Goldendale -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 8/20/2015
  • Essay 11097
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Goldendale is the seat of Klickitat County in South Central Washington, and the county's largest town. Located 13 miles north of the Columbia River Gorge, Washington's southern border with Oregon, Goldendale has since its inception been an important gathering place for farmers and ranchers throughout the county. Goldendale has long been Klickitat County's regional service center, hosting the Klickitat Valley Hospital, Goldendale Observatory State Park, and Klickitat Regional Library, important locations that serve town residents as well as the wider community. Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. St. Helens are all visible from various locations in Goldendale.

Founding Goldendale

The first person to hold formal title to the land that would become Goldendale was Lyonel J. Kimberland. On August 15, 1871, John J. Golden (1826-1906) purchased the land from Kimberland.

Born in Pennsylvania, John Golden immigrated to California in 1852. While there he operated two general stores in Shasta City, and after several years decided to try to reach the Fraser River gold fields in British Columbia. He ended up in Oregon's Willamette Valley where he married Jane Parrott (1845-1921), who was then 14 years old to his 30. Immediately after his marriage, Golden took a scouting trip to try to discover fertile land where he could run cattle. The Klickitat Valley pleased him, and in August of 1859, with his wife and her family, Golden settled there.

In 1872, Golden had a townsite surveyed and platted. On November 5, 1878, Klickitat County voters chose Goldendale as the county seat by an overwhelming majority. On November 14, 1879, Washington's Territorial Legislature incorporated the city of Goldendale. On April 15, 1902, Goldendale was reincorporated under state law.

Fire and Water

On May 13, 1888, most of the buildings in Goldendale's downtown business district, including the county courthouse, were destroyed by fire. It was a Sunday, and many of the town's residents were at a picnic northeast of town. By the time the few townspeople not at the picnic alerted the revelers, the fire had spread. Residents fought the blaze with buckets of water -- their only option, since the town had no water system at the time. The wooden cart that served as fire truck and the wooden jail both burned, as did commercial buildings and some 25 homes. The First Methodist Church also fell victim to the conflagration. Losses were estimated at $250,000. Klickitat County's earliest public records, stored in the courthouse, also perished.

Within a few months, townspeople had rebuilt some 20 buildings, many of brick. Brick was the choice for Klickitat County's new courthouse, which was completed in 1889. Since Goldendale had as yet no rail connection by which supplies could easily be shipped, residents made the bricks themselves from local clay. In 1890, Goldendale voters almost unanimously approved a bond issue to build a city water system.

Roads and Rails

The town of Goldendale predated easy access. Unlike the many rural Washington towns that were established in tandem with railroads, Goldendale remained unserved by rail for some 30 years, and even longer unserved by major access roads. Goldendale residents who wanted to easily transport their wheat crops to market hoped that the Northern Pacific Railroad or another line would notice them and connect their town to the growing railway network. When this failed to occur, residents convinced Portland, Oregon, investors to construct a rail line: the Columbia River & Northern Railway. John Golden gave the railroad company land for the depot and rail yard.

The first rails connected Goldendale with a dock at Lyle, on the Columbia River southwest of Goldendale, where goods could be loaded onto barges and shipped to Portland and beyond. When the first train on this short line reached Goldendale in 1903, 10,000 tons of wheat awaited shipment. In 1908 the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway's North Bank Route from Pasco to Vancouver via Goldendale opened, finally connecting the town directly with major cities across the country. In 1970, the Spokane, Portland & Seattle became part of Burlington Northern Railway.

Connecting to other towns by road took longer, despite road demonstration projects at nearby Maryhill and the ongoing advocacy for creating good roads expressed by Maryhill's owner Sam Hill (1857-1931). Although marooned by the lack of roads to other towns, Goldendale enjoyed paved roads within town, as well as sidewalks, as early as 1911. Eventually, in 1926, Goldendale was connected to Vancouver by State Highway 8 (the North Bank Highway along the Washington side of the Columbia), but not yet by road to any other city. By 1939, the highway was extended north, linking Goldendale with Yakima, Ellensburg, and connections throughout the state.

Newspapers and Libraries

The Goldendale Sentinel, founded in 1878 (some sources say 1879), remained Klickitat County's main newspaper in 2015. First called the Klickitat Sentinel, the newspaper began publishing in 1878. A rival paper, the Goldendale Gazette, was formed the following year. In 1885, the papers merged, becoming the Goldendale Sentinel.

Other newspapers published in Goldendale over time have included the Goldendale Independent, the Goldendale Tribune, the Klickitat County News, the Goldendale Weekly Journal, and the Klickitat County Agriculturist. Of these, the Agriculturist was the longest-lived, publishing from 1890 to 1936.

The Goldendale Free Public Library began serving Klickitat County residents in March 1915. Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) funded construction of a one-story Colonial-style brick building. In recognition of the fact that Goldendale's library was the only one in the county and was thus serving patrons far beyond the town itself, county commissioners provided funding on an annual basis. In 1973, Goldendale's library became part of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library system serving Clark, Klickitat, and Skamania counties and the city of Woodland in Cowlitz County, allowing local library patrons access to a greatly enhanced circulating collection.

Schools and Hospitals

Although Klickitat County's public school system began in 1867 and the area that became Goldendale was designated District Number Two, little educational opportunity was available during its early years. The needs of younger students were met first, and Goldendale graduated its first eighth-grade class in 1889. The school the children attended was built on land donated by John Golden.

Goldendale's first secondary school, Klickitat Academy, was a private institution. The school was founded in 1896. In 1906, the Goldendale School District purchased the Klickitat Academy building, and it became the public high school.

In 2015 Goldendale Primary School served kindergarten through fourth grade. Goldendale Middle School enrolled approximately 300 fifth-through-eighth-grade students. Goldendale High School, with its mascot the Timberwolf, served about 400 students in grades 9 through 12.

The Klickitat Valley Hospital was founded in 1949 to serve central and eastern Klickitat County. Klickitat Valley was the first hospital in the state organized under the Hill-Burton Act of 1946. That federal act permitted the formation of hospital districts and gave grants and loans to hospitals, enabling the facilities to grow and modernize. Fully accredited since 1979, the hospital has been enlarged and modernized several times.

Klickitat Valley Hospital replaced Goldendale General Hospital. Operated for decades in a building that was essentially constructed to function as a private home, the so-called Old Hospital had doors too narrow to allow passage of a gurney, necessitating that doctors carry their patients from surgery back to their hospital rooms. The building boasted a dumbwaiter for food and supplies, but had no elevator. Patients who were too weak to climb stairs relied upon the nurses to carry them.

Maryhill Museum

The Maryhill Museum of Art, located south of Goldendale on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River gorge, draws visitors from around the world. Built by railroad magnate Sam Hill and dedicated by Hill's friend Queen Marie of Romania (1875-1938) in 1926, the structure was originally intended as a home. When Queen Marie dedicated the Maryhill Museum, the building was only half completed. Nevertheless, her royal presence in the remote corner of Washington and the promise of her patronage brought international attention to the ceremony.

Maryhill finally opened to the public in 1940, after years of funding issues stemming from ongoing litigation over Sam Hill's last will and testament. As of 2015, the museum's collection included unique treasures such as sculpture and drawings by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), artworks and memorabilia documenting the life and career of American dancer Loie Fuller (1862-1928), the Theatre de la Mode (18-inch wire mannequins dressed in post-World War II Parisian couture fashion), and personal items that once belonged to Queen Marie of Romania and her grandmother, Queen Victoria (1819-1901), which drew 40,000 visitors each March-December season.

Historic Goldendale

The Klickitat County Historical Society was organized in 1958 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, and presenting the history of Goldendale and Klickitat County. In 1962 the society purchased the three-story, 22-room Presby Mansion. Constructed in 1902 by Klickitat attorney Winthrop B. Presby (1859-1914), the house had been a family residence, a boarding house for teachers, and a boarding house for railway workers.

In 2015 the Presby Mansion housed the Klickitat County Historical Society and the Presby House Museum, open May through October. The Presby Museum displayed thousands of artifacts utilized by Klickitat County residents during daily life, including the original press used to produce the Goldendale Sentinel, a reproduction of a one-room schoolhouse, and items from early businesses and from the Goldendale Railway Station.

In addition to the Presby House, some 20 other historic Goldendale residences still stood in 2015. Most of these dwellings dated from between 1890 and 1910. Goldendale's original Carnegie Library, the town's original hospital, and the World War II-era Klickitat County Courthouse also remained standing. Goldendale's Chamber of Commerce offered self-guided driving tours of these historic structures.

Goldendale Aluminum Plant

In 1970, the Los Angeles-based Harvey Aluminum Company constructed an aluminum processing facility near Goldendale. From 1971 to 1985 Goldendale Aluminum was owned by Martin Marietta (later Lockheed Martin). From 1985 to 1987 Commonwealth Aluminum, an Australian company, owned and operated the plant. Columbia Aluminum of Portland purchased the facility in 1987 and oversaw operations until 1996, when another Portland firm, Goldendale Aluminum, took ownership. The plant closed in 2003.

During its peak operating years in the 1970s and 1980s, the aluminum business was a major source of employment in Goldendale and the surrounding area. Nearly a quarter of Klickitat County residents worked at the plant, which operated seven days a week, around the clock. Mined alumina (the raw product used to produce aluminum) was shipped to Goldendale from Australia, India, and Jamaica. The facility produced columns of solid aluminum known as extrusion billets, as well as other forms of raw aluminum. This material was used in munitions, consumer products, and for industrial purposes. Demolition of the plant began in 2011 and was completed in 2012. Lockheed Martin assumed primary responsibility for ensuring environmental cleanup of contaminated sediment and soil resulting from the plant's three decades of operations.

Goldendale Observatory

The Goldendale Observatory, located two miles north of downtown Goldendale, was dedicated October 13, 1973, and is one of the largest public observatories in the United States. The observatory, a Washington State Parks Heritage Site, is a certified Dark Sky Park, meaning it has minimal light pollution and exceptionally starry skies. The five-acre observatory facility sits atop a 2,100-foot hill, providing territorial daytime views as well as opportunities for impressive stargazing, with educational sessions explaining stargazing and telescopes offered regularly at the interpretive center.

The Goldendale Observatory's 24-inch Cassegrain reflecting telescope has drawn visitors from around the world as a major location for viewing astronomical events. During the total solar eclipse on February 26, 1979, the observatory served as official headquarters for the National Astronomical League. Some 15,000 people observed the eclipse from Goldendale.

Goldendale Today

As of 2013, Goldendale's population was 3,452, down 8.2 percent from 2000, the city's population peak. Construction and manufacturing are the most common industries in which Goldendale's male population labors. Female residents are most commonly employed in the retail trade.

Goldendale has an annual home and garden show and a bluegrass festival. Several farms near Goldendale sell alpacas and invite tourism. Goldendale also benefits from wine tourism -- Maryhill Winery, Waving Tree Winery, and many others are within easy range. Many Maryhill Museum visitors stop in Goldendale.

In the early years of the twenty-first century, Goldendale saw increased tourism thanks to the annual Festival of Speed, a downhill skateboarding event using Maryhill Museum's historic Loops Road, an early road-building demonstration project. The Festival of Speed complemented Goldendale's Festival of Wheels, an annual event featuring vintage cars and vintage dirt bikes.

Sources: City of Goldendale website accessed March 18, 2015 (; "Goldendale Observatory State Park," Washington State Parks website accessed March 17, 2015 (; International Dark-Sky Association website accessed March 18, 2015 (; "Goldendale, Washington," website accessed March 18, 2015 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Goldendale becomes the seat of Klickitat County on November 5, 1878" (by Paula Becker), "Fire destroys seven blocks of downtown Goldendale on May 13, 1888" (by Paula Becker), "Goldendale Free Public Library, first public library in Klickitat County, opens on March 1, 1915" (by Paula Becker), "Maryhill Museum of Art" (by David Wilma), and "Klickitat County -- Thumbnail History" (by Paula Becker), (accessed March 16, 2015); An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties, With an Outline of the Early History of the State of Washington (Evansville, Indiana: Unigraphic, [1904] 1977), 131; 100 Golden Years, ed. by Pete May (Goldendale: Goldendale Centennial Corporation, 1972); Scott Hewitt, "Gorge's Hidden Gem: Maryhill Museum," The Columbian, March 1, 2015 (; "Klickitat County, Washington Newspapers," FamilySearch website accessed April 2, 2015 (,_Washington_Newspapers); "John J. Golden Dead," The Klickitat County Agriculturist, October 20, 1906, p. 3; Goldendale Chamber of Commerce website accessed April 2, 2015 (; Lou Marzeles, "An Industrial Brigadoon?," The Goldendale Sentinel, October 22, 2009 (; Bill Epperheimer, "Ownership History of the Goldendale Aluminum Company," Yakima Herald-Republic, June 12, 2005, p. A-3; "Goldendale Aluminum Plant," Center for Land Use Interpretation website accessed August 1, 2015 (; "Goldendale, WA," Lockheed Martin website accessed August 1, 2015 (; Ross A. Courtney, "The Goldendale Aluminum Plant -- Death of a Way of Life," Yakima Herald-Republic, April 10, 2011, p. A-1; Ross A. Courtney, "Goldendale," Ibid., September 27, 2007, p. A-1; "Washington State Highway Map, 1939," Washington Secretary of State website accessed August 2, 2015 (; "Historic Homes of Goldendale, Washington," pamphlet distributed by Presby House Museum, Goldendale (Goldendale: Goldendale Chamber of Commerce, n.d.); "What is the Hill-Burton Act?," Medicare News Group website accessed August 2, 2015 (

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