Rock Island -- Thumbnail History

  • By Linda Holden Givens
  • Posted 5/29/2024
  • Essay 23001
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The City of Rock Island is located on the east bank of the Columbia River in Douglas County, a short distance downriver from Wenatchee. It is just upstream from the former site of the Rock Island Rapids, named for a large rocky island in their midst, where the Rock Island Dam was later built. Gold discoveries along the Columbia brought the first wave of newcomers, many of them placer miners from China, into the area in the 1850s. The first recorded homestead claim in the future Rock Island was made by James Keane (1850-1939) in the 1880s. The arrival of the Great Northern Railway, which constructed the first railroad bridge across the Columbia there in the early 1890s, brought the first significant growth to Rock Island, but the boom lasted only a few years. Rock Island boomed again in the early 1930s when the Rock Island Dam was built just downstream, and it was incorporated in 1930. The city grew slowly into the twenty-first century, reaching around 1,500 by 2023.

Longtime Residents and New Settlers

Rock Island was a large island in the center of the Columbia River a few miles downstream from the location of the city that would take its name. The "flat- topped mass of basalt" ("Land Management Program") was the largest of a group of rocks and outcrops that made up the Rock Island Rapids, which posed an obstacle to navigating the river but provided an excellent site for catching salmon. The Salish-speaking peoples who lived in the Columbia Basin for thousands of years relied on salmon as a primary source of food, making the location a place to fish and trade. Villages were established both on the island and on nearby river banks.

The peoples of the region considered the island to be sacred. Over generations, many of them carved images, which have become known as petroglyphs, into the island's rocks. "Hypotheses have emerged that the images reflect visions or dreams, tell traditional stories, represent appeals to spirit guardians and celebrate achievements" (Rader).

The search for gold brought many new settlers into the area beginning in the mid-1850s. Large numbers of placer miners, many of them immigrants from China, moved into the Columbia River basin after news of gold discoveries along the Columbia reached miners participating in the California Gold Rush that began in 1849. By the early 1860s, there were significant numbers of Chinese immigrant placer miners working in camps along the banks of the Columbia River from Rock Island north to the Canadian border. Historians have long noted the early presence of Chinese mining communities in the Rock Island area:

"A. J. Splawn (1917:212) reported that about 100 Chinese had bought a large bar near Rock Island in 1864 that had previously been worked by Euro-Americans in 1863. In 1864-1865, Splawn recorded packing a freight train to a trading store at a large Chinese mining camp between Wenatchee and Rock Island. This camp was located on the eastern banks of the Columbia River, and was operated by Mr. Wing. It was reported that '... about 100 Chinese miners had purchased the large gravel bar from white miners' and were constructing a large ditch to feed their workings" (Evenson, 43).

An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country, published in 1904, lists a number of Chinese villages, describing them as ruins that were visible. Other Chinese miners worked along the Columbia near Rock Island until the mid-1880s, where they also owned and operated stores.

In the 1860s and early 1870s, more settlers were moving into the area that would soon become Douglas County. Fletcher Ingram (1847-1919) and Henry A. McBride opened and operated a trading post, whose customers were said to be mostly Native Americans, in the small valley where Rock Island would later develop. They did not stay very long before moving to a different location. Douglas County, named after United States Senator Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) of Illinois, was created in 1883 when the territorial legislature carved it out of Lincoln County, which itself had just been created earlier that month. In 1886, Waterville became the first platted town in Douglas County and the county seat.

James Eugene Keane is believed to be the first homesteader in the Rock Island area. He had worked as a mining engineer in California and came north with a team of men from California. "Keane ... homesteaded a small plot of land about a half mile above the Rock Island Rapids in 1886 [and] built a large, attractive white house" ("Rock Island Has ...," 14). The next year, in a fully supplied covered wagon, Keane moved his family from California to their new home, which they named "the White House." Keane and his Native American wife Sarah Helen Rainey Keane (1858-1932) had 9 children: James Russel Keane (1882-1949), Eugene Ray (Rainey) Keane (1885-1917), Earle John Keane (1888-1906), Elsie Jeanette Keane Gilbert (1890-1928), William Stuart Keane (1892-1916), Ethel Margaret Keane Standerfer (1895-1993), Nina Merle Keane (1898-1940), Helen May Keane Stine (1899-1940), and Leslie Benjamin Keane (1902-1970).

Washington became a state on November 11, 1889. That year Keane "acquired a whopping 11,000 acres at Rock Island through federal homestead, pre-emption and desert acts. Most of it was situated on the flat above the basalt ridge north of the Columbia. He started cultivating the land[,] brought in a large herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle," and started breeding horses from Missouri. ("Rock Island Has ...," 14). 

Railroad Bridge and Early Development

In 1890 James J. Hill (1838-1916), who was building his Great Northern Railway's transcontinental line from Minnesota to Seattle, saw the Rock Island Rapids area as a good spot to cross the Columbia and establish a division headquarters. He convinced Keane to lay out a townsite, which was called Hammond, just east of present-day Rock Island, as a home for railroad workers and local farmers. Keane eagerly moved forward with the idea. He invested a large amount of money to build a road along Rock Island Creek to Waterville, some thirty miles northeast, and financed a few businesses at Hammond including establishing a mill he named the Hammond Flour Mill.

But Hill soon decided that the railroad bridge across the Columbia should be about a mile upriver from the townsite he had encouraged Keane to establish. With the Great Northern bringing in large numbers of workers to build the tracks and bridge a new town, dubbed Rock Island, began to develop at this new site. Keane, Arthur Gunn (1868-1917), and other land speculators constructed buildings and established businesses there. Keane opened a general store and a bank and managed a short-lived newspaper, the Rock Island Sun, from August 18, 1892 until November 1892. The Rock Island post office was established on February 10, 1892. Postmaster Charles Boyle Reed (1838-1909) operated the post office from his home.

Before the Rock Island Railroad Bridge was constructed, trains were ferried across the Columbia at Rock Island by the steamer Thomas L. Nixon, named in honor of the steamboat owner who had built it a few years earlier. The steamer earned the nickname "Train Ferry" for this work. On May 2, 1893, the bridge was completed and the first railroad tracks crossed over the Columbia River. This was the first steel bridge on the Columbia.

Wenatchee, located 7 miles east upriver from day Rock Island, was selected as the region's railroad switching yard and soon became the largest city in the area. With railroad construction completed in the area, the railroad laborers moved on and there were few jobs left in Rock Island. The town was barely a dot on the map, and little mention was made of it in the 1904 Illustrated History of the Big Bend County. Hammond, Keane's earlier townsite, soon disappeared entirely. A post office had opened there in 1902, but it closed in 1914, with the mail going instead to Malaga on the far side of the Columbia, and Hammond no longer existed. Rock Island, however, still did, and it would boom again several more times in the middle years of the twentieth century, largely due the dam constructed just downstream.

Rock Island Dam

In 1910 Keane built a half-mile-long wheat chute that carried threshed wheat from fields on the plateau above Rock Island to the railroad tracks along the river below. The innovative construction was used until 1941.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Rock Island grade school had two teachers. A Miss Meeker taught the older students and Amy S. Antles (1866-1936) taught the younger ones. Many years later a former resident who attended the school at that time recalled:

"They each had a room and a row or two of each grade. They lived in the 'teacherage,' a house beside the school. There was a 'path' for bathroom facilities behind the house and the same arrangement for the school" (Fowler).

Since at least 1918, when the idea was discussed in a Wenatchee newspaper, residents of the area had recognized that the Columbia River flowing past their growing settlements was a potential source of significant electric power generated by hydroelectric dams. The Rock Island Rapids provided a promising spot for such a dam, and in 1928 the Puget Sound Power & Light Company (Puget Power) announced plans to build a dam across the river there. While the announcement was welcomed by many, one group of local residents raised a significant concern: water rising behind the dam would flood much of Rock Island, covering its many historic petroglyphs, one of the largest such sites in Washington.

The Columbia River Archaeological Society (CRAS) had been formed in 1920 by local residents interested in collecting and preserving Native American artifacts, and much of its efforts had focused on protecting the Rock Island images from vandalism or other harm. In 1923, archaeology enthusiast and society member Harold Jesse Cundy (1892-1972) counted 350 petroglyphs on Rock Island. Cundy later documented many of the images in notes and sketches. CRAS members and local archaeologists argued strongly that the proposed dam should not be allowed to destroy the petroglyphs, and successfully persuaded Puget Power to salvage petroglyphs before they were submerged underwater by the dam construction. The company also agreed to document the site through photographs.

The company's application to build the Rock Island Dam was approved on October 16, 1929, and work got underway on January 27, 1930. The sights and sounds of the island and rapids were soon overshadowed by those of the steam shovels, jackhammers, picks, and shovels used to construct the dam's foundation. During construction, more than 600 workers labored for 3 years to meet the needs of the dam house the workers. The weekly grocery list for workers contained 300 dozen eggs, and 210 pounds of butter.

With dam construction underway, and all those workers to feed, house, and supply, nearby Rock Island naturally experienced a significant growth spurt. This led to residents deciding to incorporate Rock Island as a town of the fourth class, which took effect on December 8, 1930. The population of the newly incorporated town was estimated as 421.  

During construction, before the water began rising behind the dam, Puget Power sent Wenatchee photographer Alfred G. Simmer (1876-?) to the island many times to document the petroglyphs in their original sites. In early 1931, in keeping with its agreement with CRAS, the company removed an estimated 30 petroglyphs from the island and turned them over to the society. Simmer's photographs and most of the preserved petroglyphs became part of the collection of the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center, the successor to CRAS, with some petroglyphs held by the Chelan County Public Utility District, which took ownership of the Rock Island Dam in 1956.

By December 1931, the dam itself was largely complete, with water flowing through the 32 spillway gates in the 3,800-foot-long dam. Two generators had been installed, two more were put in place the next year, and the dam was officially completed in 1933. The Rock Island Dam was the first dam, and first hydroelectric project, built on the Columbia River. As with all dams, it had a significant impact on the environment, especially fish runs. Originally built with two fish runs, a third was added in 1936.

Through the Years

In the 1940s, a large silicon smelter was built along the Columbia River shore in the town of Rock Island just below the railroad bridge. It operated for half a century before closing, and in 2024 the long-idle plant remains one of the most prominent structures in town.

Over the years two significant expansions of the Rock Island Dam's electricity-production capacity brought additional, if short-lived, growth spurts to the nearby town. In the early 1950s, the powerhouse was expanded and six new generators were added. Then in the late 1970s and new powerhouse, with eight more generators, was constructed. On July 30, 1975, the Rock Island Railroad Bridge was registered with the National Register of Historical Places.

Although it had lost some large employers, the City of Rock Island's population continued to grow in the twenty-first century, from a little less than 900 in 2000 to an estimated 1,570 as of 2023. Many residents commute to jobs in Wenatchee or East Wenatchee, while some work at the dam, on area farms or orchards, or at small businesses in town. City leaders have looked to both becoming a technology hub and expanding tourism as options for future development.

Rock Island's small downtown features an assortment of shops, restaurants, galleries, and other attractions. The local elementary school, serving kindergarten to fourth grade, is part of the Eastmont School District. Residents and visitors take part in a wide range of outdoor activities in and around the town. For many it is a place to enjoy a slower-paced lifestyle.


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