Carson – About the time L.T. Smith plunked down $2,000 for a back-bar from Chicago, most of the Carson Valley had been changed from a wooded dell into a fertile pocket of farmland above the Columbia River Gorge.
When the back-bar arrived in Smith’s general store in 1902 after a seagoing trip around Cape Horn, the pioneer names of Metzger, Zurcher, St. Martin, Anderson, Monaghan, Borthwick and others had been indelibly written into the history of this settlement near the mouth of the Wind River, five miles east of Stevenson.
The back-bar remains in the same building where Smith had his store, now the Carson Confectionery, and the pioneer names are still around, either as descendants or streets.
The back-bar dominates the confectionery, where townspeople drop in for coffee and gossip at the round table between the sundry section and the food counter.
“I get a lot of questions about the back-bar,” said Elsie Hamblen, owner of Carson Confectionary. “Some people ask if it is for sale. Of course, it isn’t.”
In 1902 Smith’s $2,000 for a piece of furniture from Chicago must have seemed an awful extravagance, but three years later, his optimism was rewarded.
The SP & S Railroad tracks were laid through the Gorge, bringing construction crews paid in $20 gold pieces. That meant commerce and boom times.
In 1905, Carson boasted nine saloons and dance halls “with all the girls and trimmings,” the late Joe Gregorius of Carson wrote. A year earlier, Smith had platted the town. But to this day it remains unincorporated.
“I don’t think people around here feel they need a city government,” said postmaster Roy Mefford. “The old people don’t want the expense, and others may feel it is just a complication they can get along without.”
Instead of subjecting the citizenery to rules dreamed up by mayors, councilmen and planners, daily life seems to take care of itself.
When logging trucks roaring through town on the Wind River Road became a problem, the townspeople just got the county to put truck bypass signs up at the edge of town. End of problem.
Such an uncomplicated life seems to have it attractions in Skamania County. Carson is the largest concentration of residents – even more than county seat Stevenson, which has nearly 1,000 residents.
No one is sure how many people live in Carson. Besides, who is counting?
Mefford estimates 2,000 people live in Carson, but many of them could be considered temporary residents – boomers – who work on the second powerhouse construction project at Bonneville Dam.
Most of those people live tucked away in an 82-unit mobile-home park in the northeast section of town, as if the Carson residents prefer to show their settlement through more traditional housing, built around the time when Kaiser Bill was the scourge of Europe.
Take the main drag for instance. Plunked down a half block from the blinking traffic warning light, the only signal in town, is the home of Anna Zurcher, 73.
The two-story wood-frame house looks like part of an abandoned Hollywood western movie set.
The false-front building used to be a hotel, but it housed the Zurchers since Anna was six. She has never lived any other place. No wonder. It is a basic, no-nonsense, house, from it’s wood cookstove to it’s spic and span linoleum floors.
A granddaughter of Swiss immigrant Fritz Zurcher who homesteaded in Carson in the 1880s, and a niece of Gregorius, Miss Zurcher traveled abroad before World War II. It never entered her mind that there was a better place to live than Carson. “There is a lot to see in other places, but there is no other place equal to this,” she said.
Miss Zurcher remembers the food her father raised on the family farm, selling the produce to the hot springs resorts that surrounded Carson. Nowadays, only the St. Martin Hot Springs is operating near Wind River. The others, Shepherd and Government hot springs, have been closed for years. St. Martin’s reopened earlier this year after being closed for seven years while the various ownerships went through a custody fight.
Though not incorporated, Carson has kept its identity as a settlement above the confluence of the Wind and Columbia rivers. That identity comes from the smell of pitch and pine. The buzz of steel saws and the shouts of strong men taming a forest that stretches from mountain to mountain.
The timber is brought from the forest down the Wind River Road through Carson, to the log booms at the mouth of the Wind River, as it was in the early days.
In the early days, a dam and pond were 12 miles north of Carson on the river, where the logging companies marshaled their timber before releasing the water in the flood. The logs swept through the canyons and flats on their way to the Columbia River where they were lashed together in rafts for their final trip to the lumber mills.
Today, instead of a water route to the Columbia, the logs are brought to Carson by huge diesel trucks.
As enduring as its identity as the timber shipping center is, the name Carson remains the product of lousy handwriting.
When the first postmaster, Albert G. Tucker, sent in the name of the settlement for its post office authorization, he wrote Casner. That was the name of the creek going through the valley, named after a homesteader.
Apparently, postal authorities couldn’t read Tucker’s handwriting, so on May 5, 1894, the new address was named Carson.
And so it’s been since.