Wenatchee Confluence State Park

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 11/23/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7551
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Located at the confluence of the Wenatchee and Columbia rivers, in almost the exact center of Washington State, Wenatchee Confluence State Park is a study in dichotomies. The north side is a manicured haven for people who like to camp in comfort. The southern half is a manmade "natural" area, a former orchard and cattle pasture that has been bulldozed back into wetlands. The line of demarcation is the Wenatchee, still muscled by enough rapids to be popular with river rafters upstream, merging with the reservoired Columbia on the eastern edge of the park. Three major highways converge nearby in a busy interchange lined with warehouses and big-box stores. The hum from the highways has replaced the roar once made by rapids at this point, but the voice of nature can still be heard, in the calls of birds and the sound of wind rustling through the leaves of stately old cottonwoods.

"Respect and Kind Attention"

The Wenatchee River is one of the most variable in the state, ranging from tumultuous to serene in its 40-mile journey from its headwaters in the Cascade Mountains to its mouth on the Columbia. To the Sahaptin-speaking people of the Columbia Basin, the river was Winatshi (sometimes spelled Wenatchi), meaning "water rushing out." The thunderous noise of rapids at its confluence with the Columbia could once be heard a mile away. Rock Island Dam, the first major dam on the Columbia, drowned the rapids when it was completed in 1933. The rivers now meet quietly, mingling their waters in a calm reservoir.

The original inhabitants of the Wenatchee River drainage were Salish speakers who called themselves the P'squosa (sometimes spelled Pisquouse or Pisquow). They apparently encountered white people for the first time on July 7, 1811, when Canadian explorer David Thompson (1770-1857) and a group of voyageurs stopped briefly at a large P'squosa village near the confluence. Thompson noted that the Indians "viewed us with some suspicion." They had reason to be wary. Within one generation, they would lose the lands their ancestors had lived on for thousands of years, their fishing rights would be abrogated, and outsiders would come to know them not by their Salish name but by an anglicized version of the Sahaptin word for the river they fished.

Thompson estimated that there were about 800 people in the village. They lived in long houses, 30 feet wide and up to 240 long, covered with mats of tule or bulrushes gathered from nearby wetlands. They wore clothing made from the skins of antelope, wove blankets from the hair of mountain goats, and traded salmon for bison robes with their neighbors from the east. Thompson described them as being better fed and better dressed than Indians he had encountered on the upper Columbia. They also struck him as being remarkably healthy. "[W]ith the exception of the infirmities of old age we have not seen a sick person," he commented. He attributed that "in part to eating many vegetables and the dry temperate climate." He came away with a favorable impression overall. "The men are handsome with a manly look; the women are pretty with mild features and the children well formed and playful with a respect and kind attention to each other," he wrote (Thompson, 267).

The villagers, in turn, were impressed by some of the accoutrements carried by the visitors, particularly their guns, axes, and knives. The tribal elders enjoyed the tobacco that Thompson offered them. "Finally having been satisfied that we were friends and that we intended to do them good," Thompson reported, "they brought us two salmon for which we paid them and then [they] lifted their hands to the skies to pray for our safety and return to them" (Thompson, 267).

Infectious diseases introduced by Euro-Americans cut a deadly swath through the people Thompson had found to be "all in good health." By the mid-1800s, there were only about 500 P'squosa left in the entire Wenatchee River valley, out of a tribe that once numbered more than 2,000.

Broken Promises

The Yakima Treaty of 1855 set aside a reservation of 23,000 acres for the tribe, including an important fishery near what is now the Bavarian-themed tourist town of Leavenworth, but the land was never surveyed. In 1892, tracks for the Great Northern Railroad were laid directly through what was supposed to be the P'squosa reservation. When the P'squosa, led by Chief John Harmelt, protested, they were promised individual allotments of up to 160 acres. They were also promised perpetual rights to their ancestral fishing grounds.

Not a single acre of land was ever actually allotted to the tribe. Instead, the land and the fishing rights were sold in 1894, for a total of $20,000. The Bureau of Indian Affairs negotiated the sale with the Yakima (now known as the Yakama) Nation, neighbors of the P'squosa, not with the P'squosa themselves. By 1896, only 180 P'squosas were still living in the Wenatchee valley. They were offered $9.30 each as payment for their rights to the ceded reservation; none accepted.

Today the tribe, commonly identified as the Wenatchee, is one of 12 that make up the Colville Confederated Tribes. Tribal members have petitioned the federal government to set aside 20,000 acres of land within the Wenatchee National Forest for their use. They are also asking for access to the fishery near Leavenworth, which is now restricted to members of the Yakama Nation. The Washington State House and the Senate passed non-binding resolutions supporting the Wenatchee in 2003 but as of 2005, the issue remains in limbo. "I think they need to follow through on their promises," says Mathew Dick Jr., a great-grandson of John Harmelt, the last chief of the P'squosa. "I think it's important to all the people of the United States that the United States government keeps the promises it makes" (Yakima Herald-Republic).

Apple Capital

White settlers did not begin to move into the Wenatchee Valley in significant numbers until the late 1880s, but they quickly discovered that the rich volcanic soil and temperate climate were ideally suited to fruit growing. Rudimentary irrigation systems, using deep wells or water pumped from the Columbia, allowed crops to flourish despite average annual rainfall of less than nine inches. The dry weather -- with some 300 days of sunshine a year -- helps limit problems with insects and fungal diseases and gives apples a crisp, smooth texture.

The arrival of the Great Northern Railroad in 1892 made it possible for Wenatchee growers to send their crops to markets throughout the United States. By 1917, the region was producing 20 percent of the nation's entire apple crop. The development of the massive Columbia Basin Irrigation Project in the 1950s, combined with improvements in cold storage, made Wenatchee the "Apple Capital of the World." Today, about half of the apples sold in the United States come from the Wenatchee and Yakima valleys.

The first orchard near present day Wenatchee was established in the early 1880s by Sam Miller, the operator of a trading post at the confluence. Brothers David and Franklin Freer later homesteaded on land adjacent to Miller. What was once Sam Miller's orchard and Franklin Freer's homestead are now part of Wenatchee Confluence State Park.

The park also includes a pear orchard and cattle pasture that belonged to Mike Horan, father of former Rep. Walter F. Horan (1898-1966), who represented Eastern Washington in Congress for 11 consecutive terms beginning in 1943. The orchard, purchased from the Horan family in 1990, is now the Horan Natural Area -- stripped of its fruit trees and bulldozed back to land that looks much like it did when the P'squosa Indians made it their home.

 Park with a Split Personality

Like the two rivers that meet here -- the wiry Wenatchee and the dam-swollen Columbia -- the Wenatchee Confluence State Park has two distinctive personalities. Half of the 197-acre park is a haven for urban campers, particularly those with kids on bikes. The amenities include 59 campsites, all but eight with full hookups for water, sewer, and electricity, accommodating Recreational Vehicles up to 65 feet long. Campers have access to playgrounds and sports fields, waterfront picnic shelters, a roped-off swimming area, a two-lane boat launch, and almost clinically clean restrooms with hot showers.

The other half of the park is a manmade "natural" estuary, carved out of a former orchard and cattle pasture once owned by the Horan family. The Chelan County Public Utility District acquired the property in 1990. Bulldozers cleared the fruit trees and dug ponds that were filled with storm water runoff and irrigation overflows. Swaths of marsh grass, cattails, and other water-loving plants were planted in the newly created wetlands. Groves of mature cottonwoods were left intact. Today few traces of human interference remain in what is now called the Horan Natural Area, named after the former longtime Republican congressman.

The park lies within the Pacific Flyway. More than 200 species of birds and waterfowl have been documented within its boundaries, including arctic terns, green herons, yellow-crowned night-herons, magnolia warblers, eastern and western kingbirds, gray catbirds, downy woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, and even purple martins (a swallow rarely seen outside coastal areas). Bald eagles and osprey are common. Red-trailed hawks and great blue herons work the day shift; black-crowned night herons and great horned owls take over at night.

Mink, muskrat, river otters, beaver, and raccoon find year-round refuge in the Horan Natural Area. Painted turtles can be seen sunning themselves on logs jutting out of ponds spiked with cattails. Two miles of gravel paths wind through the area, connecting 15 educational kiosks that help visitors learn about the wetland's habitats and animals.

A footbridge over the Wenatchee River links the "recreational" and the "natural" areas of the park. The bridge is part of the Apple Capital Recreation Loop Trail, a 12-mile paved path along both sides of the Columbia, popular with walkers, joggers, bicyclists, inline skaters, and, in winter, with cross-country skiers and snow-shoers. The initial five-mile segment of the trail was completed along the Wenatchee riverfront, in Chelan County, in 1990. Four years later, a seven-mile segment along the Douglas County side of the river was opened. Three bridges -- two over the Columbia River in addition to the footbridge spanning the Wenatchee River -- connect the trail.

Wenatchee Confluence State Park is owned by the Chelan County Public Utility District but leased to and operated by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. The campground is open year-round. The Horan Natural Area is closed from December 1 to March 1, to protect overwintering wildlife.

Sources: David Thompson, Columbia Journals, ed. by Barbara Belyea (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998); HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History Treaty of Yakima, Article 10; E. Richard Hart, "The History of the Wenatchi Fishing Reservation," Western Legal History: The Journal of the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2002), available at False Promises website accessed November 2005 (www.falsepromises.com); Linda Ashton, Associated Press, "False Promises Result in a Lost Tribe," Yakima Herald-Republic, February 11, 2002, p. A-1; "Birds of Confluence Park," North Central Washington Audubon Society website accessed November 2005 (www.ncwaudubon.org/birding.htm); Cathy McDonald, "Horan Natural Area at Wenatchee Confluence State Park," The Seattle Times, June 2, 2002, p. G-4; Michelle Partridge, "Wenatchee Loop Trail Like Going on a Treasure Hunt," Wenatchee World, March 30, 2001, p. A-1; "Wenatchee Confluence," Washington State Parks website accessed November 2005 (www.parks.wa.gov).

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