Ellensburg -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 12/23/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7554
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Ellensburg, the county seat of Kittitas County, is located three miles from the confluence of the Yakima River and Wilson Creek near the geographic center of Washington. The site was a gathering place for the Kittitas band of the Yakama Indians and other Columbia plateau tribes. In 1871 John Shoudy and Mary Ellen Stewart Shoudy founded the town and in 1875 they platted the first streets. Ellensburg was incorporated in 1884. The Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in 1886, and the town prospered, becoming a center for banking and commerce and a social hub for farming and ranching families in the Kittitas Valley. Prosperity enabled Ellensburg to quickly rebuild after the fire of July 4, 1889. Washington State Normal School (now Central Washington University), chartered in 1891, became a major employer. On July 1, 1977, the downtown area became a National Historic District, and provides an important example of Western pioneer architecture. Each Labor Day weekend, the annual Kittitas County Fair and Ellensburg Rodeo draw world-class rodeo competitors and visitors from around the region.

Early Days

Manastash Creek and the Yakima River come together in the Kittitas Valley. The surrounding land was important to tribal peoples who met there to harvest camas roots and kous (sweet onion), graze and race their horses, settle disputes, forge family ties, feast, and play games.

The first non-Indian to establish a home at what would become Ellensburg was Father Charles Pandosy (1824-1891), an Oblate Missionary of Mary Immaculate and one of the first two priests to be ordained in the future state of Washington. Father Pandosy built a small crude structure to house a mission he called Immaculate Conception on Manastash Creek on the outskirts of the future site of Ellensburg in July 1848. 

He served at this mission until September 1849, attempting with limited success to convert the Kittitas and Yakama Indians to Christianity.  The Immaculate Conception mission probably deteriorated naturally, although some accounts state that United States soldiers burned it down during the Yakima Indian Wars of 1855-1856 and 1859.  Soldiers burned another Oblate mission where Pandosy served, the St. Joseph Mission on the Ahtanum near present-day Union Gap.  The soldiers unjustly believed that Father Pandosy had supplied the Indians with gunpowder.

Beginning in 1859, cattleman Ben Snipes and his wranglers drove cattle through the Kittitas Valley and past the future site of Ellensburg toward gold fields on the Fraser River in Canada.  Other cattle drives passed through the future townsite bound for the Caribou Mines in British Columbia and later for the Seattle and Tacoma markets.  The area's abundant water and bunch grass made it a convenient place for cowboys to rest their herds before crossing the Cascade Mountains. 

In 1867 William Wilson built a small cabin on a creek that became known as Wilson Creek.  W. D. Lyman's 1919 History of the Yakima Valley Washington called Wilson "hardly a real settler, certainly not a builder in any true sense.  He seems to have been simply a renegade, consorting with the Indians and finally losing his life in connection with too close an attachment to some other man's horses" (Vol. 1, p. 643). 

In 1870 cowboy and future state senator Andrew Jackson Splawn (1845-1917) and Ben Burch hired Martin Davern to haul Wilson's cabin to a site that is now the middle of E 3rd Avenue between N Main Street and N Water Street and used it to house the first store in the Kittitas Valley.  Splawn's friend Jack Gillispie christened the tiny business "Robber's Roost."

The Shoudys Arrive

In 1871 John and Mary Ellen Shoudy arrived in the Kittitas Valley from Seattle.  John Shoudy's sister Hannah was married to Seattle banker Dexter Horton and both Shoudy and Horton were among a group of Seattle citizens attempting to establish a wagon route over the Cascade Mountains.  Shoudy purchased the Robber's Roost stock of goods from Splawn.  As Splawn explains in Ka-mi-akin, "Afterwards I made him (Shoudy) a present of my squatter's right of 160 acres of land" (p. 306).  Shoudy built a two-story frame building to house his store, probably living with his young family in the tiny Robber's Roost cabin.  In 1872 Jacob Becker built a blacksmith shop near the store.  These two businesses and about six residences comprised the town for the first several years. 

In 1875 John Shoudy platted the streets of the town he named Ellensburgh in honor of Mary Ellen.  In 1894 the United States Post Office dropped the final "h" and the town became Ellensburg.  The Shoudy plat was recorded in the name of John A. and Mary Ellen Shoudy on July 20, 1875.  By 1878 Ellensburg had its first permanent physician, Dr. Middleton Amen, and its first saloon, J. W. Jewett's.  William O. Ames taught the first session of public school in Ellensburg during the winter of 1881-1882. 

Town Building

The fledgling town had location in its favor.  Ellensburg soon became the hub of trails, then roads, and finally highways leading over Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle, to the Yakima Valley, to Vantage and points east, and over Colockum Pass to the Okanogan. 

The town's initial growth was slow, but beginning in 1883 that growth accelerated.  The First National Bank of Ellensburg and the Ellensburg Hook and Ladder Company Number 1 were both organized in 1883 and on November 24, 1883, the County of Kittitas was established and Ellensburg was designated the county seat.

On January 1, 1884, the territorial act ratifying Ellensburg's incorporation came into effect.  The legislative assembly of Washington Territory enacted a second Charter of Incorporation on January 29, 1886, and following this the city government was formed.  On February 26, 1886, Ellensburg held its first city elections.  Austin Mires (1852-1936) was elected mayor. On November 11, 1889 Washington became a state.  Ellensburg requested re-incorporation under the new state laws on January 24, 1893.

Late in 1884, General C. B. Lamborn of the Northern Pacific Railroad chose Ellensburg as a future depot location.  John Shoudy and a number of other settlers gave the Northern Pacific land in exchange for the Northern Pacific's agreement to build this depot. The depot was completed in 1886.  The Ellensburg Academy, a private Presbyterian school, opened September 10, 1884. In February 1887, the county courthouse building was completed.  By 1889 Ellensburg's population topped 2,500 and 29 additional plats had been filed, 20 of these in 1888 and 1889 alone.  Churches and fraternal organizations began to flourish. In April 1889 The Northwest Magazine (published by the Northern Pacific Railroad and distributed onboard) devoted 13 pages to an article extolling Ellensburg's charms. 

The Ellensburg Fire

On the evening of July 4, 1889, a devastating fire swept through Ellensburg.  The fire was thought to have begun in J. S. Anthony's grocery store on the east side of Main Street between 4th and 5th avenues.  W. D. Lyman describes the scene:

"Forthwith the people began the unequal battle, but as a furious gale was blowing at the time and water was scarce, the fight was hopeless from the start.  The store melted like wax.  The adjoining buildings, all frame structures and dry as tinder, soon caught and shared a similar fate.  Nothing withstood the progress of the flames ... . By the time the fire had reached the brick and stone buildings, it was hot enough to consume them like so much straw ... all the saloons on the north side of Fourth above the keg house crumbled before it like egg shells" (History of the Yakima Valley Washington, Vol. 1, p. 691). 

The flames consumed as many as 200 houses and 10 brick blocks, but no lives were lost.  On July 6, citizens rallied in the streets amidst the smoldering ruins and vowed to rebuild their city.  Lyman states:

"By the 10th, carpenters, bricklayers, graders, and laborers were busy in the burnt district clearing away the debris and laying the foundation for new blocks.  Within ten days after the fire, work on either the plans or the actual construction of forty-three business blocks, averaging in cost $12,000 each, was under way, and the resurrection of Ellensburg had fairly begun" (p. 693).

In the election held November 4, 1890, Ellensburg residents received another blow: The town had not been voted to house the state capital.  Ellensburg had been in the running along with North Yakima and the Territorial Capital and 1890 election victor, Olympia.

Hard Times

The town was rebuilt and the new stores stocked, but economic conditions in Ellensburg began to slip.  Business was bad in 1890 and a number of firms closed their doors. 

The years 1891 and 1892 were no better.  In 1893 the worldwide financial panic brought conditions in Ellensburg even lower.  An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties, published in 1904, states "Ellensburg was especially ill prepared for the hard times and suffered perhaps more than most other towns in the state ... progress of any kind was out of the question" (p. 292).  In the midst of this bad time, Ellensburg's Ben Snipes Bank failed and none of the claimants received more than 10 percent of the money owed them.

Building Infrastructure

By the late 1890s, the situation had improved somewhat.  In 1890 the City acquired an early lighting system developed by John Shoudy and began improvements on it, giving Ellensburg a municipal power supply.  The Ellensburg Light Department was Washington's first municipally owned and operated lighting system. In 1926 Ellensburg contracted with Puget Sound Power and Light for additional power.  In 1941 the Bonneville Power Administration began supplying Ellensburg with power, by 1951 replacing the city-owned generator.

The privately owned Ellensburg Water Company began operation in 1885 and in 1910 citizens voted to create a municipal water system.  On December 19, 1925, the United State Secretary of the Interior signed a contract to build an irrigation system for the Kittitas Valley.  This project, which involved diverting Yakima River water just above the town of Easton, was called the Kittitas Division of the Yakima Project and supplemented existing canals in the area.  Headquarters for the project were in Ellensburg.  As of 2005, the Kittitas Reclamation District, Bull Ditch, Cascade Irrigation District, and Ellensburg Water Company all supply water to Ellensburg and the surrounding area. 

The first telephone service in Ellensburg arrived circa 1890 and was supplied by the Sunset Telephone and Telegraph Company, part of the Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company.  In 1908 it became the Ellensburg Telephone Company and as of 2005 still provides service to Ellensburg, Selah, Thorp, Kittitas, Vantage, and Lauderdale.

Higher Education

On March 28, 1890, Washington Governor Elisha Ferry (1825-1895) signed a bill providing for the establishment of the Washington State Normal School in Ellensburg.  (Normal schools were colleges that trained teachers.)  The school opened its doors in temporary headquarters at the Washington Public School on September 6, 1891, and in 1894 constructed its first building, Barge Hall.  In 1937, the name of the institution was changed to Central Washington College of Education, and in 1961 to Central Washington State College.  In 1977 it became Central Washington University.  Central Washington University is a major employer in Ellensburg.

During World War II students at Central Washington College of Education (now Central Washington University) helped harvest fruit during war related labor shortages.  Samuel R. Mohler's The First 75 Years: A History of Central Washington State College states:

"Because of the labor shortage in the apple orchards of the region in the fall of 1942, students voted by an overwhelming majority to close school for three days.  Of 540 students and faculty, 375 volunteered for the 'battle of the orchards' and were sent where most needed, principally to the areas near Chelan, Yakima, Okanogan, and Ellensburg.  Altogether they picked nearly 36,000 boxes of apples worth almost $60,000, most of which would otherwise have been lost, since cold weather came early that year.  The next year college classes began a week early so that the apple harvest holiday would not take school time" (p. 194). 

During World War II, Army Air Force cadets training on campus swelled Ellensburg's population.  Beginning in early 1943, cadets underwent a five-month course of instruction administered by the Army Air Force.  The cadets were housed in Kamola Hall, displacing women students who usually lived there into the men's dormitory across the street and the male students to the Antlers and Webster hotels in downtown Ellensburg.  During the course of the war, 1,879 cadets trained in Ellensburg.

Community Life

Ellensburg was Town for the farmers and ranchers in the surrounding Kittitas Valley, a place to re-supply, get news, and socialize.  The surrounding area became known for its excellent dairy herds, cattle ranches, fruit production, and for high quality Timothy hay.

Churches, schools, and many fraternal organizations created a mesh of community life of which Ellensburg was the hub.  In addition to such organizations as the Masons, Elks, Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Ellensburg boasted the Straight Arrow Pioneer Society, Galina Club, Arvida Club, Friday Club, and Mother's Club, to name a few.

In 1977, Ellensburg hosted the Washington State Conference for Women, part of the state's participation in International Women's Year.  Some 4,000 women from across Washington met on campus at Central Washington University to assess state barriers to women's equality and elect delegates to represent the state at a subsequent national meeting in Houston.  Ten years later another conference in Ellensburg revisited the first conference's goals and assessed how successfully they had been achieved.

Chimps and Agates

In August 1980, Roger and Deborah Fouts brought chimpanzee Washoe and other chimpanzees that comprise her family to Central Washington State University.  On May 7, 1993 Washoe and her family were moved into the newly created 7,000-square foot Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute on the grounds of the University.  The chimpanzees communicate with each other and with their human companions in American Sign Language.  World-class noninvasive research performed at the Institute includes developing and evaluating enrichment methods for Washoe's family and studying the animal's gestural dialects and American Sign Language communications.

Ellensburg lends its name to an unusual type of blue agate.  Ellensburg Blue agates range in color from light sky blue to almost purple royal blue.  Highly sought after, Ellensburg Blue agates are unique to the northwest corner of the lower Kittitas Valley.

Fair and Rodeo

Beginning in 1885, the Kittitas County Fair was held sporadically in various locations on the outskirts of Ellensburg.  After successful fairs in 1921 and 1922, Ellensburg civic leaders decided that the event should have a permanent home.  Residents throughout the Kittitas Valley gathered on June 14 and 15, 1923, to clear brush and grade land in the area below and just north and west of Craig's Hill.  

The first official Ellensburg Rodeo was held September 13 to 15, 1923, in conjunction with the Kittitas County Fair. Although smaller-scale rodeos, including bucking contests, cattle handling, and other displays of ranch skills, had been held periodically in the Kittitas Valley, this was the first official rodeo event. Initially intended simply to draw extra crowds to the fair, the first Ellensburg Rodeo drew sell-out crowds and quickly established itself as a major event. 

After more than 75 years, the Ellensburg Rodeo now draws nearly 35,000 fans and world-class competitors to town each year over Labor Day weekend.  The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association lists the Ellensburg Rodeo as one of the top 25 paying rodeos in the country. 

Historic Place

On July 1, 1977, the 200 acres encompassing downtown Ellensburg were added to the National Register of Historic Places.  The First Railroad Historic District and the Kittitas County Fair and Rodeo Grounds joined the National Register of Historic Places respectively on May 8, 1987 and January 8, 1999.

As of 2000 Ellensburg's population numbered 15,414, nearly half of the population of Kittitas County. 


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); Kittitas Frontiersmen, ed. by Earl T. Glauert and Merle H. Kunz (Ellensburg, WA: Ellensburg Public Library, 1976), p. 120-131; A History of Kittitas County, Washington, 1989 (Ellensburg: The Kittitas County Centennial Committee, 1989); W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley Washington Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919); Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington: A History of Washington State Public Works (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1998); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "John Alden Shoudy and Mary Ellen Shoudy purchase Robber's Roost Trading Post in 1872" (by Paula Becker), "Andrew Jackson Splawn and Ben Burch open a trading post, 'Robber's Roost,' on the site of the future Ellensburg in 1870" (by Paula Becker), "Kittitas County -- Thumbnail History" (by Paula Becker), "Ellensburg is incorporated on January 1, 1884" (by Paula Becker), and "Ellensburg Fire Destroys 200 homes and 10 business blocks on July 4, 1889" (by Paula Becker), "Downtown Ellensburg is added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 1, 1977" (by Paula Becker), and "Ellensburg holds its first rodeo on September 13, 1923" (by Paula Becker), http://www.historylink.org (accessed November 5, 2005); A. J. Splawn, Ka-mi-akin: The Last Hero Of The Yakimas (Portland: Bindords & Mort, [1917] 1944); Samuel R. Mohler, The First 75 Years: A History of Central Washington State College (Ellensburg: Central Washington State College, 1967); "Welcome! 2005 Directory" (Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce, 2005); "The Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute Frequently Asked Questions," Central Washington State University website accessed November 14, 2005 (http://www.cwu.edu/~cwuchci/faq.html); Roger Fouts with Stephen Tukel Mills, Next of Kin (New York: Quill, 2003); C. M. Barton, "Ellensburg, In Central Washington," The Northwest Magazine, April 1889; John Ludtka, The Tradition Lives: A 75 Year History of the Ellensburg Rodeo (Ellensburg: Ellensburg Rodeo Association, 1997); Ellensburg Telephone Company website accessed November 14, 2005 (http://www.elltel.com/company%20info.htm); Information Concerning the Kittitas Division of the Yakima Project, Washington (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, United States Government Printing Office, 1929).

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