Lincoln County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 7/31/2006
  • Essay 7859
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Lincoln County, formed in 1883, is located in northeast Washington in the region historically known as Big Bend Country. The county measures 2311.2 square miles, ranking it seventh in size among Washington's 39 counties. As of 2005, Lincoln County has 10,100 residents. It is bordered to the west by Grant County, to the south by Adams County and Whitman County, to the east by Spokane County, and to the north by the Spokane River/Stevens County, Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake/Ferry County, and a small part of Okanogan County. Davenport is the county seat. Lincoln is an agricultural county, with orchards, cattle raising, and especially wheat predominating.

Lincoln County was formed out of Spokane County on November 1, 1883, and county boundaries were confirmed on November 24, 1883. Four days later, on November 28, 1883, Douglas County was formed out of Lincoln County. Lincoln County's boundaries have remained consistent since that time.

Geology and First Peoples

Lincoln County lies within the channeled scablands of the Columbia Basin, a region formed by Ice Age catastrophic floods. In general the terrain consists of flat land alternating with rolling hills. The topography becomes steeper in the north approaching foothills of the Kettle River mountain range. Small lakes connected by Lake Creek and Crab Creek dot the central and southwest portion of the county. The volcanic soil is rich in nutrients. The semi-arid climate is warm in the summer and the area receives a significant amount of its annual moisture as snow in the winter.

The land that would become Lincoln County was home to the Spokane tribe, who foraged for berries, roots, and duck eggs in wetlands surrounding the area's small lakes. Ethnologists consider the Spokane Tribe during the early period of white contact to have consisted of three bands, the Upper Spokane, Middle Spokane, and the Lower Spokane. The area that would become Lincoln County fell within the territory of the Lower Spokane. The falls at Little Falls on the Spokane River (flooded by Little Falls Dam in 1910) was an important Indian fishing place. A major Indian trail extended east to west across the future Lincoln County, passing through what is now Davenport. The springs at this location were a resting and camping place for travelers. Abundant bunch grass growing nearby provided food for horses.

Although a delegation of Spokane Indians were present at the May 1855 Walla Walla Treaty Council, they signed no treaty. The Appropriation Act of March 3, 1871, decreed that Indian reservations would no longer be established by treaty. On August 18, 1877, chiefs acting for the Lower Spokane signed an agreement ceding their lands in exchange for reservation land. Members of the Spokane Tribe eventually removed to a number of reservations, most prominently to the Spokane Reservation (established in 1881) and the Colville Reservation (the southern half of which was established in 1872 and the northern half in 1900). The Lower Spokane settled mainly on the Spokane Reservation.

Passing Through

Fur traders traversed the region en route to Spokane House in present-day Spokane County after 1810. Early missionaries Father Francois Norbert Blanchet (1795-1883) and the Rev. Modeste Demers (1809-1871), the first Catholic priests to arrive in the future state of Washington, came through the area in 1838.

Protestant missionary-explorer Rev. Samuel Parker (1779-1866) traveled through the area in 1836. Early protestant missionaries Mary Richardson Walker (1811-1897) and Elkanah Walker (1805-1877) along with Myra Fairbanks Eells (1805-1878) and Cushing Eells (1810-1893) camped near present-day Sprague in 1839. In 1853 a party of surveyors commissioned by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) moved through. Beginning in the late 1850s, miners en route to the Fraser River gold fields in British Columbia and to silver deposits on the Salmon River in the Okanogan crossed Lincoln County.

Early Non-Indian Settlement

Russell M. Bacon, a Bostonian who came to the Crab Creek area of the future Lincoln County by way of the Colville Valley, and Patrick Cumasky, who homesteaded at what would become Sprague in 1869, were among the region's first permanent settlers. On April 10, 1873, Bacon was appointed Crab Creek postmaster, the first postmaster in what would become Lincoln County. Like Bacon, most early settlers built homes in the creek bottom near water rather than on the open scrub-steppe region that comprised most of the remaining land. As in neighboring counties, ranching was the earliest Lincoln County industry, flourishing through the 1870s. The region's entire cattle industry was destroyed by the bitter winter of 1880-1881.

The industry slowly rebounded throughout the 1880s but was again devastated by another frigid winter in 1889-1890 that destroyed 90 percent of the area's cattle. Although wheat production became Lincoln County's dominant industry, the region maintained a ranching industry. As of 2006 Lincoln County has about 30,000 head of cattle.

Fort Spokane

The United States government established a military reservation called Camp Spokane at the confluence of the Spokane and Columbia rivers in Lincoln County in 1880. In January 1882 it was renamed Fort Spokane. The military reservation eventually included 45 buildings housing six companies. The military abandoned Fort Spokane in 1898 when troops stationed there were deployed to fight in the Spanish American War.

From 1898 to 1929, the Colville branch of the Office of Indian Affairs was headquartered in the former Fort Spokane buildings and from 1900 to 1908 the property housed an Indian boarding school. Students were forced to speak only English and were not allowed to wear traditional clothing or to practice their own religion. Attendance at the school was presented to parents on the Colville and Spokane reservations as being mandatory, but after the first few years an increasing number of families refused to send their children to the school.

Day schools opened on the reservations in 1906, further eroding the student base at the Fort Spokane Indian Boarding School. The school closed in 1908 and in 1909 school facilities were converted into a tuberculosis sanatorium to serve Indian children and adults from as far away as Oregon and Montana. The sanatorium closed in 1912. In 1960 the grounds, by that time fallen into disrepair, were transferred to the National Park Service. Several of the original buildings remain, along with an interpretive museum.

Fruit, Cattle, and Wheat

The county's first fruit-producing region was the Orchard Valley located in the sandy bottomlands along the Columbia River near the mouth of Hawk Creek. By 1909 fruit farmers in the Orchard Valley town of Peach were producing apples, pears, peaches, apricots, pears, plums, strawberries, and cherries. This area was inundated in 1939 when Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake rose behind Grand Coulee Dam.

Early settlers, many of whom had grown wheat in other places, planted the crop beginning in the early 1880s. Lincoln County is now (2006) the second highest wheat-producing county in the state after Whitman County and also the second-highest barley-producing county, again after Whitman County. Grass seed, oats, and potatoes are also major crops.

Rivers and Dams

The Spokane River flows east to west along the northeastern border of Lincoln County. In 1910 the Washington Water Power Company built the Little Falls Dam on the Spokane River north of Reardan. In 1915 the Washington Water Power Company completed the Long Lake Dam and power plant on the Spokane River near the Lincoln/Spokane county line. The power plant boasted the world's largest turbines and highest spillway to date (170 feet). Salmon runs on the upper Spokane River were reduced as a result of the construction of Little Falls Dam and eliminated by the Long Lake Dam, which was constructed without a fish ladder.

The presence of excessive phosphorus pollution from wastewater discharge prompted the American Rivers nonprofit conservation organization to list the Spokane River as one of the country's most endangered rivers in 2004. In 2005 the Washington Department of Ecology pledged to reduce phosphorus levels in the Spokane River by half over the next 20 years.

Grand Coulee Dam is just beyond the far northwest border of Lincoln County on the Columbia River. Roosevelt Lake backs up Grand Coulee Dam and extends across the entire northwestern half of Lincoln County's border. When Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1939, the towns of Peach and Lincoln in Orchard Valley, the county's first fruit growing region, were flooded under the rising waters of Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake. Lincoln residents relocated their town and lumber mill at higher elevation, but Peach settlers, their orchards and homes inundated, dispersed.

For rural Lincoln County residents, Grand Coulee Dam turned on the lights. Although Davenport and several other towns received electrical power as early as 1903 from the Big Bend Light Company and after 1915 the Washington Water Power Company, most rural residents did not have access to electricity until 1941 when Lincoln Electric Cooperative (organized in October 1939) signed an agreement with the Bonneville Power Administration to receive power from Grand Coulee Dam. By December 1942, 568 consumers were receiving power over 630 miles of Lincoln Electric distribution line.

Rails and Roads

The Northern Pacific Railroad and Great Northern Railway literally conjured up much of Lincoln County's settlement, laying rails and establishing rail stops on the flat scrub-steppe terrain, building depots named for various railroad officials, and then sending railroad promotional materials as far away as Eastern Europe to summon up farming families who bought or homesteaded the land. From the nucleus of the railroad depot these towns sprouted churches, schools, libraries, granges, fraternal organizations, and other icons of community that connected families who labored nearby, breaking sod, planting wheat, hoping for rain.

Life in early Lincoln County was not easy. Almost without exception these towns each experienced devastating fires (sometimes more than once). If a town was near a creek or the Columbia River, that town inevitably flooded during the spring, following a very snowy winter, and the floods sometimes inundated local homes and businesses.

In 1881 the Northern Pacific Railroad laid track through Sprague as part of a spur line between Sand Point, Idaho, and Ainsworth. The Northern Pacific established a Division Headquarters in the town. Another Northern Pacific spur (in this region using the name Central Washington Railroad) through Reardan, Davenport, Creston, Wilbur, and Almira and on to Coulee City was completed in late 1888. Initially these lines were used to transport cattle to eastern markets. As farming began to eclipse ranching in Lincoln County, they were used increasingly to transport grain. The Northern Pacific also carried new settlers into the county.

The Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad operated a line from Spokane Falls through a station near Davenport in 1888 and directly through Davenport beginning in 1889. The Great Northern Railway completed the Lincoln County portion of its line west from Spokane through Edwall, Harrington, and Odessa in 1892.

As rail travel ebbed in the wake of the automobile, many towns found themselves cut off from easy tourism when new highways by-passed Main Street. Rail travel had meant connection to the wider world beyond Lincoln County, and the lack of it meant increasing isolation for the citizens of many small towns in the sparsely settled Big Bend region.

U.S. Highway 2 is Lincoln County's major east-west thoroughfare, and state highways 21, 25, 28, and 231 are the major north-south routes. Interstate 90 cuts across the far southeastern corner of the county through Sprague.


Aloysius Harry Harker, the first permanent non-Indian settler, arrived in what would become Davenport in 1880, shortly followed by John and Emma Nicholls. The settlement was known as Cottonwood Springs. In 1883 John C. Davenport founded his eponymous town nearby, but this town was destroyed by fire in 1884. Businesses from burned-out Davenport relocated to Cottonwood Springs, which then took the name Davenport. The first train on the Washington Central branch of the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Davenport on February 14, 1889.

Davenport suffered a severe fire on September 8, 1898, and another on June 20, 1903. Both times the town was quickly rebuilt. Melting snow pack on nearby fields caused Cottonwood Creek to overflow its banks and flood the town, most notably in 1910, 1930, and 1950.

During the 1930s, construction of Grand Coulee Dam swelled Davenport's population, attracting both laborers and tourists.

With 1,730 residents as of 2000, Davenport is Lincoln County's largest town.


The settlement that would become Sprague began as a sheep camp in the 1870s. The town was originally called Hoodooville after early settler William Burrows, also known as Hoodoo Billy. Sprague served as the construction headquarters for the Northern Pacific Railroad, which established a regional repair center at this location in 1880 and designated Sprague a major division point. The town was named after John W. Sprague, a general superintendent of the Northern Pacific. The town plat was filed on December 27, 1880.

Sprague boomed during the early 1880s, boasting 13 saloons and nearly 1,800 residents. The town was incorporated on November 28, 1883. Beginning in 1885 it was the main sheep-shearing ground for the region and wool sheared here was shipped to the East Coast via the Northern Pacific.

A major fire on August 3, 1895, destroyed virtually all the Northern Pacific's property. The Northern Pacific opted not to rebuild the railroad roundhouse at Sprague, instead moving the terminus to Spokane. This dealt a major blow to Sprague's economy.

In 1959 the United States Air Force located an Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile site outside Sprague, part of a system of Cold War defense missiles located within a 200-mile radius of Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane County. The Air Force dismantled the Sprague site in 1967. Other Atlas missile sites in Lincoln County were constructed at Davenport, Reardan, Lamona, and Wilbur. Missiles were stored in underground reinforced-concrete structures. All these sites had been dismantled by the late 1960s.


Harrington is named for W. P. Harrington, an early land speculator. In 1882 the Harrington, Furth, and Robinson Company of Colusa, California, (later called the California Land and Stock Company) purchased 1,500 acres on the site of future Harrington. The townsite plat was filed on May 15, 1883. Homesteaders took up land around the small townsite, but it was sparsely populated until 1892 when the Great Northern Railway built a line through the town and established a station.

The town boomed briefly during rail construction but development dropped off sharply when the rail crews (and the dance halls, saloons, and gambling establishments that serviced them) moved on. Harrington's main function was to serve the Land and Cattle Company and the farmers who worked its eventual 12,000 acres of wheat. Harrington station became a major shipping point for this wheat. The Harrington Milling Company built a large flour mill in town in 1900. By 1901 the much larger Portland Milling Company had purchased the facility and the mill was producing 325 barrels of flour per day.

Harrington was incorporated on April 4, 1902.

Gordon, Throop, and Company began producing farm equipment in Harrington in 1905. In 1910 the company, by then called Dunning and Erich, began producing a combine called the Harrington Harvester. The factory produced farm machinery for farmers throughout the region and it was a boon to local farmers. But on September 8, 1923, fire destroyed the factory, including all of foundry patterns.


Wilbur is named for Samuel Wilbur Condon (born Condit), one of the future Lincoln County's earliest settlers. Better known to his contemporaries as Wild Goose Bill, Condon's nickname resulted from an oft-told and perhaps apocryphal incident in which he mistook a flock of tame geese for wild geese and shot several.

Condon started a ferry service across the Columbia River in 1885 and platted the town in April 1889. The arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad later that year increased demand for property. By 1891 Wilbur had a flour mill and shipped the product as far away as China. Wilbur suffered severe fires on October 4, 1891, and again on July 5, 1901. Both times, the town rebuilt. Ongoing employment opportunities at Grand Coulee Dam, both during construction and subsequently, greatly benefited Wilbur.


The earliest white settler to what would become Odessa was John Enos Lavare, a cattle rancher from Portugal. Another sheep rancher, W. L. Smith, began ranging his herds here in 1884. Russian German wheat farmer Jacob Schieve arrived in 1888. Officials of the Great Northern Railway named Odessa for the Black Sea port town of the same name in southwestern Russia, a calculated attempt to attract more Russian-German (Volga German) wheat farming immigrants to buy up railroad lands, grow wheat, and ship their wheat by rail. Although Odessa was at the time nothing more than a painted sign on the railroad siding, the plan worked. Farmer George Finney platted a town site in 1899. More Volga German farmers arrived, most between 1900 and 1905. By 1902 the Odessa Mill, a subsidiary of the Portland Flouring Mill Company, was churning out white, graham, and whole-wheat flour.

Odessa's population declined by nearly one-fourth during the 1920s and continued to slowly ebb through the 1940s when many young people left town to serve in the military or work in defense plants during World War II. The town rebounded in the 1950s and 1960s as young families returned. By the late 1960s, however, many small businesses had closed as Odessa residents commuted to Moses Lake and Spokane to work and shop.

As recently as the 1950s, German was spoken as commonly as English in Odessa, and German heritage is still honored in the town. Since 1971 Odessa has celebrated an annual Deutsches Fest, which draws more than 25,000 visitors.


Almira is named for Almira Davis, who with her husband, Charles C. Davis, first settled the area and built the first store. George K. Reed and James Odgers platted the town in 1887. Reed and Odgers also platted Hartline and Coulee City. The arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1889 sparked rapid development.

In 1933 the Federal Bureau of Reclamation chose Almira as its headquarters during the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. Shuttle service between Almira and Grand Coulee continued for the duration of the project. After the dam was completed, Almira's population declined. Wheat farming and wheat storage are the principal activities today.

Lincoln County Today

Since the 1970s, the number of farms in Lincoln County has declined, although farm acreage has held steady. Fewer family-owned farms has meant the waning of many smaller communities. Many Lincoln County residents commute to Spokane for work, further fragmenting the fabric of small-town life that so exemplified Lincoln County's early decades. As of 1998 only 2.5 percent of Lincoln County residents were minorities, giving Lincoln one of the lowest percentages of minorities of any Washington county.

Wheat is Lincoln County's dominant crop and because it requires significantly less labor to produce than fruit or vegetable crops, it provides steady employment without much seasonal variation in employment rates. This factor explains Lincoln County's historically steady low unemployment rate (between 2.2 and 5.2 percent) as compared to other predominantly agricultural counties. Since the early 1980s non-agricultural employment has grown steadily. Lincoln County still has a substantial beef cattle industry.

Government (federal, state, and local) is the largest employer providing in 2004 27.12 percent of all jobs, most in K-12 education. Combined wholesale and retail trade provided 16.9 percent of Lincoln County jobs in 2004, followed by health care and social assistance (14.11 percent), and agriculture (9.68 percent).


An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country Embracing Lincoln, Douglas, Adams, and Franklin Counties State of Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishers, 1904); Lincoln County: A Lasting Legacy ed. by Donald E. Walter (Davenport: Lincoln County Centennial Committee, 1988); "Lincoln County Profile," Workforce Explorer Washington website accessed July 8, 2006 (; "Lincoln County Profile," Washington 2005 Data Bank website accessed July 10, 2006 (; United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service website accessed July 10, 2006 (; "History," Lincoln County Washington website accessed July 10, 2006 (; Richard F. Steele, The Story of Lincoln County Washington 1909 (Spokane: Lincoln County Commission, 1909); "When Rivers Ran Free," Lake Roosevelt Administrative History, National Park Service website accessed July 12, 2006 (; "Fort Spokane," National Park Service website accessed July 12, 2006 (; Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, The Spokane Indians Children of the Sun (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990); Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, Building Washington (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1998), p. 277; "America's Most Endangered Rivers," American Rivers website accessed July 17, 2006 (; Atlas ICBM History website accessed July 19, 2006 (; "Assessment of Total Dissolved Gas In The Spokane River at Upriver and Little Falls Dam," p. 10, Washington State Department of Ecology website accessed July 20, 2006 ( See also David L. Chapman, “Lincoln County Courthouse: Fire and Fury over the County Seat,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring 2004), 36-40.

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