East Wenatchee -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 9/01/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9553
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East Wenatchee is a city in north-central Washington, separated from the larger city of Wenatchee by both the Columbia River and a county line. Wenatchee is in Chelan County; East Wenatchee is in Douglas County. The site of East Wenatchee was dry and sandy until 1908 when the new Columbia River Bridge connected it to Wenatchee, bringing both irrigation water and easy access. Within a few years, the site of East Wenatchee bloomed with apple orchards. A small commercial center sprang up at the east end of the bridge. It remained mostly rural in character until 1935, when it was incorporated as a city. It had only 268 residents in 1940. Because of an abundance of open space, it became the site of the Wenatchee Golf and Country Club and Wenatchee's two regional airfields, Fancher Field and Pangborn Memorial Airport, which is still in use and is named after celebrity aviator Clyde Pangborn (1894-1958) who made headlines around the world when he belly-landed in East Wenatchee after a non-stop flight from Japan in 1931. Beginning in 1950, subdivisions began to sprout in East Wenatchee, causing the population to grow. East Wenatchee became a popular Wenatchee suburb but also maintains its own separate identity. It is an important commercial center and the home of the region's biggest shopping mall, the Wenatchee Valley Mall. The estimated population as of 2010 is 11,870, making it the biggest city in Douglas County.  

First Peoples

Like other sites up and down the Columbia, East Wenatchee had been occupied and utilized for millennia by tribes seeking its abundant salmon runs and its relatively mild, low-elevation wintering spots. This ancient habitation is more than just conjecture here. In 1987, two orchard workers found a cache of prehistoric Clovis spear points in an East Wenatchee apple orchard. The spear points and other artifacts date back 11,000 or 12,000 years, making them among the most ancient human artifacts found in America.

Ample evidence exists of tribal occupation in ensuing centuries, including rock paintings on the east side of the Columbia between East Wenatchee and Rock Island.

The first European to see the area was probably fur-trader David Thompson, who stopped on the banks to smoke with two tribal horsemen on July 7, 1811. Also, the east bank of the Columbia was “one of the many homes of Chief Moses” and his Columbia band of Indians through the middle and late 1800s (Hull, p. 297).

Sagebrush and Desolation

White homesteaders first settled the Wenatchee Valley, on the other side of the Columbia, in the 1870s. Indians of the mid-Columbia tribes often ferried settlers by canoe to the east bank of the river, where they continued on to Waterville and points east. Then in 1888, the first settler put down roots. Harry Patterson staked the first homestead claim in what is now East Wenatchee that year.

Settlement on the east side of the river remained sparse, even as Wenatchee began to grow. That's because there was little water and few prospects for farming on this dry bench, beneath the mostly brown bulk of Badger Mountain. The site of East Wenatchee was, in the words of Wenatchee historian John A. Gellatly (a former mayor of Wenatchee), "one vast waste land of sandy land."

Historian Lindley Hull described it like this: “A weary waste of worthless ground, entirely in the possession of the jackrabbit and the coyote.” Even after Patterson arrived, it stayed that way for many years.

“Only an occasional homestead shack appeared, a lonely object in the midst of sagebrush and desolation,” wrote Hull (Hull, p. 297).

The only way to get to the east bank from Wenatchee was via a not-always reliable ferry that left Wenatchee at the foot of Orondo Street.

Bridge to the Future

Everything changed in 1908, a year when the modern history of East Wenatchee can fairly be said to begin. In 1907, W.T. Clark came up with a plan to build a bridge over the Columbia River carrying an irrigation pipeline from the Wenatchee Valley's High Line Canal (now called the Wenatchee Reclamation District Canal) across to the east bank. This bridge would also be big enough to carry traffic.

"It should be borne in mind that this was the first highway bridge built across the Columbia River from its source to its mouth near Astoria, Oregon," wrote Gellatly, although there were already some railroad bridges (Gellatly, p. 178).

So when the bridge was completed in 1908, and the first mule-wagon trotted across, it instantly turned this "vast waste land" into something far more attractive. For the first time, farmers could irrigate orchards and crops. They could hop on a wagon or Model T and make a short drive right into Wenatchee.

"Within two or three years, the whole or nearly all of the land lying below the new canal was planted to orchard," wrote Gellatly (Gellatly, p. 5). East Wenatchee soon became an important component of what was recognized as the nation's top apple-growing region.

Soon, a sizable population existed on the east side of the river. Some young merchants, recognizing a market, built several stores and offices at the east end of the bridge, saving people the trouble of crossing the bridge into Wenatchee for supplies. These small stores at the foot of the bridge, on what is now Ninth Street, were the early seeds of what would become a city.

Marks of Civilization

With increased population came other marks of civilization. At least two small schoolhouses were already serving the scattered settlers, the Liberty School in 1904, near today's Pangborn Memorial Airport and the East Wenatchee School on Ninth Street in 1905. The Eastmont School District was then established to serve the entire East Wenatchee region.

East Wenatchee had no domestic water supply in the early years and residents had to rely on cisterns filled with irrigation water. In 1923, the East Wenatchee Domestic Water Co. was formed and began piping water throughout the area.

East Wenatchee was beginning to coalesce into something resembling a town, albeit unincorporated, even to the point of appointing a "make-believe mayor" (Gellatly, p. 5).

A Place of Space

East Wenatchee always had one advantage -- space -- over its more tightly confined neighbor of Wenatchee. That explains why two institutions requiring plenty of wide-open land ended up in East Wenatchee: the area's first golf course and its main airfield.

The Wenatchee Golf and Country Club was established in 1924 on "a bramble of sagebrush and sand dunes" in what is now East Wenatchee (Gellatly. p. 200). Irrigation pipes were laid and a Scotsman was hired to take charge of the construction. The country club remains there to this day, in a much expanded and improved state.

The airfield was established in 1926 on farm field northeast of the small hamlet of East Wenatchee. Legal difficulties prevented the City of Wenatchee from owning the airfield, since it was in another county (Douglas). So in the early years, the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce took title to field. Later, the state legislature passed a law allowing a city to own land in another county, and in 1934, the City of Wenatchee took possession of the land.  

In 1928, the airfield still consisted mostly of a few rough, unimproved landing strips. It still didn't even have an official name beyond the Wenatchee (or East Wenatchee) airfield. Then, in April 1928, Major John T. Fancher, the commander of the 116th Aviation Squadron in Spokane, flew in to the airfield for an illuminated nighttime air show. He and his fellow military pilots thrilled the crowd with demonstrations of new aerial bombing techniques, which consisted of tossing small grenade-like bombs out of the cockpits onto the airfield. Later, back on the ground, he was inspecting a "dud" when it exploded, killing him. The airfield was immediately named Fancher Field in his honor.

Pangborn's Legendary Landing

Fancher Field's great historical moment came on October 5, 1931, when celebrity aviator Clyde Pangborn (1894-1958) and co-pilot Hugh Herndon Jr. belly-flopped in a cloud of dust into Fancher Field after a record-breaking nonstop flight across the Pacific Ocean.

They had departed from Japan about 41 hours earlier and had jettisoned their landing gear over the Pacific to save fuel. Pangborn, a  native of nearby Bridgeport, was familiar with Fancher Field (his mother still lived in East Wenatchee) and believed he could safely belly-land the plane on the sandy airstrip.

Townspeople gathered around the airstrip that night, but no plane arrived. It turned out that the plane had overshot Wenatchee and was headed toward Spokane. The pilots turned the plane around and buzzed in toward Fancher Field. As the plane approached, Herndon crawled out toward the tail to keep the nose from digging in. The plane slid to a safe stop, tipping on its nose but not turning over. The news flew around the country; both fliers were safe. A new trans-Pacific record had been achieved.

Fancher Field was finally improved a few years later using labor from the Works Progress Administration. The City of Wenatchee operated Fancher Field until 1949, when it was turned over to a private operator and used for pilot training, spraying operations and other general aviation. It gradually fell into disuse over the next few decades. Today, Fancher Field's historic runways have been turned into a housing development. A 14-foot-high Pangborn-Herndon Monument stands near the spot where the fliers skidded to a stop.

The Pangborn flight put East Wenatchee on the map in one sense and it wasn’t long before it became recognized statewide in an official sense.

A Rural Town on the Columbia

On February 28, 1935, the town voted to incorporate. It must have claimed at least 300 people (the limit for holding a vote) but just barely, if the vote totals are any indication. The final tally was 48 to 46 in favor. Douglas County certified the vote on March 4, 1935, and the Washington Secretary of State officially filed the incorporation papers on March 11, 1935.

The first city hall was located just south of 9th Street on what is now Valley Mall Parkway. The first mayor was Art Lenhart and the first town marshal was Silas Hamilton.

East Wenatchee kept plenty of its rural character long after incorporation. It had only 268 residents in the 1940 census and the population rose only slightly through 1950, when the census recorded 389.

The biggest development in those years was also aviation-related: The creation of Pangborn Memorial Airport. Preparing for war in 1941, the United States hurriedly established major air bases in Moses Lake and Ephrata. The people of Wenatchee and East Wenatchee believed that another base, possibly for fighters, should naturally be located in their region. The federal government told local officials it would build a field if the City of Wenatchee would supply the site. A large patch of land near East Wenatchee was chosen and an airfield was scratched out of the sagebrush in 1941.

It was named for Pangborn, even though he had actually landed at the other field, Fancher.

The U.S. government never ended up using the field and it was turned over to the City of Wenatchee before World War II ended. Northwest Airlines commenced the first commercial flights in 1945. Today, it has grown to become Wenatchee's major regional airport, with regular passenger service provided by Horizon Air. It is now jointly owned and operated by the Port of Chelan County and the Port of Douglas County.

From Chickens and Horses to Alcoa

In 1950, East Wenatchee still felt more rural than suburban.

"It was out in the country then," said one longtime resident, quoted in the Wenatchee World. "We had chickens and horses and a cow. You knew everybody and didn't say anything about anyone because you didn't know who they might be related to. It was a wonderful place to grow up" (Steigmeyer).

Yet that was all about to change. Around that time, the Aluminum Corporation of America (known as Alcoa) built a huge plant south of Wenatchee. It was not in East Wenatchee, but hundreds of its new workers built homes in East Wenatchee  subdivisions because land was cheap and plentiful.

Then in 1951, a new modern bridge -- known today as the George Sellar Bridge on State Route 285 -- spanned the Columbia. It took over the vehicle traffic from the old 1908 bridge, which was just a few blocks upstream. The new bridge spawned a big new commercial district at its foot, called the Eastmont Shopping Center, which featured a Sears store. In 1978, it was redeveloped into the Wenatchee Valley Mall, which the Wenatchee World now calls "North Central Washington's largest shopping center" (Steigmeyer).

East Wenatchee's old Main Street is now called the Valley Mall Parkway.

Growth and More Growth

Meanwhile, the Douglas County Public Utility District, formed in 1936, was supplying residents of East Wenatchee and environs with low-cost electricity from dams on the Columbia River, including its own Wells Dam.

The official census population was only 383 in 1960, but this was deceptive since so much of the growth was taking place outside the city limits. In fact, the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce estimated in 1954 that greater East Wenatchee’s population was, 5,961 and was growing by 50 people a month.

In the 1950s, growth was strong enough to require the Eastmont School District to finally build its own high school. Before that, East Wenatchee high school students had to trudge across the bridge into Wenatchee. The other kids called them, with some disdain, "bridge walkers" (Steigmeyer).  

The East Wenatchee kids who came from the other side of the bridge were thought of as low class," recalled one student (Steigmeyer).

Eastmont High School was built in 1955 and had its first graduating class in 1958. Eastmont moved to a new, larger location in 1979 and serves as an important community hub of East Wenatchee.

A Town of Its Own

In 1954, East Wenatchee almost ceased to become East Wenatchee. A drive to change the name -- and give the city a separate identity from its bigger neighbor -- was launched by city officials. Voters went so far as to approve the idea of a change and several possibilities were floated -- Columbia, Columbia City and Pangborn City. But the idea never went any further.

The issue of a separate identity has always loomed large for East Wenatchee.

“It is safe to say, too, that if it were not for the Columbia River, which divides the main city of Wenatchee from East Wenatchee, it might be considered a suburb of Wenatchee,” wrote Gellatly in 1963. And it was seen as not just a suburb, but a “second-class Wenatchee suburb,” at least in earlier decades  (Steigmeyer).

Coming Into Its Own

That “second-class” status is hard to support now, by evidence of East Wenatchee’s population and demographics. The population has boomed over the last 40 years, to 913 in 1970; to 1,640 in 1980; to 2,701 in 1990 and 5,757 in 2000. The population in 2010 was estimated by the state to be 11,870. A lot of this growth came from huge annexations which expanded the city to about three square miles. Meanwhile, East Wenatchee’s household income hovers equal to or just above Wenatchee’s.

The city’s prosperity -- and its growing tax base -- has actually made it a target over recent decades. In 1987, Douglas County commissioners tried to force a vote on whether to dissolve the city of East Wenatchee, claiming the city was inefficient. The state attorney general ruled that the county had no “authority to ask residents to vote on disincorporation” (Steigmeyer).

East Wenatchee has a number of its own community events, including the annual Wings & Wheels festival every October, celebrating vintage planes, cars, and motorcycles.

Today, the city’s official logo depicts a globe circled by Miss Veedol, the Pangborn plane that made East Wenatchee famous. East Wenatchee’s sister city is Misawa, Japan, from which Pangborn and Herndon departed in 1935.

Meanwhile, one of East Wenatchee’s most popular attractions is a busy pedestrian bridge along a riverfront loop trail. It’s that same 1908 bridge that made East Wenatchee possible.

Now that bridge carries joggers, walkers, and babies in strollers -- and it still carries that irrigation pipeline that helped turned a dusty bench into a green and growing city more than 100 years ago. 

Sources: Richard F. Steele, An Illustrated History of Big Bend Country (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Co., 1904); John A. Gellatly, A History of Wenatchee: The Apple Capital of the World (Wenatchee: Wenatchee Bindery and Printing Co. 1963); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Moises Aguirre and Mark Mickles discover prehistoric Clovis point artifacts in an East Wenatchee apple orchard on May 27, 1987" (by Paula Becker), http://www.historylink.org/(accessed August 28, 2010); Rick Steigmeyer, "How East Wenatchee Got Off the Ground," Wenatchee World, February 26, 2010; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Clyde Pangborn belly-lands a monoplane in Wenatchee to complete the first nonstop airplane flight between Japan and the United States on October 5, 1931" (by Priscilla Long), http://www.historylink.org/(accessed August 28, 2010); “East Wenatchee’s Growth Told,” Spokesman-Review, August 25, 1954, p. 6; “Town to Change Name,” Spokesman-Review, March 18, 1954, p.7; Lindley Hull, A History of Central Washington (Spokane: Shaw and Borden, 1929); Charles C. Kerr, The World of the World: A History of Growth and Development in North Central Washington (Wenatchee: The Wenatchee World, 1980); East Wenatchee incorporation documents, on file at the Washington State Archives, Olympia, Washington.

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