Ritzville -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 5/26/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9396
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Ritzville is the county seat of Adams County in Eastern Washington and the center of a vast wheat-growing region. It sprang into existence in 1881 when the Northern Pacific railroad established it as a station stop. It was named after Philip Ritz, an early settler who landed the contract for grading 10 miles of the railroad bed. The  town was home at first mostly to railroad workers, but soon wheat farmers arrived, first from South Dakota and then from Russia by way of Germany. A large colony of Volga Germans (Germans who had settled in Russia centuries earlier) found the dry-land wheat farming conditions to their liking. Ritzville became the seat of Adams County in 1883 because it was the only settlement of any size in the newly formed county. Ritzville soon grew into an important wheat-shipping point and commercial center. It incorporated twice, in 1888 under territorial laws, and then in 1890 under the new state laws. It thrived in the early part of the century, reaching a population of 1,900 in 1920, but was hit hard by drought and an agricultural depression in the 1920s and 1930s. Irrigation projects boosted the town through 1940s and 1950s. Ritzville took the brunt of Mt. St. Helens' ash fall in 1980; thousands were stranded in the city for days. As of 2010, Ritzville had a population of about 1,736 and it remains an important wheat center. It has a golf course and a water park and is a key stop for cross-state travelers on Interstate 90. The city has preserved its historic legacy with two history museums and a historic district.

Cattle vs. Wheat

The site of present day Ritzville was probably too dry to attract much Indian habitation, although numerous Indian tribes camped and wintered in the creek valleys lacing Adams County. Early accounts state with unusual confidence the name of the area's first white settler: George Lucas, who arrived right after the Civil War and raised cattle on Cow Creek. Another pioneer settler, J. F. Coss Jr., said that when he arrived in 1872, Lucas was the sole resident of the entire present-day Adams County.

Another settler, William Lambie, settled about 12 miles southeast of present Ritzville in the 1870s. Lucas and some of the other cattlemen were apparently not hospitable to the idea of wheat farmers encroaching on the region. By one account published in the Adams County News, Lucas and some of his friends once dressed up in Indian outfits and arrayed themselves along a ridge in an effort to scare off some "immigrants" ("Big Bend"). This was just about the only show of "Indian" hostility ever recorded in this relatively peaceful part of the state.

Yet the wheat farmers began to arrive in force beginning in about 1870s, when a group of farmers from Canton, South Dakota, arrived and began clearing farms within two miles of what is now Ritzville. They were attracted by the prospects for dry-land wheat farming, and also attracted by the prospect of railroads cutting lines through the region.

A Very Small Railroad Town

One of the early settlers was Philip Ritz, who built a homestead in 1878 near present-day Ritzville. When the Northern Pacific railroad approached the area's channeled scablands and bunchgrass prairies, Ritz got the contract to grade about 10 miles of the roadbed near his place. When the trains arrived in 1881, the Northern Pacific located a station nearby and someone -- either a station official or Ritz himself -- named the station in his honor: Ritzville.

The first resident of Ritzville proper was William McKay, one of the Canton immigrants who built an eight-room house and rented out rooms to the railroad laborers. McKay soon constructed the fledgling town's second building, a small general store to serve the railroad workers and others who stopped at the station. By the end of 1881, the buildings totaled three, because the railroad had built a small depot.

In spring of 1882, there were still only about 50 people in this tiny, dusty whistle stop. According to a 1904 history of the region, "everyone drew water from the same fountain -- the railroad tank" ("Big Bend). Residents had been unable to dig a deep enough well to find water on this high and dry site. McKay's house served as hotel, restaurant, dance hall and -- when some of the workers passed the time with amateur dramatics -- a theater.

But the railroad was attracting more people to this tiny village, notably Dr. G.H. Atkinson, a pastor and missionary who roamed the region and who found himself stopping at McKay's place while on the way to Spokane. Atkinson held the town's first services on April 2, 1882, in McKay's house with 23 people in attendance, and later that day organized the First Congregational Church, with six founding members (two of whom were Mr. and Mrs. McKay).

Volga Germans Arrive

In 1883, another large group of immigrants arrived in Ritzville in search of wheat-growing land: A colony of Russian-Germans, also known as the Volga Germans.

These were the descendants of Germans who had been recruited by Russia's Catherine the Great in 1763 to colonize vast expanses of Russian steppe on the southern Volga, in exchange for a large degree of autonomy. These German families lived and farmed in Russia for generations, retaining their German language and identity, until about 1878 when Russia began to tax them, conscript them into the Russian army, and otherwise force them to assimilate. They chose to leave Russia.

They had become experts in dry-land wheat farming and -- with encouragement from the Northern Pacific -- had found Ritzville exactly to their liking. About 17 families, led by Johann Frederich Rosenoff, arrived in 1883 and most settled on the western and northwestern edges of town.

More families arrived later, including the Hoefel family, which left Odessa, Russia, intending to join some other Volga German immigrants in Odessa, Wash. in 1901. When they landed in New York, they could not find "Odessa, Wash.," on the train map. But they did find Ritzville, a town, which they also knew, had a Volga Russian community. So they arrived in Ritzville, on December 2, 1901, and went on to become a prominent Ritzville family.

Adams County and Its Tiny Town

In 1883, a group of residents petitioned the territorial legislature for their own county, Adams County, to be split off from the northwest part of Whitman County. Residents argued that the Whitman County seat, Colfax, was too far away. The measure passed with little opposition, and the new county had only 150 people. There was no question about where the county seat would be: Ritzville was the only place in the whole county that could be called a town.

By 1884, the county offices were located in a rented room in a Ritzville building and by the next year the county was operating out of its own building. Some county services -- judicial functions, for instance -- still had to be farmed out to the much more populous Spokane and Whitman counties. By 1892, a large new county courthouse was built, and then enlarged and remodeled in 1905.

A Town of Few Bugs

The town continued to grow as more wheat farmers began acquiring land in the area. By 1886, resident W. F. Newland described the town's advantages and drawbacks, in an open letter published in the Adams County Record.

The advantages, he said, were these: Good schools, a good church, plenty of pasturage, no hostile Indians, no pests, no rats, few bugs, good, cheap soil and "short, mild winters." (The latter point proved overly optimistic.)

The drawbacks: The lack of water, the hard work involved in making a new homestead, and the "lack of society."

Newland summed up Ritzville in 1886 like this:

"Population about 150. The town now contains one newspaper, three stores, two hotels, Congregational church, one livery stable, two blacksmith shops, one harness maker, one lumber yard, one butcher shop, one saloon (closed), one school house ... with 63 scholars and two teachers" (Big Bend).

The saloon closure was apparently only temporary. The town held a vote on the question of alcohol that year, and the citizens voted 31-24 against prohibition.

In 1887, the town was embroiled in what may have been an even more divisive question: Should Ritzville be named Ritzville? Apparently, Philip Ritz was not universally loved and it rankled that the entire town should bear his name. However, those in favor of a name change couldn't settle on an alternative -- everybody wanted to name the town after whatever town they had just left. So the name-change drive fizzled out.

Water and Fire

Around this time, Ritzville came close to moving out of Ritzville. The town's weak point remained its local of water supply. Too many people were drawing water from the Northern Pacific's tank, so the railroad ordered a ban. Someone sank a well that hit water, but it was about one mile east of the city. City leaders decided to lay out a new town site and move everyone close to the new well, buildings and all. All residents would get free land, equal in value to the land they were vacating.

Only one landowner balked -- but the most important one. The owner of the two-story hotel wouldn't agree. The scheme stalled. Before long, the entire plan proved to be unnecessary. Water was struck closer to town and Ritzville remains to this day in the place it began.

A devastating fire broke out in 1888, burning down a large portion of the business district. When the flames were finally doused the hotel, general store, post office, and many other shops were gone. The town quickly rebuilt, this time mostly in brick. Several damaging fires spurred the little city to finally organize a modern volunteer fire department in 1901.

Progress, Growth, and more Water

In 1888, Dr. Frank Burroughs was passing through by train when he had to stop for a medical emergency. He apparently found Ritzville to his liking, because he stayed for the rest of his life. He went on to later become Ritzville's mayor and postmaster and to assist in the delivery of thousands of babies over a 40-year career.

By the end of 1888, the quickly growing Ritzville was finally big enough to incorporate. It became a city under Washington Territory laws that year, with N. H. Greene appointed mayor, but like many other cities, it had to reincorporate after Washington became a state in 1889. So on July 12, 1890, the residents voted 30 to 7 to incorporate as a fourth-class city. R. J. Neergaard was elected mayor.

The growing town built a new school house in 1890. In 1894, Ritzville attempted once and for all to solve its chronic water-supply problems and installed a $20,000 water-works system, supplied by several wells. A 1904 history of the town said it provided “an inexhaustible supply of as pure water as to be found in the state of Washington" (Big Bend). “Inexhaustible” proved to be an exaggeration; the town had to dig more wells over the decades after some municipal wells dried up.

Ritzville was hit hard by the national financial crisis of 1893-1894, which depressed wheat prices. The crisis sent the city government into serious debt and some beleaguered business people wondered whether Ritzville would survive at all. Yet by 1898, the Lincoln County Times reported that Ritzville was “experiencing an old-time boom.” New houses were rising and the population hit 761 in the 1900 census.

Wheat, Wheat, Wheat

By 1902, Ritzville claimed for itself an astonishing achievement: The largest shipper of wheat in the world. That claim can’t be verified, but Ritzville did ship nearly two million bushels of wheat from its Northern Pacific railroad station. It was certainly proof that Ritzville was the central shipping point for what had now become an incredibly productive wheat-growing region.

Wheat was king in Ritzville and every year more acreage around the town was put into production. Ritzville was the biggest commercial and shipping center for a huge region -- it was still virtually the only town of any size in the county. The town’s cultural status took a big leap in 1907, when a grand new Carnegie library opened amidst general hoopla -- Governor Albert E. Mead (1861-1909) spoke at the dedication. This historic library remains the town’s cultural center today.

In the first 10 years of the 1900s, the population more than doubled to 1,859 in 1910. By 1920, it was 1,900.  Ritzville, like much of the West, suffered from drought and agricultural depression in the 1920s, although there were new improvements to one of the town’s main industries, the Ritzville Flouring Mills, and a thriving Ritz Theater. The population had dropped to 1,777 by the 1930 census.

By 1929, the Volga German families comprised nearly a quarter of Ritzville's residents. Earlier, Ritzville had supported its own German language newspaper, but the families were now mostly assimilated into American culture. Today those Volga Russian family names are still prominent in town: Rosenoff, Thiel, Kanzler, Kiehn, Koch, Schoessler, DeWald, Oestreich, Schafer, Kembel, and Heimbigner.

Depression Years

The Great Depression took its toll, as The Spokesman-Review reported in 1935: "The depression in agriculture has hit Ritzville as it hit other towns similarly situated, but Ritzville is weathering the gale and is ready to move forward with better conditions" ("Ritzville Interests").

The flour mill was still putting out 500 barrels of flour a day. The city and county governments were still in good enough shape to build a modern county courthouse without going into debt, "a tribute to the stability of the people in the county" (Ritzville Is Center").

Ritzville's relatively isolated location made it an important transportation stop, not just for the railroads, but also for auto and truck transport. It was on one of the main cross-state route between Spokane and Seattle, called the Columbia Basin Highway or US 10. Ritzville offered gas, meals, and beds on an otherwise lonely stretch of road.

Water and Cattle

The population dipped to 1,748 in 1940, but Ritzville was boosted by the prospect of the vast Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, with water from the newly completed Grand Coulee Dam. Ritzville itself was beyond the project's scope, but parts of Adams County would benefit -- and create more prosperity in Ritzville.

By 1950, the population was up to 2,145.  Wheat was still king, but irrigation was making it possible for the cattle industry -- the region's original industry -- to make a comeback. Ranchers could now water hay and alfalfa pastures.

Modern Improvements

In 1955, Ritzville had built a number of modern improvements, and was especially proud of its recreational facilities. It had its own Olympic-sized pool ("one of the largest in the state") and a city golf course not far from the center of town that was "a home course for Davenport, Sprague, Odessa and other nearby golf-conscious people" ("Ritzville is Center").

In 1957, some Ritzville residents were nervous about the plans for a new federal interstate highway, which would later be named Interstate 90. The plan called for the highway to bypass downtown and skirt the city on the south. Opinions were mixed on whether this would hurt the city or not. As it turned out, Ritzville was in the same situation as countless other towns, as the new interstate highways invariably routed traffic around the business cores. Still, Ritzville remained a key stopping point for travelers since it was the only oasis for nearly an hour each way,

The population hit an all-time high of 2,173 in 1960 -- but it was no longer the biggest town in the county. Othello, surrounded by newly irrigated land, zoomed past it and remains the county's largest town. Ritzville slowly declined to 1,876 in 1970 and 1,800 in 1980.

The Volcano

And then, the biggest natural disaster ever to strike Ritzville caused its population to double -- but only for a few tense and frightening days.

On May 18, 1980, Mt. St. Helens erupted and sent enormous plumes of ash to the east -- and Ritzville was directly in this dark cloud's path. About four to six inches of fine gray ash drifted from the sky, clogging both nostrils and highways. Traffic of all kinds came to a standstill, and 2,500 motorists were stranded in town. Frightened travelers were "packed wall to wall" in Ritzville's small hospital, in the school gym and in every restaurant, church, and hotel. Eight of 10 sheriff patrol cars were out of commission. The town was cut off from the rest of the world for five days and even opening a door was dangerous.

"It's like being in a flour sack and having someone pounding the sides on you," said one resident (Bogan).

Ritzville was buried deeper than almost any other place in Eastern Washington, most of which saw only an inch or less of ash.

After days of hard work and incessant shoveling, the highways opened back up and the stranded travelers were able to leave. In August, three months later, Ritzville residents were still shoveling ash off of streets, roofs, and yards. When all of the hard and dusty cleanup work was finished, the ash proved to be a long-term boon -- the ash actually improved the soil in the area's farms.

Ritzville Today

Ritzville's population remained stable for the next few decades, at 1,725 in 1990 and 1,736 in 2000. A 2008 population estimate reflected little change from 2000. The municipal swimming pool has turned into a water park with two separate pools. The sound of American roots music rings out in the annual Ritzville Blues Festival, which fills the downtown every July. The Wheat Lands Communities Fair is a Labor Day tradition.

Today, Ritzville's story can be experienced at two museums, the Railroad Depot History Museum of Ritzville and the Burroughs Home History Museum. The latter is the former home of Dr. Frank Burroughs. The two-story home was bequeathed to the city in 1962, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and refurbished by volunteers in 1987-1988. It is filled with period furnishings and Dr. Burroughs's medical instruments.

The Railroad Depot History Museum transports visitors back to Ritzville's roots, when the railroad was the city's reason for existence. This classic brick structure was built by the Northern Pacific in 1910 and at one time received up to 10 passenger trains a day. The depot was deeded to the city in 1988 after passenger service ceased and was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. It opened as a museum in 1990.

The depot is a fitting repository for a town that was named and willed into existence by the Northern Pacific railroad. And for those who want to experience an even broader journey into Ritzville's history, a Historic Walking Tour pamphlet is available at the historic Ritzville Public Library -- the original Carnegie library -- and at other Ritzville merchants.


Richard F. Steele, assisted by Arthur P. Rose, An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country, Embracing Lincoln, Douglas, Adams and Franklin Counties (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Co., 1904); Inventory of the County Archives of Washington, Adams County No. 1 (Spokane: Historical Records Survey, Works Progress Administration, 1939); N. W. Durham, History of the City of Spokane and Spokane County (Spokane, Chicago and Philadelphia: J. J. Clarke Publishing Co. 1912); Spokane Falls Review, June 7, 1888, p. 3; "Adams County Business Good," The Spokesman-Review, December 25, 1925; Raymond Horn, "Ritzville Pioneers Made of Sturdy Stuff," The Spokesman-Review, August 7, 1932; "Ritzville Interests Center on Wheat and Flour," The Spokesman-Review, July 17, 1932; "Ritzville is Center," The Spokesman-Review, June 17, 1955, p. 34; "Early Ritzville Family Honored," The Spokesman-Review, December 24, 1951; "13 Miles of Highway to Bypass Ritzville," Spokane Daily Chronicle, April 16, 1957, p. 3; Christopher Bogan. "Ritzville Floored by People, Panic," The Spokesman-Review, May 21, 1980, p. A-1; Sherwood Anderson, "Ritzville Rains Making Ash into Sticky Mud," Spokane Daily Chronicle, May 22, 1980, p. 5; Christopher Bogan, "Ritzville Battles," The Spokesman-Review, May 25, 1980, p. V-9; "They're Still Digging Out in Ritzville," The Spokesman-Review, August 4, 1980; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Volga Germans led by Johann Frederich Rosenoff settle near Ritzville in 1883" (by Paula Becker), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 12, 2010); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Adams County, Thumbnail History" (by Paula Becker), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed April 12, 2010).

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