Chelan's male residents vote on May 7, 1902, to incorporate the city.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 8/14/2012
  • Essay 10163
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On May 7, 1902, eight years before woman suffrage is finally adopted in Washington state, the male residents of Chelan vote to incorporate the town as a code city under Washington law. The first non-Natives  had settled there in 1886 and the first town plat was filed in July 1889. But multiple legal problems complicated land titles and stymied an earlier attempt at incorporation. When the subject is finally put to a public vote in 1902, the tally is 56 votes for and only seven against, a favorable margin of nearly 90 percent.

Troubles on the Road to Cityhood

When William Sanders (b. 1861) and Henry Domke (often spelled "Dumpke" and "Dumke" in older sources) arrived at Lake Chelan in 1886, they came to a land that until recently had been part of the Moses, or Columbia, Indian Reservation. Chief Moses (1829-1899) of the Sinkiuse Columbia tribe had negotiated a rescission of the reservation in 1884, but it was not ratified until 1886. He and most of his followers moved to the Colville Reservation, but a handful who wanted to stay at Lake Chelan were granted 640-acre allotments. It was they who greeted Sanders and Domke when they arrived at southernmost end of the lake, which was then part of Okanogan County.

The two settlers were soon joined by a handful of others, including, later in 1886, Ignatius A. Navarre (1846-1919) and Lewis H. Spader (1857-1931). Others trickled in as well, and in 1889 Okanogan County Probate Judge C. H. Ballard and U.S. Surveyor Henry Carr platted out a government townsite for Chelan. They filed the plat with the land office at Yakima (some sources say Waterville, which seems unlikely as it was in a different county). The plat was accepted and recorded, and this seemingly routine act set off nearly 10 years of confusion and controversy that would eventually require action by Congress and the federal courts to resolve.

The root of the problem was a single word and the legal consequences that flowed from the use of that word. When the Moses Reservation was rescinded, President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) restricted the use of the land where the town of Chelan would be for "homesteads" only. Under the law, land restricted to homestead use could not be platted to create a town. Through ignorance or by design, Ballard and Carr did just that. Through ignorance or connivance, the land office accepted and recorded the illegal plat. And it got worse.

Because the plat had been accepted and recorded, the land was, at least to county and state authorities, now a platted town. Homesteads were not permitted on land platted as a town. So, the very use for which President Cleveland had reserved the land had become an illegal use through the improper acceptance and recording of the Ballard and Carr plat. The land was truly in limbo, neither town nor homesteads, and appeared to have no legal use whatsoever.

Three years later, in 1892, Congress tried to resolve the issue. At the prompting of a Washington legislator, Congress granted a federal "patent" for the land upon which the still-small settlement of Chelan sat. A federal land patent is considered the highest form of title, and by granting it Congress effectively removed President Cleveland's restriction of the land to homestead use only. The report of the House committee that granted the patent states:

"Inasmuch as a townsite cannot be located under homestead law and homestead cannot be located on land selected as a townsite, no title can be given to lands without an enabling act of congress. The committee finds no adverse claims, and therefore report the bill to the house with the recommendation that it pass" ("Report to Accompany H. R. 2568").

The resolution easily passed both houses of Congress, with final approval coming in March 1892. However, this did not end the matter, but rather created a new problem, one that the courts would eventually have to sort out. Congress could not grant a federal land patent without first determining that there were no "adverse claims," and its conclusion that there were none was simply wrong. There were several Natives living on their 640-acre land allotments in the area, and one, a hereditary Chelan chief, who claimed title through ancestral right. These claims were clearly "adverse" to those of the newcomers, but that inconvenient fact seemed to have been completely ignored during the national legislature's deliberations.

This second controversy came to a head when several settlers simply took matters into their own hands. Relying on the federal land patent, eight of them forcibly took possession of several Indians' land. One settler, Alfred William LaChapelle (1846-1943), "drove Chelan Bob and Cultus Jim away, appropriated their crops to his own use, and made complaint that the Indians were dangerous characters" (Illustrated History of North Washington, 676), a charge that led to their arrest.

The state land office ruled in favor of the settlers, but that ruling was overturned in 1893 by U.S. Secretary of the Interior John Willock Noble (1831-1912). His successor, Hoke Smith (1855-1931) ordered federal troops to oust LaChapelle and the seven other white settlers. Washington's only federal circuit court judge, Cornelius Holgate Hanford (1849-1926), stopped this forcible eviction, However, in May, 1897, in an action for ejectment brought by the Natives and the federal government, Hanford ruled that the land must be returned to the Indians, and clear title restored to them. This, finally, ended the dispute; Indians and non-Native settlers lived amicably side by side, each owning their respective plots of land. And the town of Chelan was now free to seek incorporation status under state law.

Big Ambitions

The Congressional action, although ignoring the land claims of resident Indians, did in fact free up most what had become the Chelan townsite from any further legal impediments, and the citizenry wasted little time in trying to formalize their small community. In late 1892 a petition was circulating that requested legal incorporation of the town, and in January 1893, having garnered 84 signatures, it was presented to the commissioners of Okanogan County for approval. In the first of what would be a short series of political disappointments, the petition was summarily rejected:

"In this matter it appearing to the county commissioners that the said petition has not been signed by sixty qualified electors of the county, resident within the limits of such proposed corporation, as is required by law, it is ordered that said petition be rejected and returned" (Illustrated History of North Washington, 72).

From this record, it is apparent that at least 24 of the 84 signers of the petition did not live within the prescribed boundaries of the town of Chelan, and it may be questioned whether at this time there were 60 qualified residents available to sign the petition, bearing in mind that in 1893 women were not considered "electors."

Despite the setback, within a year Chelan aspired to a political status that to some seemed out of proportion to the town's place in the larger scheme of things. Okanogan County had been created in 1888 from a portion of what was then Stevens County, and the town of Conconully was designated as the county seat. In 1894, one year after the rejection of its attempt to incorporate, the good citizens of Chelan thought that they deserved to be the seat of Okanogan County government, and a petition circulated throughout the county gathered the signatures of 705 registered voters in support of the proposition. It read, in relevant part:

"Whereas the present location of the county seat at Conconully is so far removed from the center of population and so nearly inaccessible to a majority of the inhabitants of said county, and believing that the best interests of the county will be subserved by removing the county seat to a more central location, the undersigned, electors of said county, respectfully petition your honorable body to order and advertise an election to be held at the next general election, to submit the proposition of locating said county seat at the town of Chelan in said county ..." (Illustrated History of North Washington, 496-497).

The petition was presented to the county's Board of Commissioners, and the Okanogan County attorney led the fight against it. On a first vote, the board approved placing the question on the ballot for a decision by the voters, but it later reversed itself and denied the petition, holding that the specific lot that was designated as the proposed location for the county government building was not actually within Chelan's town limits. The commissioners may also have believed that Chelan, still a notoriously hard place to get to, was itself too "nearly inaccessible" to serve as the seat of county government.

In  1898, a year after Judge Hanford had finally settled all the competing land claims, Chelan tried again. A meeting in the town's Exhibition Hall on May 28 of that year culminated in a unanimous vote to once again seek the status of county seat. Petitions were circulated, and 529 signatures gathered in support. This petition was approved, and the matter placed before the voters in the November 1898 election. It was overwhelmingly defeated. Of the 22 precincts voting, only  eight -- Chelan, Entiat, Lakeside, Squaw Creek, Stehekin, Wenatchee, and Entiat -- approved the measure. In most other precincts, the vote was not even close, and the proposal was defeated by a better than two-to-one margin, 550 to 253.

On this occasion, the negative result probably had more to do with larger political questions, rather than Chelan's qualification to be the county seat. Moves were afoot to create new counties, and much of the attention was focused on cutting up the huge Okanogan County. In 1899 a formal proposal was made to create a new county, to be called Chelan. This plan was vociferously opposed by the commissioners of Okanogan County, but they later withdrew their objections when the organizers of the Chelan effort agreed to pay Okanogan County $77,000 "in county warrants" if a Chelan County was formed (Illustrated History of North Washington, 498).

With the objectors now silenced, the state legislature before the year was out created Chelan County from parts of both Okanogan and Kittitas counties. Wenatchee, alas, was designated as the new county's seat of government. The town of Chelan would have to make do as merely one of the most scenic in the entire state, a nearly unsullied paradise of mountains, forests, and pure alpine water.

Success at Last

Residents now of a new county that shared their town's name, and having put aside their more ambitious political aspirations, the citizens of  Chelan were free to focus their attention on the coming twentieth century, one propelled by huge advances in science and technology that promised an era of progress and prosperity. Their political aspirations had been thoroughly doused thrice in nine years, but by 1902 they were ready to try again. This time, they successfully cleared all the procedural hurdles and were able to present the question of incorporation to Chelan's voters.

On May 7, 1892, the male voters of Chelan approved the incorporation of the town as a "code city" under state law, with a  mayor/council form of government. There were only seven dissenting votes among 63 cast. During the same election, Amos Edmunds  (1849-1923) was elected city mayor and J. A. Van Slyke (1857-1932) as treasurer. They would be joined in city governance by a five-member council composed of Elmer Boyd (1876-1951), Henry Beecher Higgins (1869-1914), Albert Henry Murdock (1860-1945), George Lyman Richardson (1856-1936), and Charles Edward Whaley (1857-1948).

Chelan had no shortage of ambitious and industrious citizens, and within a year the city's business leaders had formed a Commercial Club to promote the wonders of Lake Chelan. On January 1, 1904, just more than 18 months after  incorporation, the Chelan Leader newspaper could boast:

"Large building operations have been carried out at the foot of the lake, including handsome brick blocks, frame business houses, brick and frame residences, one new church, an annex to another, etc.  A retaining dam has been built in the Chelan river to improve lake navigation and to regulate that great and important reservoir. Another bridge has been erected across that stream. The Chelan Water Power Company has installed and put in operation an electric lighting plant for Lakeside and Chelan that any place might be proud of; has excavated and built a brick and cement reservoir and has laid over five miles of water mains, for a water system for the community that would be hard to equal anywhere in eastern Washington outside of Spokane, and has installed a pumping plant at their power works, expecting to fill the reservoir, flood their mains and begin active business with the opening day of the new year. Although several new mercantile firms have come in, business has been more than usually prosperous; an unusually large holiday trade is reported, and there have been no failures in business.

"The Auditorium Association has been reorganized and put on a business basis, and has begun in earnest to lift its indebtedness incurred in building that elegant structure, and to finish it in a comfortable and creditable style. There has been comparatively little sickness during the year in proportion to the population, which latter has been greatly augmented by a good, well-to-do class of people, and we have been remarkably free from contagious diseases. The tourist travel to the lake has far exceeded that of any previous year, taxing to their upmost capacity all the hotels and resorts. The public park has been plowed and fenced and will be planted to trees next spring. A fine, costly, well-equipped sanitarium is one of the acquisitions of the year. Taken altogether the Lake Chelan community has made a decided advance over any previous year in its history" (Chelan Leader, quoted in (Illustrated History of North Washington at 724).

It had been a long struggle, fraught with difficulties ranging from geographical to political, but by the earliest years of the twentieth century Chelan had become a city in every sense of the word. Over the intervening years, the city has largely prospered, and from its earliest days to today (2012), Chelan has blessed visitors from around the country and beyond with ready access to one of the most beautiful and pristine natural areas in the entire state.


"Incorporations of Washington Cities and Towns by Year," Municipal Research and Services Center website accessed August 11, 2012 (; "Report to Accompany H. R. 2568," The Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives, Congressional Edition (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1892), 609; A History of Central Washington, ed. by Lindley M. Hull (Spokane: Shaw & Borden Co., 1929); Richard F. Steele, An Illustrated History of Stevens, Ferry, Okanogan and Chelan Counties (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1904); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Chelan, City of -- Thumbnail History" (by John Caldbick) and "Okanogan County -- Thumbnail History" (by David Wilma), (accessed August 11, 2012).

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