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Columbia County Courthouse (1887), Dayton
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The Columbia County Courthouse, located on 341 E Main Street in Dayton, is the oldest working courthouse in all of Washington’s 39 counties. When the courthouse was completed in 1887, Washington was still a territory.
Columbia County's Seat
Dayton, the county seat of Columbia County, was platted in 1871. Development of the town quickly followed. A square of land was reserved for county purposes in the 1870s, but the only building built on the square in its early years was a cheap wooden jail. County officers were forced to use rented rooms in which trials were also held. Yet the citizens of Columbia County were slow to approve construction of a courthouse, twice voting down a building much less expensive than the one ultimately built.
At last, in February 1886, the Washington Territorial Council passed a bill authorizing the construction of a courthouse in Columbia County. The job was bonded for $40,000. Stone and brickwork contractor A. J. Dexter turned the first sod on June 1, 1886.
Building the Historic Building
Construction seems to have gone smoothly. Although Shaver records that the courthouse was complete by the end of 1886, several other sources say that it was completed in 1887. Columbia County accepted its courthouse on July 2, 1887. Total cost of construction was $38,069.
The architect, William Burrows, created an attractive building with a large, ornate cupola (complete with an iron railing) atop the roof. Bronze statutes of Blind Justice, complete with sword and scales, graced the tops of both front and back entrances. Bronze eagles perched atop the roof peaks. In the front entrance, wide steps took a visitor up to a covered porch. Inside, a double stairway rose from opposite sides of the building to the second floor courtroom, which had a 19-foot ceiling. A new jail occupied the basement.
Locust trees were planted in front, and a bandstand was built on the courthouse lawn. Concerts were held there in the summer. In 1915 two Civil War-era cannons were installed on either side of the walkway.
The Cannon Boys
On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war against Germany and entered World War I. That month, Dayton held a Patriotic Day celebration. One of the courtyard cannons was loaded with powder for display, but it was not fired during the celebration. That night, after the festivities ended, three high school boys decided to fire off the cannon as a practical joke. To ensure that as many as possible in the town would hear the explosion, the boys added extra powder to what was already in the cannon.
The cannon went off with such force that nearly all of the windows in front of the courthouse were shattered. The boys owned up to the stunt and agreed to pay for damages. But the citizens of Dayton forgave the trio and ended up raising a fund to help "The Cannon Boys," as they became known, pay for the repair costs.
Altering the Building
With the exception of some minor modifications to the courtroom in 1906, the courthouse remained as it was originally built for nearly a half century. By the mid– 1930s, however, Columbia County commissioners felt the building needed to be modernized. This resulted in sweeping changes beginning in the mid-1930s. The entire look and feel of the courthouse was altered.
In 1935 the bronze Blind Justice statutes and eagles were removed (during World War II they were melted for scrap metal). In 1938 the building got a more sweeping "face lift," as it was then termed. The old exterior finish and Victorian detail was taken down, the cupola removed, and the building painted black and white. It was such a dramatic change that a Columbia Chronicle article in November 1938 remarked that the courthouse had taken on the appearance of an entire new building.
The modernization trend continued. In 1950 the building’s remaining ornamentation was stripped, and a new coat of stucco was applied on the remaining bare surface. Also in the 1950s, half of the indoor stairway was removed, partitions were built, and ceilings lowered. In 1952, the locust trees planted in the courthouse yard in the nineteenth century were chopped down.
During the 1970s, Daytonians began taking steps to preserve the town’s rich architectural history. In 1975 the courthouse was listed on the National Register. In 1984 a large scale restoration program for the building began, with the goal of returning it to its nineteenth-century splendor. Restoration was completed in the summer of 1993. The cupola was returned to the roof and the scales of justice once again rose above the front entrance of the building.
A brochure published by the Dayton Historic Preservation Commission describes the courthouse today (2006): "This two and one-half story, stuccoed brick Italianate building is topped with a 22-foot lantern, and bellcast Mansard roof with iron cresting. Distinctive features include rusticated base, quoins, paired segmental arch windows, and pediment statuary" ("Walking Tour...").
F. A. Shaver, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1906), 327-328; W. F. Fletcher, Early Columbia County (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1988), 62-64; David Chapman, "Blind Justice on the Touchet," Columbia Magazine, Winter 1993/1994, p. 14-20; "City History," City of Dayton website accessed on July 26, 2006 (http://www.daytonwa.com/history.htm); "Downtown Historic Dayton Walking Tour," brochure, Dayton Historic Preservation Commission, 2006.
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