Hello from the History Department.
Here’s another story of a person within a small community who made a big difference – Elias Carlson only lived to be 43 years old but certainly made his mark on Kalama, WA, from fish dealer to opera house owner to logging industry innovator.
It is said that a “jack of all trades” is a master of none, but Kalama’s Elias Carlson proves the exception to the rule. He came to Kalama as a young pioneer in 1887 with empty pockets. Yet by the time of his passing in 1907, had amassed a snug fortune, fostering the public enterprises of his community through ingenuity and hard work.
Elias was born in Nerpes, Finland, on January 16, 1864. At age 4, he and his seven siblings were orphaned, but were raised by a foster family and received a common school education. At 23, the young Finn set off alone for America, in search of a new beginning and a new place to call home. He found both in Kalama.
Elias set to work upon the waters of the Columbia River. Within three years, he was a successful fish dealer, due in part because of the cold storage facility he established with some fellow Kalamans. By 1901, he was declared “Trap King of the Columbia River” by the Seattle Times.
These early years were eventful ones for Elias on a personal level, too. On December 12, 1898, he and Kalama native, Bertha May Medlock, were married, and the couple had two children, Alma May and Walter Earl, in as many years. The Carlsons’ growing family prompted construction of a new home, completed in 1901.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Elias launched into a completely different kind of venture and made a great success of it: the Carlson Opera House. It quickly became the heart of Kalama social life during the early 1900s. The Kalama Bulletin lauded it as “the largest and finest play house between Portland and Tacoma,” hosting all sorts of travelling entertainment – theater troupes, musical groups, comedy companies, dancers, circus acts, ventriloquists and motion picture shows. From the best and brightest of American vaudeville to the struggling-to-make-a-buck newcomers out of Portland and Seattle, all were welcome to tread the boards of Carlson Opera House.
The opera house also took on an important civic role, providing a venue for town council meetings, political rallies, as well as school performances, graduations, masquerade balls, even funerals.
In 1905, Elias Carlson further expanded his portfolio by investing in the area’s rich timberlands and initiating large-scale logging operations. About this same time, the entrepreneur invented and patented a safer device for hooking a cable to logs for hauling. Newspaper headlines across the country heralded Carlson’s invention as a novel solution to a most common and dangerous problem of the logging trade.
Sadly, in 1906, Elias Carlson fell ill. In an attempt to rejuvenate his health, he spent a considerable amount of that winter convalescing at a hot springs resort, but to no avail. Elias passed away on March 2, 1907, at just 43 years old. The Kalama Bulletin reported that his funeral, held in the opera house, was the largest ever in Kalama. Hundreds of mourners gathered to pay their respects to the man who, in 20 short years, had proven himself both an exemplary Kalama citizen and master of many trades.