Centralia? Isn’t that the place on Interstate 5 with the outlet mall and all those fast-food chains? And Great Wolf Lodge? Or is that Chehalis?
Oh, no, no, no.
If all you’ve done is drive through the part of Centralia visible from the freeway, you’re in for a surprise. But you don’t get there by car.
No, there’s a part of Centralia that’s about 100 years earlier than Nike or Wendy’s, where you inhale wood varnish rather than plastic, where history’s waiting to be discovered in paint, brick and a town full of antique shops. It’s downtown Centralia, and the very best way to get there is on a living piece of history – the train.
It’s not often you can catch a West Coast train and end up 50 feet from the center of town, but you can in Centralia. Just more than an hour from Tacoma and 15 minutes from Olympia, it often is quicker than a car and far more relaxing. Riders also get free WiFi, comfy seats, a stunning view around the Tacoma Narrows and through south Thurston County and no traffic bottlenecks coming home. The bonus is the sensation of stepping back in time as you chug through the countryside and step out into the high-ceilinged, wrought-iron gated, tile-pillared atmosphere of the Centralia Union Depot station.
And all you need to do after that is amble the short block from Railroad Avenue to Tower Street to hit the part of Centralia that’ll take you back in time for a day.
Find out more: Trains leave Tacoma daily at 8:13 a.m., 10:31 a.m. and 12:08 p.m.; Olympia 40 minutes later. They return at 1:46 p.m., 4:21 p.m. and 5:57 p.m. Fares start at $22. 800-USA-RAIL, amtrak.com
Centralia’s not a big town or a glamorous one, but keep your eyes open to piece together a fascinating history. Founded in 1875 by George Washington, son of a black slave, the town started out as a rail trade hub and grew rapidly. Most of the buildings along central Tower Avenue date from the early 1900s and embody a stately, restrained presence above the storefronts. There’s the ornate stucco swag and clock at 327 Tower Ave. and the embellished stucco texture on the 1909 Hoss building at No. 118. The 1909 Zimmer building at No. 203 has Italianate brickwork with horizontal blockwork gables, while the old Elks building (one block over at 201 Pearl St., now an antique mall) sports red brick and olive Art Deco trim.
The 1892 building that houses Abundance Vintage at 109 Tower Ave. is more Victorian with shingle frontage and peaked, curvy-gabled windows.
The most elegant is the Olympic Club, 112 Tower Ave., built in 1908 as a hotel and opulently remodeled in 1913. It accumulated a romantic history of train robbers, ladies of the night and other shady stories, and was rescued by the McMenamin brothers to offer accommodation, movies and meals in a Tiffany-glass, brass-and-mahogany interior.
Find out more: See historic photos of Centralia at cityofcentralia.com.
Another part of Centralia’s story is told visually through the dozen or so murals that dot downtown walls. From historic ones such as Buffalo Bill on the Locust Street side of the Fox Theater, or the Fox advertisement high up on the Pearl Street side that boasts the 1930s movie theater as “The Last Word in Talking Picture Entertainment,” all the way to the depictions of oxen logging, horse-drawn fire trucks and river steamers that stretch along the parking lot from Tower Avenue to Pearl Street just behind Pine. The mural scavenger hunt starts at the station at Magnolia Street with the “Electric Light and Steam” advertisement for the Centralia Hotel and goes all the way south to the controversial “Twelve Labors of Hercules” inside Centralia College and north to the portrait of town founder George Washington on the Key Bank building at 201 W. Main St.
If you like poking around antique shops, you can find paradise in downtown Centralia. Though a couple stores have recently closed (Vintage Antiques at 310 Tower Ave. and Simple Treasures at 402 Maple St.), there are still at least a dozen to choose from, all in the five-block stretch along Tower and Pearl from Maple to Main Streets. Find stained glass, beads or a stuffed Canada goose at Timeless Treasures (314 Tower); rocking horses and mirrors at the Attic Door (307 Tower) and bigger furniture next door at Ayala Brothers. Then there’s Simply Collectibles, Catty Wumpus, Up the Creek, Needful Things, Katie’s Treasures and the Antiques Mall in the old Elks building at Pearl and Locust Streets. Just don’t get too much to carry back on the train.
If antiques aren’t your thing, you’ll still find plenty to browse through at Book Quest second-hand books on Main Street, the Bath Depot on Pine and an old-fashioned five-and-dime at Anderson’s True Value at 220 Tower St.
Still on Tower Avenue, the Shady Lady does quality women’s consignment, the Heymann Winery has a storefront next door, and Tegarden’s homemade chocolates is relocating its rich truffles and almond toffee next to the Fox in mid-January.
Find out more: Get addresses and websites for Centralia’s antique shops at yelp.com.
Just walking up and down Tower Street will keep you occupied for a good hour, with the added thrill of seeing (and hearing) freight trains chug past just one block over. But head south to Locust Street and turn left across the railway into the residential area, and in about 10 minutes you’ll be at Seminary Hill, a 70-acre forest of spruce, cedar and alder with 2¼ miles of walking trails and a quiet serenity.
Find out more: Seminary Hill Park is open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. (or til dusk). Barner Drive, between Summa Street and Seminary Hill Road (five blocks east of town along Locust Street). Get a trail map and more details at cityofcentralia.com.
For major meals, read food critic Sue Kidd’s companion review of Centralia restaurants. But if it’s just a cup of coffee and a quick bite you need, a new cafe on Tower Avenue offers good coffee. Brownstone Coffee Lounge at 120B Tower Ave. was opened by Olympia entrepreneur Tony Empens just a few weeks ago to fill an empty historic building owned by a friend – and it feels exactly like a little piece of self-consciously hip Oly transported to a spacious Centralia interior. The Batdorf & Bronson coffee is well-made, with croissants, pastries and bagels for snacking, and soup and sandwiches to come this month. But the big surprise is the atmosphere, a kind of guy’s lounge meeting art gallery feel. Visitors will find black leather sofas and chairs, mod lamps, minimalist chocolate walls and tables in the window area offer a prime street view (or make you feel like you’re in a fishbowl). Empens plans on rotating art as part of ArtTrails of Southwest Washington; now up are whimsical concrete fish sculptures by Joan Hitchcock.
Another cafe and a frozen yogurt shop sit on opposite corners of the intersection.
Find out more: Brownstone Coffee Lounge is open 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday at 120 Tower Ave. 360-807-4255, facebook.com/brownstonecoffeelounge