Quincy -- Thumbnail History

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 11/15/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22611

Quincy is a city in Grant County near the heart of Central Washington in a region sometimes known as the Big Bend Country. It is about 10 miles north of I-90, seven miles east of the Columbia River, and 35 miles west of Moses Lake. Quincy began as a stop on the Great Northern Railway line completed through the region in 1892. More homesteaders began arriving in the first years of the 1900s. A post office opened in 1902. Quincy incorporated on March 27, 1907. But it was not until the middle of the twentieth century, when irrigation water from Grand Coulee and other area dams turned the dry land around Quincy into some of the most productive farmland in the country, that it became an agricultural and food-processing center. In the twenty-first century, the ample inexpensive electricity generated by the dams led to development of a new industry, large data centers operated by Microsoft, Yahoo!, and other tech companies. Quincy grew through the years, reaching a population of 7,830 by 2022.

New Settlers in the Desert

The settlement that became Quincy was established in what was then Douglas County, which had been carved out of Lincoln County on November 28, 1883, just days after Lincoln County was separated from Spokane County.

When the first non-Native settlers, cattle ranchers, and sheepherders reached the Big Bend region of Central Washington in the mid-1800s, the future Quincy area was dry and desert-like, seen as barren by many. Depending upon the weather, it could be riddled with predators and potential pests, including rattlesnakes, coyotes, and jackrabbits. Vegetation was largely sagebrush and a variety of grasses, and the region was prone to fires and cold winters. The soil was fertile enough to produce crops such as wheat but without sufficient water, agriculture was not considered an option for a period of time.

The land attracted some of the toughest cattlemen, among them Thomas Smart Blythe (1853-1930) who arrived in Eastern Washington in 1884. A native of Scotland, the life-long bachelor was called "Lord Blythe" behind his back because of his education at Oxford, conservatively tailored attire, well-equipped home with servants, and later, when roads came into use, having one of the area's first automobiles, referred to by some as a glass coach.

Blythe successfully entered the cattle business, making a fortune on large amounts of land he owned in Douglas County between the Columbia River and Moses Lake. Blythe is credited with several area firsts -- including establishing the first viable irrigation system in addition to the early automobile, but he had lost the fortune by the time of his death in 1930.

Railroad Whistle Stop

There were no railroads in the region until 1889, the same year Washington was admitted as the 42nd state. By 1892, the Great Northern Railway was completing construction of its transcontinental line across the northern part of the state. The settlement of Quincy began with the Great Northern's arrival, which opened the way for growth. The first railroad construction camp, serving as a center for the railroad crews laying tracks in the area, was at Trinidad, located on top of a bluff overlooking the Columbia River seven miles west of Quincy.

Quincy started as a whistle stop, a railroad siding and signpost located along the tracks. The siding was a place for trains to pass, identified by a name attached to a post. The train would bring a flood of homesteaders into Quincy and surrounding areas, establishing communities there. The first people to live at the Quincy siding were railroad builders from all over world who had been given passage to the U.S. to help construct the transcontinental line. The open range was coming to an end once the Great Northern completed construction in Washington in 1893.

The Making of a Town

Quincy began to grow in 1901. That May, Joseph M. Clay (1852-1916) of Spokane made a homestead claim of 166.71 acres two miles north of the future townsite. In October John Franklin Black (1861-1954) claimed a 160-acre homestead where the town of Quincy is located today, setting up a tent for his family. Many other land claims were filed between May and October. On December 27, 1901, The Big Bend Chief, a newspaper in Wilson Creek on the Great Northern line some 40 miles northeast, said "One of the towns to the west that is certain to be of some importance in the near future is the siding on the Great Northern known as Quincy," and noted "a large in- flux of population at that point in the last two months" (Steele, 581).

Clusters of new settlers continued arriving in Quincy with eager eyes. Benjamin Elliot Hervey (1850-1933), who lived in Ritzville, about 75 miles east in Adams County, where he managed a furniture store and harness store, was a huge promoter of the Quincy area. He formed a partnership with some other Ritzville businessmen to purchase sections of the Quincy site at $3 an acre and sell them at a profit to incoming settlers. The partnership's first customer was Richard L. Coleman.

Between January and November of 1902, another land 41 claims were filed. Some of the new settlers quickly opened businesses. Richard Coleman built a hotel and Ludwig (Louis) Mullerleile (1871-1954) opened the Mullerleile General Store in a tent. D. Franklin Pyle, Pearl M. Keigley, Philipp Schatz, and Wilhelm and Conrad Weber were also among those who filed claims, together becoming known as the early pioneers of Quincy.

Ruel W. Williams (1872-1947) was appointed as the first postmaster on February 15, 1902. Two weeks later on February 28, Coleman platted the original town of Quincy. In 1902, John Black donated his 16-by-24-foot real-estate office north of the railroad track for the first school session. Solomon V. Frazier (1876-1961), a Spanish American War Veteran, taught the first month. Nineteen students attended the school.

Ashael Lacon Carlock (1856-1944) came west from Missouri in 1902 and filed a land claim at the Quincy siding. Carlock built a two-bedroom house for his wife and six children. Their seventh, Quincy C. Carlock (1902-1925), was born that spring. The older Carlock children attended the first school in 1902. After two years, the family moved back to Missouri.

There was no train depot in Quincy until one was built in March 1902. On March 28, The Big Bend Chief wrote:

"A few weeks ago Quincy, Washington, was simply an unused sidetrack on the Great Northern, in the desert. Now, however, the plain is taking on the appearance of a village and people are coming in and breaking up the bunch grass, preparatory to growing crops. The town at present consists of a hotel under the management of R. Coleman, a general store in charge of J. Muellerleile, a hardware store conducted under canvas until lumber can be obtained, by John Stambaugh; a lumber yard and a livery stable in charge of R. Williams and D. C. Crosby represents the real estate end of the enterprise. A petition has been in for some time for the establishment of a postoffice and it is expected that Quincy mail will be delivered from the railway within a month" (Steele, 581).

In May 1902, David Richardson (1856-1913), a grain dealer from Ritzville, bought the townsite of Quincy from Coleman for $1,560. In the fall of 1902, Ruel Williams built the 40-room Central Hotel. The post office was established inside the hotel. Mail was sent by train in canvas bags and sorted in a shack. Outgoing mail was taken from a hook on a pole. Williams sold the hotel to Joseph Thomas Wightman (1858-1925) and moved to Missouri in July 1903. The Central Hotel, later renamed the Commercial Hotel, changed owners numerous times. It served the town until being torn down in the mid-1930s.

The Quincy Land & Improvement Company (also known as Quincy Land & Development Company) was formed with Harry S. Keigley as president and Charles H. Ross as secretary. On September 3, 1902, the company platted Central Quincy to the east of the original town plat on the north side of the rail line. The two plats were within a few blocks of each other, which caused some tension among residents and businesses.

On October 1, 1902, Elmer Isaac Huffman (1867-1925), became the town school teacher. That fall, Chris Columbus Ledbetter (1857-1934), who had opened the Quincy Livery Stable, and his son Huburt P. Ledbetter (1880-1902), went rabbit hunting. Huburt wanted to try out his new gun, which fell and accidently discharged, killing him. On November 14, 1902, his grave became the first in the Quincy cemetery. That same month, Walter H. Linn (1877-1923) built a two-story general-merchandise store north of the hotel. The second floor was used as a hall where dances were held. The space was available for holding various activities.

The early pioneer homesteaders found life was rough in the desert region where trees were few and hardships included floods and dust storms. Water was scarce and had to be hauled for several miles. The first water well in town was drilled by Millard Fidd Cochran (1857-1913) in 1902. Water was finally reached at a depth of 198 feet and the well supplied the west side of Quincy for years. The value of the land skyrocketed.

In 1903, the first school building was constructed. The town's first doctor, J. Edgar Widby (1874-1956), and his wife Zetta Elmira Widby (1882-1972) moved from Colfax to Quincy in May 1903. She gave birth to their first child that November and they decided to move to Portland. Dr. Widby later moved to Wenatchee, becoming a respected eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist.

The first newspaper in town, the Quincy Record, was started on July 17, 1903, by D. C. Ashmun of Enumclaw. S. Gardner Shaw became manager. The weekly newspaper failed after less than a year. Shaw began publishing a paper he named the Quincy Quill in 1904, printing it from his home. It ran until 1919.

By August 1903, Quincy had several businesses and a population estimated at 140. By the fall, most of the available homestead claims near Quincy had been taken. Its development was increasing rapidly.

Quincy Grows Up

In February 1904, the growing town was hit by flooding. Due to eight or nine inches of snow, multiple small lakes formed. The ground was frozen and water was everywhere. North of the railroad a large lake appeared. Floods became a frequent occurrence in Quincy. Muddy walkways, crop failures, and damage to property were always around the corner.

In April 1904, Doctor Harry D. Vail (1876-1948), a young physician and surgeon from Ephrata, decided his services were needed in Quincy. He opened an office and a drug store named Quincy Pharmacy Drugs.

Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Catholic churches served the spiritual needs of residents. On May 1, 1904, the First Congregational Church opened. Reverend John (Johann) Reimann (1882-1916) served as pastor. Services were in German. The church became known as St. Paul German Lutheran Church. Reimann served until 1910, when his health began to deteriorate. He died in 1916 leaving his wife Carolina Helen Reimann (1883-1966) to raise five children.

The 1904 year brought President Theodore Roosevelt to Quincy on his whistle-stop campaign trip through Washington state.

In September 1904, Millard Cochran claimed homestead land, purchasing 40 acres. There were 12 wells in the area. The wells were a good source of water until dry years arrived between 1908 and 1913, ruining wheat crops, lowering wells, and causing many homesteaders to leave.

Edward Alvin Sapp (1877-?) was the proprietor of the Big Bend Saloon in Quincy, but the saloon quickly declined and closed in December 1904 due to lack of patrons.

By February 1905, an estimated 200 people were living in Quincy. That fall, the Presbyterian Church was erected. Reverend Herbert Moore Course (1874-1965) was the first preacher, with services conducted in English. The land was donated by Millard Cochran. The same year, St. Anthony's Catholic Church provided services in German, English, and Spanish.

Cochran platted Cochran's Addition to consolidate the original Quincy and Central Quincy on April 5, 1906. Several more additions would be added over the years. By the summer of 1906, Cochran and August Sallberg (1845-1935) built the Victoria Hotel for $10,000 in the new townsite. The hotel was not successful and closed in 1907.

In March 1907, a two-story school building was erected. It consisted of six classrooms, a library, shop room, bell tower, brick chimney, and a basement containing a furnace. The lavatories were built of brick and the rest of the building of wood. The land for the school was donated by Millard Cochran. It accommodated all 12 grades and by 1908 there were an estimated 120 students. The school was accredited in 1909. The first high-school graduates were Frank Purcell and Lucy Adams in 1911. In 1912, there were five graduates. The school building served the community until 1938. By 1942, the last of the one-room schools in the Quincy area was consolidated into the Quincy School District.

Two events signaled Quincy's coming of age. First, on March 2, 1907, a special election was held to vote on whether to incorporate Quincy as a town of the fourth class. The measure passed by a vote of 78 to 8. On March 27, 1907, the town of Quincy officially came into existence when the incorporation paperwork was filed with the Washington Secretary of State. The new town's population was estimated at 330. Frank Thomas Campbell (1870-?) was elected mayor, and a treasurer, five councilmembers, and a marshal were also selected.

Then on February 24, 1909, Grant County was created from what had been southeastern Douglas County, including the Quincy area. The legislation creating the new county named Ephrata -- located on the Great Northern line about half way between Quincy and Wilson Creek (at the time the largest town in the new county) -- as the Grant County seat. The 1909-1910 Polk's directory wrote of Quincy:

"A thriving and rapidly growing town on the Cascade div of the [Great Northern Railway] ... Sustains 2 banks, a feed mill, several stores, 3 lumber yards, 4 warehouses, 2 churches, a graded school and a weekly newspaper. About 500,000 bu of wheat are marketed here annually. Exp, G N. Tel, W U. Telephone connections. Mail, daily" (Polk's ..., 966).

If it were not for the Great Northern, there probably would not have been the Town of Quincy.

The Quincy Fire

Like most early settlements in Washington, Quincy was built of wood. And like so many others, it was the victim of a devastating fire. On July 13, 1917, a fire was started by hot grease in Warren Platt's butcher shop on the main street and the wind caused flames to spread rapidly. Within an hour, six buildings were in ashes -- the butcher shop, the law office of Axel E. Johnson (or Jonson), the post office, Fred Renz's novelty store, Johnny Dormaier's general store, and a vacant restaurant building called the Little Gem. Papers were saved from the post office and law offices, but the estimated total loss was between $12,000 and $15,000, with little insurance covering the damage.

After the fire a few residents moved to other towns and some businesses never reopened. But some businesses began, including a movie theater, and changes were made in others, such as hotel ownership. As the U.S. entered World War I, men were drafted into the armed forces, and soon thereafter the Spanish Flu pandemic took hold worldwide. 

Grand Coulee Dam

Obtaining water for agriculture had always been difficult in the Quincy area. Early on, there was a push for irrigating the area to using artesian wells. Another early proposal identified the Wenatchee River as a source of water to irrigate a large portion of Central Washington, including the Quincy region. A state bond measure was presented to voters in 1914, but it was defeated due to the high cost.

Not until the 1930s did work begin on the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, which would transform the region. Grand Coulee Dam, on the Columbia River some 70 miles northeast of Quincy at the northern tip of Grant County, was the centerpiece of the project. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) approved the project soon after he took office during the height of the Great Depression, and construction on the dam began on July 16, 1933. Roosevelt visited the Grand Coulee Dam construction site on August 3, 1934, and again on October 2, 1937.

By 1940 the population of Quincy had grown to 318. The Grand Coulee Dam began generating power in 1941, but the first irrigation water took a while longer. Also in 1941, folksinger Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) was hired to promote the Columbia Basin project. He ended up writing 26 songs, including "Ballad of the Grand Coulee" celebrating the dam.

In the early 1950s, with additional dams, canals, and other irrigation infrastructure completed across the region, irrigation on a large scale got underway. The arrival of water from the dams unleashed major potential and changed Quincy and the entire region. Sagebrush was ripped out and the desert became a highly productive farming center, generating bountiful yields of potatoes and other crops. Quincy's population increased to 804 by 1950 due to the building and development of the dam, and it would grow significantly higher as agriculture increased and other industries arose.

Louis the Watermelon King

Louis Mullerleile, who had opened one of Quincy's earliest stores, which he soon sold, was also a successful farmer. Producing large quantities of watermelons for some 20 years, he became known by the 1930s as the "Watermelon King of North Central Washington." His melons were a favorite in Quincy. To keep the sweet flavor of the watermelon, the soil had to be potent with minerals and chemicals while irrigated and cultivated to perfection. His biggest challenges were pheasants, coyotes, and children. Over the years, Mullerleile learned that tomatoes, honeydew melons, bananas, squash, and cantaloupes could not handle a strong storm that would bring heavy snowfall and high winds from the northeast. At the same time, he learned that Klondike watermelons, Marblehead squash, pumpkins, and ice cream melons could handle the weather. 

Children were constantly after the sweet watermelons. It was said you could tell the children who stole watermelons because they sat on them in the sagebrush all day having "the runs." Mullerleile was generous with his watermelons. He would take loads of them for the children to take home after school.

Costume Designer from Quincy

Colleen Atwood (b. 1948) was born in Ellensburg and grew up in Quincy. At 18, married with one child, her ambition was not farming. Atwood earned a degree from Cornish School of Fine Arts in Seattle and after graduation moved to New York, where her career in wardrobe and costume design took off. 

In 1984, she worked on costume design for the movie Firstborn. She went on to design costumes for many other movies, including Little Women (1994), Gattaca (1997), Beloved (1998), and Fallen (1998). She frequently worked with filmmaker and artist Tim Burton (b. 1958). More recently she did design work for Alice In Wonderland (2010), Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children (2016) and more. Atwood has won two Academy Awards for her work and has been nominated for five. As of 2022, her latest work was on the third film in the Fantastic Beasts series starring Jude Law.

Farming, Technology, Tourism

Early settlers in the desert had visualized irrigation, but it took many years of struggle and hardship before their dreams were realized. Once irrigation water arrived, the land lived up to the promise. Many changes took place over those years and no original settlers saw the current well-irrigated fields of today.

The Port of Quincy was established by voters on March 11, 1958. Its purpose was to encourage and attract industries to Quincy. During the 1960s and 1970s, food production increased with the processing of frozen and canned items. In December 1965, the first ConAgra (later Lamb Weston) potato-processing plant opened. The company would become Quincy's largest industry. During the 1970s, farm equipment grew bigger, allowing farmers to manage their time as newer agricultural technologies increased.

The many acres of irrigated land around the city support a range of agricultural industries, including processing, shipping, storage, and supply. Quincy has multiple plants that processing potatoes, vegetables, apples, and other fruit. Through the 1980s and 1990s farmers utilized sensors and other new machines, and information technology. GPS technology in the early years of the twenty-first century made farming more efficient as farmers could effectively monitor soil and water conditions, transforming agriculture using real-time data.

Construction of the Quincy Municipal Airport began in 1977 and was completed in June 1979. The airport is located on land owned by the City of Quincy and is operated by the Port of Quincy.

The Gorge Amphitheatre, above the Columbia River 12 miles southwest of Quincy, opened in 1986 to bring music concerts to the area, some attracting as many as 20,000 spectators. The City of George is the closest to the Amphitheatre, but the larger Quincy offers services including motel accommodations and grocery stores, and its population increases during the concerts. Also appealing to tourists, several wineries made their appearance around Quincy over the years. Cave B Estate Winery, Beaumont Cellars, White Heron Cellars Winery, Errant Cellars Winery, Jones of Washington, and Ancient Lake Wine all satisfy the tastebuds of many.

Beginning in 2006, Quincy became home to huge data centers (or "server farms") operated by major technology companies drawn by the area's abundant and inexpensive electric power from nearby dams. Microsoft, soon followed by Yahoo!, purchased land from the Port of Quincy for data centers. Dell, Intuit, and others also opened data centers in the area, leading the city to adopt the motto "Where Agriculture Meets Technology!" (Glanz).

Quincy celebrated the 100th anniversary of its incorporation in March 2007 with a party, featuring a 100-square-foot cake, at the city fire station. A representative from the state archives presented copies of the original incorporation documents to city officials, and in his presentation noted that the paperwork did not answer every historic question -- "it doesn't tell us why the place is named Quincy" (Weaver). Accounts of the city's history provide many stories but no clear answer.

In 2022, Quincy's estimated population was 7,830. The city continued finding creative ways to attract new residents with winter and summer activities. The relatively low cost of living and efforts to balance rural roots with new technology and corporate influences were aimed at maintaining quality of life as the community grows and changes. The Quincy Valley Historical Society & Museum collects and preserves the area's history, making it available to anyone interested.


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