Republic -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 6/14/2009
  • Essay 9050
See Additional Media
Republic, the county seat of sparsely populated Ferry County in Northeast Washington, sprang into existence as a gold-mining camp in 1896 called Eureka or Eureka Gulch. By 1898 it was crowded with 2,000 miners and prospectors, housed mostly in canvas tents. Several mines, including the Republic Mine, hit lucrative gold veins. The townsite was laid out in 1898 and the name changed to Republic because there was already another Eureka in the state. In 1899 Ferry County split off from Stevens County and Republic became the county seat. The first mining boom lasted only until 1901, although mining continued to be the town's main industry. Republic has endured many mining boom-and-bust cycles since, although the economy has diversified to include ranching, farming, timber, and tourism. The town's business district was revamped in the 1980s with a "Western Victorian" theme. Today, this city of 952 residents is well-known for a different kind of dig: the Stonerose Interpretive Center and Fossil Site, an entire hillside full of Eocene fossils, right next to downtown.

A High Forested Valley

For centuries, this piney, scenic valley was a junction point for Indian trails heading west over the Okanogan highlands, east over the Kettle Range, and south down the nearby San Poil River. Several trails converged almost exactly in the spot where the business district of today's Republic now stands.

A number of tribes frequented this high, forested valley, including the Colvilles. The site was originally part of the huge Colville Reservation, set aside for a number of tribes in 1872. Consequently, the area had little white presence for most of the 1800s. 

However, in 1891, the government purchased the entire north half of the Colville Reservation, including the future site of Republic. One of the reasons: The potential for gold strikes. On February 21, 1896, the north half was opened for mineral claims. Prospectors, flush with gold fever, poured in.

Prospectors and Squatters

One of the first was John Welty, who arrived in what is now Republic the day before the mineral claims opened up. Apparently there were already a few other white squatters on the land, since Welty spent the winter with a squatter named O'Brien.

Welty's brother, G. M. Welty, showed up later that winter and said the "thermometer registered about 20 degrees below zero for many days." Some of the prospectors "came perilously close to freezing to death" (Steele).

The Welty claim, the Black Tail mine, was on a small tributary of the San Poil called Eureka Creek. Rumors of gold drew several other prospectors to the little gulch in February and March 1896, including Tom Ryan and Phil Creaser, who made claims on mines called the Republic claim and the Jim Blaine claim. Some of these claims would soon prove to have rich gold veins.

News of gold strikes flashed through the region, and by April 18, 1896, 64 men were living in the mining camp. The district was named Eureka, after the creek that ran through it. The camp was made almost entirely of tents. There was no railroad or boat transportation; everything was freighted in by horse or mule.

Eureka: A Canvas Town

An enterprising merchant named W. C. Otto arrived with a 20-mule train full of mining tools and other merchandise and established the first store, housed in a canvas tent. It took another year for the first wooden building to go up, a log house, followed by a two-story wood-frame hotel in July 1897.

Even so, most of Eureka was still made of canvas. An 1897 photograph of the camp's main street shows four tents, marked: Okanagon Store, Eureka Store, Meat Market and Barber Shop. The entire scene was labeled, flippantly, "The Midway Plausance, Eureka, Wash., July 30, 1897" (Steele).

A survey of businesses from October 1897 shows that Eureka Camp consisted of five stores, three blacksmith shops, two barber shops, four restaurants, two hotels, two cigar stores, two saloon/gambling houses, and a jeweler "who also sold patent medicines" ("Republic Mining Camp").

The settlement really took off in 1898, driven by the well-publicized success of the Republic Mine. Patrick (Patsy) Clark (1850-1915), a well-known Spokane mining baron, purchased a controlling interest in the mine and in 1898 the Republic declared a dividend of $150,000. Within two years, the mine was worth $3.5 million, an imagination-stretching sum at the time.

From Eureka to Republic

A townsite was laid out on March 22, 1898, and was soon combined with several other small townsites along Eureka Gulch to become one large townsite. It was briefly named Eureka, until postal authorities pointed out that the there was already a Eureka post office in the southern part of the state. So the city fathers changed the name to Republic, after its most famous mine.

New strikes were reported almost daily. By late spring of 1898, the brand-new settlement of Republic was jammed with 2,000 people -- gold prospectors and those trying to make money off of the gold prospectors. They arrived not just from Spokane and Seattle -- many arrived from the gold camps of British Columbia.

A newspaper, the Republic Pioneer, sprang into operation. Here's how the Pioneer described the 1898 rush: "Freight teams are arriving daily by the dozen ... . There are dozens of people in Republic waiting for goods and outfits to arrive that they may commence business. They are more than disappointed at the delay and quietly give vent to their feelings" (Steele).

Most of the freight came from the Okanogan River and had to be hauled over the pass. An Okanogan steamboat man told the Pioneer that there were "acres of it" piled at the river landing, and "more piled to the roof of the big warehouse."

Civilization began to arrive along with the saloons and the grub shacks. In 1898, telephone wires reached Republic and the first church was opened (Roman Catholic). In 1899, a school district and fire department were established. 

Ferry County and Its New Seat

Early in 1899, the people of Republic decided that they no longer wanted to be part of vast Stevens County, whose county seat was far to the east in Colville. The Republic Pioneer listed all of the reasons to make the change: "The great distance that separates us from other settled portions of the county ...; the Columbia River lying between; ... the failure of county or state to provide even so much as a wagon road" (Steele).

The populace had "perfect unanimity" on the question and in January 1899, a bill was introduced in Olympia to create a new Eureka County. The name was changed to Ferry, in honor of Elisha P. Ferry (1825-1895), the state's first governor, and the new county became official on February 21, 1899. There was no dispute over which town would be named the county seat. Republic was the only settlement of any size in Ferry County.

By 1899 Republic had graduated from camp to small city. The Republic post office was doing more business than any town in Eastern Washington, except the big city of Spokane.

Gold and Fire

Plenty of that outgoing mail carried the message: There's money to be made in Republic. It was now one of the richest mining centers in the country, and by far the most significant in Washington state history. So many miners arrived in town in 1899, that two men were vying for every job.

Then, on June 3, 1889, came catastrophe. A fire broke out in the pre-dawn hours in the business district. By the time the town's fledgling fire department put the fire out, half of Republic's business district was destroyed. Fire was to become a sad and recurring theme in the town's history.

Yet the town was rebuilt almost immediately and Republic emerged bigger than ever. Republic was incorporated on May 8, 1900, by a vote of 283 to 274. John Stack was elected the first mayor.

In 1900, Republic endured a smallpox scare. People were afraid to go out in the streets; business in the stores fell off dramatically. Yet it turned out to be only a scare; most cases proved to be mild and there were only a few fatalities.

Republic's First Bust

Republic suffered through its first "bust" in 1901 when a number of mines closed. Even the great Republic mine was not immune. A fire destroyed its bunkhouse, where nearly all of its miners lived -- they all escaped the flames -- and the Republic's mill had to shut down. In addition, the town's railroad connection -- long-awaited and desperately needed -- still had not arrived by 1901.

The business climate improved when the railroad whistles were finally heard in 1902. In fact, Republic got two lines, one called the Kettle Valley Line (which locals referred to as the Hot Air Line, since it had been promised for so long), which connected northward to the Canadian Pacific at Grand Forks, B.C.; and the other called the Washington & Great Northern, connecting with the Spokane Falls & Northern Line, part of the Great Northern network.

Yet the mining boom was mostly over and wouldn't revive for another 30 years. The town began to diversify into timber and farming -- although farming was a tough proposition at Republic's relatively high altitude, 2,569 feet, and short growing season.

Rip Snortin' Republic

There were still more than enough miners and loggers in Republic to give the town a rip-snortin' reputation. One old-timer remembered that the Fourth of July in Republic consisted of trap-shooting contests, rock-drilling contests, and horse races right down the town's main street, while townsfolk "cheered their favorites from the balconies" (Rabideau).

Progress reached Republic slowly. Bill Hall, who had arrived with his parents during the gold boom, remembered accompanying his father as they drove the first two Ford Model T's into Republic from Spokane in 1913. It was no easy feat: "On the trip home with the two new Fords, we came to one creek that was too high to drive a car across. Anticipating just such trouble, we brought along a block and tackle which was used to snake the first car across the stream and we used it to pull the second car across" (Mitchell). When the Model T's finally arrived, they inaugurated the automobile age in Republic.

Hard Times and High Times

The 1920s were especially rough on Republic, as they were on most Western mining towns. By 1925 the population was estimated at only about 700. The Spokesman-Review in Spokane described Republic's past and prospects in 1929:

"When its mines boomed, Republic boomed; when the mining interests waned, the town slumped and badly, in spite of the fact that it is a county seat, that it has dairying, stock raising and lumbering among its industries ... . Republic's immediate future depends on the success of a projected custom concentrator which will handle all of the ores of the camp" ("Republic, Real Mining Town").

During Prohibition, some citizens in the hills surrounding Republic resorted to distilling white lightning to make ends meet. One area near town came to be known as Moonshine Gulch. Republic also became a natural center for liquor smuggling from Canada.

"It's only 30 miles to the border, all of it mountains, so local people were transporting liquor by horse from Canada," said local historian Dick Slagle. Republic had two federal enforcement officers who "made arrests every once in a while, but they probably overlooked a lot of stuff, too" (Slagle).

Another serious fire devastated the city once again, this time burning down the Ferry County Courthouse in 1934. The Works Progress Administration built a new courthouse in Art Deco style in 1936. The building remains one of the city's landmarks.

Republic's Golden Lining

Yet the Great Depression came with a silver lining -- actually a gold lining -- for Republic. The price of gold soared to $35 an ounce in 1933 and most of the mines in the old Eureka Gulch re-opened, including the Republic Mine and one of the best-known of the recent producers, the Knob Hill, just a few miles out of town.

Republic has gone through a number of mine-closing/reopening cycles. Some uranium finds sparked some interest in the 1950s, and some of the mines diversified into tungsten. The Knob Hill mine continued to produce gold and silver and in 1956 had a payroll of 75. The opening of the state highway over Sherman Pass to Kettle Falls in 1953, meant that Republic was no longer quite so far off the beaten track.

Rough Times and Rebounds

The 1960s and 1970s were rough in Republic, as it became increasingly difficult to rely on a mining and timber economy. The population dipped to 862 in 1970. In 1973, the town nearly lost its hospital, but a spirited fund drive resulted in construction of a new modern facility. The population rebounded to 1,018 in 1980.

Two catastrophes arrived one after the other in the bleak early winter of 1983. First, the Knob Hill mine announced it would soon close and take 100 jobs with it. A week later, on December 4, 1983, a fire blazed through the town's main street one more time. This one leveled the historic Republic Hotel, a café, a liquor store, and the offices of the weekly newspaper, the Republic News-Miner.

Yet once again, disaster became the spark for re-building. This time the merchants of Republic agreed to reinvent the business district with an old-time theme, playing off its gold boom origins. They spruced up the business district to the tune of $1 million.

"We got a Western, turn-of-the-century theme – rustic Victorian," said mayor David Brown in 1987. "We ended up getting people to spend some money on new buildings and new building fronts. It actually ended up being part of a catalyst, the start of a real revitalization" (Bond).

It boosted the town's spirits as well as its tourist trade. Then, in 1984, Hecla Mining Co., which owned the Knob Hill Mine, now called the Republic Unit, announced that it had found fresh new deposits. The mine wouldn’t have to close after all. By 1986 the company could claim that it was the "cheapest gold producer in the United States" (Ripley). In 1987, a new shaft, the Golden Promise, hit another gold ore body. In 1989, the town also built a new history museum, the Republic Historical Center, which incorporates one of the mining camp's oldest log cabins.

Yet the bust came again in the mid-1990s when Hecla closed its Knob Hill mine for good when the ore body ran out. Sawmill jobs also disappeared.

The Fossil Find

By this time, a different kind of dig had put Republic on the national map. Paleontologists discovered that Boot Hill, right in town, was chock full of fossils from the Eocene Epoch, imbedded in shale. The site of Republic was part of vast, ancient lake bed, filled with plants, insects and fish. These fossils were plentiful and remarkably easy to find.

At first it was of interest mostly to scientists. "Republic is a very important site -- age-wise and because the preservation is so good -- for piecing together the changes that were going on in the West in ancient times," said a paleo-botany curator from the Smithsonian Institute (Godes).

Then in 1986, the city organized some public digs, in which hundreds of schoolchildren fanned out over the hill. It went so well that the city made plans to build a museum and interpretive center, which opened in 1987.

Today, the Stonerose Interpretive Center and Fossil Site, issues daily digging permits to thousands of visitors every year. Nearly everyone comes away with a fossil souvenir. Stonerose reserves the right to retain any fossils with scientific significance.

Stonerose is now the center of Republic's tourist economy. The other major tourist attractions surround the city  in all directions -- dozens of lakes, creeks, trails, and campgrounds in this vast, secluded region of the state.

From Mining to Tourism

The city's population has remained relatively stable for several decades – it was reported at 940 in the 1990 census, 954 in the 2000 census and estimated at 952 in 2007.

Today, gold mining is a thing of the past in Republic. The Knob Hill mine never reopened. However, mining remains a significant part of the economy, since gold ore is still trucked in from another mine in the region and milled in Republic.

Meanwhile, for those who take the time to look, Republic's mining past is evident everywhere, in the abandoned shafts and tailings of what was once called Eureka Gulch.

Sources: Richard F. Steele, History of North Washington: An Illustrated History of Stevens, Ferry, Okanogan and Chelan Counties (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Co., 1904); Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington State Place Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923); Pauline Battien, The Gold Seeker: A 200 Year History of Mining in Washington, Idaho, Montana and Lower British Columbia (Colville: The Standard-Examiner, Inc., 1989); "Republic Mining Camp at Eureka Sensation in 1896," Spokesman-Review, February 16, 1936; Edna Rabideau, "Area Old Timer Recalls Fourth," Ibid., July 4, 1967; "Republic, Real Mining Town, Sees Revival in Prospect," Ibid.,  September 30, 1929: "Republic Is One of State's Leading Producers of Gold," Ibid., December 27, 1951; Raymond Mitchell, "County Assessor Pioneer in Area," Ibid., February 28, 1959; "Old Gold Rush Town of Republic Enjoys New-Found Prosperity," Ibid., January 27, 1956; David Bond, "Republic, Knob Hill Mine Refuse to Die,"Ibid., January 11, 1987; Norman Thorpe, "Republic counts on Golden Promise," Ibid., November 24, 1985; Richard Ripley, "Republic Gold Mine to Remain Open," Ibid., April 23, 1986; Bill Morlin, "Republic Is on Ropes After Another Staggering Setback," Ibid., December 6, 1983; Karyn Houston, "Republic's Rocky Road," Washington Magazine, November-December 1984; Kerry Godes, "Republic Finds Treasure in its Ancient Past," Spokesman-Review, October 11, 1986; John Craig, "Hard times Toughen Town: Community of Republic Adjusts to Another Round of Timber Layoffs, Mine Closure," Spokesman-Review , November 26, 1994; Dick Slagle, phone interview with author, June 13, 2009.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You