Clarkston -- Thumbnail History

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 10/24/2011
  • Essay 9947

With a 2010 population of 7,265, Clarkston is the urban center, though not the county seat, of tiny Asotin County in the southeast corner of Washington. At the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, it is a twin town with Lewiston, Idaho, just across the Snake River. In 1896 the Lewiston-Clarkston Improvement Company, an irrigation and hydro-electric venture, founded and laid out Clarkston, one of the few early examples of urban planning in the Pacific Northwest. Lewiston has always been the older, larger, and more industrial of the two towns, which since 1899 have been linked by a series of bridges over the Snake River. Although rivals in some respects, the two cities see their interests as mutually connected and in fact maintain a joint Chamber of Commerce. The final dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers provided enough slack water to enable commercial shipping to both cities. Clarkston, the easternmost port in Washington, bustles with huge wheat barges, trains, trucks, and river cruise ships.

Lewiston and Clarkston

On October 10, 1805, and again on May 4, 1806, Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) camped on the Snake River at the Nez Perce village of Alpowa near the present Port of Clarkston, hence the eventual names of the two towns. The Snake and Clearwater drainages soon became centers of fur trade activity. The area was the ancestral home of the Nez Perce Indians, who objected so strongly to being moved to the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon, as required by an 1855 treaty, that they were granted a reservation in their own territory, which initially included the site of Lewiston and Clarkston. After gold was discovered in the area, the reservation was reduced in the 1870s to its present small section of Idaho just southeast of Lewiston and Clarkston, with Lapwai being the primary Nez Perce town and administrative center. Many Nez Perce, led by Chief Joseph, refused to leave their homeland; following their defeat in the Nez Perce War of 1877, some, including Joseph, were relegated to the distant Colville Reservation in North Central Washington and barred from returning to the Nez Perce reservation.

Lewiston sprang up in 1861 as a tent city inhabited by miners following the gold discoveries along the Clearwater River and elsewhere in North Idaho. A typical wild-west town, Lewiston continued to grow as a supply point for North Idaho mining. Clarkston, on the other hand, had a more sedate beginning and development. During the 1890s a ferry landing on the Washington side of the Snake River attracted a few settlers, who named their tiny community Jawbone Flat. One such settler was Cassius C. Van Arsdol (1851-1941), a former survey engineer for the Northern Pacific Railroad. He designed the first irrigation system, which soon failed, but he would redeem himself later with significant contributions to the development of Clarkston.

The area soon attracted the attention of some Boston investors who saw agricultural and residential potential in the flat terraces or benches along the southwest bend of the Snake River. The valley of the Snake and Clearwater rivers has such a mild climate as to be called a banana belt. The developers realized that if water flowing from the heights above, particularly Asotin Creek, a tributary of the Snake, could be channeled for irrigation, then the area would be ideal for growing fruit. The region also held promise for the development of hydroelectric power. These investors acquired the remains of Van Arsdol's small irrigation company and set about planning an agricultural community and town that they envisioned as self-sustaining. Although "The plan was neither extensive nor sophisticated … it far exceeded the comprehensiveness of the plans of developers and townsite promoters elsewhere who founded and guided the early destinies of many municipalities in Washington State" (Stark, 59). The only other such early planned town in Washington was Longview, the timber-industry town developed in the 1920s.

Accordingly, in 1896 these Boston-area investors, led by Charles Francis Adams (1835-1915), for whom the Clarkston high school is named, organized the Lewiston Water & Power Company, with Edgar H. Libby as the local president and general manager. The company proposed to build a dam on Asotin Creek and send the water through a fifteen-mile canal to five-to-ten acre plots located at the base of a 200-foot-deep gulch on the west bank of the Snake River opposite Lewiston. They named this irrigated development Vineland and began selling the acreages to hopeful fruit growers. Over the years, the company underwent several reorganizations and name changes. The Lewiston-Clarkston Improvement Company, adopted in 1910, is the name by which it is known historically.

Planning and Irrigating

Although unified in design, the 1896 irrigation plan consisted of two separate plats, one for Vineland and one for a town on a corner of the land, which at first (confusingly) was called Lewiston. The United States Postal Department turned down the community's request for a post office of that name because it would undoubtedly be confused with Lewiston, Idaho, just across the Snake River. In 1897 the town was named Concord (after Adams's Massachusetts hometown), with a post office established on May 7 of that year. In 1900, by a vote of the people, the name became Clarkston. Lawrence R. Stark, who processed its records for the Washington State University Library, said of the Lewiston-Clarkston Improvement Company:

"As the creator of a city plan, this company … was surprisingly successful. Though it was dominated by a group of Boston patricians who generally saw things in the light of contemporary, well-intentioned, mission-oriented planning, the company also included the usual wheeler-dealer, money making western manager. Quarrels resulting from this difference ran throughout the history of the company, often making the town plan little more than an idealistic concept that existed only in Boston. Yet, in the final judgment, the planning view prevailed over the money-making view; the company made little money, while a number of elements of the plans remain today [1975] in the community" (Stark, 60).

The new company's first attempt at irrigation, based on the "low-line" system Van Arsdol had designed earlier, largely failed, as difficulty in controlling the flow of water resulted at times in either too much or too little for the orchard plots. In spite of these problems, by 1900 the population of Clarkston and Vineland was almost 2,000. A new "high-line" system of flumes and canals adopted in 1906 resulted in a much more reliable irrigation supply to the existing settlements and orchards. The high line even enabled the extension of the system to a bench higher than Vineland, so the company laid out additional orchard plots called Clarkston Heights. A description accompanying a 1911 company plat map gives an idea of the terrain:

"The curving roads running approximately southwesterly and southeasterly indicate the steep slopes between the two terraces, or benches, which form the respective areas of Clarkston Heights and Vineland, but all of these slopes are cultivable. The reservoir and park shown are in a gulch on the edge of the Clarkston Heights bench, or terrace. The irregularly shaped tracts adjoining this park overlook the lower valley, hence the name, Clarkston Heights" (Stark, 62-63).

By 1907 the new irrigation system along with two Spokane companies, Washington Water Power and Inland Light & Power Company, also provided hydroelectric power to the region. By 1940 the Lewiston-Clarkston Improvement Company was insolvent and was sold to a Clarkston group headed by E. A. White (d. 1961). In 1971 real estate developers bought the remaining land, and after 75 years the company that founded Clarkston ceased to exist. Both Vineland and Clarkston Heights eventually became part of Clarkston proper. Clarkston was incorporated as a fourth-class town on August 14, 1902, and the first mayor was Alexander Robinson. The town was raised to third class on March 7, 1912. (In 1994, third-class cities throughout the state became second-class cities.)

Bridges, Trolleys, Trams, and Highways

At the end of the nineteenth century, access to Lewiston, Idaho, was becoming increasingly important to the development of Clarkston, Washington. At first there was only a ferry across the Snake River. In 1896 Edgar H. Libby received the original franchise to build a bridge. In 1897, with the backing of the Boston investors in the improvement Company and others, the Lewiston-Concord Bridge Company was formed to build a toll bridge that would carry foot and wagon traffic; gas, electricity, and water transmission lines; and a street railroad. When it opened for traffic on June 24, 1899, the Lewiston-Clarkston Bridge was the largest wagon bridge in Washington. In 1913 the bridge was sold to the public, with Washington and Idaho maintaining it as a toll-free bridge. Because the Washington Attorney General had declared a proposed bond issue illegal, little Asotin County joined with Idaho in completing the purchase.

Beginning in 1915, this bridge carried streetcars between Lewiston and Clarkston. Robert A. Foster, then president of the Lewiston-Clarkston Improvement Company, was the main promoter, but businessmen from both towns endorsed the formation of the Lewiston-Clarkston Transit Company. The venture was at first stymied by a lack of streetcars. As Henry C. Hartung, superintendent of the trolley company, recalled: "The streetcar industry was enjoying its greatest boom that year … It was just impossible to secure cars. … We tried to get them from the Pullman Company and all the large and small manufacturers in the East, but orders were booked for months ahead. Finally we induced Spokane United Railways to sell us three of its old cars" ("They Had to Push," 36-37).

An estimated 25,000 people were reported to have attended the opening run on May 3, 1915, with 4,780 taking rides at various times during that first day, although these numbers seem inflated, given the regional population at the time. The initial run was embarrassing: With Hartung driving, the first car lacked enough traction to climb the incline of the high-arched bridge. Finally, with the help of sand thrown in its path, the venerable streetcar labored across the river. The company acquired new cars in 1916, expanded the lines, and streetcars continued to serve the Lewiston-Clarkston valley until replaced by buses in 1929.

As automobile and truck traffic increased, this bridge was no longer adequate. Furthermore, the foresighted community realized the need for a draw bridge that would enable commercial river traffic to ply between Lewiston/Clarkston and downriver ports. The new four-lane span, which is still in use today (2011), was completed in 1939 with the help of Washington's and Idaho's shares of the Federal Aid to Highways program. In 1981 the Army Corps of Engineers completed the Southway Bridge, linking the southern ends of the two towns. It is co-owned by the city of Clarkston and Asotin County, Washington, and the city of Lewiston and Nez Perce County, Idaho. This bridge interchanges with State Route 129, which continues south to the city of Asotin and into Oregon. Along the Snake River, Clarkston has developed the beautiful and extensive Greenbelt Walkway and bicycle trail. The Lewiston side also has an extensive hiking and biking trail system. Both were put in by the Army Corps of Engineers during the 1970s as part of the levees that were needed when the last downstream dam was built.

The fruit produced on the benches along the Snake River was not the only agricultural product to benefit Clarkston. Soon wheat was grown on the high plateau south of the twin cities. Getting the harvest to the railheads and other means of transport at Lewiston and Clarkston was a major problem. For many years, ingenious aerial trams carried the loaded wheat sacks in metal buckets from the heights down to the river. The first road was a steep wagon road down the notorious Lewiston Hill. In 1914, a Nez Perce County engineer, E. M. Booth, surveyed a new route for motorized vehicles, and C. C. Van Arsdol saw the project through to completion in 1917. The Lewiston Hill Road, which involved 64 turns in a 2000-foot drop, was considered a model of highway engineering for its day. Yet it remained harrowing, especially for heavily-loaded wheat trucks.

A four-lane highway, part of Highway 95 running through Idaho, opened in 1979. It is a vast improvement over the previous road down the Lewiston grade, but even it requires runaway ramps for trucks. There is no direct highway route into Clarkston from the north: Highway 195 traffic from Spokane and Pullman must enter Idaho and follow Highways 95 and 12 in order to reach Clarkston. Just north of Lewiston, Highway 95 joins Highway 12 to cross the Clearwater River, then Highway 12 continues west over the Snake River bridge through Clarkston to Walla Walla, the Columbia River, and beyond.

Paper Mill and Port

As Clarkston continued to surpass the older town of Asotin in population, there was sporadic agitation to relocate the county seat to the larger town. On August 16, 1936, an arson fire burned down the Asotin County Courthouse, leading to speculation that it was a "Clarkston job." Nothing was ever proved, and Asotin remained the county seat with the old Ayers Hotel converted to the county courthouse.

Until 1955, the only hospital in the area was St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1901. In 1955 the Tri-State Memorial Hospital, a non-profit community hospital, was established in Clarkston. The two hospitals continue to serve the twin cities.

For decades the major employer in the region has been the Lewiston paper and pulp mill that was historically known as the Potlatch mill. It is now operated by Clearwater Paper, a spin-off approved in 2008 of the Potlatch Corporation, a major lumber and paper-manufacturing company with logging operations and production facilities in many states. The Potlatch Corporation still maintains its extensive logging operations. Many Clarkston residents work at the mill in Lewiston and do their shopping in the larger city. In fact, the mid-1970s mayor of Clarkston, Howard "Irish" Clovis, was a Potlatch employee. Clarkston has always been burdened with the need to provide services for its residents, while Lewiston provided most of the employment and received the lion's share of revenue. Although mitigated in recent years, air pollution and pulp mill odor from the Clearwater Paper operation can sometimes make life less than pleasant, especially in Lewiston. Yet residents of Clarkston, particularly at the higher elevations, claim they are rarely impacted.

Clarkston received a public relations boost in 1976 when a local high school girl, Lenne Jo Hallgren, won the national America's Junior Miss competition. Mayor Clovis exulted: "She really gave us a shot in the arm in terms of recognition. … People will remember Clarkston for a long time to come" (Hauenstein).

The Port of Clarkston was established on September 9, 1958, concentrating mainly on industrial development of the area. Not until the completion of the dams and locks on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the mid-1970s were container barges and other large commercial vessels able to reach the ports of the twin cities. Since that time, the ports of Clarkston, Lewiston, and Wilma (just across the Snake River in Whitman County) have provided a triangle of port service for the huge barges of the Tidewater and Shaver companies, as well as other commercial shipping. Barging is less expensive than rail or truck transport. Presently (2011) eight million tons of cargo worth as much as $2 billion moves annually on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Barges carry wheat, potatoes, and other agricultural products downriver to be exported from West Coast ports. On return trips upriver, they bring mainly petroleum products, fertilizers, and pesticides. The Port of Clarkston uses one of the largest cranes on the Columbia to load barges with logs, containers and other cargo.

On a smaller scale, there had been freight and passenger service linking Lewiston-Clarkston to the cities of the lower Columbia long before the advent of the dams. Beginning in 1861, the Colonel George Wright was the first of many steamboats to ply the upper Columbia and Snake rivers. (Until the opening of the Celilo Canal around Celilo Falls, goods and passengers had to portage by wagon or short-line railway around the falls and transfer to another steamboat.) The Yakima, the fastest and most luxurious of the steamboats serving Lewiston-Clarkston, had 26 lavishly furnished staterooms and could carry 200 tons of freight. The upper Columbia and Snake River steamboats could make the trip only during the spring and summer when the water was deep. During the winter, the rivers were too shallow for navigation. A century later, the dams and resulting slackwater eliminated that obstacle and sternwheelers made a return to Clarkston.

In 1989 the Sea Lion, the first of many Columbia River excursion boats, docked at Clarkston. With the completion of a new dock in 1994, larger vessels such as the 110-passenger sternwheeler Queen of the West have been bringing tourists upriver from Astoria, Oregon, to Clarkston on scenic multi-day tours of the Columbia and Snake rivers. Currently six cruise lines dock at Clarkston, carrying an average of 13,000 passengers per year. Furthermore, Lewiston and Clarkston are the take-off point for river cruises, whitewater rafting, and fishing excursions up the Snake River into Hells Canyon. People seeking these adventures provide business for the outfitters, motels, and restaurants of the twin towns.

Clarkston Today

In recent years environmentalists, Indian tribes, and sport and commercial fishing interests have urged removal of some of the dams that have proven so destructive to salmon survival, in hopes of returning the Snake below Lewiston and Clarkston to its original free-flowing state. This proposal meets with stout opposition from barging companies, river tour operators, farmers, and ports, and civic leaders in such towns as Clarkston. The advocates of dam removal counter that the economic benefits would eventually outweigh the losses. The project itself would be a huge, though temporary, source of employment. Yet without barging, the transport of wheat and other products could be accomplished only with the improvement of roads and rail lines.

The one sure bet at present is that the controversy will continue into the future. In early August, 2011, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden ruled in Portland that the current federal salmon plan is inadequate under the Endangered Species Act, the third time he has done so.

The major annual event for Lewiston and Clarkston is the November Steelhead Derby, which the Lewis Clark Valley Chamber of Commerce touts as the largest such steelhead fishing competition in the United States. For music lovers, the Washington-Idaho Symphony regularly performs in Lewiston and Clarkston. Students seeking higher education in the immediate area can attend Walla Walla Community College's Clarkston branch or Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston.

Because of relatively low real estate prices, a variety of sport and outdoor opportunities, the starkly scenic surroundings, and its mild climate (hot and dry in summer and less cold in winter than the surrounding area) Clarkston has attracted a number of retirees in recent years. In fact the town boasts golf year round. Countering that trend is the drain of young people moving away in search of employment. A young woman who grew up in Clarkston, now working in Spokane, remembers her home town as "an ideally sized town to grow up in; between Lewiston and Clarkston, we had everything we needed -- shopping, entertainment, the river, beautiful walking and biking trails, parks, an excellent education" (Moe). Although, like many towns of its size, Clarkston faces some economic uncertainties, it nevertheless maintains a livable small-town atmosphere for natives and newcomers alike.


Craig Holstine and Richard Hobbs, Spanning Washington: Historic Highway Bridges of the Evergreen State (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2005), 141; Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 177-178; Elgin Victor Kuykendall, Historic Glimpses of Asotin County (Clarkston: Clarkston Herald, 1954), 50-54; F. A. Shaver, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1906), 685-692; Lawrence R. Stark, "The Lewiston-Clarkston Improvement Company: City Planner in Southeastern Washington," The Record [Friends of the Library, Washington State University] Vol. 36 (1975), 59-71; Bob Weatherly, The Best of Jawbone Flat Gazette (Clarkston: Valley American, 1984); "Lewiston & Clarkston: The Twin City Thrust," Spokesman-Review Sunday Magazine, December 28, 1975, pp. 37-39; Ron Hauenstein, "Clarkston Stirs Anew," Spokane Chronicle, June 18, 1976; Shannon Dininny, "WSU Economist to Study Columbia, Snake Closures," Spokesman-Review, December 3, 2010, p. 7; Bert Webber, Postmarked Washington: an Encyclopedia of Postal History, Vol. 1 (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1987), 35-39; "They Had to Push But Nobody Cared," Lewiston Tribune, "Lewiston's Sesquicentennial" supplement, July 3, 2011, pp. 36-38; "The Glamour Never Lost Its Shine," Ibid., pp. 24-25; "Lewiston Hill," Idaho Public Television website accessed November 24, 2010 (; "Lewiston-Clarkston Improvement Company Records, 1888-1963," Washington State University Libraries website accessed November 28, 2010 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Lenne Jo Hallgren of Clarkston wins national Junior Miss competition in May 1976" (by Laura Arksey) and "Asotin county commissioners authorize formation of a port district on April 7, 1958, paving the way for the Port of Clarkston" (by Glenn Drosendahl), (accessed September 21, 2011); Betsey Moe, email to Laura Arksey, August 24, 2011, in possession of Laura Arksey, Spokane, Washington; Randy Smith, emails to Laura Arksey, September 27 and 28, 2011, in possession of Laura Arksey, Spokane, Washington; Lewiston-Clarkston Improvement Company Records, Cage 311, Manuscripts and Special Collections, Washington State University Library, Pullman, Washington; David Irwin Gedrose, "Garden in the Desert: a History of Development in Clarkston, Washington, 1896-1911" (master's thesis, Washington State University, 1990).

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