Small bands of Indians from both the Palouse and Nez Perce tribes had periodically lived at the site in the years prior to the arrival of white settlers in the 1870s. The first white settlers called the settlement Wawawa, a Nez Perce term meaning "council grounds." But the name soon changed to Wawawai.
Wawawai’s first settler, Isiah Matheny, arrived at Wawawai in 1875 and planted the first orchard, which was an apple orchard. Settlement began to increase in 1877 and by 1880 a number of orchards -- apples, pears, prunes, and other soft fruits -- had been established along the riverbank and some were starting to bear fruit.
A Town among the Apple Trees
The town of Wawawai was platted in 1878, but in 1884 its owners petitioned the Whitman County Board of Commissioners to vacate the town, arguing that "the ground occupied by said town is more valuable for agricultural purposes than a town site" (Crithfield). But rather than end the history of the town, this served to preserve its future for the next 80 years as an informal community known for its orchards.
And this community had all of the earmarks of a town. A post office was established in Wawawai in December 1885, and the following year a school district was formed which remained until 1938. A school was soon built and by 1895 between 45 and 50 students attended.
Many small orchard ranches sprang up in the Wawawai community during the 1880s, but there were larger ranches as well. One of the larger ones in the area was actually three ranches on land along the Snake River belonging to three Bishop Brothers, Al, Charles, and Ed. By 1884 they owned over 500 acres southeast of Wawawai. The area became known as "Bishop’s Bar," and steamboats on their runs along that stretch of the Snake River stopped there for years to pick up fruit.
John Tabor started another orchard ranch which was partly in the Wawawai community. By 1887 he owned 375 acres. He spent most of the 1890s improving his orchards, and in 1899 sold the property to his son-in-law, William LaFollette.
LaFollette increased production, raising peaches, apricots, cherries, berries, nectarines, grapes, and prunes. And he went beyond fruit: raising asparagus, rhubarb, and beans, as well as hogs. Wages at the LaFollette Ranch during the early 1900s were $12 to $15 a month in the summer and $10 in the winter, with room and board furnished.
LaFollette also bought more land, and by 1909 the LaFollette Ranch had grown to 960 acres. In her book Of Yesterday and the River, Crithfield writes "Because of the extensive operations of the LaFollette Ranch, Wawawai became the largest fruit shipping point along the river."
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries nearly the entire fruit growing and harvesting process was done by hand. The larger farms typically hired several hundred people to do the work. In the early years part of the labor was provided by Indians, who "came every year and camped along the rivers or the creeks until about 1920" (Crithfield).
The Chinese also provided labor. The Chinese were segregated into "China Houses" which some communities built specifically to house Chinese laborers. Almota, seven miles downstream from Wawawai, had one, and so did Wawawai -- its "China House" was "in the old Jesse Burgess house" (Crithfield).
Beginning sometime during the early 1900s and continuing through the 1930s high school and college students (often from Washington State College in Pullman) replaced some of the Indian and Chinese laborers who had previously worked on the ranches.
Transporting Apples, Plums, and Pears
Once the fruit was packed and ready for shipment it was hauled by wagon to a ferry landing, where it was picked up by a steamboat and taken to the nearest train station at Riparia in Columbia County. (From 1882 until 1897 the town of Riparia was on the Columbia County side of the Snake River. In 1897 the town simply moved to the north side of the river in Whitman County and absorbed the community there known as Texas Ferry. The train station stayed on the south side of the river.) Two of the steamers in use on the Snake River by the late 1890s, the Lewiston and the Spokane, were capable of carrying 250 tons of freight.
In 1902 the Snake River Valley Railroad (later the Camas Prairie Railroad) began extending the rail line east from Riparia to Lewiston, and by 1907 the rail line had reached Wawawai. In 1908 the line reached Lewiston. After that the railroad hauled the bulk of the fruit from Wawawai, although steamers continued runs along the river until 1940.The White and Crum Enterprise
Although many of Wawawai’s orchards remained in private hands, one large company formed early in the twentieth century and bought up a number of orchard ranches. The Alpowa Orchard Company was formed about 1903 by E. A. White, W. W. White, and George Crum, and bought orchards in Asotin and Garfield counties as well as in the Wawawai community. In 1907 the Alpowa Orchard Company bought the Bishop Bar orchards and in 1909 the company purchased the LaFollette Ranch.
Around 1910 the Alpowa Orchard Company merged with another company and changed its name to White Brothers and Crum. This new company continued its acquisitions of the river orchards and by 1919 owned six ranches on a 30–mile stretch of river which included the Wawawai community. During the 1920s there was another merger and White Brothers and Crum became known as the Riverside Orchard Company.
In 1935 the Riverside Orchard Company began selling its ranches along the river back to private owners. By this time, the Wawawai community was changing. Mechanization was reducing the need for as much human labor. Then production costs increased after the end of World War II in 1945.
Post-War Orchard Management
The ranchers met these changes in two ways. Some converted at least part of their orchards to pastureland and began raising livestock. Others began advertising "u-pick" operations in which the public was invited to come to the ranches to pick their own fruit when it was ripe on the trees. This was so successful that by the early 1960s the packing houses on the ranches were used only briefly by the ranch owners early in the harvest season to pack some of the fruit. The public then drove down into the canyon to the orchards and picked the rest.
And the community continued on. The Wawawai Ferry, which had started in 1885 as a cable ferry hauling horses and riders across the river to and from Garfield County, made its final run in 1959. Wawawai’s general store, which had opened in the first decade of the twentieth century, was still operating in 1964. The Wawawai Post Office, which operated out of the same building as the store, remained open until December 31, 1967.
The Coming of Lower Granite Dam
But by the 1960s the ranchers knew that the community would eventually be under 80 feet of water as a result of the construction of the Lower Granite Dam, and by the late 1960s, preparation for the inundation of the Wawawai community was underway. The land was bought out, the orchards removed and the store and post office closed.
In 1968 and 1971 anthropological excavations were conducted under contract between the National Park Service and Washington State University at the Wawawai site just above the junction of Wawawai Creek and the Snake River. These excavations were focused primarily on Native American settlement prior to the arrival of white settlers.
On February 15, 1975, Lower Granite Dam was completed and water was allowed to start filling Lower Granite Lake above the dam, obliterating what little remained by that time of Wawawai. In 1979 Whitman County Parks and Recreation opened the 49-acre Wawawai County Park at the site near the junction of Wawawai Creek and Lower Granite Lake. In the quarter-century since, the park has become known for bird-watching.