Selah -- Thumbnail History

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 7/12/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10425

The city of Selah in Yakima County is located just north of Yakima above the confluence of the Naches and Yakima rivers. Its name comes from an Indian word meaning "still or smooth water," although early missionaries to the region may have liked the name due to its similarity to the biblical word Selah. Early Selah farmers raised sheep, but once irrigation reached the region, Selah became known for its rich fruit orchards and later for the production of apple juice. By the 1970s it was also a bedroom community for its larger neighbor, Yakima. In 2010 Selah had a population of slightly more than 7,000.

Down in the Valleys

For centuries, Yakama Indians camped near the confluence of Wenas Creek and the Yakima River, where the water tended to swirl, thereby making it easier to catch fish. The tribe also found the fertile land in the valleys of Wenas and Selah creeks, which flow from west (Wenas) and east (Selah) into the Yakima River a few miles north of the confluence of the Yakima and the Naches, an excellent place to grow food.

In 1855, the Yakama Tribe was forced to cede its lands when Chief Kamiakin (ca. 1800-1877) signed the Treaty of Yakima under duress. The Yakima Reservation was established as the tribe's new home, but when gold was discovered on the Colville and Fraser Rivers later that year, miners began trespassing on Yakama land on their way to the gold fields. This set off the Yakama Indian War, which lasted until 1858.

Because of the conflict, non-Indian settlement in the Wenas and Selah valleys did not being in earnest until the 1860s. The first settler in Yakama country after the war was Mortimer Thorp (1822-1894), who arrived at the future site of Moxee in 1861. Others soon followed.

Early Settlers

The first settler in what is now Selah was Alfred Henson, who in 1865 staked a claim on land that later became the Elks Golf and Country Club. After Yakima County was established in 1867, Henson was elected as one of the county commissioners. In 1871 he was appointed postmaster for the Selah and Wenas valleys, but three years later postal authorities moved the post office from Henson's cabin to Augustan Clemon's cabin near the mouth of Wenas Creek, where more settlers had gathered. Selah would not have its own postmaster again until 1907.

William McCallister was the second non-Indian settler in Selah, but is mostly remembered for his hot temper. McCallister arrived with his wife a few months after Henson, with whom he apparently did not strike up a friendship. At one point, McCallister made threats to kill Henson, resulting in the first court case in Yakima County history. Details of the case are unknown, as the court records were later destroyed when the county courthouse burned to the ground in 1882.

McCallister did not stay in Selah long, moving away after his wife fell ill and died, leaving him with a baby daughter. Before he could take the young child by horseback over the mountains to Puget Sound, the girl was cared for by the family of George S. Taylor (1832-1900), who homesteaded in Selah in 1866. Taylor had a large family of his own, and many Taylor descendants still reside in the Yakima region.

Watering the Crops

By the 1870s, Wenas was growing faster than Selah, and sheep farming was one of the most popular occupations. In 1880, George Taylor -- who by this time had become a prominent landowner in Selah -- dug a small ditch to divert water from the Yakima River into the Selah Valley. Soon, homesteaders began converting their sheep and cattle farms into hop yards, orchards, and alfalfa fields.

In 1888, B. F. Young and John Stone formed the Selah Ditch Company, and began digging their own irrigation project. When the ditch was finished, Young and Stone took out a half-page ad in the Yakima Herald, touting the growth potential of the Selah Valley. By 1895, more landowners were choosing Selah over Wenas, and the land had been transformed from dry sage to green cropland.

In 1905, Frank Charbonneau built and opened a small store in the Selah Valley to provide goods and services for local farmers. The store was only in operation for two years, but by the time it closed in 1907, A. E. Treat (1876-1949) had opened a mercantile business across from it. That same year, Gus Remington (1876-1950) and Olaf Larson arrived and began to transform Selah into a town.

Building a Town

The two Swedish immigrants built and opened the Selah Trading Company on their newly purchased property. They followed this with a feed store and a hotel, but just as Selah began to grow, a fire wiped out most of its businesses in 1908.

Remington and Larson built a new store, the Selah Mercantile Company, and other residents built a new hotel. Remington placed ads in Swedish newspapers in the Midwest, enticing other immigrants to come farm the fertile Selah Valley. When newcomers arrived, he helped them set up their own businesses, and by 1912 Selah had a bank, a drug store, a livery stable, a meat market, and even a newspaper. Children were being taught in a brand new brick school, from which the first high school class of nine students graduated in 1914.

In 1918, Selah boasted a population of nearly 200 residents, and the newspaper began promoting incorporation. But state law required that a town have 300 residents in order to incorporate, so local boosters waited until the fall harvest and the arrival of itinerant workers at local apple orchards and alfalfa farms.

Some of these men were quickly signed up as citizens, and with a tally of 310 "residents," Selah promoters held a caucus in February 1919, to see if the townsfolk wished to incorporate. The official election was held in March, and of the 63 citizens who were present, all of them voted yes. On March 17, 1919, the Board of County Commissioners of Yakima County validated the results, making Selah a municipality of the fourth class.

Transportation, Education, Celebration

In 1923, Selah got its first Ford automobile dealership, bringing the community further into the modern age. Less than two decades earlier, stagecoaches were a preferred method of travel to and from the Selah Valley, and most farmers moved their produce by horse wagon. An interurban rail line arrived in town from North Yakima (shortly to be renamed Yakima) in 1913, which helped move more passengers and freight.

Selah was growing quickly. The town already its brick school, but by the 1920s so many families were living in the area that a new high school was needed. It opened in 1926 and was filled with 154 students.

The opening of the high school also led to the town's first Community Day celebration. At the end of the school year a parade of floats, flower-festooned autos, and children on decorated bikes made its way through town to the high school grounds, where a picnic was held. The tradition of holding a town-wide summer gathering has continued into the twenty-first century.

Juiced Up

Like many farming communities, Selah was hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Families suffered through lower wages, and many local orchardists struggled to meet expenses. After riots broke out in the Yakima Valley between farmers and striking workers, the State Patrol and the National Guard were called in to protect local crops, and it was not uncommon to see machinegun-toting guardsmen patrolling Selah's streets.

After Prohibition ended in 1933, the Yakima Valley Brewing Company opened a brewery in Selah, which brought some work to town. For a time, Selah Springs beer was a very popular beverage in Central Washington, until the brewery went out of business in the 1950s.

One industry that gained a foothold in Selah during the Great Depression and has continued on until this day was apple-juice production. What started out as a small processing plant grew into a vibrant industry by the 1950s and was taken over by the grower-owned Tree Top co-operative in 1960. Selah has since become known as the "Apple Juice Capitol of the World."

From Town to City

Selah saw considerable growth after World War II, when many new businesses -- including fruit and vegetable packers, dairies, creameries, and other agricultural endeavors -- set up shop. Whereas Selah's population in 1930 was less than 800 people, by the end of the 1950s it had blossomed to more than 2,500.

The population remained relatively stable during the 1960s, but by the 1970s it shot upward again as more people discovered the town as a fine bedroom community for those working in nearby Yakima. The population surge was so great that the Selah School District asked that a moratorium be placed on new home construction until more classrooms could be built.

The growth continued. In 2010, Selah boasted a population of 7,147, almost 2,000 more than were counted in the 2000 census.


Sources: Robert S. Lince, The Selah Story: History of the Selah, East Selah, and Wenas Valley in Yakima County, Washington (Selah: Selah Valley Optimist Printing, 1984); "Golden Year Celebration Beginning," Yakima Herald Republic, May 19, 1969, p. 10; "Flocking to Selah," Yakima Herald Republic, October 8, 1978, p. 3A; City of Selah website accessed June 30, 2013 (http://ci.selah.wa.us/).

Related Topics:   Cities & Towns

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You