Omak, located on the Okanogan River in north central Washington, is the largest city in Okanogan County, with a 2020 population of about 4,750. For centuries, the surrounding area was inhabited by Native American peoples made up of 12 nomadic tribes whose descendants became the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The first non-Native settlers arrived in the 1850s. Present-day Omak was founded in 1907 by surveyor Ben Ross and incorporated in 1911. "Omak" is a Salishan word meaning "good medicine" or "plenty," a reference to the town's mild weather, though a reliable source of water was in short supply until 1910, when the Okanogan Irrigation Project was completed. The irrigation canals, coupled with the area's 300-plus days of sunshine, enabled settlers to farm apples, apricots, peaches, plums, and alfalfa. Other early industries important to Omak were fruit canning, box making, and lumber. In 1933, two cattlemen established the Omak Stampede rodeo; two years later, they added the World Famous Suicide Race, in which horses and riders careen wildly down a steep slope, across the Okanogan River, and up an equally steep embankment on the other side. Protests and lawsuits have dogged the race over the years but it continues to be held the second weekend of August.
Twelve Tribes, Joseph Pogue, and Ben Ross
The land around present-day Omak was inhabited for centuries by members of 12 nomadic tribes who moved according to the seasons, settling near waterways such as the Okanogan and Columbia rivers which provided plentiful food and trade routes. They lived in domed mat structures during the winter months, ate primarily fish, and gathered with other tribes for celebrations, food harvesting, trading, and sports. Each of the 12 tribes had its distinct language and culture. Their traditional territories extended across Eastern Washington and into British Columbia, Oregon, and Idaho, estimated at 39 million acres.
As non-Native settlers began to arrive in the 1850s and built houses, cleared farmland, and logged the thick timber stands, disputes over land ownership between Natives and newcomers arose quickly. A treaty signed in 1855 confined the tribes to about 5 million acres in Washington Territory; an Executive Order signed by President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) on April 9, 1872, further reduced the reservation to about 3 million acres. Today, the Colville Indian Reservation covers 1.4 million acres; part of present-day Omak lies within its western border.
One of these early settlers was Joseph Irwin Pogue (1848-1940). Born in Ohio, Pogue trained as a physician at Northwestern University in Chicago. After giving up his medical practice, he traveled to the Northwest intent on becoming a farmer. In 1888, Pogue was the first to employ an irrigation ditch to pull water from Salmon Creek for use on his farm.
To thank him for his many civic contributions, the citizens of nearby Alma, a town founded in 1886, changed the town name to Pogue in 1905. But that recognition was short-lived: In 1907, the residents of Pogue overwhelmingly voted to rename the town Okanogan. "Some people thought it would be hard for visitors to pronounce. Some were simply not enamored with Dr. Pogue. Mainly, though, people wanted a name that connected the town to the new Okanogan Irrigation Project, the river and the region ("Okanogan – Thumbnail History").
Joseph Pogue was upset. In response he hired Ben F. Ross (1859-1937), a surveyor and civil engineer, to establish another town about 5 miles to the north. The name Omak was chosen, taken from the Salishan word "omache," meaning "good medicine" or "plenty," thought to refer to the area's sunny climate. The town was officially incorporated on February 11, 1911.
Like Dr. Pogue, Ross was a community leader. Born in Bureau County, Illinois, he worked for the Great Northern Railway and settled with his family in the Okanogan highlands around 1901. In 1905, he helped organize the first accredited school district east of the Cascade Range, known as School District No. 19, initially situated at Pogue.
Ross accepted Pogue's proposal to create a new town. In 1907 he took 20 acres of his alfalfa field and divided it into 25 lots to establish Omak. (Ross had also helped lay out Gray's Harbor.) The lots sold so quickly that restrictions had to be placed: "Not more than two lots will be sold to any one person or company, except in the case of L. L. Week, president of several banks in the county, who was permitted to buy four lots, two on which to build a bank and two on which to build a printing office. Tho the plat of the new townsite has not yet been accepted by the board of county commissioners, there have been sold, or rather pledged pending acceptance of the plat, thirty-four lots, most of which go to prominent business men of the county ("Plat Townsite At Mouth ...").
The new townspeople felt that the school at Pogue was too far for Omak youngsters to travel, so a subscription school for 10 students was organized in the fall of 1907, housed in a 12-foot by 16-foot structure in Omak, with Miss Ethel Reed as the instructor. "In the fall of 1908, the school was moved to a room in Stoddard Hall, located on the site of the present Omak Post Office. Two teachers were engaged, one of whom was Omak's first school superintendent, Ira Graffis…. For 1909-10, both the north and south halves of the Stoddard building were used, and four students were enrolled in the high school. Dooley P. Wheeler was superintendent. [In] 1910, the first half of the Central School was built on land donated by Ben Ross (currently the parking lot of Wenatchee Valley College-Omak)" ("A Brief History of Omak Schools"). Sisters Voy and Beryl Bailey were Omak's first high school graduates, receiving their diplomas in 1912.
In 1935, a large sculpture made of concrete and appearing to resemble flowing lava was placed in the northeast corner of Civic League Park in Omak with a dedication plaque that honored the contributions of founder Ben Ross.
Omak Starts to Flourish
Cut by the curve of the Okanogan River, in the early 1900s Omak was "a flourishing town…which, for natural advantages, location, etc., bids fair to be the metropolis of the Okanogan. Omak is also on the direct line of the proposed Spokane electric road, and the yards of the Great Northern have been surveyed for that location" ("Conconully Dam Will Water Vast Area…").
A sawmill was built by the Omak Fruit Growers, which controlled the mill and a nearby fruit processing plant. Other industries followed, including fruit canning, box making, butter making, lumber and shingles. In 1909, the canning factory at Omak employed 50 people, both men and women. The town was booming, according to a contemporary report: "The new town of Omak, viewed casually by the editor from the forward deck of his buggy last Friday, made a good impression. Things are moving there, good big buildings are already up and more a-buildin'. And, dear me, a bank that has temporary offices in a dry goods box, with over $12,000 deposits, talks for the town louder than a megaphone" ("Where Money is Plentiful").
Clarence P. Scates, editor of the Conconully Record in the nearby small town of Conconully, resigned to start his own paper. On May 20, 1910, he issued the first edition of The Omak Chronicle, which was expanded three years later to become the Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle. In 1910 Omak still needed a dentist, bakery, steam laundry, milliner, restaurant and photographer -- positions identified in a town advertisement -- but it was growing in other ways. In 1911, Omak installed gasoline lamps; a company called Howard & Lucas was awarded the street lighting contract. The city also had a new county bridge, waterworks system, and Presbyterian church that cost $5,000 to build. That same year, the Omak Commercial Club printed a booster booklet to encourage more businesses to locate there. In 1912, the Pioneer Club of Omak, an organization of local women, established a library and free reading room for residents. The club raised $100 from a merchant carnival held the first year to be used to purchase books and periodicals.
In 1913, the towns of Omak and Okanogan vied to be named the new county seat, hoping to replace the current seat at Conconully. There was little love lost between the two towns: Omak residents contended that Okanogan was a city of hooligans and played up the fact that their community had recently banned alcohol. In order to take the seat away from Conconully, the winning town had to receive at least 60 percent of the vote. Then Okanogan made an interesting proposal. "It convinced Omak to participate in an 'elimination' election before the general election. Omak and Okanogan would go head to head against each other for the right to challenge Conconully. The loser would agree to drop out" ("The City of Okanogan Wrests the County Seat…"). Okanogan easily won the elimination round by nearly two-to-one and went on to become the county seat, which it holds today.
Water and Wood
The Okanogan Irrigation Project, built between 1905 and 1910, was essential for the growth of the region as an agricultural powerhouse. The system was built using gravity to propel water from storage reservoirs into Salmon Creek, which was diverted 12 miles later into a series of canals. Construction materials were brought up the Columbia River by steamboat and then transferred the final 40 miles by wagon.
The first land was irrigated in 1908 and the area soon was reaping the rewards. A 1910 ad paid for by the Omak Commercial Club (later known as the Omak Chamber of Commerce) extolled the "abundant water supply and the canals and reservoirs," encouraging readers to "Come to Omak and see for yourself before locating elsewhere" ("Apple Raising"). In 1910, farmland in Omak was selling for between $150 and $350 an acre. Popular crops were apples, peaches, plums, and apricots. Within a decade, apples dominated, with the next largest crop being alfalfa.
Along with agriculture, logging was important. One of the biggest players was the Biles-Coleman Mill which opened in 1922, employing 75 men in the sawmill and logging operation. That first year, the company planned to cut 15 million feet of lumber to make 2 million boxes. In 1929, a spectacular fire of unknown origin destroyed the sawmill and kilns, which was rebuilt. Billed as one of the costliest fires in North Central Washington, the loss was estimated at $250,000.
The Stampede and Suicide Race
In 1933, two cattlemen from Okanogan County, Leo Moomaw (1894-1969) and Tim Bernard (1897-1979) set out to organize a rodeo that would attract thousands of spectators and boost the local economy. They brought in several world-level championship cowboys, including those who had won the roundups at Calgary and Pendleton, as well as bronc riding champs. Despite the star attractions, the 1933 rodeo ended up in the red and the two promoters had to bail it out. Both the 1933 and 1934 rodeos were held on the high school athletic field in Omak.
In 1935, the event was moved to a city-owned site on the east side of the Okanogan River and the name Omak Stampede was coined. Grandstands accommodating about 3,000 people were built with volunteer help and donated lumber; additional space was available for people who wanted to watch the events from the comfort of their cars. That year the Stampede's first queen was crowned: 19-year-old Bertha "Bert" Robbins Aveldson (1916-1995). It was also the year that the Stampede's World Famous Suicide Race was inaugurated.
The Suicide Race was the inspiration of local businessman Claire Pentz (1899-1972), publicity chairman for the Stampede, who wanted to increase the lackluster crowds seen during the rodeo's first two years, when boxing, trained zebras, and stock car racing were among the attractions. Pentz said he got the idea from a race held on the nearby Colville Indian Reservation in which riders would race through a dry riverbed.
In Omak's version, horses and riders wait nervously some 50 feet back from the edge of Suicide Hill, a 62-degree slope that runs for 225 feet down to the Okanogan River. When the signal is given, they careen down the steep embankment and into the river, swim across, and then race up the opposite bank to the Stampede arena. The quarter-mile course takes about 45 seconds to traverse. In 1959, 17-year-old Rusty Tawes of Pendleton, Oregon, became the first woman to compete in the Suicide Race. She placed sixth among seven entries, and seemed to enjoy her time in Omak. She told the local paper: "Real nice fellows. Next year I'm going to get here a week early to practice" (Chronicles of the Okanogan, 49).
Nearly 90 years later, the Stampede, held during the second week of August, attracts some 30,000 people. Most come for the Suicide Race, which is run on four of the five rodeo days. Horses are required to be examined by a veterinarian before the race to ensure they can endure the extreme course; they must also be able to swim and successfully navigate the river currents. About 15 riders usually compete each year for belt buckles, a saddle, and $40,000 in cash; most of the riders come from the Colville Reservation.
Although organizers paint it as a celebration of tradition and bravery rooted in Native American culture, the race has plenty of detractors who view it as animal cruelty and a shabby publicity stunt. Protests began in earnest in 1939, and multiple lawsuits to stop the race have been filed over the years. On its website, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) states: "The horses – many on loan for the event – have suffered heart attacks from over exertion, broken bones from shocking collisions and tumbles, and even horrifying death by drowning. It is unclear how many horses or people have died in the race since its inception in 1935. Since 1983, at least 22 horse deaths have been documented" (PAWS website).
Although Washington prohibits the injury of animals for amusement or monetary gain, the horses in the Suicide Race have been exempted under a clause in RCW 16.52.185 that excludes the "normal and usual course of rodeo events" (PAWS website).
On July 21, 1966, the Disney short film, "Run, Appaloosa, Run" opened for a week at the Omak Theatre. This 47-minute action featurette told the story of Mary and her stallion Holy Smoke. It was filmed almost entirely in Okanogan County with the Suicide Race as its centerpiece, although in the film the race is called the Hell's Mountain Suicide Race. The town of Omak was mentioned twice on screen and hundreds of locals turned out for the crowd scene that was shot in the arena for the film's finale. Claire Pentz, who created the Suicide Race, had a small speaking role as the race starter.
In the 10 years from its incorporation in 1911, the population of Omak grew to 2,500, making it the county's largest city. By 1970, the population reached 4,164 and has held relatively stable since then. In 2020, Omak was home to 4,752 residents. They are served by Omak Municipal Airport, located three miles north of town. The airport was built in 1942 by the U.S. Army Air Forces and is owned and operated by the City of Omak. In the early 1980s, it was the home base for Omak Airlines, no longer in existence; today, it is used by charter flights and private aircraft. The airport is on 153 acres with one north-south runway and a small terminal building.
Wenatchee Valley College opened a campus at Omak in 1967 as part of Community College District 15. Classes were initially held in a former Omak hospital building until the Omak campus was created in the mid-1970s on the old site of a Catholic school near downtown. In 2019, the Omak campus enrolled about 13 percent of the total WVC student population.
About 9,500 people are enrolled in the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation; approximately 50 percent live on tribal land, in Omak, or in nearby towns. The Tribes maintain administrative offices in Omak and three other communities: Nespelem, Keller, and Inchelium. The Colville Tribal Federal Corporation, headquartered in Omak, oversees two multi-million dollar enterprises – gaming and wood products – which employ from 800 to 1,200 people in permanent, part-time, and seasonal positions.
Wildfires are a persistent threat near Omak, many of them caused by lightning and exacerbated by hot, dry, windy weather. Highway 97 north of Omak and Highway 155 to the east are frequently closed during peak fire season. In August 2015, one of the largest fires in state history, the Okanogan Complex fire, hit Okanogan County. One of the feeder fires, the Tunk Block fire, burned dangerously close to Omak. Firefighters were able to beat it back when it reached Omak Municipal Airport. The blaze consumed nearly 260 square miles; four homes and one outbuilding were lost. In 2020, the Cold Springs wildfire burned nearly 296 square miles near Omak.
In addition to the Omak Stampede, Omak hosts a film festival, Western and Native Art Show, and a Main Street historical tour. In 1989, the school district built the 500-seat Omak Performing Arts Center for civic events and presentations. Nearby is the 58,000-square-foot casino opened in 2008 by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. For those who prefer their entertainment outdoors, Omak provides plenty of opportunities for hiking, fishing, camping, and boating. The city maintains eight parks within the town limits, and there are several beaches on nearby Omak Lake.