The discovery of gold in California in January 1848 set off a wild surge of immigration to the West. In August of that year, Congress established Oregon Territory, which encompassed all of what are today Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming. On September 9, 1850, California became the nation's 31st state, having skipped the intermediate status of territory. As its population grew and the fervor of the gold rush subsided, many new potential settlers moved farther north, into what they considered the wilderness of the vast Oregon Territory. For others, reaching the Northwest required a long sail around the southern tip of South America or an often-perilous wagon trek along the Oregon Trail.
Most of those who took the Oregon Trail from the East ended up in the Willamette Valley or at the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver. Some stayed in those places, others trickled north in small groups. The first permanent non-Indian settlement in what would become Washington Territory was New Market (present-day Tumwater), founded in 1845 by Michael T. Simmons (1814-1867). Similar small communities soon dotted the land west of the Cascades, including those at Vancouver, Olympia, Port Townsend, and Seattle. The initial impetus for establishing a route through the mountains was not trade between the eastern and western portions of Washington Territory, but rather an attempt to attract more settlers from eastern states to the western half of the territory by carving for them a passable route through the towering peaks.
Significant non-Indian settlement on the eastern side of the Cascade Range was slow in coming. The mountains posed a daunting barrier, and to their east was a vast arid landscape unfamiliar to new settlers, in which Native American bands lived as they had for millennia. A scattering of fur-company forts, intrepid Christian missions, and a few small gatherings of hardy pioneers were all that foretold a different future. The handful of early non-Indian settlements that did take root, such as that at Walla Walla (which by 1880 had become the largest city in Washington Territory), generally hugged the banks of navigable rivers, as there were virtually no roads into the region's vast midsection. Growth was further slowed by the Indian Wars of the mid-1850s and by a short-lived ban on Euro-American settlement east of the Cascades imposed in 1856 by U.S Army Major General John E. Wool (1784-1869). In the next decade, the Civil War and its aftermath put a further damper on immigration to the West.
Much of the land on the eastern side was fertile and suitable for agriculture once irrigated, and its vast stretches of grassland were ideal for raising livestock. After the Indians had been largely relegated to reservations, most of this land became freely available for homesteaders.
Slowly, over about two decades, some of the territory east of the Cascades came into its own. Eventually, its farmers and cattlemen were producing far more than local populations could consume, and the ability to move crops and livestock west became a second and equally important justification for the hard task of building a passable road across the Cascades.
Breaching the Mountain Barrier
In September and October 1853, the first wagon train to make it across the Cascade Range in Washington Territory struggled over an old Indian trail at Naches Pass north of Mount Rainier. At the top of the pass, at a height of nearly 5,000 feet, the settlers were faced with a descent on the western side that was so steep that the wagons had to be lowered on ropes, while the pioneers picked their way on foot down the perilous slopes. Earlier that year, Congress had allocated $20,000 to survey a military road connecting Fort Walla Walla and Fort Steilacoom. General George B. McClellan (1826-1885) was ordered to survey Naches Pass and Snoqualmie Pass for possible rail routes, but was deterred by winter snows and deemed both unfeasible. Only one other wagon train would ever make it across at Naches Pass, and the trail's main use thereafter was by cattlemen driving their stock west.
As early as 1859, prominent Seattleites began petitioning Congress to finance a cross-Cascade road through Snoqualmie Pass, which, at barely 3,000 feet, was the lowest in the Washington part of the Cascade Range. They got nowhere, and the Civil War, which raged from 1861 to 1865, ensured that no assistance could be expected from the federal government.
In 1865, four Seattle men -- William Perkins, L. V. Wyckoff, Arthur Denny (1822-1899), and John Ross -- took it upon themselves to survey a route over Snoqualmie Pass. The following year, King County residents raised $2,500, which Perkins used to build a section of rough road from Ranger's Prairie (today's North Bend) to the pass. Although the road was not complete, six wagons made a laborious trek over the pass before winter set in, proof of the concept and an encouragement for further investment.
In January 1867 the territorial legislature allocated $2,000 for work on the route, a sum matched by King County. By October of that year a road -- more of a trail, actually -- was completed that extended from the Black River bridge in King County over the pass to the Yakima Valley. More money was allocated by the territorial legislature the following year and the work continued.
The "Seattle to Walla Walla Wagon Road," as it came to be called, was subject to long seasonal closures, rockslides, and repeated damage by the elements. At the best of times, it could accommodate small wagons, people on horseback, and droves of cattle (proceeding one or two abreast most of the way) but was too narrow and precarious for the heavy freight wagons that would be needed to make routine trade over the mountains economically feasible. An early traveler was quoted as saying: "When you started, you had to keep a-going. There was no place to turn around and go back" ("Had to 'Keep A-Going ...")
Even minimal maintenance was a huge problem and expense and often not possible. From 1869 until 1883, various plans were considered to finance further improvements. These included a lottery started in 1876 by Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler (1810-1892), but declared illegal before a winner was selected (Yesler reputedly kept most of the proceeds anyway). Repeated pleas to the federal government for aid were rejected repeatedly, and little improvement was made to the road for well more than a decade.
The Seattle and Walla Walla Trail and Wagon Road Company
By 1883, the road over the Cascade Mountains at Snoqualmie Pass continued to be a seasonally usable if tortuous route for livestock and lightly laden travelers, but it was not up to the increasing cross-mountain traffic. As one "old timer" put it: "Sometimes a man had to turn out two, three times a day to let somebody pass. Not easy driving anymore" ("Had to 'Keep A-Going ... "). Then three men from Ellensburg, all involved in the cattle business, decided to take it upon themselves to improve the road. They stood to profit, both by the benefit they would enjoy from using the route themselves and from the tolls they hoped to charge other users.
Walter Alvadore Bull had arrived in 1869 in the portion of Yakima County that would, in 1883, become Kittitas County, taking a homestead just east of the future town of Ellensburg. He would prosper for many years, becoming the largest landowner in the region and raising both cattle and the timothy hay to feed them. Bull also branched out into other commercial endeavors, served as first postmaster of the little settlement of Naneum, and, despite having no legal training, was the first probate judge in Kittitas County.
Henry M. Bryant was originally from Indiana, the son of a prominent preacher. After living in New York and Salt Lake City, he moved to Helena, Montana, where he owned a store and wrote for the local newspaper. In December 1870, he claimed a homestead in the Kittitas Valley but, unwilling to live on it for the prescribed five years, "commuted" the claim and gained clear title by paying the federal government a sum set by law. From 1874 to 1879 he was the Wells Fargo agent in Seattle, after which he moved back to Ellensburg and conducted a merchandise business with fellow Seattleite Austin Bell (1854-1889). He also started the town's second trading post, which he sold in 1882 before finally settling down to raise cattle on his original homestead.
Of Nathan W. Preston little information has been preserved, other than that he was born in Springfield, Illinois, in approximately 1854, apparently married Elise Wilson in Ellensburg in 1868 (although age 14, if that was his age, seems a little young for matrimony), and died in that town in 1933. Beyond that, the available public record is silent, with the exception of his role in 1883 as one of the incorporators, with Bull and Bryant, of the Seattle and Walla Walla Trail and Wagon Road Company.
Bull, Bryant, and Preston signed the incorporation papers for the company on March 13, 1883, before a notary for Yakima County (Kittitas County would not be created until later that year). The articles of incorporation designated Ellensburg as the company's "principal place of business" and declared that its immediate goal was "connecting Eastern and Western Washington Territory by means of Trails and Wagon Roads through the Cascade Mountains via 'The Snoqualmie Pass'" (Certificate of Incorporation).
The corporation was authorized to issue $100,000 in stock, divided into 10,000 shares with a par value of $10 each. Many of Ellensburg's early settlers subscribed, including George H. Smith; John Shoudy (1842-1901), who had filed the original plat for the town, naming it after his wife; and Howard C. Walters. Walters became the company's public-relations man, submitting short articles lauding the proposed road to newspapers on both sides of the mountains. He and Smith also traveled to towns that would benefit from the road, seeking investors or volunteer workers. Before the year was out, the corporation was advertising 100 available jobs for men to work on expanding and improving the trail, offering $35 a month and board.
Although some accounts credit the company with "building" the route over Snoqualmie Pass, its efforts were limited to improving, maintaining, and perhaps slightly extending what was already there. But the improvement were significant, and included laying corduroy road (sand-covered logs) over swampy areas, building bridges across creeks, and widening the road at many places. The estimated cost of the improvements was a mere $150 per mile, double that for the corduroy sections.
After about a year of effort, the result was not in any meaningful sense a real, all-weather "road," but rather an improved and wider trail, with obstacles cleared, well-marked fords across streams, and paths cut around the lakes along its course. On August 11, 1884, after it had demonstrated good faith in improving the route, the commissioners of the new Kittitas County granted the company a franchise to erect toll booths on a long section of the road between Taneum Creek on the east side of the mountains and Snoqualmie Summit. The franchise established set tolls for travelers, their livestock, and their conveyances:
- Sheep and hogs -- 10 cents per head
- Loose cattle -- 3 1/3 cents per head
- One man on one horse -- $1
- One horse pulling one buggy -- $2
- Three horses pulling a buggy or wagon -- $3
- Four horses pulling a wagon -- $4
The way across the mountains was no doubt much improved, but still challenging. The records of toll collections are sketchy at best, and it is unclear whether investors ever recouped what they had expended. Many travelers dodged payment simply by diverting off the trail for short distances where tolls were being collected. But a much larger threat than toll avoidance was steaming west from just over the horizon. The railroad was coming, and it would change everything.
Overtaken by a Train
Walter Bull, president of the Seattle and Walla Walla Trail and Wagon Road Company, had earned his pioneer's nest egg helping the Union Pacific Railroad reach its meeting place with the Central Pacific Railroad at Promontory, Utah, in 1869, completing the first transcontinental rail link. From that start, he had accumulated large amounts of land and achieved financial success in Kittitas County. Ironically, now a different railroad was about to render obsolete one of his most recent achievements.
In 1886, the Northern Pacific Railroad's track was completed between Ellensburg and Cle Elum, bringing trains into the foothills of the Cascades. The following year, the company's first Cascade Division route was complete. Locomotives hauling passengers and freight, including cattle, could travel between Eastern and Western Washington on tortuous switchbacks that carried them over Stampede Pass, which topped out at nearly 4,000 feet. The Stampede Tunnel, which saved many miles and 800 feet of vertical climb, was completed the following year. With the railroad in full operation, a wagon trail over Snoqualmie Pass became, if not obsolete, certainly of greatly diminished importance.
The Seattle and Walla Walla Trail and Wagon Road Company managed to stay in business for about three years. Although the toll road was still marked on some maps as late as 1893, its owners appear to have collected their last tolls in 1887.
Sadly, in the Financial Panic of 1893, Walter Bull also lost most everything else he had built or acquired in his quarter century in the Kittitas Valley.