Columbia County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 7/11/2006
  • Essay 7801
Columbia County, in southeastern Washington, has a population of 4,064 (in 2000), making it one of the more sparsely populated of Washington’s 39 counties. At 868.8 square miles, it is the ninth-smallest county in the state. It is bordered by Whitman County and the Snake River to the north, Walla Walla County to the west, Garfield County to the east, and the Oregon state line to the south. The mainly agricultural county was carved out of Walla Walla County in 1875. It is known for asparagus, green peas, and especially wheat, with ranching and logging also playing a significant role. Agriculture and food processing still dominate the economy, with manufacturing and government representing the majority of the county’s nonagricultural employment. Dayton, the largest town and county seat, recorded a population of 2,655 in the 2000 Census. Dayton is well known for the historic preservation of its downtown.

The Land and its First People

Northern Columbia County has rolling hills and valleys, with its lowest elevation of 504 feet on the Snake River on its northern border. Farther south, the terrain becomes rugged and forested, with the Blue Mountains rising to 6,401 feet at Oregon Butte in the southern part of the county.

The lower Snake River was home to bands of Palouse and other Sahaptin-speaking people, including Nez Perce, Yakama, Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Wanapum. The Blue Mountains formed the western part of a 17-million acre region traditional to the aboriginal Nimi'ipuu people, renamed Nez Perce by Lewis and Clark when they arrived in the region in 1805. The horse was central to the lives of both the Palouse and the Nez Perce.

The traditional Nez Perce Trail crossed the future Columbia County, extending east from Wallula (Walla Walla County) and entering Columbia County southeast of Waitsburg (Walla Walla County) and following the southern bank of the Touchet River to present day Dayton. Here it crossed the river and followed Patit Creek northeast. The trail exited the county about seven miles west of where Pomeroy (Garfield County) is today (2006). From there the trail continued east across the Rockies to the Great Plains.

On October 12 and 13, 1805, Lewis and Clark canoed on the Snake River along the boundary separating Columbia and Whitman counties on the outbound leg of their expedition to the Pacific Ocean. They did not stop in the future Columbia County on the night of October 12, instead opting to spend the night in the future Whitman County at the mouth of Alkali Flat Creek. But on their return trip to St. Louis on May 2, 1806, Lewis and Clark spent the night on Patit Creek about two-and-a-half miles east of present-day (2006) Dayton.

In the late winter of 1834, Captain B. L. E. Bonneville crossed Columbia County on the Nez Perce Trail, surveying the Northwest on behalf of the United States government. There is a vague reference in F. A. Shaver's 1906 book, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington, that prior to 1834, the British Hudson's Bay Company (the British fur-trading company) had remained "undisputed occupants since 1829," but no other details are provided. This may be a reference to Fort Nez Perce, later known as Fort Walla Walla (distinct from the U.S. Army's Fort Walla Walla). Fort Nez Perce was built in 1818 near the future town of Wallula (Walla Walla County) by the North West Fur Company. In 1821 the Hudson's Bay Company merged with North West Fur, bringing the fort under Hudson's Bay control.

Early Settlement

One of the first white settlers in Columbia County was Henry M. Chase. Chase and another man, P. M. Lafontain, built cabins and possibly a small fort early in 1855 at the site of present day Dayton. (Several other settlers also moved into the area that year, but did not stay long.) In June 1855, Chase and Lafontain received word of a pending Indian attack and fled.

On their way out of the area they picked up Louis Raboin, also known as Louis Moragne. Moragne was another early Columbia County pioneer who actually moved to the county in the early 1850s, several years before Chase arrived. Moragne lived in a cabin on the Tucannon River in the eastern part of what would later become Columbia County. The town of Marengo, formed at the site in the 1870s, was named after him.

Permanent settlement reached Columbia County in 1859, with claims taken up along the Touchet and Tucannon rivers and along Patit Creek. Henry and Jesse Day arrived from Oregon in March 1859 with a herd of cattle. Jesse Day located a homestead on the Touchet River at the present site of Dayton. Henry returned to Oregon briefly but then came back in 1860 and settled with his own herd of cattle on the Touchet.

Samuel L. (1825-1906) and Margaret (1844-1922) Gilbreath arrived in August 1859. According to Shaver, Margaret Gilbreath was the first white woman to locate in the county. In March 1860 she gave birth to a daughter, the first pioneer child born in the county. The Gilbreaths went on to have a total of 13 children; the youngest, Frederick Gilbreath (1888-1969), would serve as a general in the U.S. Army during World War II.

In the fall of 1859, Frederick Schnebley homesteaded at the Dayton site of the former Chase homestead, which had been destroyed in the 1855 Indian attack. Elisha Ping, another settler whose name features prominently in early Columbia County history, arrived in August 1860 and settled on the Patit.


A number of wagon roads were built through the county in the 1860s (including the Walla Walla to Lewiston, Idaho, wagon road in 1862). Dayton was a stop on the stage line and appears to have stayed that way through the 1860s. Settlers slowly drifted into the county in the 1860s, but in the early 1870s settlement rapidly increased.

A post office named Touchet was established in Dayton in 1864 and would operate under that moniker until changing its name to Dayton in 1872. Jesse Day and his wife Elizabeth Day filed the plat for the town of Dayton on November 23, 1871. Dayton is named after Jesse Day. The town quickly grew, reaching a population of 526 by the spring of 1877, according to a report filed by the county assessor.

Until 1875 there was no Columbia County, just a large Walla Walla County stretching across southeastern Washington to the Idaho border. In October 1869 the first attempt was made to create a new county from the eastern part of Walla Walla County, but this effort failed. A second effort in 1875 was successful, and Columbia County officially came into existence on November 29, 1875. The eastern border of Columbia County at that time was the Idaho state line, but in November 1881 the eastern part of Columbia County was separated to form Garfield County.

Dayton became the county seat, and both the new county and town grew quickly; an 1879 census showed Columbia County with 6,894 residents, and the 1880 United States Census gave Dayton a population of 996.

In 1880 Jacob Weinhard arrived from Portland where he'd worked as a foreman in his uncle's brewery. Seeing the potential of the land for growing barley, he established the Weinhard Brewery. By 1904 his enterprises included the brewery, a malt house, the Weinhard Saloon and lodge hall, the Weinhard Theater and an interest in the Local Citizens National Bank.

The railroad arrived in Dayton in July 1881 and the first passenger train left for Walla Walla on July 19. The railroad greatly aided the development of both business and agriculture in the county. Prior to July 1881 farmers had to haul wheat for sale to Walla Walla by wagon, a 50 to 60 mile round trip. With this travel time now eliminated by the railroad's expansion into the county, Columbia County farmers were able to expand their farms and get better prices for their crops.

The town of Dayton was quarantined for 10 days during a smallpox epidemic in November 1881. Eleven Dayton residents died (with 21 deaths were reported in all of Columbia County), but the quarantine was credited with preventing further death from the illness.

Fires plagued Dayton in its early history. Some were deliberately set. On April 8, 1882, a fire wiped out three blocks in the business district. A fire occurring on June 24, 1887, and another on August 11, 1890, each caused more than $110,000 worth of damage. Nevertheless, the town grew rapidly and prospered: "In 1903 the population of Dayton was given as 2,745" (Shaver).

The Blue Mountain Cannery was built in Dayton in 1934. At the time, it was one of the largest canneries in the United States. It had its trial run of canning peas on July 20, 1934, and during its first season canned up to 7,500 cases of peas per day. The cannery expanded in 1939 to accommodate asparagus operations.

The Blue Mountain Cannery sold out to the Minnesota Valley Canning Company in 1947, and in 1950 began operating under the Green Giant label. The Green Giant Company was purchased by Pillsbury in 1978 and subsequently bought by Seneca Foods. In June 2005, Seneca Foods announced plans to close the asparagus cannery. Seneca planned to retain much of the facility as part of its seed and agronomic research operation.

As part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, two Civilian Conservation Camps were established in Columbia County in 1935, one on the outskirts of Dayton on Patit Road and another in the southeastern part of the county.

During World War II, the Dayton camp was used to train military police, and in 1945 was turned into a labor camp for German Prisoners of War. Remarked Jo Ann Whitmore, a child living in Dayton at the time: "I think they [the camp guards] must have taken them [the German prisoners] out for work crews. We kids would wave at them when they came back at night."


The railroad town of Starbuck came into being in the 1880s. Starbuck is located on the Tucannon River about 20 miles northwest of Dayton. In its early years Starbuck was a division point on the main line of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company. At one time up to 24 trains a day went through the town.

The town was named after railroad official W. H. Starbuck and was platted on June 1, 1894. In 1900 Starbuck had a population of 215 and continued to grow and prosper in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Bank of Starbuck started in 1904 and ran until 1929. A large brick school was built in 1910 with inside plumbing facilities (still something of a novelty in rural America in 1910) and in 1916 boasted 217 students.

In 1914 the opening of the High Line Bridge across the Snake River downstream from Lyon's Ferry eliminated some of the train traffic that went through Starbuck, and after that time it was no longer a railroad division point. The town was a grain-shipping point for a number of years, but by the mid-twentieth century Starbuck's fortunes were fading. In 1956 its high school students were sent to Dayton; in 1961 the railroad station in the town closed. In the 2000 Census, Starbuck had a population of 130. Dayton, meanwhile, went on to become the principal town of Columbia County.

Cattle, Logs, Wheat, and Moonshine

The early pioneers attempted to make cattle and sheep ranching the dominant industry in Columbia County. However, harsh winters and resulting food shortages soon took its toll on livestock.

The winter of 1861-1862 is one of the worst on record in the history of Washington state, and caused a serious hardship among the nascent settlements in Columbia County. The cold and snow arrived early in January 1862 and lingered into March. Most of the settlers living in the county lost their stock from starvation. Farmers burned their fence rails for firewood. Travelers passing through the area froze to death in temperatures reportedly as low as 28 degrees below zero and snow approaching three feet deep "on the level" (Shaver).

Wheat farms were established in the county in its earliest years and quickly became the dominant industry. Beginning in the 1890s, technological advances made in the equipment used to harvest wheat made it easier to produce even more wheat.

Logging was another major industry in the first decades of Columbia County's history. Sawmills were built in the Blue Mountains, where timber was abundant; additional sawmills were built along local county rivers. Logging continued to play a role in the county's industry until the 1960s, though some logging mill owners made more money by turning to farming.

Reflecting the dominance of agriculture in Columbia County in the early twentieth century, 10 county farmers established the Farm Bureau on December 17, 1922. The Farm Bureau's goals were simple: (1) to establish a marketing program to ensure fair pricing and (2) to represent the interests of local farmers in Olympia. By 1924 the Farm Bureau had 321 members.

Granges also sprang up in the county during the 1930s. The establishment of the Farm Bureau and the granges resulted in a number of social centers being established throughout the county: "There was a corn club at Tucannon and a pig club at Whetstone" (Fletcher).

Prohibition -- the legal prevention of the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages -- became the law in Washington state on January 1, 1916; 1919 saw the ratification of the Prohibition amendment to the U.S. constitution, which was not repealed until 1933. Columbia County, like most of the rest of America, has tales to tell about local efforts to circumvent the law.

The Blue Mountains were ideal for cooking moonshine "by the light of the moon" (Fletcher). Wilma Fletcher quoted a Walla Walla Bulletin interview of a "mountain man" on his methods: "'Using sprouted wheat or corn for a batch was just dandy ... We'd put the sprouted wheat in a barrel of boiling water, add sugar and let it set for about eight days. Then we'd boil it in a big copper kettle to purify it.'" Added Fletcher, "He sold hooch for $10 a gallon and the pick of the brew for $20."

Damming the Snake

By the late 1950s, the Lower Snake River Project was underway in southeastern Washington. It involved the construction of four dams on the Snake River, including the Little Goose Dam, which straddles the river between Columbia and Whitman counties.

In 1958, the Port of Columbia was developed to take advantage of the economic opportunities afforded by the project. Located in Dayton, the Port is responsible for purchasing and developing land to assist in the county's economic development.

In the mid-1960s construction got underway for Little Goose Dam in the northeastern part of Columbia County. The initial phase of the dam was completed in March 1970, and an additional three power units were added in 1978.

The dam resulted in the formation of 37-mile-long Lake Bryan, named for Dr. Enoch A. Bryan (1855-1941), president from 1893 to 1916 of Washington Agricultural College (later Washington State University). The lake is used for recreation, and in 1981 the ski resort of Bluewood opened 21 miles south of Dayton, providing another recreational opportunity for southeastern Washington.

The 1970 Census put the population of Columbia County at 4,439. By 2000, the population had trended downward to 4,064. However, Columbia County, and particularly Dayton, adopted new strategies to meet the twenty-first century.

Historical and Historic

A number of historical structures were torn down in Dayton during the 1950s, and in the 1970s more were threatened. The railroad station in Dayton closed on January 1, 1972, and this seems to have been the catalyst to begin historic preservation in the city. The Dayton Historical Depot Society was formed in 1974 and one month later the old railroad station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1975, the Union Pacific Railroad donated the station and adjoining property to the Dayton Historical Depot Society. Restoration of the station began that same year. In July 1981 (on the 100th anniversary of the railroad's arrival in Dayton), the Depot opened to the public as a heritage building museum. It is the oldest surviving railroad station in Washington.

Columbia County also has the oldest working courthouse in Washington state. Built in Dayton in 1887, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been maintained throughout the years and was extensively renovated in the early 1990s.

In 1999, the Downtown Dayton Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This district includes 29 buildings (15 built before 1900) in a four-block area, and 117 buildings in all of Dayton. As the twenty-first century began, Dayton was becoming well known in southeastern Washington for its historical preservation.

Agriculture in Columbia County is also changing with changing times. Wheat, peas, and asparagus continue to be the dominant crops, but now experimental farms are also growing new crops such as garbanzo beans and lawn grass seed.

Sources: F. A. Shaver, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington (Spokane: Washington Western Historical Publishing Company, 1906); W. D. Lyman, Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla County, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company. 1918); Robert E. Ficken, Washington Territory (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2002), 120, 187; Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (The Washington State Historical Society, 1985); James W. Phillips, Washington State Place Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1971); Washington: A Guide to the Evergreen State compiled by workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Washington (Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1941); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington’s Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), 178-179; Frank T. Gilbert, Historic Sketches of Walla Walla, Whitman, Columbia, and Garfield Counties, Washington Territory (Portland, Oregon: A. G. Walling, 1882); W. D. Lyman, Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla County, Vol. 2  (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918); “Incorporations of Washington Cities and Towns by Year,” Municipal Research and Service Center of Washington website accessed September 18, 2010 (;, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Columbia County – Thumbnail History” (by Phil Dougherty); “Dayton -- 80 Next November: Keeps Getting Better but Not Bigger,” Spokesman-Review, September 30, 1951, pp. 8-9; Col. Virgil F. Field, “History of the Washington Army National Guard,” 248th Support Center (CRAO), website accessed September 19, 2010, (; Dayton Devleopment Task Force and Dayton Chamber of Commerce, “Dayton and Columbia County Visitor Information Guide,” (1988); Steven R. Lorton, “Historic Dayton,” Sunset Magazine, May 2000, p. 78; “Pioneer Families,” Dayton Chronicle, February 10, 1988, p. 1;  “Dayton Celebrates with Pioneers and Recalls Foundation Days,” The Spokesman-Review, November 20, 1921, p. 4; C. A. Nelson and Mrs. Donald J. Lyman, “Dayton Community Survey 1955,”  Dayton file, Northwest History Room, Spokane Public Library, Spokane.
Note: This essay was slightly expanded on April 15, 2013.

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