Okanogan -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 9/27/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9592
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Okanogan is the county seat of Okanogan County in north-central Washington in the productive orchard lands of the Okanogan River Valley. This town site, on the west bank of the Okanogan River, was first settled in 1888 and was called Alma. In 1905, the town's name was changed to Pogue, in honor of a prominent citizen. In 1907 the town voted overwhelmingly to change the name to Okanogan, in order to better reflect its place on the Okanogan River and its proximity to the fledgling Okanogan Irrigation Project. Later in 1907, the town voted nearly unanimously to incorporate. The new town boomed along with the region's apple orchards and timber industry. In 1914, the Great Northern railroad arrived and Okanogan succeeded in a spirited campaign to wrest the county seat from Conconully. By 1930, Okanogan was overtaken in population by Omak, its neighbor five miles to the northeast. As of 2010, Okanogan's population was estimated at 2,500, a little more than half the size of Omak. Yet Okanogan remains the governmental hub of Okanogan County, and the original 1915 county courthouse still presides over the city.

Early Days

The site of Okanogan was used for thousands of years as a camping ground and fishing area by the Southern Okanogan Tribe, also known as the Sinkaietk or Uknaqinx, as well as by several other tribes of the mid-Columbia. Steelhead and salmon runs were plentiful on the Okanogan River.

The Okanogan River was also well known to fur traders and other early non-Indian explorers in the early 1800s. 1n 1833 the famed botanist David Douglas (1799-1834) camped at the mouth of a creek that was probably Salmon Creek, where the town is today.

The future town site was also on a route well used by miners and cattlemen: The Cariboo Trail. This trail followed the ancient Indian route along the Okanogan River up into the booming Cariboo gold fields of British Columbia. Beginning in about 1855, thousands of miners and prospectors trudged up this low-altitude route into the gold fields.

It was also used by early cattlemen from the lush grasslands of the Willamette and Yakima valleys. From about 1855 to 1868, they drove their stock in massive, dusty cattle drives up the Cariboo Trail in order to provide fresh beef to the miners. The Cariboo Trail (also known as the Okanogan Trail) stayed mostly on the east side of the Okanogan River, but it was actually a loosely defined route with many variations. So the future site of Okanogan probably felt the tramp of boots and hoofs long before a town was established.

The Reservations

Non-Indian settlement came relatively late to this site, partly because it -- along with the entire Okanogan region -- had been set aside for a time as reservation land. Everything on the east bank of the Okanogan River was made part of the Colville Reservation in 1872. Then, in 1879, everything on the west bank of the river became part of the Columbia Reservation, better known as the Moses Reservation after Chief Moses (1829-1899), who had engineered the deal during a trip to Washington D.C. At this point, all of what is now Okanogan County was in one of these two reservations.

The Moses Reservation was short-lived. The scattered new settlers lobbied hard against it and new ore discoveries made the land enticing for miners. In 1883, the Moses Reservation was dissolved, after barely being used, and Chief Moses and his bands were sent to the Colville Reservation on the east side of the Okanogan River. At this point, the Okanogan country "emerged finally as a Late Frontier" (Wilson, p. 77).

Yet the first part of this boom bypassed what is now Okanogan, because mining was the main attraction. The ore-bearing regions were not along the river, but up in the hills. The county seat of Okanogan County was first Ruby and then Conconully, two mining towns established in the mountains decades before the existence of either Okanogan or Omak.

Farms, Orchards, and a Town

However, by around 1900, the mining fever was cooling off and settlers began turning their eye to another kind of gold -- agricultural bottomlands. People began to realize that, with the addition of irrigation water, the Okanogan Valley could be rich orchard land and farmland. In 1905, the Okanogan Irrigation Project was approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior, making it the first U.S. Reclamation Service project in the state. Contracts were let in 1906. Pioneer entrepreneurs began platting future town sites to serve what they envisioned as a bustling agricultural valley

One of those town sites was at the mouth of Salmon Creek on the west bank of the Okanogan River. According to Bruce A. Wilson's definitive account of Okanogan County history, Late Frontier, the town began when Frank J. "Pard" Cummings moved there in 1886 to start a small trading post. He was called "Pard" because that's what he called everybody else.

The little trading post slowly attracted more settlers. Before long, Cummings was also operating a ferry across the Okanogan. By 1888, the town took on the name of Alma, after Alma Kahlow, the daughter of a prominent early resident and wife of an area sternwheeler captain. Cummings was the first postmaster.

The little town grew slowly and was platted in 1904. At that time, it consisted of the Alma Hotel, one general store, and a livery barn. Another small area, called North Alma, was platted just north of Salmon Creek. The two districts grew together and became just plain Alma.

But not for long. Dr. J.,I. Pogue, one of the area's first orchard growers, had been prominent in bringing the irrigation project to what is now known as Pogue Flat. In 1905, the citizens of Alma decided to honor him by changing the town's name from Alma to Pogue. Postal authorities were happy to go along with this, since plenty of Almas were already in existence around the country. The name of the post office was duly changed to Pogue.

Yet the name Pogue didn't sit well with everyone. Some people thought it would be hard for visitors to pronounce. Some were simply not enamored with Dr. Pogue. Mainly, though, people wanted a name that connected the town to the new Okanogan Irrigation Project, the river and the region. At a town meeting in early 1907, the town voted 39-2 to change the name. Pogue became Okanogan and "a new name, a new town and a new spirit was born" (Kerr, p. 8).

This decision had repercussions that still reverberate in the valley. Dr. Pogue, feeling rejected, "withdrew his patronage and support from the town" (Centennial). He began platting another town about five miles upriver. That town would become Omak, which is now the larger of these twin cities.

The name Okanogan was natural, although students of history and geography can be forgiven for wishing that the name hadn't been so commonly, and confusingly, applied to so many different places. There have been two Fort Okanogans and three other places named Okanogan City (there's also a populous region of the same name just over the international border in Canada, but it is spelled differently: Okanagan).

The two Fort Okanogans were fur-trading sites, about a mile apart from each other at the mouth of the Okanogan River on the Columbia, nearer to today's Brewster than to today's Okanogan.

The first Okanogan City was a small and soon-defunct mining camp on the Similkameen River in 1860; the second was in a high dusty site in Douglas County and lasted only three years; and the third was a short-lived town site on the Okanogan River, near the present town of Riverside. It was established in 1897 and soon "faltered and died" (Wilson, p. 76).

Rough Lumber and Trails for Streets

The present Okanogan outlived them all, but it was not an imposing sight in those early days. When H. A. Yates rode in to town in May 1906, he said "the town had all the appearance of being a real frontier settlement" (Centennial).

Harry J. Kerr, who later became Okanogan's first mayor and a prominent banker, stepped off a steamboat that same month. He wrote in his A History of Okanogan that he was at first "disappointed" in the looks of the town and surroundings (Kerr, p.7).

"The thing I noticed first was the entire absence of paint or finished lumber," he wrote. "Most of the buildings I could see were of the box type and made of rough lumber. The streets were but trails in the sage brush and rocks. The thought of starting a bank and trying to make a home in such surroundings looked rather discouraging" (Kerr, p. 7).

Despite appearances, Okanogan was beginning to bustle. The Okanogan Irrigation Project’s dam and canals were under construction. Settlers were pouring in, laying claim to chunks of what would soon become bountiful orchard land.

A newfangled automobile rattled into town in 1906 -- the first auto seen there -- carrying Great Northern railroad officials inspecting what promised to be an important boon to the little town: The first rail line up the river. (It came as promised, but not until 1914). There was a saloon, two hotels, a jewelry store, two mercantile stores, and a meat market.

In 1907, a newspaper, a law office, churches and schools soon popped up. So did a photo studio, run by the young -- and someday to be famous -- pioneer photographer Frank S. Matsura 1874?-1913), an immigrant from Japan.

Boosters told young Kerr about the town's "wonderful future" (Kerr, p. 8). "It was all based on the fact that the Government was going to water 10,000 acres of land, the railroad was coming and the 'South Half' [of the Colville Reservation] was going to be opened immediately," wrote Kerr in 1931. "We were looking ahead then, now we are looking back. These are the facts. The Government project watered about half the ground expected, the railroad was not built for seven years, the Reservation did not open until ten years later" (Kerr, p. 8)

Still, Okanogan was looking forward and liked what it saw. By summer of 1907, Okanogan estimated its own population at about 318 and the fledging Commercial Club (later called the Chamber of Commerce) started a petition to authorize an incorporation vote. On September 30, 1907, the people marched to the polls and voted to incorporate, by a margin of 74 to 1.

Steamers Under the Bridge

One of the city's first projects was to build a steel bridge over the Okanogan River. At the time, the Okanogan River had only two bridges, both far upstream, one at Riverside and one above Oroville. The town raised $3,000 for the steel bridge and convinced county commissioners to put up $2,000. It ended up costing $10,500. Other communities, jealous about Okanogan's new prominence, complained about the eventual cost to the county and called it a "steal bridge." But Kerr later wrote that "we wanted a bridge and were willing to pay and we took the only way open to get it" (Kerr, p. 47). Due to an error in calculation, the bridge was built 11 feet too high -- but that just made it easier for steamboats to glide under.

The big steamboats that worked the Columbia River made it up the Okanogan River only during high water in spring. But shallow-draft steamers, like the one named the Charles Bureau after its builder and skipper, Capt. Charles Bureau, could navigate the river under most circumstances.

An excerpt from the Okanogan Independent on June 20, 1908 gives an idea of how important the steamer was to the town: "With Capt. Bureau at the wheel, the new boat steamed proudly over the Okanogan rapids and was met at the wharf by half the population of the town who flooded the captain with applause and congratulations" (Centennial).

Highbrow Stuff Not Tolerated

Okanogan was still a rambunctious frontier town, with two distinct social factions, the rowdy saloon crowd and the more staid newcomers. In 1907 a group of newcomers decided to stage an invitation dance, as opposed to a more common public dance. Kerr, one of the dance organizers, later wrote that "saloon proprietors, bartenders and the floating population were not invited" (Kerr, p. 35).

This riled up just about everybody who didn't receive an invitation. Some said they were not going to tolerate this kind of "highbrow stuff" in Okanogan. The saloon crowd promised to come and "shoot it up" (Kerr. p. 35).  Two armed guards stood at the door, but the dance came off peacefully. Yet nobody tried another highbrow invitation dance again for a long time.

The County Seat Fight

Okanogan continued to prosper, with a population of 611 in the 1910 census. The approach of the railroad in 1913 and 1914 sparked one of the turning points in Okanogan's history: The county seat fight.

Many residents thought it made sense for the county seat to be on the rail line. Conconully, the current county seat, was not. Omak and Okanogan were.

Omak fired off the first salvo in the county seat fight in 1913 when its Commercial Club announced that it would be a candidate for the county seat in the 1914 general election.

Okanogan, still more than twice as big as Omak, soon declared itself a candidate, too. On September 8, 1914, Okanogan easily beat Omak in a preliminary "elimination" election. Then, in the general election on November 3, 1914, Okanogan won handily again, with 3,152 votes in favor of moving the county seat, versus 1,602 votes against.

By the end of the year, the county government had moved to Okanogan. In 1915, a beautiful new courthouse, with Southwestern-Mexican architectural influences, was erected and occupied. According to Wilson, its architecture reflects the tastes of William Compton Brown (d. 1963), the town's mayor at the time and soon to be a judge serving in that courthouse. Brown also became a noted historian of the region. Today, the courthouse is Okanogan's most prominent landmark. It remains the seat of the county government.

Railroad Dreams Come True

The long-promised Great Northern railroad finally arrived on July 1, 1914, which instantly changed life in Okanogan.

"For many, many years, the people of this valley have waited for this consummation, have talked about it, prayed for it and dreamed about it," wrote the Okanogan Independent on July 3, 1914 (Wilson, p. 290).

The railroad served the whole valley, with two daily passenger trains, chugging each direction between Wenatchee and Oroville. Occasionally, a special train would be added for a major event, such as the 1914 baseball game pitting Conconully against Okanogan. A Great Northern train brought fans to the Okanogan ballpark from Oroville and Tonasket. The crowd was estimated at around 1,000. 

Apples, Lumber, Whiskey, and Tourists

By 1920, Okanogan's population had nearly doubled to 1,015. The economy had already settled into a pattern that would continue for decades. Apples were number one, followed by lumber and wood products in second place, and cattle in third place. An illicit industry was also thriving: bootleg liquor. All of Okanogan County was a hotbed of bootlegging during Prohibition, since it had such easy access to Canada and its whiskey.

In 1921, the Biles-Coleman Lumber Company got its start and soon became an important employer. The company located its huge sawmill in Omak, but plenty of its workers lived Okanogan. The company helped ignite a new boom in Omak, which by 1930 had raced past Okanogan in the census, with 2,547 residents compared to Okanogan's 1,519. Omak has been the bigger of the two cities ever since.

With increased access by railroad and auto, Okanogan added another industry to its economy, tourism. It was especially successful at attracting Canadian visitors, traveling a new auto route with a name hearkening back to the old days: The Okanogan-Cariboo Trail. In 1925, a new hotel called the Cariboo Inn opened to cater to that tourist trade.

The Great Depression of the 1930s did not spare Okanogan, although its severity was moderated by the fact that the apple industry continued to thrive. In fact, the apple industry provided much-needed work for thousands of people, both locals and migrants. The harvest crews around Okanogan in the 1930s were, according to an area orchardist, "30 percent local -- Indians, townspeople, schoolchildren -- and 70 percent white transients" who followed the harvests up the West Coast (Wilson, p. 316).

A strike against the Biles-Coleman Lumber Company in 1935 disrupted work -- and lives -- in both Omak and Okanogan. It wasn't finally resolved until 1938.

One o the biggest of all New Deal projects -- the Grand Coulee Dam -- had a glancing impact on Okanogan in the late 1930s. It spawned so many jobs for local workers that Okanogan County's "relief" (welfare) rate was far below the state average.

War Years and War Workers

When World War II arrived, orchard workers became harder to find. A Seattle reporter made a trip through the Okanogan Valley in 1945 and reported an unusual sight.

"We saw soldiers preparing a camp for German prisoners of war who are to help pick the Jim Wade apple crop," said Carlton Fitchett of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, referring to a large area orchard. "I was told 600 of the prisoners will pick apples in the valley this season." It was apparently a branch camp of the Fort Lewis POW camp.

Fitchett also noted that 614 Mexican farm laborers were working in the area orchards, and he wrote that "people in the valley like the Mexicans very much -- they are very friendly, hospitable, good-natured and courteous" (Fitchett).

Okanogan's 1950s

Okanogan's population went from 1,735 in 1940 to 2,013 in 1950. A terrible freeze in 1948 wiped out a number of orchards, but the industry bounced back quickly, with help from the hydroelectric projects, which dotted the Columbia River. These projects not only supplied more water for irrigation, but created cheap electricity for pumping that water.

By 1955, Okanogan's apple industry had recovered and the town was home to many apple warehouses and cold-storage units.

A 1955 survey of Okanogan's economy by the Spokesman-Review in Spokane reported, "Fundamentally, Okanogan's economy is the same today as it was 50 years ago. But there is a great deal more to it. Apples and cattle, with a substantial contribution from lumber, form its background. This is augmented by an increasing tourist trade, and in the traffic of those who love the outdoors" ("Okanogan is Proud").

In 1955, the Okanogan National Forest was, along with the county government, one of the city's top employers. Outdoor recreation -- especially hunting and fishing, which is especially fine in the region -- soon became an ever more important component of Okanogan's economy.

The Goldmarks and the John Birch Society

Okanogan was the center of national news coverage in 1963 and 1964, when former state legislator John Goldmark (1917-1979) and his wife Sally Goldmark (1907-1985) of Okanogan sued the Tonasket Tribune and the state coordinator of the ultraconservative John Birch Society for saying, among other things, that Goldmark was "a tool of a monstrous conspiracy to remake America into a totalitarian state ("Libel Jury"). The case was tried in Okanogan and the Goldmarks won -- although the judgment was later overturned on freedom of the press grounds.

The John Birch Society was particularly active in Okanogan around that time. In 1964, the society tried to block a regional library merger. "If the John Birch Society wants to run the City of Okanogan, they’ll have to take me into court," said Richard E. Johnson, the city attorney ("Okanogan's City Library").

Okanogan Today

Since then, Okanogan has continued to be an important civic, cultural, and governmental hub in Okanogan County. The city hosts the Okanogan County Fair every September at the fairgrounds north of town (not to be confused with the Omak Stampede, which is a rodeo and "Suicide Race" in August).

Okanogan's population has remained relatively stable over the last 50 years. It stood at 2,001 in the 1960 census and has since grown slowly and steadily to 2,484 in the 2000 census. The 2010 estimate by the state Office of Financial Management is 2,500, which puts it at a little more than half the population of Omak, estimated at 4,780. The Hispanic population is 10.1 percent, slightly higher than the statewide average, but far below the nearby cities of Brewster and Bridgeport, which are majority Hispanic.

Okanogan continues to take pride in its historic roots. In 2007, the town celebrated its centennial with parades, picnics, historical skits, and fireworks.

Meanwhile, the Okanogan County Historical Museum and Fire Hall remains the repository of the town's past. The complex includes historical exhibits, an Old West replica town, the Frank Matsura photo collection, and a research center.


Bruce A. Wilson, Late Frontier: A History of Okanogan County, Washington (Okanogan: Okanogan County Historical Society, 1990); Okanogan Centennial, a collection of historical articles by the Okanogan Centennial Planning Committee, published in 2007 by the Omak Chronicle, Omak Chronicle website accessed September 22, 2010 (http://www.omakchronicle.com/cent/okanoganhistory.shtml); Harry J. Kerr, A History of Okanogan (Okanogan: The First National Bank of Okanogan, 1931); Incorporation documents, on file at the Washington State Archives, Olympia; "Cariboo Inn Is Name of New Hotel," Okanogan Independent, November 21, 1925; Carlton Fitchett, "Diversified Riches in Okanogan Region," Seattle Post-Intelligencer,  September 18, 1945. p. 1; "Okanogan is Proud of Its History, Apples, Cattle and Forest Lands," The Spokesman Review, December 2, 1955, p. 44; "Okanogan's City Library Sparks Row," The Spokesman-Review, August 13, 1964, p. 6; "Libel Jury Sets $40,000 in Suit by Goldmarks," Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 22, 1964, p. 1; Okanogan's Growth Rate May Increase During '66," Spokesman-Review, January 30, 1966, p. 6.

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