Ellensburg loses its bid to become state capital on November 4, 1890.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 11/16/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7549
On November 4, 1890, Ellensburg loses its bid to become the capital of the newly admitted state of Washington. Despite intense boosterism early in the race and a substantial land boom, Ellensburg's chances are sidelined by the destruction of its downtown by fire and by an intense rivalry with North Yakima that splits the vote of those who favor a capital located near the center of the state.

Most Strikingly Beautiful ...

Washington Territory's first Territorial Governor, Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), chose Olympia to serve as territorial capital on November 28, 1853. Statehood presented the opportunity for citizens to cast their own votes for a state capital. North Yakima, foreseeing the upcoming statehood, tried to claim the capital by legislative action during the 1887-1888 territorial session and was defeated in the house by just one vote. Olympia had been a logical choice when population elsewhere in the territory was sparse, but by the mid-1880s both North Yakima and Ellensburg had booming populations and Northern Pacific Railroad depots that offered ease of travel and potential connection to possible future railroad lines.

The 1904 Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties quoted the editor of The Kittitas Standard, who "argued vehemently the city's claim to this honor, basing it chiefly on the healthy, central location of Ellensburg in the 'most strikingly beautiful, unsurpassedly healthy, admirably watered and immeasurably fertile, compact body of agricultural land of any extent on the North Pacific slope' " (p. 288). Ellensburg's citizens heartily agreed. Citizens of Olympia, naturally, wanted to retain their own city as capital.

Electric Lights and Water Pipes

Ellensburg boasted electric lighting, available since December 1888 when the Ellensburg Light and Power Company began operation. All of the hotels and several streets were lighted, and the Capital Hill Water Works was busily laying pipe throughout the town. 

The prospective glory of being the capital city and the perceived potential for economic growth led to a local real estate boom in the months before statehood. Kittitas Valley historian Clarita Olmstead Smith noted in The End Of The Trail that Ellensburg property fetched sums that were, for 1888-1889, spectacular:

"A lot on the corner of Pine and Fifth [sold] for $5000. Another on the corner of Fourth and Ruby went for the same price. The old Masonic property on Fourth went for $8,500. Two lots on the corner of Third and Sprague sold for $3,900, and two lots on Third sold for $4,200. A vacant lot in the business district sold for $150 a front foot, and two vacant lots costing $1000 in 1887 were sold for $5000; the next year they were resold for $8000 in February and in May a buyer offered $10,000 for them. A capitalist from Portland paid $15,000 for a vacant corner lot" (p. 243).
Smith also describes the frenzied boosterism of Ellensburg's business community:
"The business firms and newspapers were forever advertising, boldly calling Ellensburg the Capital City. None of them ever heard of modern ideas of advertising or psychology, but they knew that to repeat anything often enough and to have an idea ever in one's mind got results. Every newspaper had advertisements and editorials as the following, 'Ellensburg, it is concluded by all, will be the Capital city of the State of Washington.' This was part of an advertisement by Wallace and Hare and Smithson and was given a full page in the paper. Another by Badger, McEudes & Company reads, 'Ellensburg. The center of the Inland Empire and the future Capital of the State of Washington' " (p. 245).

A Fine Governor's Mansion

By April 1889 Brittain A. Craig (co-owner of the Capital Hill Water Works) and his brother Samuel Craig were building a prospective governor's mansion in the recently designated Capital Hill neighborhood at the corner of Third Avenue and Chestnut Street. Northwest Magazine reported that "Mr. Craig is putting up the finest brick residence on Capitol Hill in plain view of the city and when somebody asked him the other day if that was the Governor's mansion, he said it was. Whether some future governor of the state will reside there or not is an open question" (April 1889, p. 20). 

This building was three stories with a four-story attached octagonal tower, 36 x 32 feet, and made of brick. Although its tower was slightly suggestive of a castle tower, the mansion's eventual fate was probably beyond Brittain Craig's imagination: In 1930 it was remodeled as an apartment house and given a fantasy castle theme complete with a crenellated roofline and battlements.

Ellensburg's chief rivals for the capital were Olympia and North Yakima (now Yakima), although Waitsburg, Spokane Falls, Waterville, Pasco, Tacoma, and Walla Walla were all contenders. 

An Ellensburg land speculation firm called Walters and Company pledged 40 acres as a site for a state house and public grounds and put money into a planned streetcar line connecting Ellensburg's central business district and the Northern Pacific Depot with the planned Capital area and residential districts. North Yakima residents upped the ante, offering 50 acres of land overlooking the city and $10,000 to pay for moving the capital infrastructure from Olympia to North Yakima. They also placed a deed in escrow to show their good faith. 

Narrow, Icy, Worse than King County ...

Sentiment in Seattle leaned toward keeping the capital in Olympia rather than across the Cascades in either Ellensburg or North Yakima. Newspapers across the state weighed in, with North Yakima and Ellensburg papers predictably taking the fiercest positions. The North Yakima newspaper The Washington Farmer published a blistering (and untrue) anti-Ellensburg tirade:

"There is but one point besides North Yakima that is in the race, and that is Ellensburg -- which is twice as high above the sea as North Yakima, therefore it is cold and frosty. Ellensburg is in a valley so narrow it is practically a canyon, and through it sweeps the icy blasts from the snow towering mountains that make the locality one of the most disagreeable and unhealthy in the world -- There is no possibility of any branch line of road ever being built from Ellensburg to any other point for the simple fact is that the surrounding rugged mountains form impossible barriers with no signs of a pass through them. The streets of Ellensburg are narrow without a hotel, or running water, and there is not a lawn, or a plot of grass, nor a garden in the village. There are five times as many saloons as North Yakima, and the court dockets show that the criminal classes prevail to a greater degree than they do in King County" (Smith, p. 249). 

A Centralia newspaper sank so low as to claim that the name Ellensburg was not dignified enough for a capital city, adding that "no Nancyville or Susantown should be thought of for capital honors" (Smith, p. 249). The Spokane Falls Review sniffed that Centralia was on shaky ground criticizing Ellensburg for its name since Centralia was formerly known as Skookum Creek. And on it went.

The Great Ellensburg Fire

Austin Mires (1852-1936) and John Shoudy (1842-1901), both Kittitas County representatives to the Constitutional Convention, and Ellensburg mayor William Rollins Abrams (1848-1921) left Ellensburg for the state Constitutional Convention in Olympia in early July 1889. 

On the evening of July 4, 1889, Ellensburg was consumed by flames. Mayor Abrams rushed back to oversee the deluge of aid that poured into the town and to marshal Ellensburg's citizens into quick rebuilding efforts. Ellensburg's active campaign to be named capital for the most part ground to a standstill as residents turned their attention to this more pressing task.

The Votes Are Counted

On October 1, 1889, Washingtonians (males only) voted as territorial residents for the last time, approving the new state constitution, and thus paving the way for Washington's statehood.  One of the propositions on this ballot was the question of where the capital should be located.  Olympia received 25,490 votes, North Yakima 14,711, Ellensburg 12,833, Centralia 607, Yakima City (now Union Gap) 314, and Pasco 130. The ballot proposition stated that the winning city must receive a majority vote, however, necessitating a run-off. Washington voters were slated to choose between the top three finishers in the next general election.

On November 4, 1890, Washington voters spoke and Olympia was designated the state capital with 37,413 votes. Ellensburg, still busily rebuilding, received 7,722 votes, and North Yakima came in third with 6,276. On November 7, 1890 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported "Olympia's triumph is complete, for she carried nearly every county in the vote for state capital" (p. 1). 

But Olympia did not carry Kittitas County. There, the day after the election, the vote stood at Ellensburg 758, North Yakima 41, and Olympia 18.

Sources: An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties, With An Outline Of The Early History of The State Of Washington (Evansville, Indiana: Unigraphic, [1904] 1977); Cory J. Eberhart, The Buildings Of Ellensburg (Ellensburg: Ellensburg Public Library, 1976), p. 19; C. M. Barton, "Ellensburg, In Central Washington," The Northwest Magazine, April 1889; Leta May Smith, The End Of The Trail (Hicksville, NY: Exposition Press, 1976); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Governor Isaac Stevens selects Olympia as Capital of Washington Territory on November 28, 1853" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 9, 2005); David Nicandri and Derek Valley, Olympia Wins: Washington's Capital Controversies (Olympia: Washington State Capitol Museum, ca. 1980); Sessions Laws of the State of Washington Enacted by the First State Legislature Session of 1889-1890 (Olympia: O. C. White, State Printer, 1890), p. 457; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 5, 1890, p. 2; ibid, November 7, 1890, p. 1.

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