Washougal -- Thumbnail History

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 2/22/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9312
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The City of Washougal lies along the north bank of the Columbia River in the southeast corner of Clark County. Vancouver, the Clark County seat, is approximately 18 miles to the west and slightly north, linked to Washougal by State Route 14. Reed Island, near the eastern edge of Washougal, is the southernmost point in Washington state. The city's western limits blend with neighboring Camas, and on the east give way to fertile lowlands, prairie, and forest that lead to Skamania County, Bonneville Dam, and the scenic Columbia Gorge. The Washougal River wends its way through the western half of the city, emptying into the Columbia at Camas. The area was accessible to early travelers coming from both the mouth of the Columbia on the Pacific Ocean to the northwest and from upriver to the east. The first non-Native settlers came to the area in the late 1830s or early 1840s, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Washougal became a center for agriculture, dairy, and logging, and a terminus for riverboat traffic. An enduring link between past and present, and Washougal's largest employer for 100 years, is its woolen mill, built in 1910 and now part of the Pendleton Company. Today (2010) the city's economy is led by manufacturing and retail. Although Washougal is suffering from the same economic woes as many other cities and towns, its  population continues to grow. Much of this growth is attributable to residents who work in urban Vancouver or Portland, but choose to live in the much smaller and more rural Washougal.

First Peoples and First Contact

The indigenous people of the Washougal area were Chinookan-speaking Indians classified by early explorers as part of the "Cascade peoples," after the Columbia River rapids upstream to the east. They were specifically identified as the Watlalas by several sources, but the population of the area was variable, and several different bands of Chinook-related Indians came there to reap the bounty when the salmon were running. Besides the rich fishery of the Columbia and other local rivers, these Native Americans were drawn to the site by the abundance of camas lilies, the bulbs of which were considered a delicacy by tribes from the Great Plains to the Pacific. It was after this plant that Washougal's neighbor city of Camas was named. As no authoritative records exist, it's impossible to identify with certainty which specific groups moved in and out of what is present-day Washougal. Among the names attributed to them over the years, in addition to Watlala, were Cathlakaheckit, Cathlathlala, Cathlayackty, Clahclellah, Katlagakya, and Yehuh.

With the exception of early trappers and traders, the first contact the indigenous people of the Washougal area had with the white man was most likely in October 1792, when Lieutenant William Broughton (1762-1821) was sent by Captain George Vancouver (1758-1798) to explore the lower reaches of the Columbia River. Broughton and his men rowed in their ship's cutter to a point about four miles upriver of present-day Washougal, and they no doubt had some contact with the people who fished there. Earlier that same year American fur trader, Robert Gray (1755-1806), was first to enter the Columbia by ship, but he did not go upriver as far as the Camas-Washougal area.

The Corps of Discovery led by Lewis and Clark left a better record. They passed the mouth of the Washougal River while traveling down the Columbia on their voyage to the Pacific Ocean in November 1805. Clark marked it as a "good wintering Place" (William Clark, Journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, November 3, 1805), although it lost out to the Clatsop area farther west as the expedition's 1805-1806 winter home. He made no note of any contact with Indians at that time, and it is unclear whether the expedition even stopped there. That was not the case on the return trip the following year. On March 31, 1806, Clark wrote:

"[P]assed up on the N. Side of White brant Island near the upper point of Which a Small river falls in about 80 yards wide and at this time discharges a great quantity of water. the nativs inform us that this river is very Short and heads in the range of mountains to the N E of its enterance into the Columbia. the nativs haveing no name which we could learn for this little river we Call it Seal river from the great number of those Animals which frequents its mouth. this river forks into two nearly equal branches about 1 mile up and each branch is crouded with rapids & falls. we proceeded on about 2 miles above the enterance of this Seacalf river and imedeately opposit the upper mouth of the quick Sand river we formed a Camp in a Small Prarie on the North Side of the Columbia where we intend to delay one or two days ..." (William Clark, Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition).

On their return trip, Lewis and Clark ended up camping on the "Small Prarie" for six days, their longest sojourn at any site in what is present-day Washington. Indians traveling down the Columbia had warned them of a scarcity of food east of the Cascade Mountain, and the expedition spent their time at Washougal hunting game, curing meat, and making other provisions for the trek ahead. The "Seal River" and "Seacalf River" mentioned by Clark apparently are alternative names for what is today called the Washougal River.

What's In a Name?

The etymology of the name "Washougal" is not entirely clear. It appears to have been a Cascade Chinook term meaning either "rushing water," "small rocks and pebbles," or "land of plenty," with the first being by far the most widely accepted. The name was not used by either Broughton or the Corps of Discovery, and its first mention appears to have been in the journals of Alexander Ross, who worked for John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company. In 1811 Ross, traveling with the North West Company's explorer and trailblazer David Thompson, arrived at Washougal. In his journal, which was not published until 38 years later, Ross wrote:

"On the 24th, after a good night's rest, and having made some trifling presents to a principal chief, named Kiasno, we proceeded on our voyage; but had not gone far, when we passed another and larger branch of the Wallamitte—so that this river enters the Columbia by two channels, from the last of which the Columbia makes a gradual bend to the E.N.E. During this day, we passed the Namowit Village, Bellevue Point, Johnson's Island, and stayed for the night at Wasough-ally Camp, near Quicksand River, which enters the Columbia on the left" (Adventures of the First Settlers Upon the Oregon or Columbia River, 106).

It took decades for a consensus to form on the proper spelling or form of "Washougal." Over the years it appeared in print in a variety of forms, including Ross's Wasough-ally, Washougally, Washougally Camp, Wa-Shu-Go, and, as late as 1851, Washookal.

The Princess and the Sailor

It is often difficult to distinguish the early settlement history of Washougal from that of neighboring Camas. The chroniclers of the age did not always pinpoint events with sufficient specificity, either in time or place. Most sources agree that the first permanent settler in what would become Washougal was an English seaman named Richard Ough (1790-1884) and his wife, Betsy (1811?-1911), an Indian princess of the Cascades people. While there is no debate about where they settled, there is some disagreement on exactly when. The most common date used is 1838, but based on earlier events, it seems more likely that the Oughs arrived in the early 1840s, and probably in 1841. If so, they were certainly the first permanent settlers, and the growth of Washougal from a lone outpost to a small city is due in no small part to this English sailor and his long and productive union with Native American royalty.

Approximately eight years before moving to Washougal, Ough (probably pronounced "oh" but sometimes spelled "Howe") was working for chief factor Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857) at the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver. There he met a Native woman named White Wing, the daughter of Schluyhus (translated, probably incorrectly, as "Slyhorse"), a Cascade chief. They were married, and she took the name Betsy (sometimes spelled "Betsey") Ough. In 1910, when she may have been more than 100 years old, Betsy Ough was interviewed, and she recalled the day she met her future husband. She was fishing in the Columbia with her father when Ough, McLoughlin, and other white men approached in several canoes:

"I was paddling and father was spearing them when all at once we looked up and, oh, so many canoes coming and lots of white men in them. My father and all the Indians paddled to shore as quick as they could and the chiefs say, "Maybe we better kill those men" ... . Then is the time I saw Richard. He was standing beside Dr. McLoughlin and was almost as big as him -- six feet, two inches and weighed 240 pounds, and oh, he looked so nice! I looked at him and he looked at me and when I looked back again he was still looking at me. Then I started to go away with my father I look back once more and Richard and Douglass and Dr. McLoughlin was all looking after me and Richard started to follow me but Dr. McLoughlin put his hand on his shoulder and said 'No! Do you want to lose your scalp?'" (Tracking Down Oregon).

But Ough was not to be dissuaded for long. About a month later he visited White Wing's village, and after hard bargaining with her father a marriage was arranged. Ough built a small cabin at Fort Vancouver (one of the conditions set down by Chief Schluyhus), a wedding was held, and the couple embarked on a loving partnership that was to last for more than 50 years. Ough and McLoughlin were both at Fort Vancouver in 1833, and it seems likely from a review of available sources that this was the approximate year of the marriage between Richard and Betsy. Since it is known that they moved to the Washougal area about eight years later, this would put them there in approximately 1841, the earliest settlers on record. Richard and Betsy lived very long lives, and upon their deaths they were buried in the Washougal Cemetery. They had 10 children together, and descendants of the couple still live in Washougal.

First Child, Second Settler

Another early, if temporary, settler was the noted African American pioneer George Bush, who wintered in the Washougal area with his party in 1844-1845. Included in that party were Michael Simmons (1814-1867) and his wife, Elizabeth (1820-1891). Their son Christopher Columbus Simmons was born in what would later become Washougal on April 14, 1845, becoming the first American child born north of the Columbia River. Bush, the Simmonses, and most of the others moved north later that year to settle in Tumwater near the south end of Puget Sound.

Two who stayed behind were David C. Parker and his wife, Ann, and they are often credited as Washougal's first permanent settlers, despite the evidence that Richard and Betsy Ough had already been living there for three or four years. This may be due to the fact that the Parkers were in fact the first non-Native American settlers -- Richard Ough did not become a United States citizen until 1851. Or it may simply be due to the fact that Parker had a tendency to name things after himself, whereas Ough did not.

When Parker first arrived in 1844, he selected a site just a mile downstream from the Ough property where a natural eddy in the Columbia River would carry the rafts of new settlers gently to shore. He squatted on the land there, built a dock, and named it Parker's Landing. Parker did not choose the site by accident. The Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, although not aggressively hostile to American settlers, was, after all, a British outpost. The company's Dr. McLoughlin believed, or at least hoped, that all the land north of the Columbia River would eventually be recognized as British territory. (He was proven wrong when the 1846 Oregon Treaty granted all territory south of the 49th parallel to the U.S.) Consequently, he firmly but politely discouraged American settlement, advising all comers that they would be much more happy and welcome in the fertile Willamette Valley to the south. Parker's alternative landing site about 20 miles upriver from Fort Vancouver drew a steady stream of settlers who wanted to avoid the fort entirely and to move inland without facing Dr. McLoughlin's discouragement.

When the Donation Land Claims Act was passed in 1850, Parker laid claim to more than 580 acres. By 1852 he had built a house, a hotel, and a bar at his site. He renamed it Parkersville and applied to incorporate the little settlement in 1852 or 1854. If the earlier date is accurate, Parkersville would have been the first incorporated town in what was to become Washington state (Steilacoom in Pierce County incorporated in 1854). But it was not to last. Although Parkersville struggled on for years, the centers of gravity for commerce and population moved both up the Columbia a short distance to Washougal and down the river to Camas. All that remains of Parker's townsite today is Parker's Landing Historical Park, on land controlled by the jointly run Port of Camas-Washougal.

The Birth of Washougal

Richard and Betsy Ough played a larger role in the founding of Washougal proper than did Parker, but have received little credit for it. Ough also took advantage of the Donation Land Claims Act and was granted close to the maximum 640 acres allowed to married couples. Over the next several decades, the Oughs farmed and raised dairy cattle, and they often provided food without charge to hungry new settlers rafting down the Columbia from The Dalles.

In 1880, nearly 40 years after he and Betsy had moved to the area, Richard Ough sold 20 acres of his land to Joseph E. C. Durgin (sometimes spelled "Durgan") and Lewis Love, the latter of whom owned the steam sternwheeler Calliope and ran it on the Columbia. Ough also leased to them the right to use 200 feet of the riverbank for loading and unloading freight and passengers.

Durgin almost immediately donated a portion of his land for the building of a town. The townsite was mapped and platted by Clark County's surveyor, Alexander McAndrew (1834-1903), on April 2, 1880. On May 6, 1880 the plat was recorded, and the town of Washougal officially came into being.

That same year, Durgin and Love built the first good wharf on that stretch of the river, and Parkersville's days as an aspiring town were numbered and short. Joseph Durgin, among his other enterprises, opened a store in Washougal, which he sold to David H. Gary in 1883. Henry H. Carpenter had opened a store and post office in Parkersville in 1877, but once Washougal came into existence he packed up the whole lot and moved upstream to the new town. Another early settler, Fritz Braun (1826-1917), bought an existing hotel in Parkersville in 1880, tore it down, and rebuilt it piece by piece at Washougal. It was the town's first, and was called the Park Hotel. Around this early core, started by the Oughs, Durgin, Braun, and a few others, the town would grow.

There were good reasons these early settlers picked Washougal over Parkersville. It was closer to the fertile lowlands where most of the dairy, farming, and logging were taking place. Equally important, Captain Love's wharf provided a deep-water, year-around mooring, whereas the shallow landing point at Parkersville was sometime unusable due to low water levels. Given these advantages, Washougal was bound to prosper and grow, if slowly. Parkersville, with Camas on the west and Washougal on the east, was doomed to wither and die.

Slow But Steady

There are few detailed records for the first years of Washougal's existence, but in 1887, seven years after its incorporation, the young town was tersely described in the R. L. Polk & Company’s annual business directory:

"WASHOUGAL. A village in Clarke county, on the Columbia river, 35 miles by water northeast of Portland, Or., and 18 east of Vancouver, the seat of justice and nearest banking point. It contains a Congregational church, a public hall and a good hotel. Ships fruit and produce. A daily line of steamers call here. Population, 100. Mail, daily. Joseph E. C. Durgan, postmaster."

This summary did not quite tell the whole story. The Polk listing went on to detail the following businesses and professions: two general stores, four dairies (one of which was Richard and Betsy Ough's), a sawmill, a carpenter, a blacksmith, a physician, a beekeeper, and a minister.

The 1887 Polk listing was just a few years too early to include an activity that became major economic force in Washougal from the 1890s through the early years of the Great Depression -- growing prunes. Started in Vancouver in the 1850s by a Vermont transplant named Arthur Hidden (1830-1910), prune cultivation flourished in most of Clark County, which during its heyday was known as the "Prune Capital of the World." Prune orchards and prune dryers dotted the landscape, and the fact that the fruit was so easily preserved made it a natural export crop at a time when fresh fruits could not be transported over long distances.

The Spokane Portland and Seattle Railroad, James J. Hill's line that ran from Portland, Oregon, to Pasco, Washington, along the north bank of the Columbia River, came to Washougal in 1908. Before this, the only way for the products of the Pacific Northwest to reach the East was by ships that traveled the long and perilous route around South America. The coming of the railroad gave Washougal access to the transcontinental lines, and those gave it a reliable land-based link to the outside world. Seeing growth and prosperity on the horizon, the town decided to formally incorporate that same year. An article that appeared in The Coast magazine in April 1909 provides a good summary of the town's progress up to then:

"Washougal, while incorporated as a town less than one year ago, now has its waterworks and fire department; an up-to-date telephone system with lines extended through all the surrounding farming districts. Electric light wires are now being strung, the power for the electric current being taken from the Washougal river inside the corporate limits by the Cottrell Manufacturing Company ... . Two new churches have been built within the past year; the Congregational church being the best in the county and erected at a cost of $7,000. The order of Odd Fellows have recently erected one of the best equipped lodge buildings in the state. The city has a good school with four teachers. ... . A condensed milk factory erected by our home people the past year at a cost of $25,000 is in daily operation, of which the creamery is shipping $50,000 worth of butter annually. The Clarke County bank has recently erected a handsome concrete building, while many beautiful homes have also been built and are in course of construction. Four large general stores and many other business enterprises of different kinds are enjoying an ever-increasing trade. We have good modern hotels, and reliable real estate agents. The Washougal Sun, edited by Mr. J. A. Hart, a splendid weekly paper, covers a large field."

In a mere 29 years, Washougal had grown from one homestead, to a few scattered settlers, to a booming little town, and there was more to come.

The Woolen Mill

The year 1910 marked another significant milestone for Washougal when a Portland physician, J. F. Bailey, opened Union Woolen Mills, an enterprise that promised to offer steady employment for many and a product for export that was not dependent on the seasons or the weather. Although it got off to an unpromising start, the woolen mill eventually became a mainstay of the city's economy.

Bailey started his venture with energy and good intentions. He built a new, three-story mill on land between Washougal's riverboat landing and its railroad tracks, giving him the ability to take in wool from suppliers and ship out finished goods by either land or water. Unfortunately, Bailey had misjudged his market, and a lack of orders forced the mill into bankruptcy just two years after it opened. Pendleton Woolen Mills, owned and operated by brothers Clarence, Roy, and Chauncey Bishop, was quick to buy the distressed Union Mill.

The Bishop brothers were heirs to an established company that in 1895 had developed a market for woolen Indian bed blankets and robes, using primarily traditional Nez Perce designs and colors. In 1909 the company restarted an idle mill  in Pendleton, Oregon, and took the name of the town as its own. The brothers studied the traditions of other Native peoples and soon were weaving textiles based on the designs of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and other tribes. The primary customers for these blankets and robes were the Indians themselves, who used them for basic wearing apparel, trade, and ceremony. This experience in blanket manufacturing was to serve the company well in World War I, when its efforts were largely devoted to providing blankets for the U.S. Army.

A few years after the war, in 1924, the company branched out into apparel with the introduction of the now-legendary Pendleton virgin wool men's shirt. By 1929 a full line of men's sporting wear was on the market, and after World War II, during which the mill again concentrated on products for the military, women's wear was added. And in 1991, the first bolts of the official Washington state tartan came off the production line at the Washougal mill, destined for use as table runners in the state capitol building. Today (2010), the Pendleton mill occupies 70 acres and remains Washougal's largest employer.

Progress and Challenges

After the rapid growth of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, things slowed down considerably in Washougal. Families came and went, people were born and died, life went on at what seems to have been a gentle pace. It was a pattern of slow growth common to many small towns of  that era, towns that for reason of geography, climate, transportation, or happenstance did not attract the people, the industries, and the infrastructure needed to become major urban centers. This was  not necessarily a bad thing. Washougal enjoyed steady and manageable increases in population, and did so without sacrificing the rural ambiance and scenic beauty that made it a pleasant place to live.

In 1910, 21 years after the Polk directory had put the town's population at 100, the 1910 U.S. census counted 456 residents in Washougal. It  nearly tripled over the next 20 years, to 1,206 in 1930, but growth virtually ceased during the Great Depression, and remained very slow until after World War II. From the 1950s onward, as the rise of the automobile made it convenient for people to live in one place and work in another, Washougal benefited from its proximity to both Vancouver and Portland, and this trend has continued. In the decade between 1999 and 2009, the population of Clark County grew by about 28 percent, while Washougal's increased by more than 60 percent, from 8,595 to 13,870. Since 1995 the city has annexed 1,791 additional acres to help accommodate this growth.

Washougal has come a long way since Richard and Betsy Ough homesteaded there nearly 170 years ago, and it has lasted through the ups and downs that  history has brought its way. Today, like many cities and towns, it is facing more challenges than usual. The unemployment rate in Washougal (and in all of  Clark County) is considerably higher than the state average, and the city's average salary is significantly lower.

But Washougal is working hard to keep what it has, to attract new businesses, and to diversify its economic base. The city adopted an updated  Comprehensive Plan in 2003 and is busy implementing a downtown revitalization program that has as one goal the preservation of several heritage buildings. The Captain William Clark Park at Cottonwood Beach, stretching for 80 lineal acres along the Columbia River, opened in 2006, the 200th anniversary of the Corps of Discovery's return visit to the site. A 350-acre industrial park operated by the Port of Camas/Washougal has nearly 50 tenants, and room for more. While the city must cope with the urgent necessities of today, it is keeping one eye clearly focused on the opportunities and needs of tomorrow.


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Note:  This essay was modified on May 8, 2011, to correct the pronunciation of "Ough." 

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