Life in the Valley: Past is prologue

April 22, 2010

A view in 1901 from Chestnut Street north through an alley to Yakima Avenue.

Nearly anything seemed possible in Yakima’s first few decades. Real estate values doubled, tripled, quadrupled or more in a single year.

Streets designs followed that of European cities. Streams, footbridges, paddlewheels and towering shade trees lined Naches Avenue.

In an astonishing burst of energy and civic pride, schools, a hospital, an 800-seat opera house, a library, churches, a trolley system, a YMCA, and a vast lumber mill all sprang up in just two decades.

The First National Bank in Yakima in a photograph taken about 1890.

By 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt came to visit. Six years later, President William Taft did the same.

Out on the new farms it seemed anything would grow and grow well.

The Valley would soon gain fame for its apples, but in those early years it was hard to tell which crop would dominate.

In 1895, a St. Louis food wholesaler declared Yakima’s potatoes the best in the world.
“If you never raise any other produce, the spuds alone will make you famous,” he told farmers.

Cigars from local tobacco were labeled Flor de Yakima and were compared to the best imported products from anywhere in the world.

Spurred by aggressive advertising by the railroad, civic boosters and investors, the city’s population swelled more than 800 percent between 1890 and 1910 when residents stood at 14,082.More than a century later, the old accounts recorded in faded newspapers and tattered books retain a palpable sense of unbridled optimism over a new land ripe with unfolding opportunities.

A bank in Yakima photographed about 1900.

But if Yakima’s early years were of wild optimism, they also prove a distant mirror. As early as 1905 it was clear that the Yakima water supply was overappropriated. There was already an uneasy relationship between residents and some of those who were hired to harvest its crops.

Like today, residents exuded a distrust of the political esablishment in Washington, D.C. And the great opportunities extolled by boosters were not open to all.

Make no mistake. After the town’s famous move in 1885 from what would eventually become Union Gap, development in North Yakima proceeded at a pace that seems difficult to imagine today.

Just four years after incorporating as a city, Yakima had 62 businesses and was sending hundreds of railroad cars of fruit, vegetables, hops and cattle back East.

Sprawling, gracious homes lined Naches Avenue, which, among other streets, was fashioned after those in Baden-Baden, Germany. The railroad station on North Front Street and accompanying grounds were designed by the same nationally known architect who drew up the plans for the Minnesota state Capitol.

An undated photograph of the Coffin Brothers store at the intersection of Third Street and Yakima Avenue in North Yakima.

Outside of town, columns of black smoke rose from piles of burning sagebrush as farmers cleared land.

Many were small family farmers. Others were huge ventures funded by outside investors, such as members of Alexander Graham Bell’s family, which started the Moxee Co. farm in 1886. The 7,000-acre operation grew alfalfa, tobacco, barley, oats, corn, wine grapes and raised cattle. But its real purpose was to sell parcels to smaller farmers — a mission that fit well with that of the Northern Pacific Railroad and led to a partnership to promote settlement.

So many people were immigrating west that Northern Pacific set aside specifically numbered railroad cars just for new arrivals seeking land.

But amid the bursting civic pride and rapid development were elements of squalor.

While carefully platted, with 80- and 100-foot wide streets, Yakima’s roadways could be a mess of mud in the winter and choking dust in the summer.

As early as 1889, the City Council was making plans to pave Yakima Avenue, but it dropped the idea after residents argued the improvement were unnecessary and that taxes were already too high. Focus on draining the streets, critics said, and the council listened. The city’s main thoroughfare wasn’t paved until 1908.

A young boy carries a chicken and a basket of eggs.

There were thriving gambling halls and opium dens. A red-light district flourished along the first block of East Yakima Avenue, where such questionable establishments as The Brick, Our House, “444,” the Little Club, the Exchange and The Teddy Bears operated.

As early as 1885, there were efforts to restrict the number of saloons by requiring a $500 license. The fee, which would equal nearly $12,000 today, did little to discourage a proliferation of drinking establishments.

Each spring when the Yakima River rose, as many as 1,000 logs cut from the forests of Cle Elum and Easton were floated daily to the Cascade Lumber Co. And when the wind was right, the scent of fresh-cut wood from the mill would drift over the town, replacing for a moment decidedly more earthly aromas.

In downtown Yakima, there was no regular garbage collection. Manure piled up along the streets and the alleys filled with debris. In the summer the air was thick with flies. Stores were encouraged to place fly catchers in their windows.

Eventually, the problem grew so acute that health authorities began paying children a nickel for each 100 flies they caught.

By the turn of the century the crude sewage system, which dumped waste into the Yakima River, had grown inadequate. Typhoid was common in many Western towns. But by 1910, Yakima had the highest typhoid rate in the country, nearly four times the national average.

A front view of the Haney Hardware Company about 1909. The store was located at 18 West Yakima Avenue in North Yakima.

After ignoring the problem for years, authorities created a local health department, which became a model for the nation.

Yakima’s first full decade, from 1890 to 1900, also marked the worst depression the young nation had ever seen.
While there was optimism and understandable pride in the accomplishments of the city, but like many places in the West, there was also a clear sense of superiority and a hostility toward outsiders who were not Anglo-Saxon and from the Midwest.

An exterior view of the Yakima Hardware warehouse on South 1st Street in a photo taken about 1910.

The Irish were mocked in a local 1896 newspaper called The Epigram: “… as a rule (the Irish) have no great regard for the truth, but like to make the reply they think will be the most agreeable to the question.”

In 1892, petitions were circulated urging Yakima’s residents not to eat at Chinese restaurants or shop at Chinese-owned or -operated businesses. Yakima was not alone. At the time, similar or worse sentiments were common across the Western United States, including Seattle, where white residents rioted against and forcibly removed Chinese immigrants.

In 1894, when unemployed workers from Seattle boarded freight cars for a march on Washington, D.C., they were met by an angry and armed mob in Yakima. They were beaten and shot at; one deputy died after being accidentally shot by another deputy.

When wages for hop picking fell in 1895, the Yakima Herald was quick to note there would be little tolerance for outsiders pushing for higher pay.

(L-R) Curtiss, Lois and Elon Gilbert pose for a photo taken in 1888 or 1889. They are the children of H.M and Marion Gilbert.

“It is well to inform these anarchists — if any there be — that no organized demand for increased pay will be recognized, and that the leaders of such a movement will be black-listed summarily upon the first demonstration toward a ‘strike.’ There are Indians enough to care for much of this year’s crop and they fully realize that 75 cents goes as far today as did $1 a year ago,”

American Indians routinely came from as far as British Columbia and Idaho to work the hops harvest. But in some ways they remained strangers to Yakima residents, according to an account by the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who grew up in Yakima in the 1900s.

“We who were raised in Yakima did not know the Indians well. Some of them lived in town, but most them held to the reservation. And most of the Indian children attended the public schools in the Lower valley. Not living with them or playing with them, we felt them strangers. We only saw them on the streets and in the stores and restaurants,” he wrote in “Of Men and Mountains,” an autobiographical account.

“By and large the Indians would come to town on Saturday night, mingle peacefully with the whites in stores, restaurants and theaters and then melt way into the night, back to their reservation.”

The Chicago Dry Goods Company on South Second Street in Yakima in a photo taken about 1900. The store burned shortly thereafter.

Water was key to growth and irrigation canals were dug at a furious rate.

The Spanish-American War Memorial, with cannon, is shown in the front of the old Yakima County courthouse at North Second and B streets. The statue of John Jacob Weisenberger was originally dedicated and placed on Yakima Avenue of July 4, 1902. It was moved to North Second Street in 1908 and remained there until it was moved to its current location on Naches Avenue, south of Yakima Avenue. The statue was erected in memory of the fallen of Company E, I Washington U.S. Voluntary Infantry, 1898-1899. Weisenberger, former mayor of Whatcom, commanded the First Battalion, including Company E from North Yakima. (photo courtesy of Yakima Valley Regional Library. )

“Irrigation is better than the rain directed from the clouds, for the water goes just where you want it to go and in such volume as it is wanted,” touted one booster in 1890.

Taking water from natural streams and rivers, farmers in the Yakima region had about 120,000 acres under irrigation by the turn of the 20th century.

But as early as the mid-1890s, most of the Yakima River’s smaller tributaries were dried up by late spring. During one drought just after the turn of the century, the Yakima River essentially dried up below Prosser. Thus began the first appeals for help from the federal government, which built the first organized system of reservoirs in the Cascades.

The venture marked one chapter in a complicated relationship between Yakima and authorities in Washington, D.C.
In the late 1890s, national debate centered on whether the nation should retain the Philippines after the Spanish American War.

Yakima residents, it seemed, had little patience with East Coast politicians who opposed the acquisition on grounds that it violated the Constitution.

Many Yakima residents saw it differently, arguing the Constitution allowed the acquisition just as it had allowed the purchase of Alaska.

On the same day those arguments were carried in the pages of the Yakima Herald, an editorial for the new year of 1899 also ran. While the language is slightly arcane, its sentiments have changed little over time.

“Unbounded hope about the future is the feeling with which all classes see the close of the year. The hope is based on bountiful harvests, fair prices, increased business in all department of trade.”

By Craig Troianello

North Yakima's first courthouse, moved from Union Gap in 1885 was located at 128 N. Second Street.


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St. Elizabeth Hospital is shown in the photograph, circa 1900. courtesy Yakima Valley Regional Library

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