In early April 1892, a party of Northern Pacific Railway and Yakima Irrigation Company officials visit the recently chosen but as yet unnamed townsite on the north bank of the Yakima River. The party includes Walter Granger (General Superintendent of the Sunnyside Canal), Paul Schulze (a Portland businessman and board member of the Oregon and Transcontinental Company), Thomas F. Oakes (1843-1919), president of the Northern Pacific Railway, his wife Abby (1842-1916), and their 19-year-old daughter Zillah (c.1872-1953). The party debates what to name the new town , and they agree to call it Zillah.
Finding Townsites and Founding Towns
Either Paul Schulze or Walter Granger suggested the name Zillah. Both men had ample motivation to flatter Thomas Oakes, as both owed their employment to his favor. Walter Granger became president of the Zillah Townsite Company. The trustees were Thomas F. Oakes, Paul Schulze, William Hamilton Hall, and C. A. Spofford (acting for railroad tycoon Henry Villard [1835-1900]). Seventy acres of railroad land grant and state-owned land were platted for the town.
Outings to scout future town sites were a common activity in 1892. The previous month The New York Times had carried coverage of a similar outing that had gone awry:
"North Yakima, Washington, March 14 -- President Oakes of the Northern Pacific Railroad and party stopped here Saturday to inspect the company’s property. The party left the train and took a drive around the country in a wagon. The party was made up of W. S. Wellen, General Manager of the Northern Pacific; E. V. Smalley, editor of the Northwest Magazine; Walter Oakes and P. A. O’Farrel. The wagon, drawn by four horses, was overturned by the current in a stream which the party attempted to ford. O’Farrel and Oakes reached a shallow part, and Wellen swam ashore, but Smalley was carried into deep water by the current and went under twice before a small boat reached him. He was taken to the train and soon recovered" (The New York Times, March 15, 1892)
Daughter of a Railroad Man
Zillah Oakes was born in Kansas City, Missouri, circa 1872. During her childhood her father Thomas Fletcher Oakes rose through the ranks of the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
Thomas F. Oakes came west with his family (wife Abby, son Walter, and daughters Grace, Zillah, and Georgiana) in May 1880. At the request of Henry Villard he settled in Portland, where he assumed direction of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company. On October 25, 1880, the birth of another son, Prescott, completed the family.
In June 1881, Thomas Oakes became vice-president (under Henry Villard) of the Northern Pacific Railroad. He was charged with closing the 1,000-mile gap in track between Dickinson, Dakota, and Sprague, Washington. In August and September 1881, Oakes surveyed this gap on horseback while his young family waited in Portland.
The Golden Spike
On September 8, 1883, the Golden Spike celebrating the completion of this 1,000 miles of track was driven in Gold Creek, Montana. Train cars of dignitaries arrived from the East and one car arrived from Portland bearing Northern Pacific Railroad family members. It is very likely that Zillah Oakes, then about 10 years old, would have been among the 8,000-10,000 people who gathered to listen to United States General and former President Ulysses S. Grant speak and watch the ceremonial spike be driven.
Once the Northern Pacific had become a transcontinental line it was able to claim the massive land grant guaranteed to it under Congressional charter in mid-1864. This land was then developed (in the Yakima Valley, via the construction of irrigation canals), town sites selected, platted, and sold to settlers.
Zillah's Life and Times
During the mid-1880s the Oakes family made St. Paul, Minnesota, their home. Their large house at 432 Summit Avenue placed them among St. Paul’s elite. Great Northern Railroad owner James J. Hill (who would assume control of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1896) was a neighbor. Thomas Oakes crisscrossed the country executing his duties. In 1888 he assumed the Presidency of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the family moved to a mansion ("Vergemere") in Mamaroneck, New York (Westchester County), overlooking the Hudson River.
In 1893, within about a year of the naming of the town of Zillah, Zillah Oakes married George C. Rand Jr., a coffee merchant whose family home was in Lawrence/Far Rockaway, Long Island. They moved to London, where their daughters Margery (b. 1896) and Eugenie (b. 1898) were born. The family returned to Long Island about 1903, and in 1907 moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. Zillah and George Rand Jr. separated shortly thereafter, and Zillah, Margery and Eugenie moved to Manhattan. Zillah and Rand subsequently divorced.
Zillah Oakes Rand worked briefly as an interior decorator before marrying New York stockbroker Herbert Ten Broeck Jacquelin on June 3, 1913.
Zillah’s daughters Margery and Eugenie made their debut into New York society on November 28, 1914. Margery married Charles K. Clinton of New York and Tuxedo Park on February 26, 1916, and after their divorce married banker Charles M. Billings in 1934. Eugenie married George Valentine Smith of Ardmore, Pennsylvania in 1918, and after their divorce married Robert T. Oliphant.
Herbert Jacquelin died on November 11, 1931, leaving Zillah his entire estate. She lived on in New York City, dying on July 8, 1953, at age 82.
Zillah Oakes’ father exemplified the powerful elite that built the empire of the American West and through their efforts made the desert bloom. The town of Zillah, and Zillah Oakes’ brief public moment on the stage of history, form a small but enduring link in the chain of the Western Empire her father Thomas built.
The town, which was incorporated in 1911, is small enough that every public institution (middle school, high school, library, cemetery) bears Zillah’s name.
The Oakes in the Northwest
Zillah Oakes probably never revisited the town that was named for her. Her parents made Seattle their home for the final years of their life, however, and her brothers Walter (1864-1911) and Prescott (1880-1967) were prominent Seattle businessmen. All of these, and other Oakes descendants as well, are buried in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery.
It is most likely that Zillah visited Seattle through the years, riding the Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited passenger train across the rails her father built. If this was so, she would have passed close to but not through the town of Zillah. The town gained a railroad station in 1907, to serve a new branch line from Sunnyside Junction near Toppenish. The line carried fruit from Zillah’s rich fields 20 miles to Sunnyside, where it was shipped worldwide. The depot was demolished in September 1975.
For Zillah Oakes, however, the memory of that April afternoon 61 years before when a town was named for her in deference to her beauty and family connections endured: her New York Times obituary stated: "During the period her father was president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, the town of Zillah, Wash. was founded and named after her" (The New York Times July 9, 1953).