Cle Elum -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 10/11/2013
  • Essay 10646

Cle Elum is a city in Kittitas County on the upper Yakima River, about 30 miles east of Snoqualmie Pass. For centuries, the land was inhabited by the Kittitas band of the Yakama Tribe, who used the word Tle-el-Lum, meaning swift water, for the nearby Cle Elum River. The first non-Indian settlers arrived in 1883 and the little settlement grew when coal was discovered in nearby Roslyn in 1884 and when the Northern Pacific Railway arrived in 1886. In 1894, coal was discovered in Cle Elum, setting off a mining boom. The town of Cle Elum was incorporated in 1902 and it attracted hundreds of immigrant miners and their families. The town's population was 2,749 in 1910, which remains its all-time high. A fire in 1918 destroyed about half of the town, but it quickly rebuilt. Cle Elum became known in the 1920s and 1930s as a ski town, with a huge ski jump that attracted thousands of skiers and spectators. Cle Elum's mining industry began to fade in the 1920s and was gone by the 1960s. The city's other main industry, logging, had also peaked by then. The city's place on Interstate 90, the state's main highway route across the Cascades, enabled Cle Elum's economy to become increasingly geared toward tourism and recreation. The city's population in 2010 was 1,872.

In the Kittitas Valley 

The city of Cle Elum lies on the north bank of the Yakima River, about four miles downstream from the point where the Cle Elum River enters the Yakima. For centuries, the Yakama Tribe and its related bands gathered food and camped along the rich grasslands and forests of the upper Yakima, which came to be known as the Kittitas Valley. Permanent villages of the Kittitas band, also known as the Upper Yakama band, existed on both sides of present-day Cle Elum; one to the west where the Cle Elum River exits Cle Elum Lake and another to the east near present-day Teanaway. The Yakima River had prodigious runs of salmon and steelhead, and large resident populations of trout.

Life changed for the Kittitas band beginning in the 1840s, when Catholic missionaries arrived in the Kittitas Valley, and on through the 1850s when new settlers and miners began to pass through. In an 1855 treaty, the Yakamas and most of the other tribes in the region ceded most of their ancestral lands, including the future site of Cle Elum, in exchange for a reservation along the lower Yakima Valley. By 1859, most of the Kittitas band had been forced out of the Kittitas Valley and onto the Yakama Reservation.

Cattle ranchers moved into the lower parts of the Kittitas Valley in the 1860s, and travelers by wagon, horse, and foot traversed the upper valley, since it was on the eastern approaches to the long-established Indian trail over the Cascades at Snoqualmie Pass. Yet the site of Cle Elum remained mostly uninhabited.

Staking a Claim 

That began to change in the early 1880s, when Thomas L. Gamble (1827-1907), a pioneer from Yakima, went to the upper Yakima River "searching for desirable government land" (Illustrated History ..., 304). On April 28, 1883, he found what he was looking for and staked out a quarter-section claim on what is today the eastern part of the city of Cle Elum. This was higher -- and snowier -- country than the rest of the Kittitas Valley, but Gamble saw its potential. "The hazel brush grew dense; massive pines and firs in the dark thickets reared skyward their stately heads; the nearest settlers were miles away, but the doughty veteran and pioneer blazed out his lines and commenced the clearing of Hazel-Dell Farm," said a 1904 account (Illustrated History ..., 305).

When Gamble was in the land office in Yakima shortly thereafter, he ran into an old friend of his, Walter J. Reed (1842-1908). Gamble told Reed about the land he had found. On June 4, 1883, Reed filed a pre-emption claim on a quarter-section just west of Gamble's claim. Both men built cabins on their land that summer and thus became the two founding families of Cle Elum.

This little settlement, not yet named, did not begin to come alive until 1884, when coal was discovered in the nearby hills around what is now Roslyn. This was a particularly timely discovery, because the Northern Pacific was steadily pushing it rails westward, headed for Stampede Pass and Puget Sound. Both Reed and Gamble realized that their little settlement had two things that the railroad would need: coal for the locomotives and timber for the railroad ties, trestles, and tunnels. In 1884, Reed "influenced the N.P. to move its proposed depot to Cle Elum" -- away from Teanaway -- and "had the engineers plot the town" (History of Kittitas County, 57). Reed and fellow pioneer Tom Johnson also built what was "undoubtedly the largest [saw]mill up to that time in central or eastern Washington" to supply lumber for the railroad and its tunnel at Stampede Pass (Lyman, 763).

Farmers, Loggers, Miners, and Homesteaders 

By 1886, the town had attracted a number of farmers, loggers, miners, and homesteaders, lured by the promise of the railroad's arrival. On October 11, 1886, that promise was fulfilled when the first train arrived at the new Cle Elum depot. That same year, Reed platted "60 acres of his pre-emption claim as a townsite" (History of Kittitas County, 57). By some accounts, Reed's wife, Barbara Steiner Reed, insisted that the town have particularly wide boulevards because she believed the town "might become another Pittsburgh" (History of Kittitas County, 58). Reed and his wife, along with Gamble and Johnson, chose to name the fledgling town Cle Elum, derived from the Indians' word for the nearby river, Tle-el-Lum, said to mean swift water.

In 1886, the little town had a general store, a sawmill, a butcher shop, a boarding house, a school, and a large hotel run by the Reeds called the Reed House, which doubled as the town's only meeting hall. It also had several saloons. By 1887, it had an estimated 400 residents, and by 1888 it had its own post office. With the nearby Roslyn coal mines now in full swing and with the railroad stationing its construction crews in Cle Elum, the town took on a wild character. One contemporary observer noted dryly that "its population was decidedly typical of a western boom town" and its nightlife was "strenuous" (Illustrated History ..., 306).

The town's exhilarating run of prosperity was checked in 1888, when a massive and violent miners' strike in Roslyn spread into Cle Elum. Johnson's sawmill was threatened by strikers and angry demonstrations took place outside of the Reed House. In addition, the Northern Pacific withdrew most of its crews in 1889 after the completion of the Stampede Pass tunnel. Beginning in 1889, Cle Elum "experienced only fair prosperity and a slow growth for several years" (Illustrated History ..., 306). Its population in 1890 was somewhere between 300 and 400.

Downs and Ups 

A bigger blow arrived on July 23, 1891, when a forest fire swept toward the mostly wooden structures of the town. Embers ignited the general store and destroyed an entire block of the town's downtown. Only good fortune prevented the entire town from going up in flames. A few businesses were left standing, including the Reed House, when the fire finally burned itself out. This natural calamity was followed by a nationwide financial calamity, both of which served to cut deeply into the town's "prosperity and population" (Illustrated History ..., 307).

The future looked bleak for Cle Elum, but a discovery in 1894 helped to save it. Coal was discovered right in the town, on Gamble's property. Gamble sank a mine shaft and now Cle Elum was producing its own coal instead of merely shipping the coal mined in Roslyn. The population leaped to 762 by 1900. It contained, like many mining towns, a significant number of Italian, German, and Welsh immigrants.

With the place booming, residents decided the time had come for Cle Elum to incorporate. On February 12, 1902, voters weighed the question of whether to incorporate as a town of the fourth class. The proposition passed, and incorporation became official on February 24, 1902. Gamble was elected the first mayor. Two years later, the voters approved another proposition, to become a city of the third class, a designation available to places with populations above 1,500. By 1904, the city of Cle Elum boasted a new municipal gravity water system, a volunteer fire department, a commodious schoolhouse (built in 1890), a new city hall, a bank, and five churches. One of its thriving industries was John A. Balmer's rosary: a huge complex of fields and greenhouses for growing roses, which were shipped by rail to Puget Sound cities. Balmer was a former professor of floriculture at Washington State College in Pullman who later served as a mayor of Cle Elum.

Gamble had sold his lease in 1900 to the Northwest Improvement Company, which turned the mine Gamble initially developed into "one of the greatest factors in the business of the county" (Lyman, 775). The Northwest Improvement Company's operations rapidly expanded and by 1904, one observer reported that "property has steadily advanced in value, buildings of a substantial character have taken the place of the old ones and scores of other improvements have been inaugurated" (Illustrated History ..., 307).

Word of mining jobs spread far and wide, and "the Italians, the Croats, Poles and Slovaks" arrived by the hundreds (History of Kittitas County, 58). Cle Elum's immigrant experience, around the turn of the twentieth century, was typified by the story of the Cle Elum Bakery, an old-world bakery that opened in 1906 and remained a Cle Elum institution more than 100 years later. John and Letizia Pricco, two immigrants from the Piemonte region of Italy, had met on board ship while coming to America in 1902 and married in 1903. In 1906, they found their way to Cle Elum -- lured by its large Italian population -- where they found financial backing from Frank Carpenter (1871-1959), who had recently opened the Cle Elum State Bank. The Priccos made old-world style bread in a wood-fired brick oven, stoked with four-foot fir and pine logs.

What's in a Name? 

Meanwhile, Cle Elum had also survived another threat to its existence -- that is, to the existence of the name "Cle Elum." The Northern Pacific attempted to change the name of the station to "Cle Alum," to "facilitate telegraphing" (Illustrated History ..., 309). The post office followed suit and switched for while to "Clealum," but these changes were met with indignation in town. Not only were residents attached to the original name, but also considerable Cle Elum mail "found its way to Clallam, across the [Cascade] range" (Illustrated History ..., 309). The town appealed to the U.S. Geographic Board, which eventually ruled decisively in favor of "Cle Elum."

Cle Elum's first U.S. census as a city, in 1910, showed the population had spiked to 2,749. The residents of this increasingly prosperous city had no way of knowing that this would be the city's official population apex -- at least for the next century.

The busy mining town was rocked by a massive and deadly explosion on July 16, 1908. Workmen at the Northwest Improvement Company's powder magazine were unloading a rail car full of explosive black powder mixed with dynamite, used for mine blasting. A workman may have dropped a can, or somehow ignited some spilled powder -- no witnesses survived to tell the tale. The explosion killed nine: four men inside the warehouse, three men in the rail car, and a woman and her 10-year-old daughter who were living in a nearby tent. Scores more were injured, and damage was spread for hundreds of yards. The powder magazine was on the edge of town, about three-quarters of a mile from downtown, and "now only a hole in the ground marks the spot," reported a correspondent on the scene ("Killed, Mangled ...").

In 1908, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad (commonly shortened to the Milwaukee Road) built its transcontinental route through the upper Kittitas Valley up and over Snoqualmie Pass. However, the route went up the south side of the Yakima River, on the opposite bank from the city of Cle Elum and the Northern Pacific tracks. Some enterprising residents established another town, South Cle Elum, clustered around the new Milwaukee Road depot, roundhouse and rail yards. In 2013 South Cle Elum remains a smaller sister city to Cle Elum.

The Highway Arrives 

Another momentous transportation development occurred in 1915, when Snoqualmie Pass was officially declared open to automobile traffic. The Snoqualmie Pass route, which by necessity went through Cle Elum, had been a long-established foot, horse, and wagon trail, but only a few intrepid autoists had dared attempt its rocky, precarious track. That changed in 1913 when the state legislature authorized construction of seven Primary Roads, including the Sunset Highway, which went from Seattle to Spokane over Snoqualmie Pass. Crews blasted a less-treacherous track over the pass, and by 1915 autos were braving the trip more often -- although most travelers still preferred the comforts of the trains. Another Primary Road, the Inland Empire Highway, also took shape in 1915, branching off from the Sunset Highway just a few miles east of Cle Elum at Virden, and continuing on to Yakima, Pasco, Walla Walla, and Spokane. Construction of these highways helped boost Cle Elum's economy in the short term, and, in later decades, the town's place on the Snoqualmie Pass highway route would prove crucial to its commercial prosperity.

Meanwhile, Cle Elum had developed into more than just a coal-timber-and-railway center. Travelers, wrote a 1918 observer, would be "much surprised to learn that there are many beautiful and productive farms" centered on Cle Elum, producing fruit and the "finest of flowers" (Lyman, 762).

The biggest disaster in Cle Elum's history took place on June 25, 1918, when a massive fire raged through town, destroying 205 homes and half of the town's business district. It left an estimated 1,800 people homeless. The fire originated in a pile of rubbish outside a movie theater, possibly ignited by a carelessly tossed cigarette. Before long, flames were shooting up the side of the building. Winds fanned the flames and tossed burning embers on to buildings a block away. Before long, the business district was "a seething cauldron of fire" (Lyman, 765). Then winds blew the fire into the residential districts, where it destroyed the homes of many Northwest Improvement Company miners. Firefighters from Cle Elum, Roslyn, and surrounding districts battled the blaze with water and dynamite, but the fire raged all afternoon, stopping only when it hit the limits of the city.

Historian W. D. Lyman, who surveyed the city later that year, wrote that "the traveler sees on every side the ravages of the fire, but the courage and enterprise of the citizens are equally in evidence, and the town is steadily rebuilding" (Lyman, 777). One of the businesses destroyed was the Cle Elum Bakery, but the Priccos quickly rebuilt. Within two years, the bakery was thriving and debt-free. Lyman estimated the population before the fire at an unofficial 3,650. Yet the fire had driven many people out of Cle Elum, and by the 1920 census, the population had dropped below the 1910 figure to 2,661.

The Gradual Decline of Coal 

Other forces were also conspiring to limit Cle Elum's prosperity. The coal economy hit a peak during World War I, but collapsed in 1919. For the next four decades, the region's coal industry saw a slow decline, due to falling demand, increased competition, and a series of contentious mineworkers' strikes. By the early 1930s the Great Depression had also cut into coal prices and demand, and by 1933 coal production in Cle Elum and Roslyn had dropped by more than half from its peak. In fact, all of the area's "three economic mainstays -- coal, forest products, and agriculture," were in serious decline and would stay depressed for decades (Shideler, 125). Jobs were scarce, and as a result Cle Elum's population continued to drop: to 2,508 in 1930 and to 2,230 in 1940. Bernardo Pricco, son of the owners of the Cle Elum Bakery, recalled that during the Great Depression, hoboes jumped off freight trains and "rushed to our bakery for a handout of bread or rolls -- my parents never turned one away" (History of Kittitas County, 640).

During the 1920s and 1930s, however, many Cle Elum residents were preoccupied with an invigorating new diversion: skiing. John "Syke" Bresko (1895-1987) founded the Cle Elum Ski Club in 1921, and proceeded to build one of the first organized ski areas west of Colorado. The first ski hill was just south of town and it had its own ski jump and toboggan course. By 1923, the club had built another, larger ski area two miles north of town on a ridge overlooking the Teanaway Valley. This ski area attracted hundreds of people every weekend at a time when most people had to make their own skis. Ski jumping had become a popular craze at the time, and the club held annual tournaments with jumping and racing contests, attracting between 3,000 and 5,000 people, in the early 1930s. However, the Cle Elum Ski Club's hill began to lose popularity once new areas opened on Snoqualmie Pass, and both club and ski area faded away after 1936.

Meanwhile, coal's long slow decline continued through the 1940s and 1950s. The population dropped yet again, to 2,206 in 1950. By the 1950s, Cle Elum's night life was not as "strenuous" as it had been at the turn of the twentieth century, yet evidently a few spots still catered to the tastes of lonely miners and loggers. In 1952, a reform-minded mayor, W. B. Morton, ordered the closure of the city's three "red-light houses" on Railroad Avenue, which had "operated under official toleration" for a long time ("Mayor Orders ..."). Mayor Morton was quoted as saying that he had been thinking about this move "for quite a while" and he concluded the houses were not "serving any good purpose" and that they had always "bothered our police, more or less" ("Mayor Orders ..."). The mayor's various reforms apparently didn't go down well with voters. He survived two recall efforts and was finally defeated in 1953 after a stormy four-year term.

By the beginning of the 1960s, the only mining companies left in the Cle Elum-Roslyn area were the Northwest Improvement Company and the Roslyn Cascade Coal Company. Business and industry leaders had attempted to revive the coal industry by proposing a massive coal-fired steam-generating power plant near Cle Elum Lake in 1952, but the idea was abandoned in the early 1960s due to regulatory and economic hurdles. Both of the remaining mining companies folded in 1963, marking the end of the coal era for Cle Elum. Meanwhile, logging continued to provide a source of income for many Cle Elum families, although the old-time logging camps and giant sawmills had peaked 50 years earlier.

The Interstate Era 

A new era in Cle Elum's economy was inaugurated in 1964 when Interstate 90, the high-speed highway that had evolved from the old Sunset Highway, was completed in Cle Elum. The highway's overpass in Cle Elum was dedicated in a ceremony attended by a large crowd on October 5, 1964. From that point on, Cle Elum's economy was increasingly dependent on the fact that it was the first town of any consequence east of Snoqualmie Pass, 31 miles away, and a natural stopping place for travelers going both directions. A 1989 history of Kittitas County noted that "the older order changeth for the new" in Cle Elum, and that "the sawmills and mines are gone but a great deal of business comes from the freeway" (History of Kittitas County, 58).

Yet the population continued to drop, to 1,816 in 1960 and then to a low of 1,725 in 1970. It remained relatively stable in 1980 at 1,773 and in 1990 at 1,778. In 1986, historian John C. Shideler, in his history of Cle Elum and Roslyn, wrote that there was reason for economic optimism because of another natural resource the region possessed in abundance: scenic beauty. He wrote:

"Because it is endowed with great natural beauty and is situated in close proximity to the state's most populous region, the upper valley will continue to attract increasing numbers of visitors, vacationers and seasonal residents" (Shideler, 145).

His prediction proved correct. One harbinger of the future came in 1993, when the Plum Creek Timber Co. indicated it was interested in turning a portion of its land just two miles northwest of Cle Elum into a destination resort. Not everyone approved: "Opponents of the resort, many of whom live in the Cle Elum area, have said the land has always been used for logging and should continue to be used that way" ("Cle Elum Resort Plans ..."). Others were concerned about the environmental impacts of such a huge development.

However, the controversial project went forward. Plum Creek went on to sell the land to a developer who built an ambitious new recreational/residential resort called Suncadia -- complete with an inn, multiple golf courses, and horseback facilities. It began construction in 2003, the first homes were completed in 2005, and a new lodge and spa were completed in 2008. As of 2013, about 1,250 housing units had been sold in Suncadia, with the potential for 2,250 more. Most of the resort was built on unincorporated land, but one section, known as Bullfrog Flats, was annexed into the city of Cle Elum in 2006, more than doubling the city's territory. As of 2013, Bullfrog Flats had not been developed, yet it held the potential to significantly boost the population of the city. That population as of the 2010 census was 1,872 -- still well below the all-time high of 2,749 reached 100 years earlier.

Cle Elum Today

Today, Cle Elum celebrates its history with the Carpenter House Museum and Art Gallery, the restored 1914 mansion of the former mayor and owner of the Cle Elum State Bank. Cle Elum is also the home of the Telephone Museum, formerly a Pacific Northwest Bell switchboard office, which was donated to the Northern Kittitas Historical Society when the office was closed in 1966. The Douglas A. Munro Memorial, at Laurel Hill Memorial Park, honors the memory of Munro (1919-1942), a South Cle Elum resident and the U.S. Coast Guard's only Congressional Medal of Honor winner. In 1942, Munro died on Guadalcanal while saving the lives of numerous U.S. Marines stranded on a beach.

Visitors come to see historic sites in Cle Elum, South Cle Elum, and Roslyn, and they are also attracted to the area's lakes, rivers, and mountain trails. Those visitors have been known to "marvel" that a town of Cle Elum's size has such expansive boulevards (History of Kittitas County, 58). They are probably unaware that long ago, people dreamed that this new coal town might grow into another Pittsburgh.


A History of Kittitas County, Washington -- 1989, Vol. 1 (Ellensburg: Kittitas County Centennial Commission, 1989); John C. Shideler, Coal Towns in the Cascades: A Centennial History of Roslyn and Cle Elum, Washington (Spokane: Melior Publications, 1986); W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley, Washington, Comprising Yakima, Kittitas and Benton County, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919); An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima, and Kittitas Counties With an Outline of the Early History of the State of Washington ed. by William Sidney Shiach (Chicago: Interstate Publishing Company, 1904); Fifth Report of the United States Geographic Board, 1890-1920 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1921); HistoryLink.Org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Cle Elum Ski Club" (by John W. Lundin and Stephen W. Lundin), (accessed September 25, 2013); Yvonne Prater, Snoqualmie Pass: From Indian Trail to Interstate (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1981); "Killed, Mangled; Clealum Horror," The Spokesman-Review, July 17. 1908, p. 1; "Mayor Orders Houses Closed," The Spokesman-Review, January 6, 1952, p. 25; "Cle Elum Resort Plans Move Ahead," The Spokesman-Review, August 19, 1993, p. B-2; Justin Pittman, "Suncadia's Evolution: Slowly Established Resort Continues to Grow," Daily Record (Ellensburg), March 16, 2013 (

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