Ephrata -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 2/09/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9285

Ephrata is the county seat of Grant County in central Washington and an important commercial and administrative center of the Columbia Basin. The site was first known for its cool, abundant springs, and was known variously as Antuhippum or Tahtahitan by the region's tribes, which frequented the site. White settlement was slow to come. Beginning around 1886, the area was known as Beezley Springs, when rancher Frank Beezley developed the land around the springs. The Great Northern Railroad arrived in 1892, and a station stop was established. It was christened Ephrata, a biblical name for ancient Bethlehem. The town began to take shape in 1901 and was incorporated in 1909. That same year, it was also named the county seat of the newly formed Grant County. The town's population boomed with the Grand Coulee Dam project, which was first conceived by Ephrata residents. Ephrata became the headquarters for the entire Columbia Basin Project. The Ephrata Army Air Base trained pilots during World War II. The population swelled to 7,423 by 1957, but dropped once the nearby dams and irrigation projects were completed. The population has since rebounded and was estimated at 7,344 in 2008, near its all-time high.

Early Days

The land where Ephrata now stands was often used as a camping site by the region's Indian tribes. The Columbia band of Indians, led by Chief Moses (1829-1899), commonly stopped at the springs, where they found abundant camas roots, a staple food, and good hunting. The Indian called the springs Tahtahitan, or by some accounts, Antuhippum, which meant fertile and abundant with water. A well-used Indian burial site was located on a hillside west of the present town, leading to one of Ephrata's early names in English, Indian Graves.

This spring and its small oasis stood in green contrast to the surrounding country of arid sagebrush land. This dryland country was one of the last regions in the state to attract white settlement. For decades, roaming herds of wild horses outnumbered the human population. Yet beginning around 1880, the springs began to draw a few white ranchers. Among the first were Tom and Bill Eddens who built a small cabin near the springs around 1880. Other horsemen and cattlemen started ranches around the area.

The first official land deed near what is now Ephrata was given to the Egbert brothers in 1882. In 1886 they sold their land to horseman Frank Beezley (sometimes spelled Beazley or Beasley), who developed the land around the spring into a large ranch with thriving hay fields, orchards, and gardens. The area became known as Beezley Springs (the hills west of town are still named Beezley Hills).

One part of the Beezley's ranch gained notoriety in 1893 as the hideout of the notorious bank robber Matt Warner (1864-1938) (aka Ras Lewis or Razz Lewis), who was connected with Butch Cassidy's Hole In the Wall gang. Warner had leased a plot of  land on or near present-day Ephrata from Beezley. After robbing a bank in Roslyn, Warner holed up in a cabin there with his wife. Ellensburg lawmen approached the cabin on April 1, 1893 and arrested Warner for the Roslyn robbery. According to some accounts, a child born to Warner and his wife was the first white child born in what is now Ephrata.

Train Whistles

The sounds of train whistles were already signaling a new era for little Beezley Springs. In 1892, the Great Northern railway line arrived and made the spot one of its stations stops. At first, the station was given the prosaic name of "No. 11." But sometime in 1893, the railroad gave it the name Ephrata, which is a variation on the biblical name Ephratah or Ephrath, meaning "fruitful," and is the ancient name of Bethlehem. Nobody knows exactly who gave Beezley Springs this new name, but according to town lore, an anonymous railroad employee had recently been to the Holy Land and thought that the land resembled that sacred spot.

It was not yet a town; it was a remote railroad stop with just a handful of inhabitants. That began to change in 1901 when some houses and a post office were built. Jesse Cyrus, who had purchased most of Beezley's land, decided that the place had a future as a town.

A Town Springs Up

The Big Bend Chief, a newspaper in nearby Wilson Creek, wrote, "As if by magic, a town sprung up with all its tributary evils and advantages. Uncle Jesse (Cyrus), although he had come to believe he would pass his days in comparative solitude at the foot of the bunch grass hill, was not slow to get himself in line with the march of progress" ("Illustrated History").

Cyrus platted the town site on July 10, 1901, and then added several additions over the next year. He came to be known as the Father of Ephrata.

The first school session was held in a house in 1901. In 1902, a school district was established and schoolhouse built at what is now B and Division. A store and hotel went up in 1902.

Yet the little village still had only 87 people in 1903. An influx of homesteaders arrived in the next few years, looking for land. The springs were, once again, a major draw.

"With an excellent spring one-fourth of a mile from the railway station, the town is abundantly supplied with clear cold water," said a 1904 description of Ephrata in An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country.

From Wild Horses to Orchards

Many of those homesteaders found that the land -- where water could be obtained -- was conducive to orchards, especially apples. Before long, more than 1,000 train carloads of apples were being shipped out of the Ephrata station.

The end of the wild horse era in the region was symbolized in what came to be called the Last Grand Roundup, organized out of Ephrata in 1906. Several hundred cowboys spread out over the countryside and methodically drove the region's many wild horses toward waiting cattle cars on the railroad line in Ephrata. Up to 5,000 horses were eventually rounded up and shipped east.

Coming of Age

Ephrata came of age due to two events in 1909. First, a new county, Grant County, was sliced off the formerly vast Douglas County. Even though Ephrata still consisted of only a few hundred people, it was one of the biggest settlements in the region and had its eye on the county seat.

W. Gale Matthews, one of the town's pioneers, later recalled that Ephrata at the time declared that its population was a little over 300. "It had to be 300, because the state law required a county seat to have at least that much population," said Matthews in a 1955 newspaper interview. "I think they counted some sheep dogs, however."

So Ephrata was named the Grant County seat in the legislation creating the county.

Citizens soon realized that a county seat should be incorporated, so on June 1. 1909, Ephrata duly voted for incorporation and could finally be declared a city. The nearby town of Adrian attempted to wrest the county seat away in 1910, but a countywide vote came out in favor of Ephrata by the margin of 945 to 802.

The 1910 census proved that Ephrata had sufficient population -- but just barely. The official count was 323.

Burning and Growing

A fire raged through downtown in 1910, destroying the Ephrata Hotel and most of the business district, yet the town quickly recovered and rebuilt.

The population nearly doubled to 628 in 1920, with more settlers pouring in and the region's agricultural industry expanding. The town had a thriving business district, but still had a pioneer feel in many ways.

Electricity was provided solely by a diesel generator owned by L. R. Nelsen. If the town's young farmhands and schoolteachers were having a good time at a Saturday night dance,  "they would have to pass the hat for more money to pay Nelsen to keep the power on after midnight" (Wanamaker).

Brainstorming Around Billy Clapp's Woodstove

The town and region endured a number of devastating dry years in the 1910s and 1920s, which helps explain why the population dropped to 516 by 1930. These dry years also motivated a group of Ephrata residents to gather around a woodstove in the office of Ephrata lawyer William M. (Billy) Clapp (1877-1965) in 1917 and brainstorm what sounded like a crazy project.

One of those men was Paul D. Donaldson, who had recently gone on a geological field trip to the Grand Coulee with a University of Washington professor. He told the group about the Ice Age dams that had diverted the Columbia River down the Grand Coulee. Also present was Matthews, who recounted that fateful conversation in a speech in 1952:

"When Mr. Donaldson had completed that recitation, Mr. Clapp spoke up and suggested that if nature had at one time dammed the Columbia River near the head or rather below the head of Grand Coulee with ice, why could it not again be dammed with concrete and the flow of the river diverted again down through Grand Coulee and the water used to irrigate the great Columbia River Basin extending down through Grant County, Adams County, Franklin County clear down to the Snake River?  

"Of course, general discussion was had on the subject and in their entire ignorance of the engineering features involved, those present conceded that it might be a good idea. No one, however, had the courage to go out and say very much about the idea, fearing the 'kidding' which would result" ("Beginnings").

The group continued to mull the idea over the next few months. Then in 1918, Wenatchee World newspaper publisher Rufus Woods (1878-1950) dropped into Ephrata and asked if anybody knew of a good local story he could write up for his paper. Matthews suggested that Woods go see Clapp and ask him about his Grand Coulee idea.  

Woods, went, listened, and wrote an enthusiastic story for the July 18, 1918, Wenatchee World about this Grand Coulee irrigation scheme. That story caused a sensation and is generally credited with launching the concept that, two decades later, would culminate in the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam and change the region forever.  

The Grand Coulee Dam

For Ephrata, the Grand Coulee Dam project had an impact long before any irrigation water began to flow. As soon as the project was finally approved in 1933, Ephrata became one of the centers for the huge task of surveying and appraising the millions of acres involved in the irrigation scheme (Ephrata would later become the headquarters for the entire project). In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1881-1945) even paid Ephrata a visit, as part of his trip to see the Grand Coulee site.  

The Grand Coulee Dam wasn't finally completed until 1941, although irrigation water didn't really begin to flow until after World War II. The power was needed for wartime production throughout the Northwest.  

By 1940. Ephrata's population had grown to 951. World War II sparked ahuge population boom, in large part because of the building and development of the Ephrata Army Air Base in 1942. Ephrata -- like nearby Moses Lake, which also acquired a huge air base -- was an ideal location because of its level terrain, mostly clear weather and sparse nearby population. The landing field was built just outside of town as a training site for pilots of heavy bombers, practicing bombing runs on a bombing range south of Ephrata. Then, in 1944 the Ephrata Army Air Base was converted into a training facility for fighter pilots. The people of Ephrata, used to seeing bombers lumbering overhead, now saw fighters buzzing across the sky.  

The base and its auxiliary support services helped Ephrata to grow fivefold in the space of a few years. The air base was gradually phased out after the war and eventually became Ephrata Municipal Airport.

The Columbia Basin Project

Parts of the air base were converted in 1946 for use by an even bigger government operation in Ephrata: The Bureau of Reclamation's Columbia Basin Project headquarters. The Grand Coulee irrigation waters were now flowing across the region, and Ephrata was at the center. Agriculture  played a newly important role in the economy. The outlying areas were newly green and dotted with orchards, farms, cattle, and sheep. Ephrata embarked on a major modernization campaign, with a network of streetlights and a paving program. Every platted street in the city was paved.

"If Ephrata wants to taste the dust again, she'll have to import the stuff," said Mayor Vic Bjorklund in 1947 ("Ephrata Displays").  

The influx of government workers caused Ephrata to thrive more than ever and by 1950 the population would reach 4,589. Ephrata also became headquarters for another giant dam project when the Grant County Public Utilities District, based in Ephrata, built two massive hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River, the Priest Rapids Dam and Wanapum Dam, which soon began churning out power.

By 1954, Ephrata's population hit an estimated 7,200. An Ephrata city official declared that growth had been "rapid" but "orderly" and "well-planned." The city now called itself, with some justification, the Capital of the Columbia Basin. The city had an abundance of professional jobs, thanks to the Bureau of Reclamation, the county government, and the Grant County Public Utilities District. By 1957, the population was estimated at an all-time high of 7,423.  

Post-Reclamation Years

Optimism was at a peak. Yet the Columbia Basin Project work soon peaked and the Bureau of Reclamation operations slowly began to wind down. By 1960, the population was down to 6.548 and by 1970 to 5,255. The town of Moses Lake, about 20 miles away, was now double the population of Ephrata and became the largest city in Grant County. Moses Lake had barely existed at all in 1940.

By 1976, the Bureau of Reclamation's payroll had dropped from more than 1,000 to only about 170. The Public Utilities District was now the city's biggest employer. The city's population held steady through 1980 at 5,359 and 1990 at 5,349.  

In 1989, the town had an exhilarating taste of Hollywood glamour when director Steven Spielberg chose to shoot major portions of his film Always at the Ephrata Municipal Airport. The movie, about two daredevil aviators, starred Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, and John Goodman.  

Ephrata in the Twenty-first Century

In 2000, the population began to rise again, hitting 6,808. The city's Hispanic population boomed during that decade, going from 4 percent of the population in 1990 to 10.3 percent in 2000. 

The city's 2008 population estimate was 7,344, near its all-time high. The city continues to attract new residents with its moderate climate and low cost of living,. The region's dams give Ephrata relatively cheap power rates and plenty of irrigation water.

Just as water drew the first people to Antuhippum and Tahtahitan, water remains the key element of today's thriving, modern Ephrata. 

Sources: An Illustrated History of Big Bend Country (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Co., 1904); Sid Jackson, "County Seat Town Formerly Favorite Indian Camp," Grant County Journal, September 6, 1946; Ephrata and County Have  Colorful History, undated typescript, Ephrata file, Northwest Room of the Spokane Public Library; Leon Starmont, "Ephrata: Desert Oasis Now a Thriving Capital," Spokesman-Review, February 22. 1948; Selma Crow Therriault, told to her by Bertha Wadsworth Hill, "How Ephrata's Schools Grew," Spokesman-Review, December 18, 1955, p. 5; John R. Ulrich, "Ephrata Historian Recalls Struggles," Spokane Daily Chronicle, February 10, 1955, p. 1; "Ephrata Population Figure Hits 7200, an All-Time High," Spokesman-Review, April 10, 1954, p 7; Ralph Wanamaker, "Ephrata Defies Odds," Spokane Daily Chronicle, August 6, 1976, p. 3; "Ephrata's New Look Comes With Irrigation," Spokesman-Review, September 29, 1957, p. 20; "Ephrata Lays Claim to Irrigation Idea," Spokane Daily Chronicle,  December 8, 1934, p. 8; "Ephrata Displays New Lights," Spokane Daily Chronicle, August 23, 1947, p. 1; Ashley Holden, "Columbia Basin Base in Ephrata is Officially Chosen," Spokesman-Review, March 23, 1946, p. 1; "Death to the Enemy: Great Fighter Bases in Ephrata and Moses Lake Train Men Who Fly Airacobras," Spokesman-Review, July 8, 1944, p. 17; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Beginnings of the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project: A Reminiscence by W, Gale Matthews," http://www,historylink.org/ (accessed January 15, 2010); Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Half-Sun on the Columbia: A Biography of Chief Moses (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, revised paperback edition, 1995).

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