Garfield County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 5/03/2006
  • Essay 7728
Garfield County, located in Southeastern Washington, had a population in 2000 of 2,397, making it the least populated of Washington's 39 counties. Its largest town (and county seat), Pomeroy, recorded a population of 1,517 in the 2000 Census. Agriculture has long dominated Garfield County's economy with farms occupying two-thirds of the land in the county. Wheat has long been the dominant crop, though other grains such as barley also are grown. At 710.5 square miles, Garfield County is the seventh-smallest county in the state. It is bordered by Columbia County to the west, Asotin County to the east, and the Snake River to the north, with the Snake River Canyon in places descending well over 1,000 feet to the river. The Oregon state line marks Garfield County's southern border. The northern part of the county is a fertile plain; farther south elevations rise to the Blue Mountains near the Oregon state line.

First Peoples and First Contact

Native Americans followed the Nez Perce Trail through Garfield County for many years prior to Lewis and Clark's first arrival in 1806. The trail extended east from Wallula (Walla Walla County) and entered Garfield County about seven miles west of where Pomeroy is today (2006). The trail tracked east to near the site of Pomeroy, then roughly paralleled today's U.S. Highway 12 east to the Asotin County line. From there the trail continued east across the Rockies to the Great Plains.

On October 12, 1805, Lewis and Clark canoed on the Snake River along the boundary separating Garfield and Whitman counties on the outbound leg of their expedition to the Pacific Ocean. They did not stop, however, and passed through the area during the course of one day. On their return trip to St. Louis on May 3, 1806, Lewis and Clark did stop in Garfield County, and spent the night on Pataha Creek east of the future site of Pataha City.

Captain B. L. E. Bonneville passed through Garfield County in 1834, surveying the region on behalf of the United States government (which declined to pay him for his efforts). Bonneville entered the eastern part of the county along Alpowa Creek, followed Pataha Creek to near the future site of Pomeroy, then took the Nez Perce Trail west out of the county.

Early Settlement

One of the earliest permanent white settlers in what would become Garfield County was Parson Quinn (1820-1900). In 1860 Quinn settled on Pataha Creek, about 11 miles west of the present (2006) site of Pomeroy, and lived there for 40 years. Garfield County historian Elgin Kuykendall (1870-1958) knew Quinn and described him as a "genial Irishman with a keen sense of humor."

Joseph Pomeroy (1830-?), eponym of Garfield's county seat, was another of Garfield County's earliest settlers. On December 8, 1864, he purchased a ranch on Pataha Creek on the present (2006) site of downtown Pomeroy. He established a stage station and "eating house" (Shaver) on the stage road between Walla Walla and Lewiston, Idaho. Known by many as "Pum's," this "eating house" was said to have served excellent food in an attractive setting to weary stage travelers for 12 years during the 1860s and 1870s. Pomeroy also ran a small farm and raised livestock on his ranch.

By the early 1870s settlers into the area began to establish farms and raise grain. More settlers came and by 1875 there were an estimated 200 farms in what would soon become Garfield County. From there the pace of settlement quickened, and, recognizing the growing need for a local commercial center, Pomeroy decided to convert his property into a town in 1877.

The Towns of Garfield County

The townsite plat of Pomeroy was filed on May 28, 1878, by Joseph Pomeroy, Martha Pomeroy, Benjamin Day, and Minnie Day. The town grew rapidly, and by May 1879 at least six businesses (including a brewery) had been established there. The first telegraph line also reached Pomeroy in 1879.

Pomeroy was not the first town established in Garfield County; that honor goes to Columbia Center, about eight miles south of Pomeroy. The town was platted in December 1877 and a post office briefly established, but by the mid-1880s Columbia Center was a failing community. Soon after it became "a veritable deserted village" (Shaver).

A more successful town in Garfield County's first years was the town of Pataha City, about three miles east of Pomeroy. James Bowers first settled on the site in 1861, and development began in Pataha City in 1878. In August 1882 the town was platted by one Angevine June Titus and Company Favor. (Favor had the misfortune of being named after a circus that his parents had attended the day before his birth; they were so impressed with the circus, they named their son after it. His contemporaries called him Vine Favor.) Through the mid–1880s Pataha City challenged Pomeroy as the economic center of the county, and was even briefly the county seat of Garfield County when Garfield County was created in 1881.

A County and its Seat(s)

On November 29, 1881, Garfield County -- named after President James A. Garfield (1831-1881) -- was formed from the eastern portion of Columbia County by an act of the Washington Territorial Legislature. The original Garfield County created in 1881 stretched east to the Idaho state line; in November 1883, Asotin County would be carved out of the eastern portion of Garfield County by another act of the Territorial Legislature.

The Territorial Legislature named Pataha City as the interim county seat of the new Garfield County, but only for six weeks. A special election was scheduled for January 9, 1882, to establish a permanent county seat. There was a fierce competition between Pataha City, Pomeroy, Asotin City (later Asotin), and Mentor, a small town north of Pataha City that existed during the 1880s only briefly.

Pomeroy won the election, but this hardly settled the issue. Citizens of Pataha City filed suit against the county commissioners to restrain them from meeting at Pomeroy and to show cause why Pataha City should cease to be the county seat. In February 1882, Territorial Judge S. C. Wingard shocked many by ruling the election void. Wingard held that although the act creating the county authorized the temporary commissioners named to call a special election and select a county seat, the act failed to give anyone the authority to count the returns in the election and declare the result.

The controversy continued. The county commissioners ignored the judge's decision and established county headquarters in Pomeroy. Citizens of Pataha City filed another suit in territorial court to compel the county commissioners to establish county offices in Pataha City, but this suit failed.

For more than two years Garfield County was a county without a legal county seat, although Pomeroy was the de facto county seat. With little opposition, the citizens of Pomeroy next secured passage of a bill through both houses of the fall 1883 session of the Washington Territorial Legislature establishing the county seat at Pomeroy.

It did not end there. In March 1884 Territorial Governor William Newell (1817-1901) wrote to Dr. T. C. Frary of Pomeroy and said that through a clerk's error there was no enacting clause (to make Pomeroy the county seat) in the county-seat bill. Newell said he had approved the bill and did not believe it could be successfully attacked, but attacked it was. Garfield County's territorial representative appealed to the United States Congress.

On May 13, 1884, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill that cured the defects in the county-seat bill. The United States Senate approved the measure, making Pomeroy the legal county seat in Garfield County once and for all. Garfield County is the only county in Washington state to have had its county seat declared by an act of the United States Congress.

The Promise of Pomeroy

In 1885 the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company began to extend the railroad east from Starbuck (Columbia County) to Pomeroy, and the line reached Pomeroy in January 1886, assuring Pomeroy's future. But the line did not stretch farther east to Pataha City, and that town began to falter. A fire on April 7, 1893, wiped out Pataha City's business district and the town never recovered.

However, Pomeroy enjoyed steady growth through most of the 1880s and into the early 1890s. The nationwide financial downturn caused by the Panic of 1893 significantly slowed the town's pace for several years, but rapid growth returned in the late 1890s. In 1900, Pomeroy's population was 953.

Pomeroy was struck by fire in 1890 and 1898, but it was a fire on July 18, 1900, that caused the most damage in the town's early history. The fire started accidentally in a saloon and quickly spread, destroying nearly half of the town's business district. Damages exceeded $135,000 (in 1900 dollars), with less than half of the damage covered by insurance.

Pomeroy quickly recovered from this near-disaster. Indeed, the resulting construction of a new downtown of fireproof brick buildings resulted in even faster growth. Running water reached Pomeroy in 1903 and electricity in 1904. By 1904 the first telephone lines were also in use in Pomeroy. The town's economic boom coincided with a similar boom in the county's agricultural economy; in 1903 Garfield County produced 2,301,765 bushels of wheat and barley.

In November 1912, Pomeroy citizens voted to outlaw the sale of alcohol in the city (just over three years before the state of Washington went dry) under a local option statute then in effect. Saloons closed and bootlegging quickly became rife in the city. Those caught and convicted of bootlegging were put to work building new county roads to handle the advent of the automobile.

Age of Tractor and Auto

Garfield County prospered during the 1910s and 1920s. The population in 1910 was 4,199, with 504 ranches and farms growing wheat, barley, and potatoes, and raising cattle and sheep. Tractors began slowly replacing horse and mule teams on the farms, freeing up more acreage for cultivation. A number of granges sprang up in Garfield County in the 1920s, mirroring a trend occurring in many rural regions throughout the country.

The county was hit hard by the Great Depression in the 1930s, but the local economy got a boost between 1933 and 1935 by several Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) projects. By the end of the decade the economy was beginning to recover, but the population had dropped: Garfield County's population in the 1940 Census was 3,383, down nearly 20 percent in 20 years.

Peas and Wheat

In the 1940s, peas became a major crop in Garfield County. In July 1942 the Blue Mountain Cannery began operating in Pomeroy, making it the first major food-processing firm in the county. The peas were processed for the Jolly Green Giant label, and the Blue Mountain Cannery operated for nearly two decades. Higher freight rates combined with stagnant pea prices caused the plant to close in October 1960.

Wheat production continued to be a mainstay of Garfield County's economy during the 1940s. In 1946 Pomeroy was the largest grain shipping point on the Union Pacific Railroad Line, and in 1950 the county recorded the largest grain crop in its history when it produced 3,630,982 bushels of grain.

Nineteen fifty was a difficult year for Garfield County. On June 17, 1950, a flash flood brought on by a heavy rainstorm drowned a family of three in Niebel Gulch, southwest of Pomeroy. On September 23, 1950, a fire destroyed the Pomeroy Warehouse and Feed Company, causing nearly $600,000 in damage in 1950 dollars.

Agriculture continued to thrive in Garfield County in the 1950s and 1960s. In November 1960 the Robert Dye Seed Ranch purchased the former Blue Mountain Cannery property and plant. Robert Dye Seed Ranch processed bluegrass seed at the plant, and by 1963 it had become one of the largest bluegrass seed processors in the nation.

The Lower Snake River Dams

The mid–1960s brought changes to Garfield County with the construction of two dams that directly benefited the county's economy: the Little Goose Dam and the Lower Granite Dam. These were the final two dams of four built as part of the Lower Snake River Project. Pomeroy is about 20 miles southeast of Little Goose Dam and about 15 miles southwest of Lower Granite Dam. Work began on Little Goose Dam in June 1963 and on the Lower Granite Dam in July 1965. The resulting economic boom in the county temporarily reversed the gradual decline in population that had continued during the 1940s and 1950s.

During the boom, Garfield County experienced one of its most brutal winters on record in the winter of 1968-1969. Pomeroy's all-time-low of 27 degrees below zero was recorded on December 30, 1968, during one of the coldest cold snaps on record in Eastern Washington (the state of Washington recorded its all-time-low of 48 degrees below zero on the same day). Heavy snow fell in Garfield County in late December 1968 and some county roads remained impassable for several weeks. Snow and cold continued to cause problems in the county until mid–February 1969.

Little Goose Dam was completed in March 1970, and Lower Granite Dam was completed in February 1975. The economic boom that Garfield County had briefly enjoyed from the dam constructions trailed off by the mid-1970s. By 1980 the county's population had dropped 20 percent from the high point reached in 1972.

A Farming Community

It was the end of an era in 1981 when the Union Pacific Railroad abandoned the line from Starbuck to Pomeroy. The tracks were torn out in 1986 and by the end of 1988 had been replaced with a 13-block-long linear park filled with flowers and trees and named Centennial Boulevard in commemoration of the 1989 centennial of Washington state.

Agriculture, particularly wheat, continued to dominate life in Garfield County as the twentieth century ended. The 1997 Census of Agriculture reported Garfield County had 182 farms, down from 504 in 1910. But at the end of the twentieth century these farms were larger and wealthier: The Census found the average farm size in Garfield County in 1997 to be 1,787 acres, or more than two square miles per farm, while the average market value per farm was about $650,000.

Sources: E. V. Kuykendall, The History of Garfield County, (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1984), 15-88, 157-163; F. A. Shaver, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1906), 499-554; Jack Williams, "Each State's Low Temperature Record," USA Today, website accessed April 1, 2006 (; "Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers on Civil Works Activities, Fiscal Year 1979," US Army Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla District, website accessed March 7, 2006, (; online encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Asotin County – Thumbnail History" (by Phil Dougherty) (accessed April 8, 2006); Census 2000," website accessed April 2, 2006, (; "Garfield County Profile, September 2000," Labor Market and Economic Analysis Branch, Washington State Employment Security Department, website accessed April 2, 2006 ( uploadedPublications/394_garfield.pdf); ", 1805, 1806 Journal entry archives," website accessed April 4, 2006, ( section4/wacities/clarkston/history2.htm); "Pomeroy Historic District," Pomeroy Historic District Nomination, The Pomeroy Historic Preservation Committee website accessed April 9, 2006, ( nomination/Section8History.htm).

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