Klickitat County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 6/10/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7800
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Klickitat County, located in south central Washington, has a geographic area of 1,880 square miles and ranks 16th in size among Washington's 39 counties. The area was once home to the Klickitat and Wishram tribes, both of which ceded the land to the U.S. government in 1855. Bordering Klickitat County are Skamania County to the west, Yakima County to the north, and Benton County to the east. The Columbia River forms the southern border. The southernmost portion of the Yakama Indian Reservation extends into northern Klickitat County. The Klickitat and White Salmon rivers, both tributaries of the Columbia, flow through Klickitat County. The county's economy has been based on sheep and cattle raising, wheat, orchards, timber, and aluminum, and the county is home to the Maryhill Museum. Goldendale, population 3,760, is the largest town and county seat. As of 2000, Klickitat County's population is 19,161, two-thirds of whom live in unincorporated portions of the county.

Geology and First Peoples

Klickitat County was formed over time by the Columbia River basalt flows: floods of lava of a mainly uniform thickness occurring between 1.8 million and 16,000 years ago. The Columbia River gorge defines Klickitat County's southern border and was formed by the so-called "Bretz Floods" or "Missoula Floods," the greatest scientifically documented floods known to have occurred in North America.

The sparsely vegetated Simcoe Mountains and Horse Heaven Hills in the northern part of the county descend to fertile farmland near to the Columbia River. The highest point in the county is 6,000-foot Indian Peak near Goldendale.

The name Klickitat is usually considered to be a Chinook word meaning "beyond," i.e., beyond the Cascade Mountains. Lewis and Clark called the tribe the Wah-how-pums. Their language was Shahaptian. The Klickitats were divided into an eastern division occupying the Klickitat and White Salmon River areas and a western division called the Taitnapams who lived west of the Cascades near the Cowlitz and Lewis rivers. The Klickitats were skilled horsemen, hunters, and traders. The women were noted for their intricately woven basketry. The Klickitats were one of 14 tribes grouped together as Yakima (or Yakama) at the June 1855 Walla Walla Council and were signatories of the Treaty of Yakima. Eventually most Klickitats moved onto the Yakama Reservation. By 1970 tribe members had become assimilated with the Yakama and there were only 21 Klickitats recorded as living in Washington.

The Wishram, called Echeloots by William and Clark, lived on the northern bank of the Columbia from about 10 miles in both directions across the Columbia River from The Dalles, Oregon. Although included in the Treaty of Yakima, the Wishrams resisted removal to the Yakama Reservation. The loss of their traditional fishing grounds at Celilo Falls during the construction of The Dalles Dam in March 1957 dealt both a spiritual and an economic blow to the tribe.

Early Non-Indian Settlement

The earliest non-Indian settlement in Klickitat County was the Erastus S. Joslyn farm near present-day White Salmon. The Joslyn family built a cabin, cultivated a garden and orchard, and grazed cattle circa 1852. The Joslyn farm was burned during the 1855-1856 Indian Wars, but the Joslyn family later rebuilt.

Many early settlers to the future Klickitat County came east from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Some of Klickitat's earliest settlers were soldiers, fur trappers, or former Hudson's Bay Company employees who had married Indian women and were raising families. By the winter of 1859-1860 about 15 non-Indian families had settled in the future Klickitat County. Most farmed and grazed cattle. Newton Burgen, born in 1861 near Swale Creek south of Goldendale, is considered to have been the first non-Indian child born in the future Klickitat County.

On December 20, 1859, the County of Clickitat (after 1869 spelled Klickitat) was formally organized.

During the Bannock and Paiute Indian Wars of 1878-1879, white Klickitat Valley settlers formed a volunteer militia of mounted riflemen headed by Enoch W. Pike (1842-1918). The militia called themselves the Klickitat Rangers. From 1885-1895 Pike headed Company B of the Washington National Guards.

Grazing and Growing

Early settlers raised Durham and Shorthorn cattle, selling large herds to supply miners in Idaho and British Columbia each year. The eastern portion of the county was used to graze sheep. The winter of 1880-1881 was particularly harsh and caused great losses among Klickitat County sheep and cattle herds. In order to ensure food for the cattle in spite of bad weather, many Klickitat County ranchers planted hay and grain crops and stockpiled them as animal feed.

By 1900 much Klickitat range land was converted to wheat and farming began to eclipse ranching as the county's dominant industry. During both World War I and World War II, however, Klickitat ranchers increased beef production to serve the war effort. Since the late 1940s most farmers alternate alfalfa with winter wheat crops, utilizing newer high-yield varieties of wheat.

John W. Burgen raised the first crop of wheat in Klickitat County in 1870. More settlers followed suit and in 1872 the construction of a grist-mill in The Dalles, Oregon, eliminated the need for Klickitat County pioneers to import their flour from Portland as they previously had done. In 1878 the Klickitat Mill and the Goldendale Mill both opened in Goldendale, eliminating the need to haul wheat to The Dalles for grinding. Beginning in 1876 wheat grown in Klickitat County was exported to outside markets and the number of bushels increased yearly thereafter. By 1880 farmers throughout Klickitat County were producing wheat, oats, and barley for export.

The Klickitat Valley's first fruit orchards were planted in 1870. A decade later apple and peach trees at Columbus, White Salmon, and other points along the Columbia River were beginning to bear fruit. Orchards have remained important: By 1997, $8 million of Klickitat County's $33 million in farm sales consisted of apples, pears, and cherries. As of 2006 Klickitat County has a small but growing wine industry.

Timber Dollars

The logging industry in Klickitat County began slowly but for early settlers it was a crucial means of earning cash. Settlers used ox teams to haul cordwood to the banks of the Columbia where they sold it to the Oregon Steam Navigation Company to fuel steamboats that plied the river. Settlers also harvested timber for log cabins and stove fuel.

By 1860 the county had its first sawmill, built on Mill Creek, and by 1903 boasted 23 lumber mills and seven mills producing shingles, rail ties, and planed wood. Since the 1980s the economy in Klickitat County has been hard-hit by downturns in the logging industry, raising the county's unemployment rates. SDS Lumber in Bingen, however, remains a major county employer.

Klickitat County Fair

Despite entrenched beliefs among many ranchers that the land in Klickitat County was best suited for grazing purposes, by the early 1880s cultivation of the land for farming was steadily increasing. In 1881, farmers and businessmen near Goldendale formed the Klickitat County Agricultural Association for the purpose of holding an annual agricultural fair.

The first Klickitat County Fair was held near Goldendale in 1881. Although during the following year the Klickitat area experienced severe drought conditions, the fair continued to be held each fall for several years. In recent years the Klickitat County Fair Association and Klickitat County Livestock Association have worked together to present the Klickitat County Fair and Rodeo in late August each year.

Crossing and Damming the Columbia

Klickitat County has three bridges spanning the Columbia. The Hood River/White Salmon Bridge carries SR 14 across the river at Bingen and White Salmon. First built in 1924, and greatly altered since then, it is a vertical lift steel truss bridge. The Dalles Bridge, a steel cantilever bridge, connects Murdock and Dallesport to The Dalles, Oregon, carrying U.S. 197 across the river. The Sam Hill Memorial Bridge (or Biggs Rapids Bridge), completed in 1962, is a steel truss structure that carries US 97 across the river from near Maryhill to Biggs, Oregon.

Two dams impede the flow of the Columbia River as it flows past Klickitat County: The Dalles Dam, completed in 1957 and John Day Dam, completed in 1968 and fully operational in 1971. Lake Umatilla, a seventy-six-mile-long reservoir, backs up John Day Dam. The reservoir that backs up The Dalles Dam is called Celilo Lake.

Celilo Falls, now more than 90 feet under Celilo Lake, was the most productive Indian fishing site in the Pacific Northwest. Archeological evidence suggests that the area around Celilo Falls was inhabited for at least 11,000 years and was an important place for trading and for gatherings for many bands and tribes.

Spectacularly beautiful and of great religious importance to the tribal people who fished there, Celilo Falls made a plunging 22-foot drop from the upriver entrance to The Dalles canyon. The filling of Celilo Lake also buried The Dalles-Celilo Canal, an 8 1/2-mile canal built from 1905 to 1915 by the Army Corps of Engineers on the south side of the river to replace an 1863 Oregon Steam Navigation Company rail line that worked in tandem with river steamers to move goods and people along the river. A Columbia River tamed to slack water eliminated the need for either portage or canal.

Indian burials from Memaloose Island in the Columbia were removed to the Wish-ham Cemetery near Dallesport prior to the filling of Lake Celilo. Other burials from river flats about to be inundated by the waters of John Day Dam were moved to near Horsethief Lake State Park. Prehistoric petroglyphs and pictographs within Horsethief Lake State Park, including Tsagagalalal, "She Who Watches," commemorate the site of ancient Wakemap Village, now buried under the waters of Celilo Lake.


The Columbia River was Klickitat County's first avenue of commerce, but passage required three separate steam ships and difficult portages around three impassable stretches: the Cascades (near present-day Bonneville Dam in Skamania County), the Grand Dalles, and Celilo Falls. In 1851 a donkey-powered portage railroad was constructed to bypass the Cascades at Stevenson, Washington. This was the first railroad built in the Columbia Gorge. Beginning in 1862 the Oregon Steam Navigation Company ran short portage railroad lines on the Oregon side of the river, but it was not until March 11, 1908 when James J. Hill's (1828-1916) Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railway began providing service along the North bank of the Columbia through Klickitat County that Klickitat County farmers could transport their crops by rail and logging railroads operating in Willard and Klickitat could easily ship finished wood to market. This railroad also ran a branch line to Goldendale.

Beginning in April 1903 the Columbia River and Northern Railroad ran a line between Goldendale and Lyle. Once there was railroad service on both sides of the Columbia, the need for riverboats decreased dramatically and by 1917 most had ceased operation. In 1970 the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad, which, despite its name never serviced Seattle, became part of Burlington Northern.


The first wagon road in Klickitat County was constructed in 1855-1856 as a military highway between Fort Dalles on the south side of the Columbia and Fort Simcoe in the Yakima Valley. This road followed an Indian trail across the Columbia Hills and through the Klickitat Valley, then across the Simcoe Mountain range. Rustic in the extreme, the road deteriorated rapidly after the withdrawal of United States troops from Klickitat County in 1867. Klickitat County's first overland mail stage route was built from Rockland through the Klickitat Valley and Satus Canyon in 1868, but keeping it passable in winter was a constant challenge. State Highway 8 (the North Bank Highway) was completed from Goldendale to Vancouver by 1926. Since 1967 this scenic two-lane road has been designated State Route 14. U.S. 97 from the Yakima County line to Maryhill is Klickitat County's main north-south highway.

Goldendale and Bickleton

Goldendale, established by John J. Golden in 1872, was Klickitat County's first town. On November 5, 1878, Klickitat County residents voted to make Goldendale their county seat. The following year the town incorporated under Washington Territorial laws and on April 15, 1902, re-incorporated under Washington state laws. The Goldendale Sentinel, which in the 1910s ran with a banner summing up Klickitat County's charms as "Where The Rain And Sunshine Meet," was founded in 1879 and remains the County's main newspaper.

In 1973, Goldendale built a public observatory in Goldendale Observatory State Park, which has become a major center for viewing the night skies. A layoff of 450 workers at the Golden Northwest Aluminum Company in January 2001 and the plant's shutdown in April 2003 were serious blows to Goldendale's economy.

Charles N. Bickle founded a small store at what would become the town of Bickleton in May 1879. By 1882, when Bickle platted his town, the settlement boasted four businesses: the general store, a blacksmith shop, a hotel, and a pharmacy. Bickle was the town's first postmaster. On April 27, 1887, Bickleton was almost entirely consumed by flames.

The town was quickly rebuilt. On August 9, 1903, it gained a newspaper, the Bickleton News, and on August 9, 1903, the Bank of Bickleton was established, providing residents of eastern Klickitat County with their own financial institution. Bickleton was scorched by three more major fires: on July 22, 1910; on June 14, 1937; and on July 4, 1946. In 1949 residents formed the Bickleton Fire District, a volunteer fire fighting service to protect Eastern Klickitat County. Since the 1960s Bickleton has become the self-proclaimed Bluebird Capital of the World, dotted with blue and white birdhouses that attract countless bluebirds and thousands of the bird lovers who observe them every spring.

Centerville and Wishram

Centerville, founded on land settled by Albert Brown in 1877 and named by him in 1882, was an important rail shipping point for Klicktat County's wheat crop.

The town of Wishram began in 1904 as a railroad town supporting the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad and was home to the line's rail yard and locomotive roundhouse in from 1911 to 1981. F. G. Bunn opened Wishram's first store in 1911. In 1914 Bunn filed a plat of the town, calling it Fallbridge. The name was changed to Wishram in 1926. Wishram was an important rail transfer point during World War II, when trains were switched from track to track around the clock, with as many as 2,000 loaded boxcars piled up on sidings waiting to be coupled.

Klickitat, Dallesport, and Glenwood

Edgar C. Wright and N. J. Young settled Klickitat in 1890. The Western Pine Lumber Company built a mill and logging railroad at Klickitat in 1909. The mill was destroyed by fire in October 1918 and immediately rebuilt. In 1922, the J. Neils Lumber Company purchased this mill and property, enlarging the Klickitat townsite. Another mill fire occurred in 1927 and again the mill was rebuilt in a larger form. In 1957, the St. Regis Paper Company acquired mill operations. St. Regis Paper Company merged with Champion Lumber in 1984. The Champion Mill closed permanently in November 1994

Dallesport, originally called Rockport or Rockland Flats, originated as a ferry crossing between Washington and The Dalles, Oregon. From 1859 to 1878, Rockland Flats was the county seat of Klickitat County. In 1953 The Dalles Bridge spanned the Columbia River between Dallesport and The Dalles. Dallesport is home to the 660-acre Dallesport Industrial Park.

Glenwood, located in the foothills of Mt. Adams, was first settled by the Joseph Silva, Peter Conboy, and Richard Kelly families in the early 1870s. Sheep ranchers from around Klickitat County brought their herds to graze on the slopes of Mt. Adams during the summer and local cattle ranchers also pastured their herds nearby.

Lyle, White Salmon, and Bingen

Lyle is situated at the confluence of the Klickitat and Columbia rivers and as such was an important railroad outlet for the county. With White Salmon, Lyle served as a port on the Columbia River and after the construction of the Cascade Locks in 1896, it was the first port from which shipping to Portland, Oregon, was unimpeded by falls. Originally known as Klickitat Landing, the town's name was changed to Lyle on March 28, 1882. James O. Lyle platted the town in 1890. After the completion of the Columbia River & Northern Railroad linking Lyle with Goldendale in April 1903 the vast majority of goods moving in or out of the Klickitat Valley came through Lyle. In recent years Lyle has emerged as the nucleus for Klickitat County's growing wine industry.

White Salmon, sited near the mouth of the White Salmon River on a high bluff overlooking the Columbia River directly north of Mount Hood and the Hood River in Oregon, was a port stop for Columbia River traffic. The town's first settlers were the Erastus S. Joslyn family who came to the area in 1852. White Salmon is located in Klickitat County's fruit-growing region.

Bingen was platted in 1892 by Theodore Suksdorf and named after Bingen-On-the-Rhine, Germany. The town was incorporated in 1924. SDS Lumber (in business here since 1946) and Underwood Fruit are important area employers and Bingen attracts substantial Columbia River Gorge tourism. Bingen is home to the Port of Klickitat.

Sam Hill and Maryhill

Northwest visionary and railroad executive Sam Hill (1857-1931) originally intended Maryhill as a Quaker farming community. Hill irrigated the land and attempted to market it, first to Quakers and when none took up his offer, to a wider audience, but with little success. In 1914 he started building an imposing mansion on the bluff overlooking the Columbia. Originally intended as Hill's personal residence, in 1926 the building (still unfinished) was dedicated as the Maryhill Museum of Art by Hill's friend Queen Marie of Romania (1875-1938). The museum finally opened in 1940 and quickly earned a reputation as one of the Pacific Northwest's hidden gems.

The Maryhill's unique collection includes sculptures by Auguste Rodin, an enormously rich collection of Native American basketry and other artifacts, a unique collection of French haute couture fashion mannequins designed to revive the French apparel industry following World War II, Romanian furniture and Russian Icons, and the dress Queen Marie wore to the May 14, 1896, coronation of her cousins, Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia.

By 2001 the Maryhill Museum of Art drew 10,000 visitors each month to this starkly beautiful Klickitat County outpost. Museum property encompasses 6,000 acres and includes outdoor panels interpreting the Lewis and Clark Expedition's trek across Maryhill land and an outdoor sculpture collection.

The Maryhill Loops Road, built by Hill in 1913 to demonstrate how roads could be improved by asphalt paving, is on Maryhill Museum property. Now used almost exclusively by pedestrians and bicycles, the road is opened to automobile traffic yearly in honor of Hill's May 13, 1857, birthday.

Also on Maryhill property stands a full-size replica of England's Neolithic Stonehenge. It was built in 1918 by Sam Hill as a memorial to residents of Klickitat County who lost their lives in World War I. A tribute to Hill's lifelong pacifism, Maryhill's Stonehenge was dedicated on July 4, 1918, while the war was still being fought and was the first monument in the nation to honor World War I dead. The monument now also memorializes Klickitat County residents who died in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

Natural Beauty, Nurtured Minds

Two of Washington's six officially designated Wild and Scenic Rivers flow through Klickitat County: the Klickitat River from Wheeler Creek to the confluence with the Columbia and a nine-mile canyon between Gilmer Creek and Northwestern Lake on the lower White Salmon. Designated Wild and Scenic rivers are preserved in their natural free-flowing state and they and their immediate environments are protected by federal law. The Klickitat River is one of the longest rivers without a dam in the Pacific Northwest.

Klickitat County has two public libraries, the Goldendale Community Library and the White Salmon Valley Community Library. Both are part of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library System serving Clark, Skamania, and Klickitat counties, as well as the City of Woodland in Cowlitz County.

In recent years local government (especially publicly owned hospitals, K-12 education, and public utilities), agriculture (wheat, hay, and dairy farming and cattle ranching), and manufacturing (aluminum smelting and wood processing) have been the major Klickitat County industries. New industries, such as windmill farms that generate electricity using the Columbia Gorge's prodigious wind power, small entrepreneurial companies, and the Roosevelt Regional Landfill (the nation's fourth largest private landfill), are beginning to repair economic damage caused by the timber industry's slowdown and the closure of aluminum smelters. Land values near the Columbia River Gorge have increased steadily since the mid-1980s as newcomers discover the area's breathtaking scenic appeal.


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Note: This essay was updated on May 12, 2018.

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