Yakima -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 10/16/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9187
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Yakima is the dominant city of central Washington's fruitful Yakima Valley and the county seat of Yakima County. It sits on the banks of the Yakima River just below the mouth of the Naches River. A small village located farther south near Ahtanum Creek, which came to be known as Yakima City, emerged in the 1860s, serving the valley's scattered ranchers. It became the county seat in 1870. However, in 1885, the Northern Pacific Railway arrived in the Yakima Valley and established a new, modern city four miles north. The railroad paid the moving costs for residents and shop-owners to move to the new city, called North Yakima. North Yakima was incorporated in 1886 and the county seat moved from Yakima City. The now bustling North Yakima soon established itself as the commercial center of the rich valley. In 1918, the "North" was dropped from the name and it became simply Yakima. Yakima grew consistently through the twentieth century, supported by the abundant orchards, hop fields, and, later, vineyards of the valley. Hispanic farmworkers began to settle in the area beginning in the 1930s and in increasing numbers by the 1980s. By 2009, Yakima had 84,850 residents and was the 10th largest city in the state.

Early Days

The city of Yakima occupies what was once the traditional hunting and gathering grounds of the region's tribes, known collectively as the Peoples of the Plateau. They fished the abundant salmon and steelhead. They gathered roots and berries on the nearby mountain slopes. The fertile grasslands attracted game and waterfowl. The site of the future Yakima City, near where the Yakima River cuts through a gap in the Ahtanum Ridge, was a tribal winter gathering place.

Trappers traversed the country in the early 1800s. In 1847, the St. Joseph Catholic Mission was established at Ahtanum Creek, 15 miles southwest of present-day Yakima. The arrival of prospectors and miners led to the Treaty of 1855, in which the native peoples ceded title to the majority of their ancestral lands. Reservations were established. Disputes over the treaty provisions led to the Yakima War of 1855-1856. The Yakama Reservation, covering a large area south and west of present-day Yakima, became the home of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.

Partly because of that war, and partly because settlers did not see a future in farming this high, arid land, the area did not attract permanent white settlement quickly. The first white settlers were cattle ranchers who recognized that the lush grasslands on the stream banks were excellent places to winter their cattle, which could then be driven north to markets in British Columbia. The pioneering F. Mortimer Thorp (1822-1894) family arrived in the Moxee Valley, just outside the present-day city, in 1861.

His son, Leonard Thorp, later described what they found:

"At that time, the bottom lands were covered with a dense growth of rye grass twelve feet high in many places, while a luxuriant carpet of nutritious bunch grass made the sage brush hills a veritable paradise to cattle and horses. Within five minutes after turning loose the animals, they would be completely lost sight of in the tall grass and could be found only by trailing. Fortunately, the Indians were disposed to be friendly and except for the occasional theft of an animal, never seriously troubled the early settlers. Indeed, they rendered us valuable service during the late fall of 1861, by bringing great quantities of salmon, which could be procured from them at trifling cost. A string of beads, costing ten cents, would purchase a thirty-pound fish." (Illustrated).

Other cattle ranchers arrived in the early 1860s. They discovered that the valley soil was incredibly fertile once ditches were dug to bring water from the rivers. Some began to plant vegetables, grain, and orchards.

The Village of Yakima City

In 1870, settlers began referring to a small village with two stores as Yakima City. It was at the mouth of Ahtanum Creek, about four miles south of present-day Yakima. That same year, Yakima City became the county seat of the fledgling Yakima County. It soon had a courthouse, a thriving business district and by around 1880, a population of close to 2,000.

However, future prosperity was absolutely dependent on the Northern Pacific railroad, which was advancing up the Yakima Valley on the way to Puget Sound -- and that did not bode well for Yakima City. The railroad considered Yakima City too swampy and hemmed in by nearby ridges -- or, by other accounts, too slapdash and poorly laid out. So the Northern Pacific decided to establish a modern new city four miles north as its main station.

So, in early 1885, plats were filed for the new town, called North Yakima, and lots were offered to people in Yakima City who were willing to move. Plenty of business owners took up the offer, but others were not so eager to comply. Emotions ran so hot that when the Yakima City Signal newspaper building was raised up on blocks, in preparation for moving to North Yakima, an anonymous Yakima City diehard crept in during the dead of night and set off a charge of dynamite. Better the building be destroyed than moved to the rival town.

Yet the owner gathered up the lumber and rebuilt in North Yakima anyway.

By the middle of 1885, the railroad had agreed to pay the moving expenses for Yakima City businesses that wanted to move to North Yakima. In the end the move proceeded uneventfully, as most Yakima City residents bowed to the power of the railroad.

Moving North

The move itself, in which entire buildings were hauled four miles by teams of mules or horses, was a loud, dusty and colorful affair.

"Business was carried on as usual while the buildings were on the move," wrote early historian W. D. Lyman. "A farmer wishing to buy something at a store would hitch his team to the latter end of a moving building, transact his business, come out with his purchases, load his wagon, while the team followed slowly along with the building" (Lyman). 

By the end of 1885, the population of North Yakima had swelled to 1,200 people. Between the railroad work gangs and the moving crews, North Yakima was a noisy and raucous boomtown.

A newspaper reporter wrote that the town was full of the "din made by hundreds of carpenters, the banging of pianos and the tooting of wind and stringed instruments in the numerous saloons, the rolling of the rondo and roulette balls and the cries of the bettors" (Illustrated).

Prosperous and Elegant

North Yakima was planned with an eye toward elegance. By some accounts, Paul Schulze, the railroad's land manager, laid out the streets on the rough general plan of his native city, Baden-Baden, Germany. Naches Avenue was said to be modeled after Berlin's famous Unter den Linden. Canals ran alongside some of its principal streets and shade trees were planted along the thoroughfares. By other accounts, the city was modeled after the plan of Salt Lake City.

In 1886, North Yakima was incorporated and the county seat was officially moved from Yakima City to North Yakima. The Yakima Herald printed its first edition in 1889, sending out 5,000 copies. It was already the third newspaper for this booming town. The editor of the Herald listed the reasons for opening a new journalistic enterprise, and his list is a fair summary of the overall advantages that North Yakima presented in 1889: Excellent agricultural climate and soil, abundant water power, fine fruit orchard lands, superior conditions for the growing of hops, abundant stock-grazing areas and Yakima's key location on the transcontinental rail line to Puget Sound. If the editor had added wine-grape production (which would not begin for decades), the list would be nearly identical to a list compiled today.

The Portland Oregonian reported in 1889 that the city already had 62 "houses of business," that it was shipping hundreds of carloads of hops, cattle, produce and fruit to the coast, and that "there is not a pauper in the county" (Lyman). The paper said there was reason to believe the town could balloon to 15,000 to 25,000 people some day.

That optimism proved to be well founded. North Yakima was well on the way to becoming the center of a famous agricultural region, known for apples, sugar beets, hops, potatoes, and produce of all kinds. This growth was made possible by large-scale irrigation projects, first developed by private irrigation companies and later by the federal government.

The 1890s

North Yakima, along with the rest of the country, hit hard times in the 1890s, largely because of  a series of nationwide financial panics. Those hard times put North Yakima center-stage during the nation's increasingly violent labor disputes in 1894. A large group of unemployed men dubbed Coxey's Army, inspired by populist firebrand Jacob Sechier Coxey (1854-1951), banded together to march on Washington to demonstrate their plight. A Pacific Northwest contingent arrived by freight train in North Yakima on their way east, and camped near the railyards. When they attempted to hop a freight train to Spokane, an all-out fight ensued with a group of police and marshals, some brought in from Ellensburg. Shots were fired and men on both sides were beaten with clubs. Several of the unemployed men were injured and two marshals suffered bullet wounds. Forty-nine Coxeyites were arrested. Two days later, another fight broke out near North Yakima when marshals stopped a freight commandeered by another group of Coxeyites. Several more people were hurt and more than 120 men arrested.

Meanwhile, North Yakima was maturing. Schools, hospitals and churches were established. One of the biggest developments of the 1890s came when the state legislature established the city as the site of the Washington State Fair, which attracted thousands of visitors every year, beginning in 1894.

The nationwide financial crisis forced the cancellation of the state fair in 1895, but it was back up and thriving the next year. By 1898, "all signs of commercial stagnation and business depression had completely disappeared" in North Yakima (Illustrated).

Becoming Yakima

By 1900, the census showed a city population of 3,154 -- and it would double in another four years. In 1904, a booklet produced by town boosters noted that the city had a huge lumber plant, a thriving flourmill, and a busy fruit-and-vegetable canning factory. The city was wired for electricity and in 1906, the Yakima Interurban Trolley system was founded. The trolley system was taken over by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1909. It served not only commuters in town, but also as the feeder system to bring fruit and produce into the center of North Yakima for transfer to the main freight lines to the East and Midwest markets. The city would later be able to brag that its Produce Row -- a line of refrigerated warehouses along the railroad tracks -- was the largest in the nation outside of New York and Chicago. The county would one day have more fruit trees than any county in the nation.

The population hit 14,082 by 1910. The city was no longer a raucous haven of gambling and saloons. By 1918, it had 18 churches, dozens of lodges and fraternal orders, and the burgeoning Yakima Commercial Club, dedicated to boosting the welfare of the city (it later evolved into the Chamber of Commerce).

On January 1, 1918, the city symbolically came of age when an act of the state legislature dropping the word "North" from its name took effect. It was now, simply, Yakima. The old Yakima City was renamed Union Gap in the same legislative session, effective June 7, 1917. These changes were made at the request of the U.S. Post Office, which did not like two side-by-side cities with the same word in their names. By 1920 the population was 18,539, fulfilling that long-ago prophecy by the writer from The Oregonian.

Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier provide a dramatic backdrop to the city, and the Cascade Range has always been the city's chief playground. In 1910, one Yakima boy, known as Orville Douglas, regularly climbed the hills around Yakima to strengthen his legs following a childhood disease. He also spent much of his childhood hiking and fishing in the wilderness areas to the west. Orville Douglas would later gain fame under his full name, William O. Douglas (1898-1980), a U.S. Supreme Court justice for 36 years. He was born in Minnesota and moved to Yakima as a child.

Jubilee and Tragedy 

By 1926, the young city was in the mood to celebrate its history at the annual Washington State Fair. A historical pageant titled, "The Pioneer," was staged with a cast of 700 "actors" -- including chiefs of the Yakama Tribe -- and 400 singers.

An even bigger celebration was planned in 1935, for the city's 50th anniversary celebration. It was called The Golden Jubilee and it included another historical pageant, this time with a cast of 1,200, and a complete "Indian village" inhabited by 500 Yakama Indians. The jubilee included beard-growing contests and a huge parade.

Yet a disaster befell the parade on May 19, 1935, when a crowd of people gathered on the roof of a two-story commercial building to watch. They leaned on the building's cornice, which collapsed and fell on the spectators gathered below. An 18-year-old man was killed and 25 were injured.

"A creaking noise as the cornice began to collapse was the only warning the laughing crowd had, and few of them heard that," reported the Associated Press ("One Dead").

Depression Years, War Years

The Great Depression dampened spirits and business in Yakima. Yet Yakima still had the advantage of being in an incredibly fertile region. In the 1930s, Yakima County was fifth out of all of the counties in the U.S. for total agricultural production. The region also attracted many new residents from Arkansas and the Dust Bowl areas of Oklahoma

In 1941, with World War II impending, the U.S. Army established the Yakima Anti-Aircraft Artillery Range in the brown sagebrush hills east of the city. Hundreds of soldiers came for artillery training in this vast uninhabited stretch of near-desert. It later became known as the Yakima Firing Center and today is called the Yakima Training Center. In 1942, more than 1,000 people of Japanese descent were forcibly evacuated from Yakima Valley and sent to internment camps as part of the relocation effort authorized by Executive Order 9066.

Remembering the Past, Growing the Future

The Yakima Valley Museum was organized in 1951 as a repository for the region's history. The museum expanded in 1974, 1989 and 2001, to its present size of 65,000 square feet. It is one of only a handful of accredited Washington State Museums, and includes a functioning replica of a 1930s art deco soda fountain, a children's hands-on component, a research library, and permanent and special exhibitions on the area's history and culture.

The city continued to thrive during the postwar years, boosted by ever-expanding irrigation projects in the Yakima Valley and the Columbia Basin. A new highway over White Pass in the Cascades opened easier access to the western part of the state. The population showed a steady increase decade after decade, from 27,221 in 1940, to 38,486 in 1950, to 45,588 in 1960.

Latinos in the Yakima Valley

Those population increases were fueled partly by the arrival of Mexican American farmworkers from Texas in the early 1930s. Later, when farm labor was scarce during World War II, the U.S. government established the Bracero program, which allowed Mexican citizens to come to the Yakima Valley to work. Most of these people did not stay and settle, since their families lived elsewhere, but they learned there was work to be had in the valley.

The Yakima Valley became a temporary stop for Latino farmworkers at any of several migrant camps. Changes in agricultural practices and immigration laws in the 1980s encouraged many former migrant workers to settle permanently in the Yakima Valley. By the 1980s, Yakima County's Hispanic population hit 14.8 percent, the largest percentage of any county in the state at the time.  By the 2000 census, 33 percent of the residents of Yakima were of Hispanic or Latino origin, compared to 7.5 percent in the state as a whole.

The Volcano

On May 18, 1980, Yakima was hit by the massive ash plume triggered by the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Visibility was reduced to zero; a blanket of ash covered the city.

In the days following the eruption, so much ash washed into Yakima's sewers that the city's wastewater treatment plant failed. Although the city was back to normal quickly, and a new park rose on the spot where the ash was dumped, the cleanup bill was in the millions.

Grapes, Hops, Apples, and Mint

Yakima is on roughly the same latitude as the wine-growing regions of France and wine grapes had been grown on a small scale in the valley since the 1870s. During the 1970s, as wine grew in popularity, farmers expanded their vineyards and Yakima soon established itself as an excellent wine-growing region. By 2009, there were nearly 80 wineries in the valley, including several in the city itself.

The city's population rose steadily, from 45,588 in 1970 to 49,826 in 1980, to 54,843 in 1990, and to 71,845 in 2000. The economy continued to diversify, yet agriculture remained the unquestioned king. The Yakima Valley still leads the country in the production of apples, hops, and mint.

Diversifying and Growing

As of 2009, the city's population was estimated at 84,850. Many of Yakima's major employers are fruit-packers, beef processors, and canneries. Yet modern Yakima is also an important regional medical center with two hospitals and the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences. It is also the home of Yakima Valley Community College. The city has recently seen millions of dollars in investments in its downtown core.

Meanwhile, steady population growth has succeeded in bringing together what the Northern Pacific tore asunder in 1885. Development has now crept so far south that there is barely any visible demarcation between Union Gap and Yakima. The old Yakima City and North Yakima have melted into one.


An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties, ed. by William Sidney Shiach (Spokane: Interstate Publishing Company, 1904); W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley, Washington, Comprising Yakima, Kittitas and Benton Counties (The S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919); Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923); "Present Pioneer at State Fair," Spokesman-Review, September 12, 1926;  "Yakima Stage Is Set For Frontier Days Celebration, Spokesman-Review, May 12, 1935, p. 13; "One Dead, 25 Injured," Spokesman-Review, May 20, 1935, p. 1; Gary L. Jackson, Remembering Yakima, By Those Who Were There (Yakima: Golden West Publishing Co., Inc., 1975); Helen H. Schuster, The Yakima (New York, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990);  Valley of the Strong, Stories of Yakima and Central Washington History ed. by Joseph C. Brown (Yakima: Wescoast Publishing, 1974); Associated Press, "Yakima Spills Waste After Sewer Damage," Spokesman-Review, May 23, 1980, p. 12; "Yakima Became a City of Color," Spokesman-Review, March 1, 1959, p. 3; Christopher Bogan, "Hispanics: The State's Largest Minority," Spokesman-Review, February 13, 1983, p.  A-1; Nicholas K. Geranios, Associated Press, "Yakima's homicides at record,"  Spokane Chronicle, Jan. 28, 1988, p. C-5; additional information and research, John Baule and Yvonne Wilbur, Yakima Valley Museum, email communication to Jim Kershner, October 12, 2009, in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane, Washington. See also: "Yakima: The Beginning," Yakima Herald-Republic, April 25, 2010 (http://yakimathebeginning.com/print/?pid=01); "Three New Towns on Map of State," The Seattle Times, June 7, 1917, p. 11; "North Yakima to Shorten Name January 1," Ibid., December 25, 1917, p. 3;
Note: This essay was revised on November 30, 2015.

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