Pullman incorporates on April 11, 1888.

  • By Happy Avery
  • Posted 9/24/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11117

On April 11, 1888, William G. Langford (1835-1893), Associate Judge of the District Court of Washington Territory, issues an order to incorporate Pullman and appoint a five-member Board of Trustees to govern the town. Langford's order comes two days after residents of Pullman filed a petition to incorporate their municipality and appoint their recommended Board of Trustees to serve a one-year term. A ruling from the Washington State Supreme Court in 1890 will invalidate the incorporation of towns like Pullman that were accomplished by order of district courts under the territorial government. Although Pullman will move swiftly to reincorporate in accordance with a new state law passed on March 27, 1890, this law too will be voided, presenting another challenge to Pullman's corporate standing. Finally, in 1894 Washington's high court will uphold Pullman's status as an incorporated municipality in Whitman County in Southeastern Washington.

Rising Star of the Palouse

Pullman traces its origins to the late 1870s when the first non-Indian settlers trickled into the area around the confluence of Dry Creek, Missouri Flat Creek, and the South Fork of the Palouse River. Nestled amid the rolling grasslands of the Palouse Country in Eastern Washington, the site briefly known as Three Forks was originally home to Upper Palouse and Nez Perce Indians who long moved seasonally throughout the region for hunting, gathering, gardening, and, by the mid-eighteenth century, raising vast herds of horses. However, by the time newcomers Daniel G. McKenzie (1832-1910) and Bolin Farr (1846-1913) established their homesteads at Three Forks in 1877, most of the area's Native residents had moved to reservations or left to join the Nez Perce resistance against the United States campaign to remove non-treaty Indians from Southeastern Washington.

Several more pioneers and their families followed McKenzie and Farr for the next few years as the makings of a town took shape. In 1881 Farr platted a small townsite of 10 acres carved out of land he had claimed while McKenzie platted a larger site nearby in 1882. In the meantime, entrepreneur Orville Stewart (d. 1903) had arrived in June 1881 and promptly opened a store with a post office, which he named Pullman in honor of Chicago railcar magnate George Pullman (1831-1897). After Charles Moore from nearby Moscow, Idaho, purchased Farr's plat in December 1882, Moore and McKenzie combined efforts and replatted the original townsite of Pullman.

Pullman was one among several small towns to appear seemingly out of nowhere across the sprawling and fertile Palouse. Once the railroads arrived, however, Pullman began to stand out as the region's "little shining star" for its reputation as a prosperous commercial and agricultural center. The Columbia and Palouse Railway, a subsidiary of the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company, completed its much anticipated line into Pullman in 1885. Two years later, the Spokane and Palouse Railroad, a branch of the Northern Pacific Railway Company, built its north-south line through Pullman.

Petition to Incorporate

With two railroads servicing it, Pullman quickly became an agricultural center and key shipping point for the region's notable yields of wheat and other commodities. By 1888, Pullman boasted approximately 250 residents and a thriving commercial core serving its immediate and surrounding community. The time had come to incorporate. Some 50 inhabitants and taxpayers signed a petition to incorporate the Town of Pullman and appoint a proposed slate for a five-member Board of Trustees, which they filed in the Territorial District Court on April 9, 1888. Judge William G. Langford took little time in deciding the matter. On April 11 he issued his order to incorporate Pullman and appoint its first Board of Trustees, which included Stewart, J. H. Maguire, J. M. Hill, M. S. Phillips, and T. H. Kaylor, to serve through the first Monday of the following April. This stipulation suggests that municipal elections were to be held annually, although Langford's order did not specify a schedule beyond 1889. The board in turn promptly convened on April 13 to elect Stewart as chairman and establish by-laws and officers for the new municipal government.

The territory's transition to statehood in 1889 resulted in the restructuring of local governance in Washington, which ultimately affected the legality of some municipal corporations. On February 13, 1890, the Washington Supreme Court issued its decision in Territory of Washington v. Stewart, which effectively voided the incorporation of towns accomplished under an 1888 territorial law. The law was deemed invalid for allowing the creation of municipal corporations through district courts instead of by general laws of the legislature, as stipulated in the new state constitution. The legislature responded on March 27, 1890, by enacting an "emergency" law that provided for the organization, classification, incorporation, and government of affected municipal corporations. Local government leaders in Pullman, now representing a population of 868, proceeded with little delay to legitimize its corporate standing in accordance with the new law.

On April 11, 1890, exactly two years after Judge Langford approved Pullman's initial attempt to incorporate, the Board of Trustees received a petition from more than one-fifth of the town's qualified voters to hold a special election on the question of reincorporation. The Board of Trustees set the election for April 28 and, in a show of due diligence, ran public notices throughout the interim two weeks in the Pullman Herald, the local newspaper. After 68 votes were cast and counted, on May 3, 1890, the board certified the unanimous results in favor of Pullman's reincorporation and town clerk Thomas Neill (1861-1938) submitted these results to the Washington Secretary of State's office, which received them on May 9, 1890.

Third Time Is the Charm

Unfortunately for Pullman, the 1890 reincorporation did not mark the end of the story. On November 7, 1893, the Washington Supreme Court issued another decision that once again effectively voided Pullman's incorporation. In Town of Denver v. City of Spokane Falls, the court ruled that the March 27, 1890, law was invalid, as it gave certain communities the right to reincorporate in the unusual circumstance of having previously incorporated under the invalid territorial law of 1888. As such, the 1890 legislation amounted to a "special law," which the state constitution explicitly prohibited for the creation municipal corporations.

Despite the latest blow to its corporate standing, Pullman refused to be denied and turned to the state supreme court to resolve the matter once and for all. On March 28, 1894, the court issued its decision in City of Pullman v. Hungate, in which it considered the validity of another special law enacted one year earlier, in March 1893, to legalize cities and towns that had incorporated or reincorporated under the voided law of 1890. This time the court upheld the law since it specifically applied to cities and towns with existing organized governments that had been maintained since their dates of attempted incorporation. The court determined that this aspect of the 1893 law allowed the legislature to provide that Pullman, because it had been acting as a de facto municipal corporation since 1888 in spite of the nullification of both the 1888 territorial law and the 1890 state law, should thereafter be a legal corporation. Thus April 11, 1888, stands as the official date of Pullman's incorporation.

The details surrounding Pullman's efforts to legitimize its incorporation remain elusive in the historical record. It appears that the Pullman Board of Trustees quietly handled the town's legal wranglings while other pressing matters captured the attention of the community at large. From 1890 to 1894, most Pullman residents were likely far more concerned about the location of the new state agricultural college, the extension of the Northern Pacific's Palouse line, and the devastating repercussions of the Panic of 1893 than legal technicalities threatening the town's standing as an incorporated municipality. By the time the question of incorporation was finally resolved in March 1894, Pullman had won the college (which would grow to become Washington State University), secured the railroad, and overcome the darkest days of economic depression. The little star of the Palouse was shining bright as the nineteenth century drew to a close.

Sources: "In the Matter of the Petition of the Inhabitants of the Town of Pullman," April 11, 1888, Office of the City Clerk, Pullman, Washington; "Election to Re-Organize the Town of Pullman," May 9, 1890, Secretary of State, Records of Cities and Towns Incorporated, 1890-1966, AR3-3-15, Washington State Archives, Olympia, Washington; Territory of Washington v. Stewart, 1 Wash. 98 (1890); Town of Denver v. City of Spokane Falls, 7 Wash. 226 (1893); City of Pullman v. Hungate, 8 Wash. 519 (1894); Lawrence R. Stark, "The Founding of Pullman: A Local Folktale," Bunchgrass Historian 9:2 (Summer 1981), 4-12; Thomas Neill, Incidents in the Early History of Pullman and the State College of Washington (Pullman: The Pullman Herald, 1922); Richard Scheuerman and Clifford Trafzer, "The First People of the Palouse Country," Bunchgrass Historian 8:3 (Fall 1980), 3-18; Roger C. W. Bjerk, "A History of Pullman, 1876-1910," (master's thesis, Washington State University, 1965); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Whitman County -- Thumbnail History" (by Phil Dougherty), http://www.historylink.org (accessed July 8, 2015); Edith Erickson, Whitman County: From Abbieville to Zion (Colfax: University Printing, 1985); W. H. Lever, An Illustrated History of Whitman County, State of Washington (San Francisco: W. H. Lever, 1901); Robert Luedeking, Pullman (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2010).

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