Wenatchee -- Thumbnail History

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 7/10/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8634

The name Wenatchee applies to a river and its valley, a tribe (Wenatchi), and a town. The county seat of Chelan County, Wenatchee is a thriving and growing town at the confluence of the Wenatchee and Columbia rivers and the center of the nation’s major apple-producing area. Ironically, the man dubbed “The Father of Wenatchee” (Ficken, 33) was a resident of Seattle, Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925), with major interests in the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad, the Wenatchee Development Company, and the Great Northern Railway. The first business establishment was the Miller-Freer Trading Post of Samuel C. Miller (1829-1906) and Franklin and David Freer (d. 1888), who arrived in 1871. However, Don Carlos Corbett is considered the one who chose the name Wenatchee for the town. Acting for the Wenatchee Development Company, he platted a portion of the 1,400 acres along the Columbia that the company had purchased in 1888 and 1889. This site was soon to be superseded by a new site a mile away on the route of the Great Northern Railway. Although the new town was at the junction of rail and river transportation, its development was hampered by a dry climate and a lack of enough arable land to grow grain profitably. Irrigation, beginning on a large scale in 1904, provided the means by which the Wenatchee area could irrigate the narrow benches along the river and develop its apple empire. A year later, Rufus Woods (1878-1950) arrived in town. He would become the owner and publisher of the Wenatchee Daily World and a major instigator of Grand Coulee Dam. No other local leader would surpass him in vision for Wenatchee and the promotion of its interests.

Pre-Contact Wenatchee  

Archaeological evidence suggests that human habitation of the Wenatchee area goes back as far as 10,000 years. In 1811, Northwest Company explorer and fur trader, David Thompson (1770-1857), and his small group of voyageurs passed the mouth of the Wenatchee River on June 6 during a trip down the Columbia. They encountered people there and at several points just downstream, including a considerable village near present Rock Island Dam. These Indians, whom he called the Sinkayuse, treated the fur traders hospitably and provided them with salmon. The Wenatchi consisted of five bands whose range extended from the Methow to the Kittitas valleys to the north and south of the Wenatchee Valley. The fish of the Wenatchee and other rivers and the game, camas, bitterroot, and berries of plains and mountains provided their food. Ethnographic estimates put their population at 1,400 in 1780, but by the time of permanent white settlement, the population of these Indians had declined drastically because epidemics of European diseases to which they had not built up immunities. The area where the Wenatchee River flows into the Columbia was a traditional council and trading ground for the Wenatchi and other tribes of the Columbia Plateau.

According to Mark Behler, Curator at the Wenatchee Valley Museum, the name Wenatchi comes from the Sahaptin language spoken by the Yakama Indians to the south. It is from their word Winatsa, which means “Water Gushing Out.” In the Interior Salish language of the inhabitants of the valley, their name was P'squosa  (sometimes spelled Pisquousa, Pisquouse, Pisquows, or Piskows), which meant “confined” or “narrow land.” The earliest inhabitants of the area were the P’squosa, but the name Wenatchee (Wenatchi) prevailed. Contrary to some romanticized early-twentieth-century accounts, there was no chief by the name of Wenatchee, and some theories as to the origin of the word are highly fanciful. 

New Arrivals

The first permanent non-Indian settlers were Samuel C. Miller and the Freer brothers, Franklin and David, who had packed freight from Wallula on the Columbia River to the Idaho mines until improved roads made their horse and mule operation obsolete. They began the Wenatchee Trading Post in 1871 or 1872. Their log structure built in 1872 is considered the original building in the Wenatchee Valley. The goods that supplied this and a later store were freighted on wretched mountain roads from Ellensburg. Letters would come to the trading post addressed to "Millersburg." Samuel Miller was the first postmaster of “Wanatchee,” from May 5, 1884, to December 3, 1890. The Post Office Department’s misspelling of Wenatchee was corrected on June 14, 1889.

Development of the area was hampered by the difficult navigation of the rapids on the Columbia River, although a number of steamboats were in service by the 1890s. In 1906, The Coast magazine said, “The Columbia and Okanogan Steamboat Company now gives ... a very excellent water service [except for] times when the river navigation is well nigh impossible [and] at all times is tedious and dangerous” (Coast, 197).  In 1891 several entrepreneurs, including Judge Thomas Burke of Seattle, organized the Wenatchee Development Company. They began buying up land in anticipation that the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad would run through the tiny original settlement in what is now at the north end of present Wenatchee.

This railroad failed before reaching Wenatchee, and in 1892, the Northern Pacific purchased it. A new route was chosen south of the earlier proposed one. The Wenatchee Development Company platted the new townsite, exchanged lots there for the old town lots, and helped the settlers to relocate. With the arrival of the Great Northern Railway on October 17, 1892, the new town was at the crossroads of river and rail transportation of goods and people. In December 1892, Wenatchee was incorporated as a fourth-class town. By 1893 there was fairly dependable steamship service upriver to the wheat lands around Waterville and the towns of the Okanogan region. Thus, with the conjunction of rail and river transport, Wenatchee was poised to develop.

Wenatchee's Anti-Chinese Agitation

But not all newcomers were welcome. Throughout the West, Chinese immigrants had been prospecting in the gold and silver fields, working on the railroads, or establishing small shops and laundries. The newly emerging labor unions resented the "willingness" of the Chinese to work for low wages, most of which they sent home to support their families. Their customs did not mesh with those of the white pillars of the new communities, who in many areas launched violent attacks against them or passed local exclusion ordinances.

On March 8, 1892, although there was only one Chinese man actually living within the town proper, Wenatchee held “an anti-Chinese meeting” in which “a rising vote on the question to exclude Mongolians from the town exhibited marked unanimity.” A committee was appointed to see that “no Chinamen were permitted to locate within the limits of Wenatchee.” When someone mentioned that it might be difficult to exclude them by “honorable, legal and lawful means,” it was “ominously” suggested that other means could be found (Gellatly, 21).

Building and Irrigating

The 1890s brought a handsome brick school building, a number of new businesses, a Presbyterian church, and a public library. In 1900 the population was 452. Until March 13, 1899, present Chelan County was part of two counties, Kittitas and Okanogan. Wenatchee had trouble accessing the two county seats, and favored the creation of a new county. Both the towns of Chelan and Wenatchee competed to become the county seat. Wenatchee argued that it should be chosen because of being on a transcontinental railroad. The Wenatchee Development Company under Thomas Burke tipped the scale by donating land for a courthouse. Although the Panic of 1893 had some impact on Wenatchee, the city’s Columbia Valley Bank “withstood the financial storm” (Gellatly, 26), the only one within a large section of Central Washington to survive. On September 2, 1893, a fire leveled a whole row of buildings facing Wenatchee Avenue.  

The Wenatchee Valley was a dry area and its scant precipitation fell mostly during the winter. Small ditch companies had provided limited irrigation for a number of years. The largest of these was the Shotwell Ditch built by Jacob Shotwell (1851-1922) of Monitor in 1891. Not until 1904 did irrigation develop on a major scale, when William Timothy Clark (1860-1937), aided by Thomas Burke and the Wenatchee Development Company, completed a 16-mile-long Highline Canal, reclaiming 9,000 acres on the narrow benches along the Wenatchee River. The flume ran from the upriver town of Dryden to just above the mouth of the Wenatchee River, where a siphon extended the canal into Wenatchee.

In 1908 a bridge was completed to carry the Highline Canal water across the Columbia River. The bridge also served vehicle travel and was the first of such across the Columbia River within the United States. It is now part of the Apple Capital Loop Trail for hikers and cyclists. Prior to this bridge, ferries crossed the Columbia at Wenatchee. Partly at the urging of the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce, a new four-lane bridge was built in 1950. The Chamber was also instrumental in the development of the Stevens Pass Highway.

World Apple Capital

Though irrigated, these narrow parcels were still insufficient for growing wheat and other grains. Therefore, local farmers had to find a profitable crop that required little land. Philip Miller (1835-1927), a native of Germany and no relation to the afore-mentioned Samuel Miller, had arrived in 1872 and soon introduced the first apple plantings, which did well. Although a variety of fruit was grown in the valley, Wenatchee would soon become the self-proclaimed “Apple Capital of the World,” a moniker first applied in 1902.

The Wenatchee Commercial Club promoted the area with brochures describing it as the place “where money grows on trees,” where the farmer could “make money with less effort and worry than in other occupations and with a moderate investment a good income for life can be obtained” (Rader). Apple-based prosperity was not always assured, however, because of fluctuating prices, diseases and pests, untimely frosts, seasons of over- and under-production, and shipment problems with the Great Northern. The apple empire now extends from Canada to the Tri-Cities, with Wenatchee “right in the heart of the nation’s best [apple] growing country” (Rader).   

In 1903 the Wenatchee Commercial Club, forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce, was formed with John Arthur Gellatly as president. He had arrived in 1900 and would remain one of Wenatchee’s leading citizens until his death. By 1904, Wenatchee had grown to the point where it could be incorporated as a third-class city.

Rufus Woods Defends Wenatchee

In 1904, Rufus Woods, a young Nebraska native, settled in Wenatchee, convinced of its potential. In place of the muddy or dusty streets (depending on the season) and the wooden taverns, brothels, and livery stables that lined them when he arrived, Woods could see a prosperous, livable city. The presence of the Great Northern Railway and the fledgling apple industry especially gave him reasons for hope. By 1906 the population was 3,500 and a building boom was underway.

In 1907 Woods took over the Wenatchee Daily World, and thereafter unabashedly used his power as editor and publisher to promote causes dear to him and, in his view, in the best interests of Wenatchee and the Big Bend of the Columbia. These causes ranged from local civic improvements to the Grand Coulee Dam. He often tangled with the Great Northern over its failure to meet the needs of the fruit growers and he defended Wenatchee from the “designs of governments and corporations ... against Seattle and Spokane, against New York and Washington, D.C.” (Ficken, 8).

Premises Putrid as Pig Sties

Typical of many Western towns, early Wenatchee struggled to achieve basic civic improvements. Transportation by horse meant manure in the unpaved streets, garbage and sewage disposal were left to the discretion of each business and household, and the ubiquitous outhouses swarmed with flies. From 1907 through 1909, Rufus Woods waxed alliterative and graphic on the subject: “Putrid Premises are the provinces of Pig Styes and Slaughter Houses” (Ficken, 20).

Each spring, the men of the town joined in a cleanup of the streets. In 1909 a rudimentary sewer system was installed over the objections of business owners and residents who were assessed to pay for it. Although it did no more than deliver the sewage into the Columbia, a practice in place until 1955, it was an improvement over the “filth accumulated in backyards and alleys” and their attendant “putrefaction” against which Woods railed (Ficken 20). The year 1909 saw the leveling, oiling, and electric lighting of town streets and the replacement of plank boardwalks with concrete sidewalks. That July, a fire destroyed shacks and other wooden structures. They were  soon replaced with substantial stone and brick buildings.   

Sanitation problems still remained, however. In the days before adequate refrigeration and mandatory pasteurization, many children died of milk-borne diseases, such as bovine tuberculosis and typhoid. Wenatchee was hard hit during the summer of 1913, and among the fatalities were the first two children of Rufus and Mary Woods. Later, two more children were born. One of them, Wilfred, followed by his son, Rufus II, would carry on with the Wenatchee Daily World.

Two Wenatchees

With the railroad, came a “rough element,” bringing an alarming increase in drunkenness, disorderly behavior, and crime “ranging from petty thefts to murder and riots” (Gellatly, 26). A shacktown developed between the tracks and the Columbia River. Dance halls and saloons flourished. In 1908, Mayor John Gellatly issued an ineffective order that all prostitutes leave the city or reform.

More successful was an anti-saloon movement that had been building for years among the more respectable citizenry. In 1909, the state legislature had approved a local option law whereby communities could decide whether to go “dry” or “wet.” No one championed the anti-saloon position more ardently than Rufus Woods and his newspaper. Wenatchee went dry in August 1909, but the saloonkeepers and their customers challenged the decision in 1910 and 1912. They lost both times. Wenatchee’s dry crusade was so successful that committees from other communities sought the advice of Mayor Gellatly on how to achieve a dry local option. 

Despite its rough frontier beginnings, early Wenatchee prided itself on its “large percentage of its citizenry made up of the very highest type people.” Many citizens were well educated, as evidenced by the large, active Wenatchee branch of the American Association of University Women, organized in 1938. Clubs, lodges, and service organizations abounded. A major influence was the Ladies Musical Club, founded in 1910, “which has created a refining and uplifting environment throughout the years” (Gellatly, 270, 271). Members performed and also brought in distinguished musicians from outside the region. This emphasis on music has continued: Unusual for a town of its size, Wenatchee has a conservatory for instructing students of all ages in instrumental and vocal music. The Woods House Conservatory of Music, founded in 1997 as a private, nonprofit organization by Rufus Woods's son Wilfred and his wife Kathy, is located in the lovely old Woods family home. It now (2008) has a faculty of 15 providing lessons to 175 students. 

Apple Blossoms and Alpine Flowers

On the first weekend of May 1920, the Wenatchee Ladies Musical Club staged the inaugural forerunner of what is now called the Washington State Apple Blossom Festival. It was originally the idea of Susan Evelyn (Mrs. Ernest) Wagner (1875-1953), who had enjoyed such events in her native New Zealand. This festival has been held continuously except for the Depression year of 1932 and during World War II. It is the second oldest state festival after the Sequim Irrigation Days and the oldest apple blossom festival in the United States. The event, now with a board, a paid staff, and numerous committees and sponsors, has expanded to 11 days of horse shows, hydroplane races, carnival rides, dances, stage presentations, and a Grand Parade on Saturday. Attracting thousands of visitors from the United States and abroad, it is a major economic boon to the community.

The demand for apples somewhat insulated Wenatchee from the effects of the Depression. An even greater factor was nearby Rock Island Dam, 12 miles downstream from Wenatchee, the first on the Columbia River. Rufus Woods even took a diversion from his promotion of the Grand Coulee project to support the decision of the Puget Sound Power & Light Company (Wenatchee’s source of power) to build this dam. Its construction during the aftermath of the Wall Street crash of 1929 provided employment for between 1,100 and 2,700 people, depending on the weather. The dam opened its first powerhouse in 1933 and its second in 1979. It has been a part of Chelan County Public Utility District since 1956. In 1952, the Aluminum Company of America opened a plant next to Rock Island Dam, its power source. Since then, Alcoa has contributed steadily to Wenatchee’s prosperity and today employs 1,000 people.

Another Columbia River dam, Rocky Reach, seven miles upstream from Wenatchee, has had a major impact on area. Construction began in 1956, and the dam went into commercial operation in 1961. The project cost more than  $270 million, all of it funded by bonds paid off by future energy sales. No tax money was involved. Its peak employment was 2,184 in 1961. As well as generating energy, the dam, its interpretive center, and the surrounding park and gardens attract 60,000 visitors a year. The original lack of adequate provision for fish migration has been somewhat rectified in recent years. Rocky Reach Dam belongs to the Chelan County Public Utility District.

A Wenatchee attraction that has drawn thousands of visitors for many decades is the Ohme Gardens. Early orchardist Herman F. Ohme (1890-1971) and his wife Ruth wanted to beautify an otherwise useless part of their property, a harsh basalt promontory with a spectacular view of the mountains, town, valley, and the confluence of the Wenatchee and Columbia rivers. Beginning in 1929 the Ohme family began developing a nine-acre garden. They laboriously hauled in topsoil, laid out trails and small pools, put in an irrigation system and began planting an enormous variety of appropriate grasses, shrubbery, trees, and flowers. The result was a harmonious alpine garden, one of the most satisfying public gardens in the Northwest. The Washington State Parks and Recreation Department bought the gardens from the Ohme descendants in 1991, and it is now managed by Chelan County.

Working in Wenatchee

Rufus Woods's hopes for benefits to Wenatchee from power generated by Grand Coulee Dam were continually thwarted, no more so than during World War II. Except for a federally financed ferro-silicon plant awarded to Wenatchee in 1942, power-hungry industries, such as aluminum, were located lower on the Columbia, on Puget Sound, and in Spokane. To add insult to injury, these factories lured away Wenatchee’s existing labor pool.

Traditionally, orchardists had relied on valley residents and itinerant “fruit tramps” (Ficken, 196) to harvest the apple crop. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, these workers ended up in the armed forces or in defense plants. At first, school was held six days a week during winter and spring in order to free up students to bring in the harvest. College students from the University of Washington and Washington State University pitched in during the 1942 harvest, but the filthy accommodations and bad food provided by some farmers put an end to this source of labor. Beginning in 1943, the federal Bracero program, which recruited workers from Mexico, rescued the wartime apple industry, and since that time, Wenatchee-area growers have relied largely on resident and migrant Mexican labor.

From Bucolic to Urban Bustle

During the past few decades, Wenatchee has changed from bucolic to bustling. The growth that Rufus Woods envisioned has occurred, to the detriment of the rural character of the old Wenatchee. Although many kinds of fruit are still grown in vast swaths of the Wenatchee and upper Columbia valleys, in Wenatchee and its immediate surroundings, many orchards have given way to development. Even those that remain have changed over to different varieties of apples with shorter trees that are easier to prune and harvest. Large operations farther from town have replaced most of the smaller growers. Many former apple growers are planting vineyards and opening wineries. Competition from cheap fruit imports, a consumer shift away from the over-planted Red Delicious variety, economic downturns, and increased costs of farming have all contributed to the problems of apple growers.

Where orchards once stood, there are now big box stores and chain restaurants, motels and parking lots. Local people such as Guy Evans, who grew up on apple ranches, recall the “visceral” reaction to seeing orchards ripped out (Bartley). From their hilltop house, Ann Albertson Deal, Apple Blossom queen of 1958, and her physician husband, Fred, now see rooftops where they once looked out on orchards. With the sprawl of surrounding areas, including East Wenatchee across the Columbia, Wenatchee seems much larger than its present (2008) 30,000 population. 

Among Wenatchee’s recent and increasing amenities are good medical facilities. In 1940 Dr. L. M. Mares, Dr. A. G. Haug and Dr. L. S. Smith founded the Wenatchee Valley Clinic, now Wenatchee Valley Medical Center, providing a hospital, eight office locations, a range of specialties, and a sophisticated rural health-care delivery system to a region of roughly 12,000 square miles. Currently physician-owned, the Medical Center has 170 physicians and 1,475 employees.

Despite the many changes in Wenatchee, many who grew up here and left after completing high school or college have returned to raise their families. Tourism and recreation, including boating on the Columbia and skiing on nearby Mission Ridge, are boosting Wenatchee’s economy. For all the growth and change, Wenatchee retains much of its “small-town charm, including 10 miles of riverfront trails, a performing-arts center, old established neighborhoods and scenic beauty” (Bartley).


Nancy Bartley, “Changing Face of Apple ‘Capital’: Fruit’s Heyday Fading in Wenatchee, The Seattle Times, April 16, 2004 (www.seattletimes.nwsource.com); Mark Behler, email to Laura Arksey, May 30, 2008, in possession of Laura Arksey, Spokane, Washington; Kris Bassett and Mark Behler, “Early Entrepreneurs Establish Trading Post,” Wenatchee Business Journal Vol. 17, No. 3 ( March 2003), pp. 1-5; “Chelan County, Washington,” The Coast, Vol. 12, No. 4 (October 1906) 195-197; John Arthur Gellatly, The History of Wenatchee: the Apple Capital of the World (Wenatchee: Wenatchee Book & Bindery Co., 1958); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Rufus Woods” (by Laura Arksey) http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed May 30, 2008); Lindley M. Hull, A History of Central Washington (Spokane: Shaw & Borden, 1929); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington’s Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989), 110-113; Jack Nisbet, The Mapmaker’s Eye: David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2005), 107-108; “Ohme Gardens,” Chelan County website accessed May 12, 2008 (www.co.chelan.wa.us/org/history.htm); Chris Rader, “Wenatchee Is the Apple Capital of the World,” Confluence (Spring 2007) on City of Wenatchee website accessed May 1, 2008 (www.wenatcheewa.gov/Index.aspx?page=25); Richard Scheuerman, The Wenatchee Valley and its First Peoples (Walla Walla: Color Press, 2005); “Washington State Apple Blossom Festival,” Washington State Apple Blossom Festival website accessed May 2, 2008 (www.appleblossom.org); Woods House Conservatory of Music website accessed May 8, 2008 (www.woodshouse.org); “Rocky Reach Dam,” website accessed July 18, 2008 (http://rockyreachdam.com/dam-facts); “Wenatchee Valley Medical Center,” website accessed July 18, 2008 (www.wvmedical.com/about_us/History.asp); Rufus Woods II, email to Laura Arksey, July 7, 2008, in possession of Laura Arksey, Spokane, Washington. See also: A. C. Bright, Apples Galore! The History of the Apple Industry in the Wenatchee Valley (Wenatchee: Directed Media, 1988); Otis W. Freeman, “Apple Industry of the Wenatchee Area, Economic Geography Vol. 10, No. 2 (April, 1934) 160-171; Bruce Mitchell, “Flowing Wealth: The story of Water Resource Development in North Central Washington, 1870-1950,” Chelan County Industrial Development Council,  The Wenatchee Daily World, March 6, 1967. See Also: Bruce Mitchell, "Judge Burke's Wenatchee, 1888-93," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Summer, 1965) 97-105.
Note: This essay was corrected to state that the Northern Pacific purchased the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad in 1892.

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