release it. The pigeon would then return to its roost and the message would be retrieved and given to the Civil Defense Director. “Pigeons can withstand twice as much radiation as human beings.” Stephens pointed out in a Daily News article from 1963. “That already has been proven.”
In August of 1963, with the establishment of the statewide police teletype system, the pigeons were ceremonially released from Olympia when Governor Rossellini sent the first message to Cowlitz County. While the message from the governor was received immediately, the pigeons completed the trip in about 2 ½ hours. Unfortunately, the idea never really gained much momentum and the pigeon racing club continued with their hobby, unruffled.
Because the Civil Defense plans involved so many volunteers, it made sense to align Search and Rescue to Civil Defense for a more immediate, practical use of its resources. Civil Defense’s role wasn’t to run Search and Rescue missions, per se. Rather they were there to provide logistics and resources to the County or to the Search and Rescue teams whenever they were needed.
In 1961, the Sheriff’s Office started the Reserve Deputy program, which would initially become the Sheriff’s Office primary Search and Rescue group, and Bob Reese became a part of that. Assisting the Reserves was the Reese Brothers with their Boy Scout Troop and the St. Helen’s Apes – a group of loggers and foresters - which became Lewis River Search and Rescue in 1964.
“There was a genuine need for an organized Search and Rescue team so I went to the Civil Defense Director, Lois Faulkner, and got it set up.” Leonard explains. “Lois was great and got us anything we needed. She was a real people person not a paper person. She wasn’t concerned about politics or power, she knew how to work with the volunteers and that’s very important. Lois was able to get us some radios, a toboggan, and a jeep but for insurance purposes, we couldn’t drive it because we weren’t County employees.” Leonard chuckles.
Then in December of 1968, Tri-County Search and Rescue formed modeling their group after Lewis River Search and Rescue. They were called Tri-County because they represented Cowlitz, Wahkiakum, and Columbia Counties. Wahkiakum and Columbia Counties would later form their own teams and Tri-County Search and Rescue changed their name to Cowlitz County Search and Rescue which still exists today.
All of the groups would learn that cooperation and organization between each other was paramount. Even through the occasional personality clashes, the teams learned to work well together. Periodically, outside resources would be needed when things grew too large or certain skill sets weren’t available within the County. This held true for other counties as well. Requests would go out for additional resources from throughout the State whenever an agency felt as if their resources weren’t enough to accomplish the task. Organizing all of these outside resources, however, would prove to be challenging.
This need for organization between outside agencies was magnified with the disappearance of a small float plane on May 16, 1965, near Lake Wenatchee. On board the plane was Seattle City Councilman Wing Luke, the first Asian-American to be elected to public office in the State of Washington. Nearly a million dollars and thousands of man hours were spent on the search for the aircraft without success. According to the Mountain Rescue Associations newsletter from August 1965, “…a search was started and grew to become the most publicized and talked about air and ground hunt that probably ever ensued in this state.” Seattle Magazine called the search efforts “chaotic” while other criticized the search as “grossly inadequate.” It wasn’t until October 2, 1968, three years later, that the wreckage of the plane was finally spotted on the side of Merchant Peak in Snohomish County. There were no survivors.
Questions about who was responsible and why the wreckage wasn’t found sooner became hot topics within Search and Rescue. One of the main lessons learned from this search was the lack of coordination at the state level. As a result, this tragedy triggered the need to establish a State Search and Rescue Coordinator to oversee large search and rescue operations such as the Luke search. Soon thereafter, the Washington State Department of Emergency Services assistant director, Hal Foss, would be named as the State’s first official Search and Rescue Coordinator working under the Department of Civil Defense.
Today’s Search and Rescue
Lewis River Search and Rescue slowly slipped into history in the late 1970’s as its members got older and other resources began to emerge. While the eruption of Mt. St. Helens ended the need for mountain rescue on the north side of the mountain, it tested the wherewithal of Cowlitz Search and Rescue. Several of the people involved with the recoveries after the eruption are still with Search and Rescue today and tell stories of day after day of combing the mountain for victims.
“I hated recoveries.” Leonard Reese says quietly under his breath. “I don’t think that the volunteers should have to go through that. But, I understood that it had to be done.”
The Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office still oversees all Search and Rescue missions within its jurisdiction and works closely with all the volunteer teams. After it was realized that the “Reds” weren’t coming after all, Civil Defense in its original configuration was no longer needed and quietly evolved into the Department of Emergency Management which continues to provide logistical support to Search and Rescue today.
What Leonard Reese established with Lewis River Search and Rescue is still going strong today through Cowlitz County Search and Rescue. The volunteering spirit is alive and well. Volunteers of all ages come out all hours of the day to help people they don’t even know. The Sheriff’s Reserves, Cowlitz Dive Rescue, The Civil Air Patrol, Lower Columbia Amateur Radio Operators, and the Coast Guard Auxiliary selflessly work together with Cowlitz Search and Rescue whenever the need arises.
Reese’s Store has long been closed yet the building still stands. Crumbling, dilapidated, still exuding the charm that it carried in its day. “That was my room there. Oh, and here’s the first chainsaw we ever had; it took three of us to run the darn thing.” Bob explains laughing. As I walk though the building with Bob Reese I can’t help but wonder what kind of stories this building could tell. Over all of the years, over all the fires built in the stove, what stories it could tell. This was home to not just the Reese family, but to the family of volunteers that risked their lives selflessly, over and over, so ”…that others may live.”