The top of Seminary Hill rises about 500 feet above sea level. Not a towering peak, but unmissable on the flood plain of Centralia, in west Lewis County.
In fact, Seminary Hill has been recorded on maps since the 1840s. It got its name in the late 1880s, when the Northwest Baptist Church Conference built a seminary there. That only lasted a few years, but the name stuck.
Because the hill is so close to downtown Centralia, it’s been used a lot. Its timber was harvested around 1900. Two concrete reservoirs were installed in the 1910s. The Works Progress Administration built an armory and bridle trails there in the 1930s. All the while, people were visiting the hill to go hiking, or picnicking or camping.
Around 1980, there was an idea to log the hill again, as a way to pay for the cost of covering the reservoirs. Bill Moeller was mayor of Centralia at the time. He didn’t like that idea.
“It just went against my grain,” he says.
At the same time, two Girl Scout leaders named Chloe Palmer and Stellajoe Staebler were rallying the community. They created the nonprofit group Friends of the Seminary Hill Natural Area, along with people like Stellajoe’s husband George, Rufus Kiser, and Carol and Robert Godsey.
Robert has dedicated many years to improving the trails on the hill and to documenting its history. He says when the hill was designated as a natural area, it was in rough shape.
“Motorcyclists were literally tearing up the place,” he said.
Judy Bell moved to Lewis County in 1994, and became part of the second wave of Seminary Hill volunteers. In the past few years, she’s spearheaded the unending task of removing invasive plant species like ivy and holly.
It turns out if you let nature take its course, nature ends up covered in ivy.
Chemicals kill it, but it can grow back before native plants can take root. That means the ivy has to be pulled by hand.
Judy does that herself, and she works with crews from the Lewis County jail. She’s also had crews from AmeriCorps, through a grant from the state Department of Natural Resources.
When you walk the trails, it’s obvious where Judy and her crews have worked. Look to your left, for instance, and you’ll see a carpet of ivy, covering the ground and climbing the trees. Look to your right, and you see ferns, Oregon grape, Inside-out flower, native blackberry vines and more.
Those are the species Lisa Carlson points out to her students from Centralia College, when she walks the hill as an outdoor classroom. They also monitor the growth of some trees, to gauge how much carbon they’re sequestering. Carlson says some trees on the hill are about 120 years old.
Because of the work of the Friends of the Seminary Hill Natural Area, it’s likely they’ll be around for decades to come.