Zillah: A city by any name

April 22, 2010

What’s in a city’s name? When it comes to Zillah, it depends on what legend you’ve heard.

An undated photo of the Civilian Conservation Corps' Camp Zillah in Zillah, Wash.

If you believe one legend, the city of Zillah was born from a spoiled girl’s tantrum.

By 1892, the city was platted by Walter Granger, engineer of what later became the Sunnyside Canal at the behest of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. Shortly after that, the town was named after Zillah Oakes, the daughter of the company president, Thomas Oakes.

Watermelons were planted between the fruit trees in this orchard in Zillah. The yield was 175 tons which sold for $10 per ton. The photograph was taken in 1910.

Here’s one theory about why, according to a local history book named “Zillah: Looking Back.” Traveling from the infant town to Toppenish, the Oakes’ family buggy tipped while fording the Yakima River. To pacify his panicky and pouty daughter, the railway president promised to name the town after her.

By 1900, shortly after the irrigation water arrived, the city was surrounded by orchards and populated by well-to-do families in cottages with green lawns, large barns and “an occasional veritable mansion,” according to “History of Yakima Valley.” The Washington Irrigation Company, under the direction of Granger, used the city as the location for its company headquarters.

The Christian Church in Zillah, Wash. was built in 1901. It is shown in this photograph taken about 1915.

The first school started in 1894, and the first church was built in 1901. A weekly newspaper started publishing in 1910.

The city incorporated on Jan. 3, 1911, shortly after a railroad linked it to North Yakima. One of Zillah’s early highlights was the fabricated “gold rush” of 1931. As told by longtime residents who remember it, a local prankster named Justus Thomas stole a couple gold nuggets from a neighbor, then made up a story that he “discovered” them in the Rattlesnake Hills north of town.

Townspeople in scores rushed to stake claims. The ruse ended after about three days when people overheard Thomas discussing his joke.

Thomas later became the managing editor of the Yakima Morning Herald and the editorial page editor of the afternoon Yakima Republic.

By Ross Courtney

Main street in downtown Zillah in a photo taken in 1915.

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The William and Reinsek Oord family in Zillah in 1911.

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