Oregon Secretary of State

Columbia County History

Map of Oregon with northwestern area blacked out that represents Columbia County. Columbia County, named for the Columbia River, was created in 1854 from the northern half of Washington County. It covers 646 square miles and is bounded on the north and east by the Columbia River, on the west by Clatsop County, and on the south by Washington and Multnomah Counties. Columbia County was the 16th county created in Oregon and is the 3rd smallest county in Oregon after Multnomah and Hood River counties.

Lewis and Clark explored this area in 1805-1806. Early settlements were established by fur traders as early as 1810. As American immigration increased in the mid-1840s, lasting settlements appeared. The Yakima Indian War (1855-1859) drove many Washington Territory residents south of the Columbia River and helped boost the populations of St. Helens and Columbia City.

The first district court met in 1854 in Milton, which served as the county seat until 1857 when it moved to St. Helens. St. Helens was founded in 1848 and took its name from the nearby Mt. St. Helens. The present courthouse was built in 1906, and an annex was constructed in 1968. Most county offices are now housed in the annex. Columbia County had a county court form of government until 1971 when a board of commissioners was elected. 

The 2016 population of 50,795 represented a 2.9% increase over 2010. The primary industries of Columbia County are timber, fishing, water transportation, dairying, horticulture and recreation. The extensive stands of old growth timber, which had attracted many of the early settlers to the area, were completely logged over by the 1950s. Second growth timber provides the raw material for local lumber and paper mills. The Trojan Nuclear Plant, located near Rainier, was in operation from 1975 to 1993.

Three story stone building with 4 decorative columns framing front door and bell tower in center.
The Columbia County Courthouse in St. Helens was built on the banks of the Columbia River in 1906. The courthouse annex is to the left.

Columbia County Courthouse

230 Strand St.
St. Helens, OR 97051
Clerk: 503-397-3796
Courts: 503-397-2327
Visit Columbia County website >​

Vernonia Lake

Calm lake with tall grass on near shore and deciduous trees in summer on far bank.
Vernonia Lake (Oregon State Archives Scenic Image 20070704-0416​)
The Banks-Vernonia State Trail, traversing part of Columbia County, was the first "rails-to-trails" state park built in Oregon. It was developed on an abandoned railroad bed stretching between Banks, in Washington County, and Vernonia. The trail covers 22 miles and features 12 bridges. The gentle grade allows hikers, bicyclists, equestrians and people of all abilities to enjoy the scenic Coast Range mountains, fields and forests.
Rails-to-trails conversions are popular across the country as more unprofitable rail lines have been abandoned. Rather than break up the right-of-way land into numerous private holdings, states developed rail-trails as recreational assets. (Sources: Oregon Parks and Recreation​ | Rails-to-Trails Conservancy​)
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