Colville -- Thumbnail History

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 1/09/2010
  • Essay 9266
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Colville, county seat of Stevens County some 65 miles north of Spokane and 45 miles south of the Canadian border, was incorporated in 1890 but founded much earlier. It traces its origin to Pinkney City just over three miles to the northeast. Beginning in 1859 this frontier town had sprung up adjacent to military Fort Colville to supply the needs of the fort and surrounding countryside. It was named for Captain (later Major) Pinkney Lugenbeel (sometimes spelled Lougenbeel) (1819-1886), the first commander at the fort. The homesteaders in the fertile Colville River Valley subsisted by raising cattle and horses, cultivating wheat and other crops, logging, and, during slack times, freighting on the Colville Road linking Fort Colville with Fort Walla Walla some 200 miles south. With the closure of Fort Colville in 1882, people and businesses relocated to establish Colville, named for the abandoned fort. Colville’s celebration of its centennial in 1959 indicates that the city dates its origin from the founding of Pinkney City. By that reckoning, it is the second oldest Washington town east of the Cascades, surpassed only by Walla Walla. Surrounded by prime agricultural and timber land and close to lucrative mines, Colville prospered and grew.

Miners, Indians, and the Military

Military Fort Colville had been established largely in the context of the Indian wars following the Walla Walla Council and Treaty of 1855, as well as the deadly encounters between Indians and the miners who flooded into the Colville region after four French Canadian former Hudson’s Bay Company employees discovered gold near the fur trading Fort Colvile (HBC spelling) near present Kettle Falls. Upon hearing the news, prospectors set forth in good faith, assuming, because the treaties had just been concluded, that all of Washington Territory except the reservations was now open to settlement. Not surprisingly, many Indians, especially the Colvilles and others who had not been part of the treaty, did not see matters that way.

The movement of settlers into Eastern Washington was not considered safe until the 1858 campaigns of Colonel George Wright defeated Indians in the region. Indian-white relations in the area proved to be relatively peaceful during the subsequent period of major settlement, as Pinkney City (1859) and then Colville developed. Some Indians of the area combined traditional native ways with the newcomers' agriculture. Then upon establishment of the Colville Reservation in 1872, most Indians were resettled on the reservation, which initially included the beautiful and fertile Colville Valley, part of their traditional lands. Objections from settlers soon led to the removal of that portion of the reservation.

An American Melting Pot

Around 1859 a post office to serve the fort and surrounding area was established at Pinkney City. Before long Pinkney City, which had become the county seat, was renamed Fort Colville so that the name of the county seat and post office would be the same. The residents of Pinkney City/Fort Colville and the surrounding area were freighters and merchants supplying the fort, homesteaders, former employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Colvile, or soldiers who had completed their tour of duty at military Fort Colville.

Not long after the fort was disbanded in 1882, Pinkney City began to decline, with people, businesses, and even buildings gradually moving to the new town of Colville. Charles H. Montgomery (1832-1908) was post trader and postmaster for Fort Colville, with his store located at Pinkney City. He was typical of those who moved an entire business to the new location. Not only Pinkney City but also much of the fort was dismantled for this purpose. Even building materials intended for the new Fort Spokane somehow disappeared during the process.

Perhaps more than most frontier towns, Colville exemplified the American melting pot. The man considered the “Father of Colville” was John U. Hofstetter (1829-1906), a Swiss immigrant who had been a soldier at the fort, who as a civilian had later engaged in freighting, and who eventually took out a homestead. In frontier days, he was best known for the brewery he established in 1874 on land that became part of Colville. In fact the presence of his brewery may have helped to determine the location of the new town.  

In 1883 the county records were moved from Pinkney City/Fort Colville into a building Hofstetter provided and he became the city's first mayor. He and his wife continued to play an important role in the developing town, where they were known for lodging and feeding strangers and prospective settlers. The first courthouse in the new Colville was a wooden structure built in 1886. In 1898, it was replaced with a handsome brick building that was torn down in 1939 to build the present even more imposing courthouse designed by Gustav A. Pehrson (d. 1968), one of the foremost architects of Spokane.

Many who settled or did business in Colville were immigrants from Ireland, such as James Monaghan (1839-1916) of County Monaghan, a freighter, merchant, and rancher who would go on to become one of Spokane’s most prominent business and civic leaders, influential in the development of Northeastern Washington. But he got his start freighting between Fort Walla Walla and Fort Colville, then operated stores or trading posts at Chewelah, Colville, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Monaghan assisted his sister and brother-in-law, Rosanna and Thomas Graham (1819-1883), to emigrate from County Monaghan to Colville. A child of that family, Patrick H. Graham (1874-1948), became a student in the first class at Gonzaga University and was later a county commissioner and representative to the State Legislature. His children and grandchildren have contributed enormously to Colville and Stevens County. Charles T. Graham (1907-1983) was for years the owner/publisher of the Colville Statesman-Examiner, a position carried on by his son Patrick J. Graham (b. 1930). Perhaps Colville’s most colorful Irish immigrant (born in England to Irish parents) was saloon keeper James “Jimmie” Durkin (1859-1934), later to become legendary in Spokane.

Quite a few other prominent early Colville settlers were immigrants from Germany, including several families of Jewish merchants. The Marcus Oppenheimer (1834-1901), Louis Strauss (b. 1887), David Barman (d. 1912) and Lazarus Dannheiser (b. 1870), and Sigmund Dilsheimer (b. 1874) families contributed greatly to the economic and civic development of the area. Louis Strauss was for years one of Colville’s leading merchants. When his family emigrated from Germany to Colville in 1902, Strauss began working for his uncle, David Barman, at the Barman Department Store, which Strauss acquired in a partnership with Dilsheimer and Dannheiser in 1909. The store continued under the name Barman and was in business for 37 years. Of David Barman, newspaperman J. C. (James Corneal) Harrigan (1878-1969) said: “He never wavered from the Jewish faith, but he was ever considerate of the beliefs of others, and he was always ready to give money and to lend words of encouragement to religious developments in Colville” (Harrigan, 160). Three of Louis Strauss’s brothers, all of whom grew up in Colville, became distinguished physicians in Chicago.

A number of the farmers in the Colville Valley were French Canadian or Scottish Hudson’s Bay retirees, some with Indian or mixed-blood wives. Others were American-born settlers or homesteaders. With the exception of Chinese prospectors, who were discriminated against throughout the West, the mixture of immigrants and native-born Americans of various religions lived and worked together harmoniously during the formative years of Colville.

The Making of a Town

Colville was platted on February 28, 1883 (some sources say May 20 or 30), and briefly bore the name of Belmont. Thomas Graham (1868-1946), son of the Thomas Graham who brought his family to Colville, relates the circumstances:

“During the month of January, 1883, two individuals drifted into the Hofstetter home, giving their names as J. W. Still [of Cheney] and W. F. Hooker. They claimed to be representing Perry Belmont, a New York capitalist, who was anxious to build several towns in the northwest. [Another source gives his name as August Belmont.] In looking over the country in his behalf, they believed that upon their recommendation he would build up a large town at that point. Of course, one of the inducements was an interest with the landowners in the proposed town site. After peddling the necessary amount of hot air, they finally succeeded in reaching an agreement with John U. Hofstetter and John Wynne as to the division of the spoils. Soon a crew of civil engineers were at work platting their town site of Colville … [on] lands … [that] were among our best farm lands” (Graham, Colville Collections, Book 1, 104). 

Another early plat was Chandler’s Addition, named for Aaron Chandler of North Dakota, who followed the development of railroads (in this case, the Spokane Falls & Northern) to acquire land in promising towns. Part of this plat consisted of land once owned by Hofstetter. Chandler built the new Hotel Colville on three of the original lots.

With the opening of the Old Dominion Mine about six miles east of Colville, where Al E. Benoist, E. E. Alexander and W. H. Kearney had discovered a rich vein of gold, silver, and lead in early 1885, the new town began to grow. In fact the mine was eventually the largest producer of lead and silver in Northeast Washington. Miners and prospectors began to pour in, and Colville became the commercial center for supplying them.

At this time, Luther (or Louther) W. Meyers (1833-1909) acquired land adjacent to the original Colville plat, about a third of the original town site, and platted Meyers Addition on land in what is now part of the downtown area. Meyers was already a major entrepreneur in the Colville region, having acquired the old Hudson’s Bay Company flour mill at Meyers Falls (named for him and now Kettle Falls) and much timber and agricultural land. For many years, his mill was the major source of flour for the Colville area, and the power plant he later constructed there provided electricity. In 1886 he completed the Meyers Building in Colville, the second floor of which was an “opera house” which became the venue for local events, theatricals, dances, conventions, even court for a time. That fall the first Democratic county convention was held here, with Marcus Oppenheimer as chairman.

Soon the opening of profitable mines just across the border in British Columbia added to the prosperity and growth of Colville. With much fanfare, the Spokane Falls & Northern Railway reached Colville on October 18, 1889. This line, built by Daniel Chase Corbin (1832-1918) of Spokane, would eventually reach to Northport near the Canadian border and, through its subsidiaries, link to the British Columbia mines. It also greatly speeded the movement of people, freight, and mail between all these points previously dependent on horse transport. Stagecoaches and freight wagons continued to operate on other routes, however, especially the road connecting Colville with the mining area at Metaline and Metaline Falls in Pend Oreille County.

The Colville area first attracted miners and prospectors, then homesteaders and farmers, and finally business and professional men. An arrival of 1887 was John Rickey (b. 1844), who seemed to combine all of these characteristics. He had already been prospecting, trading with the Indians and Chinese, and homesteading in the valley since 1866. He also built a steamboat that he operated on the Columbia River between Rickey Rapids and Fort Spokane. In his day Rickey’s name “was known to every resident of northeastern Washington, the length of the Columbia River, even to far into Canada” (People, 122). Upon moving to Colville, he went into the general merchandise business, in 1892 constructing the Rickey Building, which at the time was the largest brick building in the city.

The Doctor and The Mayor

 In the late 1890s Colville acquired a doctor who would become legendary in the region. Lee B. Harvey (1867-1916) first arrived in Stevens County in 1890 and became a teacher in Colville. He left teaching in 1895 to go to medical school, returning to Colville to practice. He established the Colville Sanitarium, the city’s first hospital, later called the Harvey Hospital, a well equipped medical facility boasting an x-ray machine. In 1908 Dr. Harvey spent several weeks at the Mayo Clinic observing the latest surgical techniques, which he then implemented at his hospital. Dr. Harvey was mayor of Colville for eight years and was the city’s first fire chief.  

Today Mt. Carmel Hospital serves Colville. It first opened in 1919 in a converted Masonic building. In 1940 the Dominican Sisters purchased it as well as the Harvey Hospital. In 1951 they constructed a new building which has greatly expanded in size and facilities over the years. The Sisters of Providence took it over in 1993. This award-winning hospital provides a broad range of medical services for three counties in Northeastern Washington.

Developing and Improving

Colville received its first rudimentary telephone service on February 4, 1895, with the organization of the International Telegraph and Telephone Company headquartered in Colville. Its promoter, W. B. Aris of Kettle Falls, secured a franchise to install and maintain telephone lines along the public highways and train stations of Stevens County. Within the same year, the Pacific States Telegraph and Telephone Company took it over.

By 1900 Colville had a population of almost 600, and by 1904, it had increased to almost 800. It is easy to understand the enthusiasm of the latest influx of settlers to this “most charming place of residence ... commanding ... a full view of the Colville valley, through which winds like a silver thread in a cloth of green the Colville River [and containing] some of the most elegant, comfortable and modern residences in the state” (Steele, 128). Prominent men of the town formed the Colville Improvement Club, even filling street potholes while dressed in white shirts and ties.

A City of Magnificent Promise

The 1909-1910 edition of R. L. Polk & Co., Directory of Stevens County Washington summarizes Colville’s progress as follows:

“No better idea of the prosperity of the country can be obtained than by a visit to Colville, the county seat of Stevens County. It is one of the best towns in the Northwest, practically the gateway to British Columbia and the mining towns of the north. It is a city of magnificent promise. It gives evidence of progressive and strenuous life. It is conceded to be the most beautiful town site in the Northwest. It has wide streets, fine natural parks, and running streams of water, 140-pound pressure water system, splendid schools, accredited high school, nearly every fraternal society, 9 church organizations, fine modern hotels, a good hospital, two banks ... three newspapers, a farmers’ grange society ... flouring mill, steam brewery, creamery, six sawmills within a short distance of the town, a ... brickyard, electric light plant. ... A fine sewer system has been completed. The jobbing and mercantile interests are flourishing. The population is now estimated at 2500.” (Harrigan, 9)

Colville's Prime Movers

An important merchant-settler of this period was Louis G. Keller (1881-1966), who arrived in 1907. With backing from his wealthy Ohio father, he went into the hardware business. Keller Hardware was housed in the distinguished Rickey Building on Main Street. In 1944, he sold the business to Barman’s Department Store. Keller was the first president of the Colville Chamber of Commerce and was active in fraternal and civic organization. His wife was the widow of J. Harry Young (1854-1914), an early Colville banker and newspaper man who had made a fortune in mining and real estate.

In 1910 the Youngs had built a beautiful Craftsman-style house overlooking the city. “Reputedly the most elegantly furnished and decorated home in Stevens County during its day” (Collins, 11), it was designed by Spokane architect Loren L. Rand (1851-1935), who was paid an extra $1,000 not to design another house like it, and the plans were destroyed upon its completion. After Keller’s marriage to Mrs. Anna Young, the couple continued to live there. In 1965, shortly before he died, Keller presented the house and grounds to the city of Colville to be used as a public park and established a $50,000 living trust toward its maintenance. The city turned the property over to the Stevens County Historical Society in 1973. The Keller House has been restored by the Stevens County Historical Society and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The house and the outstanding museum complex on the grounds are open to the public from May through September.

Another settler prominent Colville merchant was Hayward O. Bair (d. 1966), who moved from Pennsylvania to Spokane in 1909. Two years later he opened the H.O. Bair Furniture Store in Colville. With Bair’s quality merchandise, fair prices, and generous extension of credit, especially to those undergoing hard times, his store was a beloved Colville institution for decades.

Early Colville produced an attorney and judge who achieved prominence on the state level. W. Lon Johnson (1882-1967) started out as a teacher in Chewelah and Valley before becoming clerk of Stevens County in 1907, during which time he studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1912 and began to practice in Colville. He was elected to the Washington State Senate in 1918 and served until 1924, when he became lieutenant governor. His efforts in the senate resulted in the first state appropriation for investigating the feasibility of a Columbia River irrigation project that later became Grand Coulee Dam. In 1938 he became superior court judge for Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, holding that position until 1957. As legislator and lawyer, he was well known for his persuasive oratory. Two later superior court judges got their start as clerks in Johnson’s office.

Hotel Colville

Colville hotels played a significant part in the development of the town. The first was the Old Dominion Hotel, a two-story wooden building constructed to serve the influx of people attracted by the Old Dominion Mine. It burned On February 13, 1892 in a major fire that took a number of Colville buildings. The handsome three-story Hotel Colville was completed in 1891 by Aaron Chandler. At first it stood empty, but the businessmen of Colville banded together to find a lessee, Gilbert B. Ide. The hotel opened with great promise in March of 1893 only to run afoul of the nationwide financial crisis of 1893.

Not until Mr. and Mrs. P. B. Dingle took over the dining room in 1896 and then purchased the hotel in 1898 did it begin to flourish, with regular boarders and legions of traveling salesmen and other overnight guests. This popular couple presided over the hotel for a quarter of a century. The Hotel Colville served as the meeting place for all large gatherings and was the site for many a business deal until it burned in 1982.

Educating Colville

Colville’s first school was built on the property of John and Lena Walsh and later moved to the grounds of the Stevens County Historical Society. The first high school in Stevens County was Eells Academy, named for the Rev. Cushing Eells (1810-1893), a renowned Protestant missionary to the Indians and founder of churches and schools in Oregon and Washington. On March 25, 1896, ministers from Colville, Seattle, Spokane, and Colfax gathered at the Colville Congregational Church for a fellowship meeting with its congregation.

The need for a high school in Stevens County arose, and Colville was chosen as the location because of being the county seat and easily accessible. At a meeting the next day, trustees, board and building committee were appointed. The school opened on October 4, 1897, with about 20 students and three teachers. Out-of-town students boarded with families approved by the faculty or, in the case of many of the girls, at the “Ladies’ Home,” where room and board cost $2.50 per week, no small sum for those days. The academy was sold to the Colville Public Schools in 1901 and finally razed in 1952. For a number of years, many of Colville’s college-bound students attended a preparatory school in Pullman prior to entering Washington State College.

Celebrations and Developments

In 1914 the Colville Chamber of Commerce sponsored the first Yep Kanum, “meaning harvest time, good powwow or good time.” During the three days of festivities “there was a big Indian village, parades, and a big ball held at the Masonic Temple” (Colville Mothers, 72). Violet Pettengill English was the first Miss Amatap, wearing a heavily beaded buckskin dress borrowed from the Spokane Tribe. The dress had to be returned to Inchelium on the Spokane Reservation by Saturday night, and the next day the store where it was kept burned to the ground, destroying the dress and everything else. The Yep Kanum celebration has long since been superseded by a rodeo, but the city park still bears the name.

The timber industry has long been vital to Colville’s economy. Logs from surrounding private land and national forests have supplied sawmills over the years. As elsewhere, the Colville-area timber industry suffered feast or famine fluctuations, but it provided considerable employment. A number of sawmills burned down. Others have closed as a result of restricted timber harvesting in national forests. Everywhere, remaining mills have becoming highly automated and require far fewer workers. The most enduring Colville timber family company is Vaagen Brothers Lumber founded by Bertel Melvin “Bert” (b. 1919) and Palmer “Bud” (b. 1914) Vaagen, who began operating sawmills in the Colville Valley in the 1950s, with major operations in Colville beginning in the 1970s. Today the company has its headquarters and principal mill in Colville.

A Depression era boost to the regional importance of Colville was a new federally funded post office, also referred to as the federal building, dedicated on June 16, 1938. It was a busy and colorful day: The foundation was poured for the new Stevens County courthouse across the street from the post office, and the first airmail was flown from Colville. A stagecoach transported it from the new post office to the Colville airport for the flight to Spokane and on to more distant destinations.

The early mining boom that had brought so many fortune seekers to the Colville area soon played out. However during different periods, new mines opened and closed, as prices fluctuated. At some point the Colville area would produce gold, silver, lead, zinc, and even uranium. A less-known mineral, magnesite, essential to past steel-production technology, contributed to the Colville area’s economy from 1916 until 1968. Its discovery in Stevens County led to extraction in several area locations and the establishment of a major processing plant at Chewelah, less than 30 miles south of Colville.

Agriculture has also changed. In addition to cattle ranching, the Colville area was once a major dairy producer. Today most traditional small farms are gone, with only the largest ranches economically viable. Some farmland has been subdivided into 20-acre parcels for new construction. Yet Colville remains the trading area for the region’s agriculture.

Colville Today

The valley still retains its bucolic beauty, while the surrounding mountains provide recreational opportunities such as hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, and winter sports, making Colville the hub for these activities. Shopping centers have sprung up at both ends of town, but Main Street, enhanced by a Downtown Revitalization Project begun in 1987, is still attractive and busy.

Colville still has freight rail service and is well positioned for truck transport, being located at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 395, which runs from Canada to Mexico, and State Highway 20, the northernmost cross-state route. Only 45 miles south of the border, Colville is often a shopping destination for Canadians, depending on fluctuating prices and rates of exchange. Today the town remains an attractive and prosperous governmental, commercial, and regional medical center with a population of more than 5,000.

Sources: Albert L. Ayars, “Colville Loved H.O. Bair,” Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1972), 12-16; Tony Bamonte and Suzanne Schaeffer Bamonte, Spokane and the Inland Northwest; Historical Images (Spokane: Tornado Creek Publications, 1999), 54-112; Erika Collins, “Northwest Heritage Visit: Keller Park Loaded with Stevens County History, Spokane Chronicle, September 23, 1988, pp. 11, 12; “Colville Centennial 1859-1959” (photocopy of centennial schedule), in clipping file, under heading "Washington -- Cities and Towns -- Colville," Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture;  John Fahey, “Spokane Falls and Northern,” Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring 1960), pp. 17-26; Marian Garvey, “The Stevens County Historical Society From 1903 to 2000,” Nostalgia Magazine, (May 2009), pp. 46-47; Patrick J. Graham, Colville Collections, Books 1-4, (Colville: Statesman-Examiner, 1989-2010); J. C. Harrington, Little Journeys Around the Town, Colville, Washington, as Reported in the Colville Examiner, 1923-1926 (Colville: Northeast Washington Genealogical Society and Statesman-Examiner, 2000); Colville Statesman-Examiner, The People Who Will Live in Colville Area History (Colville: Statesman Examiner, 1989); J. C. Harrigan, “Your Newspaper Starts 75th Year,” Colville Statesman-Examiner, October 21, 1960, pp. 1-7; Michael Murphey, “Colville Businessmen OK Downtown Improvements,” Spokane Chronicle , September 23, 1987; Tom Oakshott, “Colville ‘City of Proud Heritage,’” Colville Statesman-Examiner Centennial Edition, June 12, 1959, pp. 1-8; “Keller Memorial Park Established,” Colville Statesman-Examiner, October 8, 1965; Tom Oakshott, “Colville ... Born in Rugged Days 100 Years Ago,” Spokesman-Review, April 12, 1959, p. 19; Tom Oakshott, “The First to Come Were the Traders,” Spokesman-Review, April 19, 1959, p. 19; Tom Oakshott, “Men of High Ideals Made Colville,” Spokesman-Review, May 10, 1959; “Razing of Colville School Recalls Eells Academy Days,” Spokesman-Review, August 1, 1952; Clinton A. Snowden, History of Washington Vol. III(New York: The Century History Company, 1909), 3 27-330; Richard F. Steele, An Illustrated History of Stevens, Ferry, Okanogan and Chelan Counties, State of Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1904), 127-137; The People Who Will Live in Colville Area History: A 1989 Centennial Celebration Book (Colville: Statesman-Examiner, 1989); Colville Mothers’ Club, [Colville, Washington, 1972?]; “Razing of Colville School Recalls Eells Academy Days,” Spokesman-Review, July 1, 1952; “Store With a 75-year History,” Spokesman-Review, August 19, 1962, p. 11; “Whitworth Head Praises Colville,” Spokesman-Review, June 21, 1959; Washington Place Names, Tacoma Public Library, website accessed November 8, 2009 (; Mt. Carmel Hospital website accessed November 16, 2009 (;, The Online encyclopedia of Washington State History,  “U.S. Army Founds Fort Colville on June 10, 1859” (by Laura Arksey), “A Post Office is Established at Pinkney City” (by Laura Arksey), and “Town of Colville Incorporates on June 7, 1890” (by Laura Arksey), (accessed January 2, 2010).
Note: This essay was revised on December 12, 2013.

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