Franklin County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Elizabeth Gibson
  • Posted 9/14/2005
  • Essay 7452
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Franklin County is situated in south-central Washington state. The Columbia River forms its western border and the Snake River forms the southern and eastern borders. The  shrub-steppe terrain is composed mainly of bunchgrass and sagebrush. There is little rainfall, but the soil is fertile and can grow anything with adequate moisture. Native Americans long hunted  game and fished for salmon in the area. White prospectors traveled through in the 1850s on their way to the gold rush in British Columbia and some stayed to raise sheep and plant orchards. Then the railroads came, securing the county's future. The Washington Territorial Legislature created the county on November 28, 1883, out of part of the old Whitman County. It was named for the American stateman Ben Franklin (1706-1790). Franklin County's first permanent settlements were railroad stations.  The towns grew steadily as irrigation methods improved after the completion of Grand Coulee Dam. Agriculture remains the basis of the economy. With its strategic position on the Columbia River, Pasco became the county's seat and largest city. Pasco and its sister cities across the Columbia River, Richland and Kennewick, are collectively known as the Tri-Cities.  The county boomed during World War II years, when the Hanford Nuclear Reservation brought large numbers of workers into the region. The population has grown steadily and in recent years Franklin County became the first Hispanic-majority county in the Pacific Northwest. It is also the region's  fastest growing county.

First Peoples

Before white settlers came to the area now known as Franklin County, the arid land was an oasis of bunch grass and sagebrush. Through this dry land flowed the Columbia and Snake rivers, where the region’s Native Americans fished for salmon. These peoples likely traded with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1805 when they arrived at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers. A few years later, David Thompson, of the North West Company, arrived here and claimed the land for Great Britain.

For several more decades the tribes continued to hunt and fish just as they always had. Occasionally miners or fur traders traveled into the area, but none stayed. They were just on their way to someplace else. After the end of the Indian Wars of the 1850s, settlers felt it was safe to move into the Columbia Basin. Cattle ranchers began using the northern part of modern-day Franklin County where lush bunchgrass grew. A few settlers clustered around Ringgold Bar, where Chinese panned for gold and Yakama Indians camped. Peach orchards flourished in this area.

Railroad Town

Not until 1879 did travelers began settling near the site of modern-day Pasco. Settlement began with the Northern Pacific Railroad. Engineers opened a construction center at the mouth of the Snake River on the north bank. The railroad called this settlement Ainsworth after J. C. Ainsworth, president of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company.

As the railroad built its line across the county, it established new stations. Each of these stops would eventually support small communities. The closest station to Ainsworth would be Eltopia, established in 1881 approximately 15 miles to the north. Next in line was Lake, later renamed Mesa, established in 1883. Later that same year, Palouse Junction, later named Connell after a railroad official, opened.

A County and its Towns

In November 1883, the territorial legislature created Franklin County from the western portion of Whitman County, and named it for Ben Franklin. The legislature awarded the county seat to Ainsworth, the largest population center at the time. Ainsworth averaged between 400 and 500 people, with a maximum of about 1,500 during its heyday. Nearly half the population consisted of Chinese laborers, who frequently worked for the railroads. They also operated many of businesses in town including laundries and stores, as well as opium dens to complement saloons and brothels.

Ainsworth would be short-lived. The railroad built a bridge across the Snake River in 1884 and moved its base across the river to a new town named Pasco. The name was chosen by engineer V. C. Bogue, whose last engineering job had been in the Andes Mountains of South America at Cerro de Pasco. The new location reminded him of the dry, dusty Andean country, and so he named the new railroad town after it. The company built housing for its employees along “A” street. The Chinese moved into the new town and created their own district. When railroad construction was completed, most of them left, in part due to persistent persecution by non-Chinese.

Crossing the Columbia

Ferry service between the new Pasco and Kennewick on the south shore of the Columbia began in November 1884. The ferry operated until December 1887, when the first railroad bridge was completed between the two towns. Land developers began to promote Pasco and its benefits, mainly cheap land. Settlers arrived to try their hand at farming and other small businesses. In 1891, a majority decided to incorporate the town of Pasco. W. P. Gray and Louis C. Grey formed the Pasco Land Company to promote the new community.

In 1890, the Northern Pacific had discontinued service to Connell, seeming to assure the death of the town before it even got going. Fortunately, the Union Pacific reestablished rail service in 1901, at which time Connell was incorporated. Shortly afterward, F. D. Mottet established the first bank there. Other businesses followed and for a time, Connell grew faster than Pasco. A devastating fire in 1905 demolished Connell's business district, setting back the town for a few years.

On the far eastern border of the county, in 1901,a new settlement called Hardersburg was platted. The town’s namesake, Jon Harder, arrived in the area in the 1890s. The town would later be renamed Kahlotus, an Indian word that means “hole in the ground.” Early settlers raised wheat near a spring-fed lake first called Washtucna Lake, later renamed Kahlotus Lake. In 1902, there was enough growth that a town site was platted by Joseph McCabe to form the new town of Eltopia, north of Pasco.

Farm Country

Growth was fairly slow though until another rail line reached Pasco in 1904. The Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroad went through Pasco from Spokane, crossed the Columbia, then followed the river’s north bank all the way down to Vancouver, Washington. One of the first crops sent to customers by rail was wheat. By 1905, more than one million bushels were being sold. Alfalfa, hay, potatoes, and sugar beets were also grown in the area.

Many farmers raised sheep both for mutton and for wool. The sheep were grazed in the Blue Mountains to the southeast in the summer, and fattened up on wheat stubble in Franklin County over the winter. The Merino and Rambouillet breeds were the most profitable. Before the railroad came, markets for the sheep were limited; now larger herds could be managed for larger markets back east.

Necessities and Amenities

Over the next decades, Pasco showed signs of permanency. The city received funds from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation and erected its first library in 1911. In 1912, city officials had a brand new city hall and new courthouse for conducting city business. As soon as that project was completed, crews laid new sidewalks and expanded the sewer system. The first hospital was opened in 1916 in a converted hotel. Roman Catholic nuns from Lewiston, Idaho, arrived to operate the hospital, which was called Our Lady of Lourdes.

Until 1922, residents could cross the Columbia only via ferry. In 1894, the Timmerman ferry started to take passengers, animals, and wagons from west Pasco to Richland on the west bank of the river. There were other ferries at White Bluffs, farther north, and at Burbank, on the south bank of the Snake River. In 1922, the original “green bridge” was erected to accommodate automobile traffic across the river. Another improvement in transportation came in 1926, when an airport opened in Pasco. At first, aircraft flew only mail, but later took on passengers as well. The Pasco airport would later serve as the main airport for the Tri-Cities, though both Richland and Kennewick in Benton County built small municipal airports.

Hard Times

Then came the years of the Great Depression. The railroad and its workers were most affected. Companies could not afford to ship what people could not afford to buy. There was very little recreational travel and low freight, which resulted in many lost jobs. There were an increased number of transients -- called hobos -- on the trains that did come in. Begging increased at homes and businesses, and most families gave what they could.

Pasco received federal money for transient quarters for the increasing numbers of men out of work. Despite the Depression, Connell was able to establish a grain co-op as well as a public utility district, both of which were of great help in weathering hard times.

War Years

In the early 1940s, the Port of Pasco was created on the north shore of the Columbia River. The port was dedicated on October 29, 1941. River traffic increased when goods began being shipped up and down river. The business also helped put people back to work. Originally, grain shipments were the biggest source of revenue. Over the years, petroleum handling and storage contributed to the economy.

During World War II, Pasco saw considerable expansion. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in neighboring Benton County required huge numbers of construction employees as well as long-term employees. Most of these people arrived through the railroad depot in Pasco and chose Pasco for their residences. The city expanded its services to provide for them. In addition, the government chose Pasco for a naval air station, completed in 1942. The Navy trained thousands of men at this airfield, which operated until 1946.

After the war, the city took over the naval air station and used it for regular airline service. The school district had grown to the point that it leased several of the air station buildings. The first vocational school, the future Columbia Basin College, held its first classes at the old air station.

Columbia Basin Irrigation Project

The completion of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project in 1948 ensured continued growth in agricultural products and livestock. Wheat and other crops had done well before, but with a reliable source of water the land could produce more. Pasco's water had come from the Columbia River, but other communities had relied on the railroad well at Mesa or on personal wells. The Pasco Reclamation Company and several others had failed in their efforts to bring reliable irrigation to the area.

Finally the federal government created the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. The project centered around the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. The dam, completed in 1938, created a large reservoir from which water could be brought to Franklin County through a series of canals. In 1948, the first Franklin County farm received irrigation water from Grand Coulee. The dam also supplied cheap hydroelectric power, which aided irrigation by powering pumps. When water came, people who had moved away in the drought years came back.

The completion of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project ensured the continued growth in agricultural products and livestock, not only in Franklin County but throughout the Columbia Basin. More labor was needed for this agricultural growth and migrant workers, mainly of Mexican descent, supplied much of it. As these new residents integrated into the counties, cities, and towns, bilingual programs were needed, especially in the school districts.

Continuing Development

Other growth continued. Memorial Park was dedicated and opened in 1947. A new golf course was built in Pasco in 1958. A new, larger library for Pasco was dedicated in April 1962. The old Carnegie Library became the home of the Franklin County Historical Society and Museum. Unique Frozen Foods put up a new potato processing plant in Connell in 1966. Kahlotus experienced a small boom when construction workers came to build nearby Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River. Pasco housed the workers who came to build Ice Harbor Dam in 1956.

More recent developments in Franklin County include the extension of Interstate 82 across the Columbia River from west Pasco to Richland, in 1986. Four new lanes of highway allowed for steady growth in west Pasco, most notably the completion of the Trade Recreation and Agricultural Center (TRAC) and Tri-Cities Stadium. The TRAC facility hosts many community events for both Benton and Franklin counties, including the Northwest Sportsman’s Trade Show. Tri-Cities Stadium plays host to the professional baseball team, Tri-City Dust Devils.

Farther north, the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell has helped diversify the economy of that town. And Pasco's growth and economy will always be linked with its sister cities on the opposite bank of the Columbia -- Richland and Kennewick.

But as long as irrigation water keeps flowing, agriculture will be the economic base of Franklin County. In 1995. Pasco built a wastewater treatment plant to attract food processors that use huge amounts of water to wash vegetables. Mexicans had first entered the county as agricultural workers, and the county's Hispanic population continues to grow and diversify, with many stores and restaurants now owned by Spanish-speaking merchants.

In 2006, Franklin County became the first Hispanic-majority county in the Northwest, with nearly 57 percent of the population Hispanic, up from 47 percent in 2000. Franklin County is the fastest growing county in the Pacific Northwest.

Sources: Ted Van Arsdol, Tri-Cities: The Mid-Columbia Hub, An Illustrated History (Chatworth, CA: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1990); Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1985); Beth Gibson, "Connell," Women’s Connection Magazine, August 1996; Walter A. Oberst, Railroads, Reclamation And the River: A History of Pasco (Pasco, WA: Franklin County Historical Society, 1978); Ted Van Arsdol, "Dave Coonc and his Era," Franklin Flyer newsletter of the Franklin County Historical Society, Vol. 19, No. 3 (October 1986); Donna M. Dabbert, "They Built Lines of Steel: A History of the Chinese in Pasco," Franklin Flyer, Vol. 18, No. 1 (April 1985); "Where Have the Sheep Men Gone?" Franklin Flyer Vol. 2, No. 3 (April 1969); Shannon Dininny, "Washington's Franklin County first Hispanic-majority County in NW," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 28, 2007 (
Note: This essay was updated on July 29, 2007.

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