About the County
by Jennifer ochran (Reprinted with permission)
To this day, there exist numerous explanations as to the origin and derivation of
Kittitas County's name. The term "Kittitas" has been said to mean everything from
white chalk to shale rock to shoal people to land of plenty. Most anthropologists
and historians concede that each interpretation has some validity depending upon
the particular dialect spoken.
Whatever the case, the county was organized in November of 1883 by the Washington
Territorial Legislature and signed into law by Territorial Governor W.A. Newell.
It was partitioned from what was then the northern part of Yakima County.
Though fragmented, evidence of Native American inhabitants in Kittitas Valley dates
back almost three-hundred years. It is known for certain that as early as the 1700s,
the Psch-wan-wap-pams-- early forerunners of the contemporary Yakima Nation--occupied
the entire stretch of land along the Yakima River, including the Kittitas Valley.
The Indians who inhabited the valley were known as the Kittitas or Upper Yakima
Indians, both being part of the larger Yakima Nation.
During the spring, the Kittitas Valley was one of only a handful of valleys in the
state where tribes could dig for roots such as camas (also known as kamas or quamash)
and kouse, both of which were staples in the Indian diet. For this reason, the Kittitas
Valley was a traditional gathering place for tribes east of the Cascades. During
the fall, local tribes supplemented their diet by gathering wild berries, as well
as hunting and fishing.
With the advent of white settlement, the once formidable Native American tribes
of the Kittitas Valley were dislocated and began to disperse. The tribes initially
relocated to both the Yakima Valley and lower valleys. Eventually, they were moved
onto the Yakima Indian Reservation. By the early 1860s, the first white settlers
began arriving in the Kittitas Valley. They brought with them the seeds of many
fledgling industries. These included livestock raising, crop farming, dairying,
logging, lumber processing, and mining.
Not surprisingly, the abundant bunchgrass and clear streams of the Kittitas Valley
gave rise to a prosperous cattle industry. Much of this success was foretold by
local Indians who, before the advent of white settlement, grazed horses in the valley
and sold them to neighboring tribes and white explorers and traders who passed through.
As early as 1861, white ranchers from the Yakima Valley grazed their cattle in the
Kittitas Valley before continuing on to booming mine districts in the north-central
region and British Columbia. The mining towns eventually began raising their own
cattle, but Puget Sound demand filled the vacuum (the cattle were herded to the
Sound through Snoqualmie or Naches Pass).
By the late 1860s, cattle ranchers established land claims in Kittitas itself. Over
the next ten years, especially in the late 1870s, new ranches flourished and large
herds of cattle (though not all local) grazed everywhere. The resulting overproduction
led to declining beef prices. Prices, however, rose to earlier levels after the
severe winter of 1880-81 killed more than half the herds. Although the number of
cattle eventually returned to early levels, overgrazing was beginning to take its
toll on the range. As a result, the federal government began to regulate grazing
in 1897. This led to a gradual shift from open grazing to fenced pastures and hay
feeding (the ravaging effects of the 1889-90 winter laid to rest whatever protests
there were to the shift).
Two events--better rail transportation around the turn of the century and irrigation
projects in the 1930s--helped expand the county's cattle industry. The railroads
provided more effective transport of cattle to the nation's eastern markets. Irrigation
projects enhanced the quality of pastures and spurred the growth of row crops, whose
by-products were converted into inexpensive cattle feed. By the 1960s, the number
of Kittitas County cattle had more than doubled, to approximately 70,000 head. However,
price controls and rising feed costs in the early 1970s prompted many ranchers to
change from cattle to hay and grain production.
The early pioneers who began farming did so primarily to sustain their families.
Among the first crops they planted were grains such as wheat, vegetables such as
corn and peas, and fruits such as apples, cherries, pears, plums, prunes, and peaches.
Notable growth in the farm sector came in the wake of railroad expansion and the
Homestead Act of 1862, both of which prompted heavy migration into the county.
The first wheat crop in Kittitas Valley was planted in 1868. At that time, wheat
was harvested entirely by hand using homemade scythes and flails to cut and thresh
the stalks. Production increased more rapidly after 1877, as the horse-pulled thresher
was introduced into the valley. Earlier that decade, the county's first flour mill
was established near Ellensburg. It was quickly followed by four others. Although
the county's yellowish flour was deemed suitable only for local consumption and
for trade with the Orient, wheat production grew annually until the turn of the
century. At its peak, county farmers harvested approximately 600,000 bushels of
wheat from 20,000 acres. In fact, farming success prompted representatives of the
cattle industry to ask Governor Eugene Semple to seek federal intervention as they
felt the cattle industry was being unfairly displaced.
The Kittitas Valley is also known for its hay production. Early settlers harvested
hay to sustain domestic livestock through the winter. As with other grains, they
used hand-held scythes and, later, horse-drawn mowers to cut the hay and pitchforks
to stack it. As cities and industries employed horses as the principle source of
draft-work, the demand for hay soared. Seattle, Tacoma, and other Puget Sound cities
needed thousands of tons of hay to feed work-horses, as did the state's lumber and
mining companies. Hay production was becoming a big business. As a result, county
hay farmers constantly modified and upgraded the harvesting and baling machinery
and processes to increase their productivity. By the 1920s, however, cities and
industries had largely evolved from horses to combustible engines, and Kittitas
County and other central and eastern Washington producers felt the adverse effects
of the transition. Only the return of horse-racing in the 1930s and pleasure horses
in the 1950s have helped to sustain the county's hay industry. Today, Kittitas County
hay is marketed to numerous states across the country, including Kentucky, as well
as Pacific Rim and European nations.
The county's logging and lumber industries were established in the early 1870s,
fueled primarily by two factors: in-migration of settlers who needed lumber to build
homes and railroads that needed wooden ties to expand their spurs. Most of the logging
was concentrated in the western end of the county. Logging camps sprang up along
the shores of the county's three large lakes--Cle Elum, Kachess, and Keechelus.
Most of the year, harvested timber was hauled from the forest to the riverbank on
greased skids or by wagons with horse-teams. During the winter, sleds were substituted
for wagons. The spring thaw and subsequent rising river level saw logs floated downriver
to mills in Ellensburg and Yakima. Sawmills sprang up wherever access to timber
existed. The first sawmill in Kittitas County was established in the early 1870s
near Ellensburg. Others followed, and by 1889 there were seven mills operating in
the valley (more were started through the turn of the century). Like the logging
companies, the sawmills prospered as settlers built homes and as the railroads expanded
By the turn of the century, major logging companies such as the Cascade Company
had overtaken many smaller independent groups of loggers (though they eventually
phased out their crews in order to contract work to gyppo loggers). The steam-donkey
had taken the place of the horse-team and skids. And the downriver log drives had
been phased out in favor of logging railroads which, in addition to being safer,
extended far beyond the river and up to the logging sites. After World War II, the
logging railroads were themselves decommissioned as pneumatic tires made logging
trucks and logging road construction more practical.
In the early 1880s, coal and mineral activities got underway in the Cle Elum River
Valley and the surrounding mountains. Coal was first discovered by homesteaders
in 1883. Early miners extracted the fossil fuel with picks, hoisted it from shafts
by basket and rope, and shoveled it onto wagons by hand. Mules and mule skinners
were later introduced to replace ropes and baskets. These methods were suitable
as the coal was primarily for local use. In 1886, however, the Northern Pacific
Company began to actively develop the region's coal deposits. By year's end, a rail
had been laid to Cle Elum and Roslyn and the first shipment of coal (1,500 tons)
soon made its way to markets of the west. At the turn of the century, several large
coal concerns were mining in excess of a million tons of coal annually. Production
peaked in the 1920s as companies introduced modern extractors, loaders and conveyors,
and electric locomotives. Mining subsided in the face of competition from oil in
Even before the discovery of coal, prospectors flocked to the region searching for
precious metals and ores. Efforts centered around gold, but silver, copper, lead,
iron, chromium, mercury, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and antimony were also present.
Local prospectors first discovered gold around Swauk Creek in 1867, but their find
was greeted with skepticism by townsfolk. The party found more gold in 1873 and
proceeded to establish the Swauk Mining District and mining laws. News of the activity
leaked, precipitating a gold rush into the county. Although the original boom fizzled
after a year or two, new and rediscovered finds in the late 1870s initiated another
rush. By 1884, the pace of activity was such that miners opted to reorganize the
mining district, administering it under federal as opposed to local laws (the miners
would revert back to local laws in 1905). Mining activity continued at this accelerated
pace until peaking during the 1930s.
Interest in reopening mines has surfaced periodically since that time. Some gravel
surface mining is operational today on private lands and permits are being issued
by the National Forest Service for exploratory precious metal mining. The Swauk
Mining District remains organized (under federal and state laws) to this day.