Chelan County -- Thumbnail History

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 1/28/2006
  • Essay 7624

Chelan County embraces the drainages of the Wenatchee River, the Entiat River, and Lake Chelan, and the Chelan River for a total of 2,920 square miles. Irrigation has transformed the arid valleys into agricultural treasure houses and the home to Washington apples and the ubiquitous Aplet and Cotlet confections. Hydroelectric development has lived up to the Wenatchee Daily World's claim, first made in the 1920s, that the region is the "Power Belt of the Great Northwest." Almost 90 percent of the county is owned by the state and federal governments.

First Peoples

The Wenatchee tribe (also spelled Wenatchi) lived along the Wenatchee River, which flowed from the Cascades into the Columbia. They spoke a version of the Salish language, also called Salishan and Interior Salish, which they shared with the peoples of Puget Sound and northern Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Wahnaachee is the name given the tribe by the Yakimas (later, Yakamas), who passed it to explorer Captain William Clark in 1804. Wenatchee is a Sahaptian word for "water coming out" (Ruby, 266). The people called themselves Pisquoses.

The Chelans got their name from the writings of fur trader Alexander Ross who described them as the "Tsill-anes" (Ruby, 17). They lived along the south end of Lake Chelan and the short river that drained the lake to the Columbia. Chelans would paddle canoes 50 miles to the head of the lake and trek over the mountains to trade with the tribes of Puget Sound.

The culture and economy of the tribes centered around fishing, but the members also gathered roots and berries and hunted game. Early fur traders taught them to cultivate potatoes. Extended families generally spent winters in permanent settlements of mat-covered longhouses and then dispersed from spring to autumn to fish and hunt. The Wenatchee shared the Wenatshapam Fishery in the Wenatchee Valley with Yakimas. In the late 1700s, the tribes acquired horses for transportation and for food.

Treaties and War

On June 9, 1855, the Wenatchee chief Tecolekun (d. 1858), and 13 other Native American leaders signed the Yakima Treaty at the Walla Walla Council with Governor Isaac Stevens. This extinguished the indigenous people's title to 10.8 million acres of north central Washington in exchange for a much smaller reservation, cash, and other incentives. The treaty lumped together the Chelans and Wenatchees as part of the "Consolidated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Nation" even though they spoke a language different from that spoken by the Yakimas.

Almost immediately after the 1855 treaties were signed, many tribes repudiated the agreements being imposed by Stevens and war broke out across the territory. American soldiers massacred villagers on the White River, a tributary of Lake Wenatchee. In 1858, war broke out again and a punitive expedition led by U.S. Army Major R. S. Garnet that August marched up the Columbia. Garnet hanged four Wenatchee men suspected of killing white miners. Chief Tecolekun is believed to have been killed previous May in the battle with U.S. troops under Col. Edward Steptoe (1816-1865) near present-day Rosalia.

Moses, of the Columbia tribe east of the Columbia, became the accepted leader of the mid-Columbia bands. They received a reservation from the U.S. government on the west side of the Okanogan River from Lake Chelan to the Canadian border, but that was later withdrawn. Other claims to lands and to the Wenatshapam Fishery guaranteed to Native Americans were gradually abrogated. Only a few small allotments near Lake Chelan remained in Native American hands. Most Wenatchees and the Chelans eventually settled on the Colville Reservation.

Trappers, Missionaries, Prospectors 

Trappers from the Pacific Fur Company, the North West Company, and the Hudson's Bay Company visited the Chelan and Wenatchee valleys from the 1810s through the 1840s in search of beaver pelts. In 1863, a Catholic priest, Father Respari, preached along the Wenatchee River at what would become Mission Valley. (Respari is not mentioned in the official history of the Catholic Church in the Northwest.) In the summer of 1872, Father Urban Grassi, S.J., built a small log church he called St. Francis Xavier. He resided with a local Wenatchee leader who converted to Catholicism and adopted the name Peter Benoit. When a town was established nearby it became New Mission (later Cashmere), and the church site became Old Mission. Father Grassi is credited with using irrigation to raise crops and he taught this to his Indian parishioners.

Father Alexander Diomedi, S.J., built a mission house at Chelan in the 1870s, but a local leader Nmosize (Innomoseecha Bill) burned it down when the priest was absent in 1880. Indian parishioners built a new church along the lake near what would become Manson (Ruby, 15).

The first non-Indians to live in the Chelan and Wenatchee valleys were Chinese prospectors looking for gold in the rivers and streams, starting in about 1863. The placer miners came from California and established a village on the Columbia opposite the mouth of the Chelan. The settlement featured a store, a large garden, and buildings made of split cedar planks.

In 1875, Indians from the Methow River attacked Chinese miners there and at the diggings near the village. An unknown number of Chinese were trapped against a cliff over the river and all were killed. This hastened the abandonment of the village, which was still visible in 1904.


More new settlers arrived in the Wenatchee Valley in the 1870s and 1880s. They tapped runoff from the mountains for irrigation of crops, but the water sources were not entirely reliable. Two traders, Ingraham and McBride, set up a commercial operation at Rock Island in about 1867, then in 1872 moved to the future site of Wenatchee. Their traffic in whiskey to the Indians ran contrary to federal law and they hastily sold their operation to Samuel Miller and the Freer Brothers. Don Carlos Corbett founded the town of Wenatchee in 1888. He named it after the tribe.

William Sanders and William Dumke reached the south end of Lake Chelan the hard way, from the north, in 1886. They crossed the mountains from the Methow Valley and found the steep shoreline impassable. After losing their horse to a fatal fall, they had to carve a cedar log into a crude canoe and made their way 50 miles to the south end of the lake. For a short time in 1880, the U.S. Army maintained Camp Chelan there to watch over the local Indians.

As with the rest of the state, the spur to growth and development came with the arrival of the railroad. Jim Hill’s Great Northern Railway planned to follow the Wenatchee Valley up for a crossing of the Cascades over Stevens Pass. The Wenatchee Development Co., an outgrowth of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad and headed by Judge Thomas Burke, surveyed and platted a town site, and sold lots to new arrivals beginning in May 1892. The company sold $100,000 in property in five days. Residents of the existing town of Wenatchee, one mile to the north, traded their lots with Wenatchee Development and moved to the new community. Even the bank and the post office relocated. The first train from the East arrived on October 17, 1892. The residents of Wenatchee voted for incorporation on December 23, 1892.

The area north of the Chelan River as far as the Canadian border was the Columbia Indian Reservation before 1886 and was open only to homestead entry, not to the establishment of townsites. In 1886, President Grover Cleveland ordered that the reservation be abolished and that certain Indians could take land allotments. In July 1889, U.S. Surveyor Henry Carr and an Okanogan County Probate Judge C. H. Ballard laid out the town of Chelan where the river left the lake. They filed the plat with the land office in Yakima, even though such a filing violated the terms establishing the Indian allotments. When the error was discovered, more than 300 buildings had been erected on lots and the town had a newspaper. This was resolved in 1892 when Congress passed a bill granting title to the settlers. All efforts by the Chelans to reverse this action in court failed.

Growth and Development

After 1888, the Chelan Valley was part of Okanogan County to the north, and the Wenatchee Valley was part of Kittitas County to the south. Anyone with official business had to travel upriver to Conconully or over Blewitt Pass to Ellensburg. Judge Thomas Burke of the Wenatchee Development Co. offered clear title to five lots and a brick hotel as a courthouse if the county seat was placed in Wenatchee. Wenatchee was written into the bill as the county seat. In 1899, the State Legislature created Chelan County out of the two other counties with Wenatchee as the county seat.

The railroad brought new settlers and a means of shipping their stock and produce, but the spur to prosperity came with irrigation. The Cascades mountain range catches much of the precipitation that blows in from the Pacific and rainfall east of the divide seldom exceeded eight inches annually. Cash crops could not succeed without water and the story of agriculture in Chelan County is that of irrigation. Farmers along Mission Creek demonstrated that with irrigation, the soil warmed by more than 300 annual days of sunshine could be marvelously productive. In 1902, farmers shipped 225 carloads of fresh fruit, an 85 percent increase over the year before. And the orchards were not yet fully mature.

Water and Light

In 1872, farmers below Malaga exploited a ditch dug by Chinese placer miners and called it the Lockwood Ditch. Other landowners dug ditches, but irrigation required either a large capital investment or a huge personal effort to dig and maintain canals. Starting in 1901, businessmen and landowners raised money for the Wenatchee Canal Co. and the Highline Canal to run 14 miles from Dryden down to Wenatchee. This later became the Wenatchee Reclamation District. Not the least of the hurdles of the project was raising capital, and convincing highly independent landowners to allow passage of the canal and to commit to pay for water.

The 1890s and the 1900s saw the rise of Progressivism in the U.S., which, among other things, looked to government to resolve many of the abuses of big business and corporate trusts. This led to movements to organize utility functions under local government control. The federal Reclamation Act of 1902 (Newlands Act) provided for the organization and funding of irrigation districts that had the authority of government in acquiring land and issuing bonds. This made possible the construction of reservoirs and canals and the dramatic growth of the fruit industry.

One of the needs of many irrigation projects was electric power for pumps. Electricity was provided by a number of small power companies that sprung up around the hydraulic potential of the area's swift-running rivers. Wenatchee got its first electric lights in 1903 from a water-powered generator on the Squilchuck River built by druggist and schoolteacher L. V. Wells. The Wenatchee Canal Company used the flow from the Highline Canal for power. Soon there was more demand for power than local rivers and streams could supply. The small firms eventually combined under the Puget Sound Power & Light Co., a subsidiary of the Boston conglomerate Stone & Webster.

Armenian immigrants Armen Tertsagian and Mark Balaban arrived in the Cashmere area in 1918 and found hard times for the orchard business. Burdened with surplus perishable fruit, they found ways to dehydrate apples and to make Applum, a jam from apples and plums. The Armenian orchardists tried using their fruit to make Rahat Locoum, a candy they had enjoyed as children in their native Turkey. After much experimentation on a kitchen stove, they came up with Aplets made from apples and walnuts. Cotlets from apricots followed several years later.

In 1930, Washington voters approved an initiative allowing the formation of public utilities districts that could acquire by condemnation the properties of investor-owned companies. By owning their own power companies, residents could keep the price of power down and extend service to remote areas. In the 1930s, U.S. government began constructing irrigation and flood control dams on the Columbia. Congress created the Bonneville Power Administration in 1937 to distribute the dams' cheap and abundant electricity to publicly owned utilities.

Voters approved the Chelan County PUD in 1937 and it took 11 years for the PUD to acquire the properties of Puget Sound Power & Light. In 1955, the PUD acquired the assets of the Washington Water Power Co., which served Chelan, and in 1956 it purchased Rock Island Dam on the Columbia.

Many people dreamed of harnessing the Columbia for its hydroelectric potential. In the mid-1920s, Rufus Woods (1878-1950), who purchased the Wenatchee Daily World in 1907 and was its publisher until 1950, coined a tagline for the paper that is still used today: "Published in the Apple Capital of the World and the Buckle of the Power Belt of the Great Northwest." Not surprisingly, Woods became an influential booster of dams and hydro development. The Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) built its plant at Malaga in 1952 to take advantage of the cheap and plentiful power.

In the 1960s, Leavenworth business leaders, troubled by the wide economic swings, decided to "go Bavarian" (New York Times) and adopt a southern German theme to their small town. The idea was such a success that in 1978, the city council required a Bavarian theme for all new construction as a condition of a building permit. By the mid-1980s, a million tourists a year visited the the slice of Bavaria surrounded by 9,000-foot peaks.

In the early 2000s, the traditional fruit orchards began to yield to grape vines. Tourists had already found the Bavarian flavor of Leavenworth and the sunny beauty of Lake Chelan and growers and vintners noted the good growing conditions for wine grapes. By 2004, 17 wineries had sprung up in Chelan, Douglas, and Okanogan counties with 19 more licensed for a total of 23 active and projected just in Chelan County.


John A. Gellatly, A History of Wenatchee: The Apple Capital of the World (Wenatchee, WA: The Author, 1961), 16-21; Eastern Washington Historical Primer, compiled by Oscar M. Waddell (Spokane: Eastern Washington State Historical Society, 1943); Richard F. Steele, An Illustrated History of Stevens, Ferry, Okanogan and Chelan Counties, State of Washington, (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Co., 1904), 670-685; Deward E. Walker, Jr., "Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation," Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1996), 132; Helen H. Schuster, "Yakima Nation," Ibid., 703-704; Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest, Revised Edition, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986, 1992), 17-18, 266-268; Wilfred R. Schoenberg, S.J., A History of the Catholic Church in the Pacific Northwest, 1743-1983 (Washington, D.C.: The Pastoral Press, 1987), 232; "Chelan County Communities Earn ‘Stormready’ Title," Press Release dated October 27, 2003, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website accessed January 24, 2006 (; "History," Lake Chelan Reclamation District website accessed January 25, 2006 (; "About Wenatchee," Alcoa website accessed January 25, 2006 (; "Grapes Have a Spot in Chelan," Yakima Herald-Republic, September 15, 2004, p. C-4; "The Early Days of Liberty Orchards," Liberty Orchards website accessed on January 29, 2006 (; Tim Egan, "National Notebook: Leavenworth, Wash.," The New York Times, August 10, 1986, p. A-1; Lorraine Barker Hildebrand, Straw Hats, Sandals and Steel: The Chinese in Washington State (Tacoma: The Washington State Historical Society, 1977), 11-18; Wilfred Woods, email to John Caldbick, March 22, 2012, in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, Washington.
Note: This essay was corrected on January 15, 2008, and again on March 22, 2012, to clarify the ownership history and tagline of the Wenatchee World newspaper.


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