Toppenish -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 5/13/2013
  • Essay 10400
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The city of Toppenish is an agricultural center in the fertile Yakima Valley and the largest city on the Yakama Indian Reservation. It sits amid orchards and fields about two miles from the south bank of Yakima River. For centuries, the site was roamed by the Yakama Indians and other Plateau Tribes and was included in the Yakama Reservation, established in 1855. A Northern Pacific Railway depot was built on the site in 1884 and the station was named Toppenish, from a Yakama word describing the land: "Sloping downward and spreading." Five families of Indian blood claimed allotments near the depot in 1887. The town began to grow in 1905 when some of the key allotments were divided into lots and sold. In 1907, the town had grown to a few hundred residents and was incorporated. By 1910, it had mushroomed to 1,598, as farmers and ranchers leased or bought the irrigated farmland around it. Toppenish was soon shipping out freight cars full of hops, fruit, potatoes, and livestock. Hispanic farm workers helped bring in the harvests and later began to arrive as residents. By the 1990s, Toppenish was a majority Hispanic city. The Yakama Tribe has a large presence in and around Toppenish, with the Yakama Nation Museum and Cultural Heritage Center and the Yakama Nation Legends Casino. History is an especially vivid presence in Toppenish. It has two other museums, the American Hop Museum and the Northern Pacific Railway Museum, and 75 outdoor murals depicting scenes from the area's history as part of the Toppenish Mural Society project. As of the 2010 census, Toppenish had a population of 8,949. 

Early Days

The site of the city of Toppenish was for millennia part of the land roamed by the Yakama Tribe and the other tribes in the region, known collectively as the Peoples of the Plateau. They fished for salmon in the Yakima River and gathered roots in the grasslands that sloped from the forests of the Cascade Range down to the lush flats of the Yakima River. With the coming of the horse in the 1700s, the tall bunchgrass slopes and river bottomlands proved to be well-suited to supporting the huge herds acquired by the Yakama people. By the early 1800s, Chief Kamiakin (ca. 1800-1877), a key Yakama leader whose main camp was north of present-day Toppenish on Ahtanum Creek, was said to have thousands of horses.

The future site of Toppenish was -- and still remains -- inside the boundary of the Yakama Reservation, established in the controversial Treaty of 1855 and ratified in 1859. After that, the Yakamas and the other Plateau tribes continued to roam the area on their seasonal food-gathering rounds, yet much of the tribal population was centered in the vicinity of Fort Simcoe, the Yakama Indian Agency about 26 miles west of present day Toppenish.

By the 1860s, white ranchers had discovered what the tribes already knew – that the Yakima Valley was excellent grazing land. A number of stockmen with Indian Agency grazing permits, notably Ben Snipes (1835-1906) and Charlie Newell (1847-1932), began running big herds of cattle and horses in the Yakima Valley. In the 1870s and early 1880s, a few ranchers and dairymen established houses and cabins in the area.

Becoming Toppenish

Yet the site of Toppenish, on the south side  of the Yakima River, remained a dusty sagebrush flat until 1884, when the Northern Pacific Railway built its line up the Yakima Valley. The Northern Pacific built a depot, a telegraph office, and a water tank at a station it named Toppenish.

The name was from a Yakama-Shahaptian word, T-hoppenish, that meant, roughly, "sloping downward and spreading" -- a perfect description of the land between the Cascade Mountains and the Yakima River (Delaney, p. 5). For centuries, the entire sloping plain west of the present town was known as T-hoppenish. On maps, the name Toppenish had already been applied to Toppenish Creek, one of the principal creeks leading from the Cascades to the Yakima River, and to the dry brown ridge above it, Toppenish Ridge. The new Toppenish station was about four miles north of Toppenish Creek.

This little red-painted depot was the genesis of the town -- yet it took another 20 years for the town to spring fully to life. When the depot was built, there were only three houses within six miles. The depot had a station agent, John Cowen, but it remained a quiet spot until through travel was established after the railroad was extended over the Cascades in 1886. Then, stockyards were built nearby and the depot became a busy shipping point for cattle. In the words of early Toppenish mayor and historian H. M. Johnson, "then it was that eyes began to turn toward the reservation" (Johnson, p. 9).

Five Families

Except for a small strip of land owned by the Northern Pacific, the future site of Toppenish was reservation land, owned in common by the tribe. However, that changed in the mid-1880s when tribal members were first allowed to claim individual allotments -- 80-acre tracts of the reservation. Five families with Indian blood of varying degrees recognized early the value of holding allotments near the Toppenish depot, and they came and took "squatter's rights" on five pieces of land -- meaning, essentially, they lived on their chosen spots until the surveyors could come and award them their allotments (Johnston, p. 9) .These five families were the Bowzer, French, Olney, Robbins, and Spencer families.

"Their squatters claims were the beginnings of the individual titles to the ground on which our present town is built," wrote Johnson in 1927. "So the history of these five families is closely linked up with the beginnings of our town" (Johnson, p. 9).

Josephine Bowzer Lillie (1865-1932), a member of the Yakama Tribe, along with her white husband, Nevada H. Lillie, established a little store on her land about a mile east of the depot in 1887 and established a post office at her store. Before long, she decided to switch her claim to an 80-acre tract closer to the depot, which, 16 years later, would become the Toppenish townsite. She later became known as "The Mother of Toppenish" (Bragg). She and the other four founding families -- with holdings stretched along the Northern Pacific tracks -- all received title to their land in 1887. Josephine Lillie built a new store and post office and lived in the back with her family -- the first store in what is now Toppenish. She and her family prospered and in 1893 built a grand 12-room house. When her store burned down in 1894, she moved the post office into her house.

An Agricultural Center

These first settlers apparently did not have a town in mind. Instead, they believed that "proximity to a shipping point would enhance" the land's agricultural value (Delaney, p. 6). The Toppenish depot was soon busy shipping cattle from an influx of new ranches, which were leasing acreage from tribal allottees. Also, some farmers had discovered that the Yakima Valley land around the Toppenish depot was uncommonly productive when irrigated. The first small-scale irrigation efforts produced excellent alfalfa. In 1897, a large-scale government canal project began irrigating 20,000 acres in the Toppenish area. White farmers began to lease croplands from tribal allottees along the Yakima River's south bank. 

The little settlement acquired another trading post in 1898, built by Frank L. Williams on railroad land. Around that time, a new Toppenish station agent, W. L. Shearer, arrived with his wife, who became the postmistress. The Shearers threw themselves enthusiastically into building up the little settlement and helped build a new building to serve both as a school and the Methodist Church.

By 1900, the settlement still had only a handful of people. It consisted of "a post office, church, school, trading post and a few scattered dwellings" (Delaney, p. 7). Yet irrigation was bringing in more farmers -- at least those who could get leases. Also, in 1903, the Washington Nursery Company leased 350 acres of Indian land and began growing and shipping trees all over the country. The nursery "for many years provided the town with its major payroll" (Delaney, p.8).

By 1904, a survey of the region reported that "Toppenish has grown steadily and rapidly, especially as a shipping and receiving point" (Illustrated, p. 231). The Toppenish depot had shipped out between 1,300 and 1,400 freight cars of "hay, fruit, potatoes, hops and livestock" in 1903 (Illustrated, p. 232).. The town in 1904  included the three-story Hotel Toppenish, described as "quite a pretentious structure for a small town" (Illustrated, p. 231). On either side were false-fronted stores and the town's first newspaper, the Toppenish Review. One sardonic old-timer dubbed the street "Paradise Row" (Delaney, p. 8).

Selling Lots, Becoming a Town

However, the authors of the Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties noted in 1904 that Toppenish "labors under one unfortunate disadvantage" (Illustrated, p. 232). The majority of the land was leased land and under the law "cannot be sold at the present time." As a consequence, most of the white inhabitants of the district are "there purely by Indian sufferance" (Illustrated, p. 232). The inhabitants "appear to regard the matter as merely an impediment and not a menace to their town's growth" (Illustrated, p. 232).

Before long, allottees "who proved competent to manage their own affairs" were allowed to obtain fee patents to their land, removing trust restrictions (Delaney, p. 9). Josephine Lillie obtained the deed to her 80 acres and "immediately placed the north 40 acres into city lots and placed them on the market, giving the tract the name, the City of Toppenish" (Johnson, p. 37).  On April 4, 1905, she filed her plat with the county, dedicated the streets to the public, and started selling lots. They sold rapidly and launched a "little boom" in the fledgling town (Johnson, p. 37). Two years later, other original allottees obtained deeds to their land and started selling lots.

By 1907, the town had grown to several hundred residents, who felt it was time to incorporate. An incorporation election was held in April 1907 and the vote was as conclusive as possible: 100 votes in favor of incorporation, zero opposed. The election was approved by the Yakima County commissioners on April 22, 1907. Toppenish officially became a town on April 29, 1907, when the incorporation papers were filed with the state Secretary of State's office. Leonard Talbott (1867-1918) was elected the town's first mayor by a vote of 105 to one.

Disorder and the Fortunate Fires

The Toppenish Commercial Club, which evolved into the Chamber of Commerce, was also founded in 1907. The town still had a frontier look about it -- there were as  yet no brick buildings. Then, with land finally for sale and irrigation causing the sagebrush land to bloom, the region experienced a huge influx of population. By 1908, the population was estimated at around 800. By the time Toppenish was counted in the 1910 census, it had mushroomed to 1,598. This rapid influx made "early disorder inevitable" (Delaney, p. 12).

The city had 10 saloons, but because of a progressive ordinance, none of them were allowed on the town's main street. Nevertheless, Toppenish in its first decade was filled with boisterous "ranch hands, cowboys, and sometimes Indians" (Delaney, p. 12). The Indians were often found sleeping on the business district's boardwalks at night because they had "no other accommodations in town" -- despite the fact they were on their own reservation (Delaney, p. 12).

The frontier nature of the business district did not last long, because of what L. J. Goodrich, a Toppenish civic leader, called "a fortunate series of fires," which wiped out most of the ramshackle original buildings (Johnson, p. 40). Brick buildings sprang up in their places. Toppenish became distinguished from most other cities in the region because, in Goodrich's words, it had "no wooden firetraps in our business district" (Johnson, p. 40). A fine new Northern Pacific Railway depot was constructed out of brick in 1911.

A Vanishing Frontier

By 1910, the town had "four doctors, two dentists, two attorneys, an optometrist, and, of course, an undertaker" along with many merchants and entrepreneurs (Delaney, p.14).

 "They were not drifters," wrote town historian Richard Delaney in 1972. "Many of them put down roots, deep roots. Monetary gain could not have been the sole motive -- they were to give generously of their energy and money to build the town. Many of them possessed ability and professional training seemingly much above the level needed in a dusty, heat-seared rawish locale such as Toppenish" (Delaney, p. 13).

Delaney surmised that they came for the "amazing productivity" they found in the irrigated farmlands of the Yakima Valley, along with the "thrill in being part of the vanishing frontier and of meeting the challenges of that condition" (Delaney, p. 13). The original five families all had Indian blood, yet most of the newer arrivals were white. By 1914, about a third of the Yakama Reservation, 440,000 acres, had been allotted. A large amount of that land was sold to white farmers and ranchers – and Toppenish city dwellers.

An Agricultural Center

The farmlands around Toppenish – along with the rest of the irrigated Yakima Valley -- proved to be ideal for fruit orchards, hop farms, sugar beets, and many other crops. Several rail branches, serving different parts of the Yakima Valley, converged at the Toppenish depot. In 1919, Toppenish was billed as "the commercial and distributing center of lower Yakima County" and "one of the largest shipping points for agricultural products in the state" (Lyman, p. 789). Because of the fertile land around it, Toppenish in 1919 "has enjoyed a steady growth which bids fair to continue for an indefinite period" (Lyman, p. 789). The 1920 census bore that out, showing that the town nearly doubled in size over 10 years to 3,120.

By this time, Toppenish was considered a "progressive and public-spirited" town with an impressive array of modern improvements (Lyman, p. 789). It built its own municipal water plant in 1910 and would subsequently "enjoy the reputation of having the finest water supply of any community in the Yakima Valley" (Lyman, p. 789).  It then built a city sewer system, lighted its streets, built a library, and paved its dusty roads and sidewalks. Historian W. D. Lyman said in 1919 that it "may be justly entitled to the name of the metropolis of the Reservation" (Lyman, p. 789). It was, and remains, the largest city on the Yakama Reservation.

Yet growth would not continue through the 1920s. A large sugar beet processing factory, built in 1917, closed down in 1920 when the Yakima Valley's sugar beet crop was damaged by blight. Toppenish was also hurt by the more general farming slump of the 1920s, an early precursor to the even more disastrous Great Depression, beginning in 1929. The 1930 census showed a considerable drop in population, to 2,774.

One of the town's enduring events got its start in 1922, the Toppenish Powwow and Rodeo held every year on the Fourth of July weekend. One account said it combined "the talent of the white men and Indians" and that the members of the Yakama tribe take a "prominent part" ("Rodeo Grounds"). In 1948, the highlight was an Indian pageant, "Sacajawea," which featured more than 100 Yakama Indians. The three-day festival, which included a parade, drew an estimated 35,000 spectators that year.

An improving farm market and a boom in demand contributed to a population surge to 3,688 in 1940 and 5,265 in 1950.


One of the town's deadliest tragedies occurred on November 28, 1940, when seven people died and 14 were injured in a natural gas explosion at a downtown building. A grader operator struck a pipe outside the Richey and Gilbert Building and a spark set off a blast with the force of a bomb. More than 20 people were working and shopping in the building shortly before noon. One piece of the building flew 50 feet in the air and windows were broken all over town. The building contained several stores, including a Gambles store, and was completely demolished.

This death toll was exceeded by another tragedy on January 5, 1972, when the old Washington Hotel caught fire, killing eight residents. The hotel was described as "pretty plush in its day, but now a haven for transients and the elderly" ("Toppenish Hotel Blaze"). The fire started in a trash can in the empty lobby and residents were trapped inside with inadequate means to escape.

Sugar Beet Woes and a Way Out

The sugar beet industry in the Yakima Valley had revived after its troubles earlier in the century, and in the 1940s the Utah-Idaho (U & I) sugar company built a $2.5 million refinery in Toppenish.  In 1978, it was still  the city's largest single employer, with 200 permanent employees and 450 at peak production. However, market conditions doomed the sugar beet industry in the entire Columbia Basin. U & I closed the Toppenish refinery in 1978, along with another refinery in Moses Lake.

In an effort to provide a little spark to a depressed economy, in 1983 some Toppenish citizens proposed a makeover to turn it into a Wild West theme village. The idea was to remodel the downtown buildings into an 1880s theme -- ironic since hardly anything had existed there in the 1880s -- and put in wooden boardwalks, Western-themed murals, and a fleet of wagons and stagecoaches. Many people believed the town had to try something. One store owner said, "People don't want to come to a town that is dying," and another said, "If we keep going this way, people will move out" ("Turn Back Clock").

The Toppenish Murals

Ultimately the city council rejected this plan. However, one aspect -- the historical murals -- was revived in 1989 with great success. The Toppenish Mural Society embarked on an ambitious plan to cover the town with murals depicting historical scenes. Each mural had to depict a Toppenish-area event from 1850 to 1920 and each had to be done by accomplished, professional Western artists. The first mural, Clearing the Land, was created in one eight-hour day by a team of 16 Western artists supervised by Phil Kooser (1921-2007) of Yakima. A crowd of 3,000 gathered on bleachers to watch.

By April 1990, two giant murals had been completed, two more were in final planning stages, and eight more were in the works. The project proved to be such a popular success that, as of 2013, Toppenish had 75 murals covering exterior walls all over town, including murals by renowned artist Fred Oldfield (b. 1918), who grew up near Toppenish. In three cases, "walls have been built for the sole purpose of having a mural on them" ("Mural-In-A-Day"). More murals are planned. The annual Mural-In-A-Day project, modeled after the initial mural painting, takes place on the first Saturday of every June. In the summer, tourists can take narrated tours of all of the murals in a covered wagon drawn by horses.

Toppenish Today

The city's population rose significantly, from 6,517 in 1980, to 7,419 in 1990, and 8,946 in 2000. This rise was fueled largely by a dramatic influx of Hispanic residents. Toppenish went from a majority white community in the 1980s to a majority Hispanic community in the 1990s. The percentage of Toppenish residents of Hispanic origin climbed to 75.7 percent in the 2000 census, and to 82.6 in the 2010 census.

The Toppenish population of Native Americans held steady at about 8 percent in the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Yet the presence of the Yakama Nation in Toppenish is large. On June 9, 1980, the Yakama Nation opened the modern new Yakama Nation Museum and Cultural Heritage Center, just outside the Toppenish city limits. The center has a museum, gift shop, restaurant, theater, tribal offices, library, and a 15,000-square-foot longhouse, in the style of traditional winter lodge. In 1998, the Yakama Nation built the nearby Yakama Nation Legends Casino, a popular attraction for visitors throughout central Washington. The Yakama Nation also operates a radio station, KYNR, at 1490 on the AM dial, out of Toppenish.

Since 1982, Toppenish has been the home of Heritage University, a private non-denominational liberal arts university with 870 undergraduate students and 280 graduate students as of 2013. Its student body of Latino, white, and Native American students reflects the demographics of Toppenish as a whole. The university has a Center for Native American Health and Culture, and provides assistance to students from migrant and seasonal farm worker families under a federal program.

Toppenish has two other museums in addition to the Yakama Nation Museum. The American Hop Museum, located in an old creamery, displays historic hop-farming equipment and tells the story of one of the Toppenish area's most important crops. The Yakima Valley as a whole grows 75 percent of the nation's hops.

The Northern Pacific Railway Museum, located in the old 1911 Northern Pacific Railway Depot, celebrates the town's heritage as a rail center. The railroad closed the depot in 1981. The Yakima Valley Rail and Steam Museum Association restored the abandoned depot to its former glory and opened it as a museum in 1992. The museum has also acquired a steam engine and freight cars.

Meanwhile, a tour of the city's 75 murals will give visitors a vivid overview of the city's history:  From an Indian winter lodge, to the coming of the railroad, to "Paradise Row" in 1905, to an early hop-picking scene, to a barn dance, to a harvest scene of Mexican farm workers. So, in a sense, the entire city of Toppenish is an outdoor historical museum.

Sources: W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley, Washington, Comprising Yakima, Kittitas and Benton County, Illustrated, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S.  J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919); An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties With an Outline of the Early History of the State of Washington (Chicago: Interstate Publishing Company, 1904); H. M. Johnson, A History of the City of Toppenish (Toppenish: Toppenish Historical Museum Board, [1927] 1989); Richard Delaney, The First Fifty: Story of a Library, 1922-1972 (Toppenish: Toppenish Friends of the Library, 1972); Robert H. Ruby, John A. Brown, Cary C. Collins, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, third edition, 2010), 92-101, 388-390; "Rodeo Grounds Ready for Show," The Spokesman-Review, June 25, 1948, p. 31; "Thousands View Toppenish Rodeo," The Spokesman-Review, July 5, 1948, p. 1; "Gas Blast Rocks Toppenish Like Bomb, Kills 7, Hurts 14," The Spokesman-Review, November 29, 1940, p. 1; "Coroner Avers Blast Accident," Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 1, 1940. p. 1; "Toppenish May Turn Back Clock to Save Its Future," Spokane Chronicle, June 8, 1983, p. 19; "Toppenish Hotel Blaze: No Fire Exits Except Front,"The Seattle Times, January 6, 1972, p. A-16; "Mural-In-A-Day," on the Toppenish Chamber of Commerce website accessed May 10, 2013 (; "Copy of Proceedings Had In the Matter of the Incorporation of Town of Toppenish," incorporation documents, Municipal Articles of Incorporation, Secretary of State, Washington State Archives; Lynn E. Bragg, "Maud Lillie Bolin, Yakama Cowgirl Aviator," Columbia Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter 2004-2005), p. 29-32, accessed online at (

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