Douglas County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 10/15/2006
  • Essay 7961
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Douglas County is a predominantly rural county located in north central Washington. Waterville is the county seat. The county's proximity to Grand Coulee Dam just over the county line (spanning the Columbia River between Okanogan and Grant counties), as well as the four Columbia River dams within the county have over time provided work for thousands of Douglas County residents. The county comprises 1821 square miles, and ranks 17th in size among Washington's 39 counties. The Columbia River, either flowing through its channel or constricted in equalizing reservoirs behind dams, almost completely encircles Douglas County, which is bordered by Chelan County to the west, Okanogan County to the north, Grant County to the east/southeast, and a small part of Kittitas County to the south. As of June 2006 Douglas County had an estimated population of 35,700. East Wenatchee (population 11,420) and Bridgeport (population 2075) are the largest towns. Agriculture, especially apple, pear, and cherry orchards, and wheat, provides a significant percentage of the county's employment.

Geology and First Peoples

Like the terrain of the Big Bend counties that surround it, massive floods during the waning of the Ice Age in the wake of the retreating Vashon Glacier some 12,000 to 20,000 years ago shaped the land that is now Douglas County, forming deep canyons (coulees). Moses Coulee, a massive gorge that cuts north south through the southern part of Douglas County, is the one of Washington's most spectacular remaining coulees. The coulee floor lies some 500 feet down, surrounded by basalt cliffs. Moses Coulee supports one of the Washington's largest remaining undeveloped examples of the shrub-steppe ecoregion (consisting of sagebrush, rabbitbrush, greasewood, hopsage, bitterbrush, and buckwheat) once visible throughout the Big Bend area. The completion of Grand Coulee Dam in 1941 flooded Grand Coulee, another massive channel, creating the equalizing reservoir called Banks Lake.

The foothills of the Cascade mountain range form the western portion of the county. This hilly terrain is well suited to tree fruit. Central and Eastern Douglas County are flatter and suited to raising grain, especially wheat and barley.

The Colville Tribe, a Salishan people whose pre-contact name was pronounced Scheulpi or Chualpay, inhabited much of the area that would become Douglas County, migrating across the region to the Columbia River during salmon season. The Colville Tribe did not sign any treaty with the United States Government. In 1872 the Colvilles, along with other tribes and bands who had not signed treaties, were confined to the Colville reservation, effectively ending their unrestricted access to land in the future Douglas County.

A Sinkiuse/Sinkuone band under Chief Moses/Quelatican (ca. 1829-1899) also inhabited the region along the east side of the Columbia River. Moses and his band were forced to settle on the Colville reservation in 1884.


Representatives of John Jacob Astor's (1763-1848) Pacific Fur Company established Fort Okanogan, the first American outpost in what is now the state of Washington, on a well-established Indian trail near the confluence of the Okanogan and Columbia rivers in 1811. The site was flooded in 1957 during the construction of Wells Dam.

Chinese immigrants placer-mined for gold along the banks of the Columbia River beginning in the 1860s. An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country, published in 1904, lists a number of what it termed ruins of Chinese villages. At least one abandoned village, near the confluence of the Columbia and Chelan rivers, was still clearly visible in 1904. Indians from the Methow River attacked these Chinese miners in 1875, killing an unknown number of miners and driving many others away from their mining operations. Other Chinese miners continued to work claims along the Columbia near Rock Island into the mid-1880s. In the subsequent decade, however, anti-Chinese prejudice increased apace with increasing white settlement.

Phillip McEntee, a member of a surveying party that was determining the boundary line between the United States and British Columbia, traveled through the future Douglas County in 1877. In 1881 McEntee returned to the area and settled near present-day Coulee City (now part of Grant County) and began a cattle ranching operation. He was one of the first permanent non-Indian residents of the region.

Douglas County was carved out of Lincoln County on November 28, 1883. It is named after politician Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861), Abraham Lincoln's (1809-1865) opponent in the 1860 presidential race. Douglas, a senator from Illinois, was the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Territories at the time Washington Territory was established.

On February 24, 1909, Grant County was partitioned out of Douglas County.


Within a few months of Douglas County's creation, sheep and cattle ranchers began establishing the stock business in the new county. Agriculture was not initially considered an option, since early settlers did not believe the soil was rich enough to produce crops. During 1886 sheep ranchers and ranchers who ran cattle clashed bitterly over grazing rights. Nature resolved the conflict in the frigid winter of 1889/1890: nearly all of Douglas County's sheep and cattle died from starvation or exposure. The livestock business slowly recovered but never again did it achieve its early prominence.

John R. Lewis successfully raised Douglas County's first wheat crop in 1884, largely as an experiment to see if growing wheat in the region was even possible. Lewis raised 10 acres and threshed the wheat by having ponies walk on the cut stalks inside a small corral. In the wake of their stock losses, many former ranchers turned to wheat farming. As of 2002 Douglas County was Washington's fifth-highest wheat producing county.

Douglas County farmers near the Chelan County border followed the lead of their Chelan neighbors who were successfully raising apples and other tree fruit in irrigated fields. They planted fruit trees in 1908 when irrigation water from Wenatchee became available. Fruit production (mainly apple, pear, and cherry) remains a major part of the Douglas County economy. Apple growers are responding to consumer trends by converting Red Delicious orchards to other varieties that in recent years have become more popular. As of 2002, Douglas County was the eighth-highest producer of both apples and sweet cherries in the nation.

In recent years some Douglas County growers, like their peers in Chelan, Grant, and Okanogan counties, have begun converting orchards into vineyards to take advantage of Washington's burgeoning wine business. Douglas County falls within the 18,000 square mile Columbia Valley appellation.

Roads and Rails

The earliest traveled routes through the future county were trails used by Indians to travel to and from the Columbia River. The first road used by early settlers was a wagon route from Ellensburg that crossed Colockum Pass to a ferry crossing the Columbia River near Wenatchee, then continued through Corbaley Canyon and across the north to another ferry crossing near what became Bridgeport. U.S. Highways 2 and 97 and State Highways 17, 28, and 172 are the main routes through Douglas County today (2006).

The Great Northern Railway laid track across southern Douglas County in 1893. The line went through Douglas rather than Waterville, spurring growth in Douglas and prompting Waterville residents to build a five-mile branch line to connect with the Great Northern at Douglas.

The Rock Island Bridge, completed in 1893, carried the Great Northern and was one of the early railroad bridges, though not the first, to span the Columbia.

The Columbia River, Dammed

Because Douglas County is nearly completely surrounded by the Columbia River, the enormous alteration brought to the Columbia by the Columbia Basin irrigation project and other Bureau of Reclamation projects have had an enormous impact on life within the county.

Four Columbia River dams touch Douglas County: Rock Island (completed in 1933), Chief Joseph (completed in 1955), Rocky Reach (completed in 1961), and Wells (completed in 1967). The construction of nearby Grand Coulee Dam (completed in 1941) also had a significant impact on Douglas County's economy. Rock Island Dam was the first hydroelectricity project on the Columbia River. Although hydroelectric power and the impact of these dams on fish populations and the natural environment have generated increasing controversy since their inception, their presence provides steady year-round employment for Douglas County residents and relatively inexpensive electrical power.

Lake Entiat, Lake Pateros, and Rufus Woods Lake are all artificial lakes created by backwater from dams. Banks Lake is an enormous 27-mile-long equalizing reservoir that fills Grand Coulee with water pumped from Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grant Coulee Dam. These lakes furnish recreational opportunities and attract tourism dollars to Douglas County.


Stephen Boise was the first settler in what would become Waterville, arriving in 1883. Howard Honor arrived the following year. A. T. Green, later known as the Father of Waterville, arrived in 1885 and purchased Stephen Boise's claim and in October 1886 platted the townsite. On November 2, 1886, Waterville became Douglas County's seat. The town was incorporated in 1890. At 2,662 feet above sea level, Waterville occupies the highest elevation of any incorporated town in the state.

Douglas County's first courthouse was completed in September of 1889. The present (2006) Douglas County Courthouse replaced it in 1905.

During the 1880s Waterville's fortunes were centered on the cattle business, but the harsh winter of 1889-1890 killed scores of cows. Thereafter, local residents planted wheat. The Waterville Rolling Mill, Douglas County's first flouring mill, opened on December 2, 1890.

In 1889 a brickyard began turning out its product in Waterville, and over the next decade brick buildings, complimentary to one another in scale and style, formed the bulk of the new town's built environment. On May 19, 1988, the Waterville Historic District (encompassing most of downtown Waterville) was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The North Central Washington District Fair, first held in 1913 as the Douglas County Fair, is held in Waterville each August. As of 2004 Waterville had approximately 1,170 residents.

East Wenatchee

Human habitation in East Wenatchee has been traced back as far as ca. 12,000 years. In 1987 bone and stone artifacts from the Paleolithic period were discovered in a local apple orchard. The find, which includes the largest spear points of Ice Age Clovis man yet discovered, catapulted East Wenatchee onto front pages and drew anthropologists eager to study the site. At the time the artifacts were discovered, scientific thinking was that these tools might have belonged to the first recorded people in what is now America. Portions of the site were excavated in 1988 and 1990. The Washington State Historical Society purchased digging rights to the site in 1992, but is not scheduled to begin excavation until 2007.

In 1908 the first highway bridge to span the Columbia River opened between Wenatchee and East Wenatchee. In addition to carrying traffic, the bridge carried two large water pipelines from the High Line Canal (now the Wenatchee Reclamation District Canal). The water carried in these pipes irrigated East Wenatchee and ushered in that community's orchard enterprises. As of 2006 this bridge continues to carry irrigation water to East Wenatchee, and the products of the area's irrigated orchards continue as a mainstay of the local economy.

East Wenatchee made the international news on October 5, 1931, when stunt pilot Clyde Edward Pangborn (1894-1958) set a world record by successfully completing the first transPacific flight from Misawa, Japan, to the United States across the Pacific Ocean. Pangborn, a Bridgeport native, and his co-pilot Hugh Herndon Jr., ended the record-setting flight by safely belly-landing his Bellanca Skyrocket, the "Miss Veedolm," in an East Wenatchee field. Clyde Pangborn Memorial Airport in East Wenatchee is named in his honor, and the "Miss Veedol" has become East Wenatchee's iconographic city symbol.

East Wenatchee in Douglas County and Wenatchee in Chelan County share the same labor market and effectively function as a single economy. East Wenatchee was incorporated in 1935.


Brewster (initially called Port Columbia) was the southern terminus for two stern-wheel steamers, City of Ellensburgh and Thomas L. Nixon. These vessels carried passengers and freight on the Columbia River between Brewster and Rock Island (south of East Wenatchee) twice weekly.


Mansfield was first settled in 1889, and was incorporated in 1911. Mansfield is named for the town of Mansfield, Ohio. During the early 1910s, Mansfield's population climbed as high as 1,000 people, but a devastating fire in 1914 that consumed the central business district and, later in the decade, falling wheat prices pared population drastically.

Now a quiet wheat-farming community with approximately 325 residents, from 1909 until the mid-1980s Mansfield was the terminus of a Great Northern Railway spur line through Moses Coulee. Mansfield's small downtown retains the brick buildings dating from post-fire rebuilding efforts in 1914.


Chinese miners seeking gold were the earliest non-Indian presence in what would become Bridgeport, arriving in the mid-1860s and camping along the banks of the Columbia River.

The community was originally known as Westfield. In 1892 a group of Connecticut investors purchased the townsite, renaming it in honor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, their hometown. Butler Liversay platted the townsite in 1891. Bridgeport, by then a thriving farm community and center for trade, was incorporated in 1910.

The Bridgeport Warehouse and Milling Company, build ca. 1900, allowed wheat farmers in northern Douglas County to mill their wheat and transport it by stern-wheel steamer rather than by wagon to be milled elsewhere. The mill declined in the wake of better road construction and the rise of the commercial trucking industry.

Chief Joseph Dam, located one mile east of Bridgeport, is the second-largest producer of hydro-electric power in the United States, and it produces irrigation water for area farmers as well. Constructed in three phases between 1949 and 1980, Chief Joseph Dam provided decades of employment for Bridgeport-area residents.

Douglas County Today

The commercial fruit business offers annual seasonal employment, attracting workers to tend and harvest apples, pears, and cherries during the growing period. Washington state considers Chelan and Douglas county agricultural employment statistics together, and as of 2000 the two counties jointly employed 10,000 seasonal workers (more than one-fifth of all county employment). Seasonal employment also means seasonal unemployment, an issue for Douglas County as for other Washington counties where agriculture is a significant employer. In 2001 Douglas County's unemployment rate average was 7.2 percent, as compared to 6 percent statewide, but the Douglas County figure swelled to more than 12 percent during seasonal layoffs. Other jobs ancillary to fruit growing include packaging, warehousing, shipping, and processing.

Nonagricultural employment has grown at a fairly steady rate since the 1970s, although the July 2001 closure of the Alcoa WenatcheeWorks aluminum smelter in Malaga (Chelan County) reduced Douglas County's pool of manufacturing jobs. Local government (primarily K-12 education), state and federal government (much of this at the dams), and silicon metal manufacturing are major employers.


An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country Embracing Lincoln, Douglas, Adams, and Franklin Counties State of Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishers, 1904); Newton Carl Abbott and Fred E. Carver, compiled by J. W. Helm, The Evolution of Washington Counties (Yakima: Yakima Valley Genealogical Society and Klickitat County Historical Society, 1978), p. 142; Dave Wallace, "Chelan and Douglas County Profiles," Workforce Explorer Washington website accessed September 14, 2006 (; Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, A Guide To the Indian Tribes of the Northwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986) p. 35; "A Walk Through Time," Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation website accessed September 21, 2006 (; "North Central Washington: Resource Rich, People Strong," Port of Douglas County website accessed September 22, 2006 (; "About Douglas County," Douglas County website accessed September 22, 2006 (; National Register of Historic Places website accessed September 22, 2006 (; Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington’s Past: A Road Guide To History, revised edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995); "Moses Coulee Preserve," The Nature Conservancy website accessed September 26, 2006 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Fort Okanogan" (by Cassandra Tate) and "Grand Coulee Dam" (by Cassandra Tate) and "First highway bridge to span Columbia River opens in Wenatchee in 1908" (by Priscilla Long) and "Pangborn, Clyde Edward" (by Priscilla Long) and "Chelan County -- Thumbnail History" (by David Wilma) and "Steamboat Rock State Park" (by Cassandra Tate), (accessed September 26, 2006); Randall V. Mills, Stern-Wheelers Up Columbia (Palo Alto, California: Pacific Books, 1947) p. 90; Bridgeport, Washington website accessed September 26, 2006 (; Luke Ellington, "Communities," Douglas County Community Network website accessed September 27, 2006 (; "State Historical Society Buys Dig Rights," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 8, 1992, p. B-1; "Sinkiuse/Sinkyone Indian Tribe History," Access Genealogy Indian Tribal Records website accessed September 27, 2006 (; Carl Waldman, Who Was Who In Native American History (New York: Facts On File, 1990), p. 241; "Columbia Valley Wineries, Region, and Wines," Wines Northwest website accessed September 28, 2006 (; Columbia Cascade Wines and Wineries website accessed September 28, 2006 (; "Douglas, Washington," United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service website accessed September 28, 2006 (; Mary Gaylord, Eastern Washington's Past Chinese and Other Pioneers 1860-1910 (Portland, Oregon?: United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region, 1994?).

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