Grant County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 11/15/2006
  • Essay 8010
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Covering a total of 2,660 square miles, Grant County -- located in the Columbia Basin region of central Washington -- is the state’s fourth largest county. It was initially carved out of neighboring Douglas County in 1909. The original (and much larger) Douglas County had been created in 1883 when the Washington Territorial Legislature formed Lincoln and Spokane counties from a larger Spokane County, then separated the new Lincoln County into Lincoln and Douglas Counties only a few days later.

Early Days

Prior to Washington achieving statehood in 1889, the area now known as Grant County was sparsely populated. It lay within an eco-region known as shrub-steppe, a dry grassland characterized by shrubs such as sagebrush, greasewood, and bitterbrush, and by grasses such as bluebunch wheatgrass. Indian cultures such as the Interior Salish, Wenatchi, and Okanogan were the earliest inhabitants of the region, many of whom settled along the Columbia River. The first white settlers, arriving in the mid-1800s, devoted themselves primarily to raising livestock. But as railroads began to traverse the area, new settlers arrived and changed both the complexion of the land and the local economy. Over time the influx of newcomers saw the area gradually moving away from ranching and toward traditional farming -- perhaps a natural occurrence, considering that the land was marked by plains, hills, and valleys, typically ideal for farming.

But even as small farms and orchards began to dot the landscape, Grant County land still wasn't tamed by any means. In the spring of 1906, for example, several hundred cowboys were hired to drive away the area’s wild horses, with up to 5,000 animals eventually removed from the landscape. This “roundup” captured and herded these horses into waiting railcars, which shipped the animals to buyers in the East.

The gradual transition from grazing livestock to farming wasn’t an easy one. Grant County has a semi-arid climate -- generally warm and sunny throughout the growing season but not always with enough rainfall to support farming operations without additional water resources. Early settlers to Grant County, of course, tended to situate their farms on or near available waterways, but significant portions of the land were without natural access to water or were otherwise unavailable to buyers. (Some the area’s best farmland was owned the railroads or their ownership successors, making its purchase an expensive proposition.)

Grant County residents would soon discover that unlocking the area’s agricultural potential would depend greatly on their ability to irrigate the land.

Attracting Newcomers

Once the Washington state Legislature formally created Grant County on February 24, 1909, the newly created county government (located in the city of Ephrata) began efforts to attract new citizens. For example, for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held in Seattle, Grant County produced a promotional pamphlet that described the area as an agricultural paradise that was home to “Thousands of Prosperous and Happy Human Families” (AYP Pamphlet, cover).

Among the pamphlet’s various selling points, Grant County was said to have few pests, excellent weather, and top-notch schools and churches. It was also quick to note that “[f]armers in Grant County make more money and make it easier than the farmers of any other section” (AYP Pamphlet, p. 3). To support that claim, the pamphlet’s authors called upon several local farmers for their own personal stories of settling in Grant County. S. H. DePue of Stratford provided one such testimonial:

“I came to what is now Grant Count six years ago this spring and had about $700. I bought a relinquishment the first year, paying $375 for it, and put the balance of my money into horses and machinery. In the fall of 1904 I bought a half section of land under contract, going into debt for the full amount. I now have these quarters nearly all under cultivation. I have 21 head of good work horses and colts and all necessary farm machinery, and consider that I have made about $12,000, clear of all debts, in six years. I know that this is a good country for any one [sic] to invest money. We have a fine climate and a very productive soil, which, if farmed right, will bring good returns” (S.H. DePue, June 1, 1909; AYP Pamphlet, back cover).

If the promise of an agricultural Shangri-La wasn’t enough, another selling point for early Grant County was its access to no fewer than three major railway systems: The Great Northern Railway and the Northern Pacific Railroad, which came to the region in the late 1800s, followed by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, which arrived soon after the turn of century. Not only did farmers enjoy excellent growing conditions, it was said, but also the convenient means to transport their crops to markets outside of Eastern Washington.

New settlers were definitely needed -- when Grant County was formally created, its population was a mere 8,700. Wilson Creek was the area’s largest town at that time, with a total population of 600 people. (In 2006, Wilson Creek’s population was around 250.) A key to Wilson Creek’s early growth had been the installation of a local irrigation system, one successful enough that residents began to contemplate erection of an accompanying electrical plant.

Ephrata, the county seat, was originally platted in 1901, but until 1909 was better known as the center of the local sheep industry. Coulee City was the oldest town in the new Grant County, founded along the banks of the Columbia River at one of the better places to cross -- thus making it a natural destination for travelers coming through the region. Soap Lake was home to a number of sanatoriums where outsiders came to relax and partake in the “curative” properties of the mineral water, while Moses Lake -- in 2006 Grant County’s largest city – could “hardly be called a town yet” in 1909 (AYP Pamphlet, p. 17). All that Moses Lake could boast was a store, a blacksmith, a post office, and a few houses. Other cities of note in the new Grant County included Quincy, Hartline, and Warden.

A Story of Water

Although the AYP pamphlet claimed that crops and orchards in Grant County could prosper without special irrigation, this wasn’t entirely true: At the time the county was formed, it had gone through several years of unusually wet weather. In reality, Grant County was far drier than most farmers would have liked, making water access a crucial factor in crop yields. (In 1879, one government official described the area in and around the Columbia Basin as “a desolation where even the most hopeful can find nothing in its future prospects to cheer” [Matthews]). And indeed, water would play a crucial role in the history of Grant County -- sparked mostly by the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project in the 1930s and 1940s.

Although grass and sagebrush were plentiful, the dry farming methods of this period were not always enough to tame the land, and certainly not enough to support large-scale farming operations. Attempts to formally irrigate Grant County began as early as 1898, although most efforts were relatively modest. Most early irrigation methods relied on gravity, pumping from nearby lakes and rivers, or through wells -- all of which were inadequate to support farming in all but a few locations.

With these small irrigation projects adding relatively little to Grant County’s agricultural prosperity, larger plans requiring significant funding were entertained. In 1914, for example, Washington voters were asked to consider a $44 million bond issue that would have created a water pumping system for 435,000 acres in an around Quincy. This measure was defeated at the polls.


Other ideas had more traction -- including one that would transform Grant County and surrounding areas for generations to come. What would eventually become known as the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project sprung from the minds of a group in Ephrata who regularly convened in the law offices of William M. Clapp.

In the spring of 1917 this group was discussing how local farmers could better aid America’s soldiers in World War I, when it was suggested that a dam might be constructed on the Columbia River at Grand Coulee, formed some 15,000 years before during the last ice age. With high rock walls that formed a natural retention area for water, damming the Columbia at Grand Coulee might allow for irrigation water for farms to be pumped away from the reservoir using power generated by the dam itself.

Intrigued by the notion, the Ephrata group kept their idea amongst a small group of supporters while exploring the feasibility of such an undertaking. When preliminary engineering reports suggested that the idea might be possible, the group launched a publicity campaign in support of the project. When Rufus Woods (1878-1950) of The Wenatchee Daily World first announced the plan in the pages of his paper on July 18, 1918, what would eventually become known as the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project -- which included construction of Grand Coulee Dam -- was officially born.

The task ahead for the Ephrata group -- to secure federal funding for the project -- was indeed formidable, and put them conflict with a competing reclamation scheme. The Grand Coulee project was opposed by a rival group proposing a gravity plan, which sought to dam the Pend Oreille River in Idaho and bring water to the Columbia Basin region through an extensive canal and tunnel system. These two groups started waging a war of ideas during the late 1910s and early 1920s, a period in which the need for a comprehensive reclamation project became increasingly apparent: Poor farming conditions and economic hardships during the 1920s and 1930s caused the population of Grant County to fall below 6,000. “Drought and depression had wrought a ruin as complete as usually results from war, pestilence, and famine,” noted historian C. A. Hawley (p. 8).

Toward Grand Coulee Dam

Despite a 1920 legislative study that recommended the gravity plan over the Grand Coulee plan, the Ephrata group and its supporters pushed on and eventually waged the more successful public and political campaign. A later study, in fact, supported the Grand Coulee plan in part because it could generate enough hydroelectric power to help offset the cost of irrigation canals.

In 1933 the key piece of the project, the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, was finally approved, bringing much-needed construction jobs to Depression-era Grant County. Although it would open eight years later as one of the largest man-made structures ever completed, this first approval in 1933 was for a much smaller project, which was gradually expanded during construction. When work began, in fact, there was no guarantee that irrigated water would ever reach Grant County or the surrounding communities. Until the area had been organized into irrigation districts, paying variable rates of around $85 per acre to the government, no irrigation would take place. These payments were to be made in equal annual installments over a period of 40 years, beginning 10 years after water first became available through the project.

This stipulation posed a bit of a problem. First, a state law had to be enacted to set forth the requirements for forming an irrigation district. Then, under the terms of the measure, only affected property owners would be allowed to vote on the irrigation district, and in this case many of the landowners did not physically live in central Washington. (And of those who did, many were wheat farmers or livestock ranchers who didn’t necessarily support the irrigation project.) As a result, the Columbia Basin Irrigation League was formed in order to “round up the vote” (Hawley, pp. 9-10).

Three separate irrigation districts were established, with the Quincy-Columbia Irrigation District being the first to be voted upon -- a pivotal contest that may very well have determined the fate of the remaining two. All stops were pulled out to secure passage of the irrigation district measure on February 18, 1939, including a special train provided by the Great Northern Railroad that brought in more than 300 outside landowners. The measure passed handily, 709 for and 34 against. Later elections on irrigation districts to the south and east passed easily, based on this crucial first vote.

Meanwhile, the Grand Coulee Dam project was gradually expanded and moved toward completion, with its first generator going on line in October 1941. When completed the dam contained 12 million cubic yards of concrete, stood as tall as a 46-story building, and created a 150-mile long reservoir behind it. But as impressive as Grand Coulee was, it was just centerpiece for the larger Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, which would eventually include four smaller dams and several reservoirs, lakes, and canals.

Steps Forward, Steps Backward

Grand Coulee Dam was certainly a marvel (“the eighth wonder of the world,” it was called), but its completion wasn’t all for the better. A total of 400 farms and 10 whole communities were obliterated by Grand Coulee’s rising waters, members of the Colville and Spokane Indian tribes had to be relocated, and several Native American archeological sites disappeared, seemingly forever. (White landowners, at least, were compensated for their losses, but not always to their satisfaction.)

Environmentally, Grand Coulee Dam had a tremendous impact. It was built without fish runs; salmon swimming upriver to spawn were unable to cross the immense concrete barrier, and salmon populations north of the dam ceased to be. Yet there were also some long-term environmental benefits, though perhaps unintended by the original planners. A by-product of irrigation has been runoff and spillage from the canal system, which has created what is now known as the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. With nearly 30,000 acres of newly created wetlands, ponds, and marshes, the Refuge supports a variety of waterfowl, fish, and other wildlife that normally could not thrive in the arid conditions of Eastern Washington. The Columbia Basin Reclamation Project also established several man-made lakes on top of existing waterways, providing a huge recreational resource. Grant County has eight separate state parks, many of which are destinations for campers, boaters, fishermen and fisherwomen, and hunters from throughout the state.

Delivering on the Promise

Grand Coulee Dam was completed right in time for America’s entry into World War II and played an important role in supporting the war effort in Grant County and throughout Washington state. Although overseas fighting halted work on the region’s irrigation canals, the dam itself supplied cheap power for Seattle manufacturers such as Boeing, as well as for the atomic experiments occurring farther down the Columbia River at Hanford.

With the end of hostilities, work on the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project resumed. The irrigation portion of the project was formally approved in 1943, and digging began soon after. When the first irrigated water from the project was delivered to Pasco in 1948, it ushered in a new era of Grant County history that C. A. Hawley dubbed the era of “reclamation and recovery.” (This, despite the fact that the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project would eventually irrigate only one-fifth the estimated 2.5 million acres backers at one time envisioned.)

Even so, farmers in the region have reaped benefits far exceeding the harvesting/growth predictions for the Project. And these benefits have come at a fraction of the going rate: Instead of local farmers paying one-half of the irrigation project costs, they’re actually paying around 10 percent -- a subsidy that power consumers are paying for through higher electricity rates.

The combination of newly irrigated land and cheap electrical power was a boon to Grant County and the surrounding region. In 1939, when the population of the county was slightly over 14,000, approximately 41 percent of its land was given over to farming operations (Northwest Industry). Even so, only 17 percent of the population was engaged in the farming or mining industries -- most of the available workforce (45 percent in the early 1940s) was in the construction trade, in particular on the Grand Coulee Dam project. Once the irrigation canals began delivering water to local farming communities, the complexion of Grant County changed dramatically. By the end of the 1960s, almost 20 percent of all the irrigated land in Washington state was located in Grant County, and a full 60 percent of its land was used for farming operations (“Summary of Pacific Northwest Industries”).

Food Processing Plants Arrive

The positive effects of the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project were felt as early as 1951, when The Wenatchee Daily World announced that the sugar beet yield in and around Moses Lake -- approximately 25 tons per acre – was twice the national average. And this yield was based on a mere 1,600 acres of irrigated land.

As a result, during the 1950s Grant County became Washington’s fastest growing county, based largely on continuing irrigation and the new industries it attracted. Access to producing farms, plentiful water, inexpensive land, and cheap electricity lured several food processing firms to Grant County, which had an immediate impact on the local economy. The first major firm to open was the U and I Sugar Company, which began operating its Moses Lake plant in 1953. By the mid-1970s, U and I would employ from 350-600 people during any given year, and boasted Grant County’s largest sugar-beet slicing capacity -- upwards of 11,000 tons per day.

Other firms followed U and I: Potato processing such as the Carnation and American Potato Companies in Moses Lake, as well as the Lamb-Weston outfit in Quincy. And since these plants were dependent on electrical power for their operations, the Grant County Public Utility District (PUD) -- which currently operates the Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams along the Columbia River -- also grew during this period to become a major player in Central Washington power issues.

Grant County Today

Growth in Grant County cooled during the early 1960s, as construction on area dam and irrigation projects began to slow. Then, in late 1965, the U.S. military delivered a blow to the local economy when it decided to close Larson Air Force Base in Moses Lake. Larson originally began as a temporary installation during World War II, but had hosted various units since that time.

Food processing was the mainstay of Grant County’s economy during the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, according to a February 1975 newsletter published by Seattle First National Bank, about 90 percent of Grant County’s entire manufacturing workforce was employed in local food processing plants. Farming, of course, continued to play a vital role, and parts of the area returned to its roots when ranching began to be profitable again in the late 1960s.

Today, cheap electrical power and inexpensive land continue to drive growth in Grant County. According to the Washington State Office of Financial Management, its total population in 2000 was almost 75,000, a marked increase from the 43,000 that called Grant County home in the mid-1970s. This trend is expected to continue, with Grant County projected to reach some 100,000 residents by the year 2025 (Washington State Business and Project Development website).

The County’s main industries continue to be agriculture and food processing, with its largest employers being food-processing plants such as J. R. Simplot (Moses Lake), ConAgra (Quincy), and Ochoa Foods (Warden). Local government (including the Moses Lake School District and the Grant County PUD) is the area’s second largest employer. A few construction and manufacturing companies also serve as major employers, such as Genie Industries (cranes) or Inflation Systems (airbag manufacturing), both located in Moses Lake. Overall, however, the majority of Grant County businesses are small, with fewer than 50 employees.

The area’s other economic gem has turned out to be airport at Moses Lake -- the former Larson Air Force Base, which was transformed for civilian use in 1966. As of 2006, the Grant County International Airport covers almost 4,700 acres of land and has five separate runways (including one so large it serves as an alternate landing site for the NASA Space Shuttle). In addition to freight and cargo services, the airport is widely known as a training facility for commercial and military pilots, including those of The Boeing Company, Japan Airlines, and the U.S. military.


“Grant County, Washington,” promotional pamphlet for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (Seattle: A.Y.P. Committee, 1909), University of Washington Special Collections; Rufus Woods, “Formulate Brand New Idea for Irrigation [of] Grant, Adams, Franklin Counties, Covering Millions of Acres or More,” The Wenatchee Daily World, July 18, 1918, p. 7; “Grant County,” Northwest Industry, Vol. 2, No. 7 (April 1943), p. 13; “40,000 Tons Sugar Beets in This Pile,” The Wenatchee Daily World, December 3, 1951, p. 1; W. Gale Matthews, “Beginnings of the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project,” 1952 typescript, Grant County Historical Society, Ephrata, Washington; “A Brief Geological Description of the Columbia Basin Project,” ca. 1952 typescript,Grant County Historical Society, Ephrata, Washington; C. A. Hawley, “A History of Grant County,” 1953 typescript, Grant County Historical Society, Ephrata, Washington; Al Smith, “County Marks 50th Anniversary Today,” Columbia Basin Daily Herald, February 24, 1959, pp. 1-2; “Grant County Agriculture,” 1965 typescript, National Agricultural Statistics Service (U.S. Department of Agriculture) website accessed November 10, 2006 (; “Grant County,” Summary of Pacific Northwest Industries (Economic Research Department of Seattle-First National Bank), February 1975, pp. 7-8; Janet (Jenkins) Nelson, “Douglas-Big Bend-Grant: The History of the Formation of a County,” 2003 typescript, Grant County Historical Society, Ephrata, Washington; “Grant County,” Washington State Business and Project Development website accessed August 16, 2006 (; “Grant County Geography,” Workforce Explorer website accessed August 16, 2006 (; HistoryLink: The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Columbia National Wildlife Refuge” and “Grand Coulee Dam -- a Snapshot History” (by Cassandra Tate), “Retreating glaciers create Puget Sound and Grand Coulee as the Ice Age ends about 15,000 years ago” (by Priscilla Long), “First irrigation water reaches Pasco on May 15, 1948” (by Elizabeth Gibson), “Washington Territorial Legislature creates Lincoln County on November 1, 1883” (by Paula Becker), “The Last Grand Roundup is held near Ephrata in 1906” (by Kit Oldham), “William Howard Taft and Republicans win general elections in Washington on November 3, 1908” (by David Wilma), (accessed September 3, 2006).

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