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 their lines.

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 the 1930s.

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.