Dayton, a town in Columbia County, sits amidst rich farm country. Situated at the confluence of Patit Creek and the Touchet (Too-shee) River, this town on the Lewis and Clark Trail grew within two decades from a stagecoach stop into an important center where mills processed wheat, barley, lumber, and wool. Its earliest years were spent in the shadow of Walla Walla, and yet Dayton's hardscrabble settlers survived an epic winter, a smallpox epidemic, and fires to stake their town's own identity. Agriculture remains the main industry and the town’s fortunes follow the ebb and flow of crop prices and food processing. A large cannery built during the Great Depression helped the small community survive. Today, Dayton may be best known for its preservation of historical homes and buildings, including its railroad depot, Weinhard Hotel, and county courthouse. Tourism aids the local economy and Dayton remains a gateway for recreational pursuits such as downhill skiing in the Blue Mountains. As of 2010, Dayton has about 2,400 people.
In the Shadow of the Blue Mountains
The town of Dayton lies in the fertile farm country of Southeastern Washington at the confluence of Patit Creek and the Touchet River. At 1,660 feet elevation, the seat of Columbia County is 10 miles from the foothills of the Blue Mountains.
The site was an important point on the Nez Perce Trail. It was used by several Native American tribes in the region, notably the Palouse, Nez Perce, Yakama, and Walla Walla, for travel and racing.
Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition laid eyes on the land that would one day become Dayton on their return trip from the Pacific Ocean. On May 2, 1806, the expedition camped on Patit Creek about 2.5 miles east of present-day Dayton.
The area is known for being part of the “Forgotten Trail,” a portion of the Corps of Discovery’s journey that historians often ignore, according to the U.S. government’s Preserve America initiative. As part of its Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration, Dayton recreated the Patit Creek campsite, restoring native vegetation and providing an interpretive kiosk for visitors. Though fur trappers had roamed the region, Lewis and Clark are considered the first official white visitors.
In the winter of 1834, Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville (1796-1878) traveled through the region along the Nez Perce Trail. He was surveying the region for the U.S. government.
F. A. Shaver’s 1906 book, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington, recounts a March 13, 1848, fight on the site where Dayton now stands. A battle broke out between Oregon Volunteers under the command of Col. Cornelius Gilliam (1798-1848) against a band of Palouse Indians. It was considered a part of the larger Cayuse War that year. The soldiers were considered victorious. None died and 10 were wounded. The Palouse suffered four casualties and 14 were injured.
Dayton’s first pioneers included Henry M. Chase and P. M. Lafontain. They built a cabin along the Touchet River in 1855. A rumored attack by Indians caused Chase and Lafontain to dig a tunnel in preparations for a fight. “But discretion took the part of valor and they decided to leave after several days,” recounts the Dayton Community Survey of 1955. The Indians burned the abandoned cabin.
Among the first settlers of Dayton were Samuel L. (1825-1906) and Margaret (1844-1922) Gilbreath. Margaret is considered the first white woman pioneer in Columbia County, and the couple's daughter Sarah Jane, born in March 1860, was the first child of a pioneer family to be born east of Fort Walla Walla. The youngest of their 13 children, Frederick Gilbreath (1888-1969), would serve as a general in the U.S. Army during World War II, commanding the San Francisco Port of Embarkation and establishing the Army Service Forces Training Center at Fort Lewis in Pierce County.
Other early settlers were Frederick E. Schneble, Jesse N. Day (1828-1892), and Elisha Ping. Schneble arrived in the summer of 1859 and settled on the property abandoned by Chase years earlier. He left for the mines of Idaho the next year, leaving his brother Freelon, nicknamed “Stub,” on the land. Freelon Schneble built a cabin. When Frederick Schneble returned in the fall of 1860 he built a second structure to house a store.
Ping and George W. Miller claimed land east along Patit Creek and in 1860 harvested a crop of wheat that sold for $2 a bushel and oats that fetched 7 cents a pound.
Sheep, Gold, and a Wagon Road
The early 1860s brought more wagon roads through the area. Dayton was a stage stop as new settlers arrived and attempted to raise sheep and cattle. During 1861 and the following several years as the Civil War raged, an Idaho gold strike at Orofino and Lewiston led to the establishment of a trail from Walla Walla that passed over the Touchet River and through Dayton.
Outfitting hopeful miners and servicing opportunistic businessmen during those years helped Dayton prosper.
The Killer Winter of 1861-1862
It was in 1859 that Jesse N. Day homesteaded along the Touchet River. He was a West Virginian who had first immigrated to Wisconsin and then moved to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where he married Elizabeth Forrest. The couple nearly lost everything during the winter of 1861-1862, one of the worst in Washington State history.
The Spokesman-Review wrote of that winter in Dayton: “With the mercury hanging 28 degrees below zero for 10 days, and snow lying on the ground more than 32 inches deep in many places, Jesse Day lost all his cattle but 65 and every one in the valley suffered proportionate depletions of their herds with the exception of Henry Day, whose cattle stampeded to the timbered districts.”
Farmers in the area burned fence rails for heat. Some travelers froze to death.
Becoming a Town
In 1864, Day bought the 160-acre Schneble property where Dayton now sits. The year also is notable for Dayton’s first recorded murder of a white man by another white man. Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla County recounts that a man named Wilkins killed the owner of the cabin called the Rigsby place.
By this time, it had become known that the rolling hills around Dayton were fertile and could produce crop yields that rivaled the bottomlands along creeks. Farmers sowed grain across the hills and cemented Dayton’s lasting legacy as an agricultural center.
On November 23, 1871, the Days filed the first plat of the Dayton townsite in Walla Walla. It comprised 21 blocks and bore their name. The next year a post office that had been established at nearby Touchet was moved to Dayton.
Day had a vision for Dayton. Recognizing the need for industry and commerce to build and serve the growing population, he induced Sylvester M. Wait and William Matzger to build a flour mill in the town, and donated land and water power to the enterprise. The news of a newly platted town site and the promise of a mill created a buzz.
Wait and Matzger built a planing mill, the first brick store, and the flour mill -- a $25,000 investment in fledgling Dayton. More stores were built and homes began to dot the town. By the end of 1872 there were 30 buildings.
More development followed. A $40,000 woolen mill was started by the Reynolds family of Walla Walla and employed more than two dozen men.
With new construction and jobs the city continued to grow. Merchants from Walla Walla opened branch offices in the suddenly bustling town. A. J. Cain published the The Dayton News in 1874, the town’s first newspaper. A second newspaper, The Dayton Press was also published that year.
Suddenly the town’s residents were not satisfied to exist in the shadow of Walla Walla.
Columbia County and its Seat
So, in November 1875, through the influence of Dayton’s own Elisha Ping, the Territorial Legislature established Columbia County. Territorial Governor Elisha Ferry (1825-1895) vetoed the attempt to name the county after Ping.
Dayton was named county seat. A year later a group of 62 residents petitioned county commissioners to incorporate the town. A local government was established and voters elected their first board of trustees in May 1876. By 1877 Dayton had a population of 526.
Though Dayton was initially incorporated by the Washington Territorial Legislature under the Act of 1877, the action was nullified when a lawsuit over taxation was filed by city namesake Jesse Day. The city was later reincorporated on November 10, 1881.
In 1878, The Columbia Chronicle was first published. H. H. Gale was editor and E. R. Burke managed the newspaper.
Churches sprouted during this time, though the Methodists were active in the area since 1866. One of the pastors was the Rev. Samuel G. Havermale (1824-1904), who later became one of the early settlers in Spokane, where he filed a homestead claim in the heart of city on an island of the Spokane River.
The Methodist Episcopals built their Dayton church in 1875. The church bell was cracked while tolling for the assassination of President James A. Garfield.
The Cumberland Presbyterians were organized in 1874. The Universalists organized in 1876. The Congregational Church organized in 1877, the Baptist Church was built in 1878 and the Seventh Day Adventists built a church in 1880.
Flourishing, or Perhaps Festering
In 1878, Dayton formed a firefighting force, the Columbia Hook and Ladder Company No. 1., which would soon be needed.
The suddenly flourishing town had a free library and many lodges were formed. The first City Hall was built in 1878, a 40-foot-by-70-foot building. It was replaced by a new City Hall a year later. By 1879 Dayton had a population of 996 and its first telegraph line strung by the War Department to Lewiston.
While most historical accounts of the period offer rosy assessments of development and capitalism, author Robert Ficken offers this account in his book Washington Territory published in 2002:
“Dayton was nonetheless an uncivilized place of materialist ambition enveloped in dust from never-ending winds. The school closed when residents refused to pay taxes. ‘Young hoodlums,’ the loutish offspring of prosperous farmers, loitered about and ‘soiled doves’ occupied their own well-patronized quarter, separated from respectable folk by an appropriately festering ditch” (Ficken, 120).
Indeed, the town had a rowdy reputation, with plenty of gambling and 15 saloons.
So-called “land-jumping” became a problem in the Dayton vicinity, and so in 1878 some farmers united to form the Settlers’ Protection Committee.
They set their sights on J. M. Sparks and told him to leave a ranch he had “jumped.” He refused.
The dispute led to a gunfight on the streets of Dayton after a committeeman’s son knocked Sparks from a walkway. As men gathered, Sparks feared for his life, drew his revolver and fired at the legs of his attacker. A running gunfight erupted and someone shot Sparks once in the cheek and once in the neck. He was spared from a lynching. Upon recovery from his wounds, Sparks left Columbia County. Soon afterward, the committee issued a public notice that “land-jumping” would not be tolerated.
The Dayton Grays
Volunteer militias had been organized in 1877 out of fear during the Nez Perce War, and on February 27, 1879, the official Columbia Mounted Infantry was formed. It disintegrated within two years and some of its members formed the Dayton Grays, an infantry of 50 men. They elected J. T. Burns captain. The militiamen wore gray and were armed with Springfield breech-loading muskets.
They formed a battalion with companies from Walla Walla and eventually became the First Regiment of the National Guard of Washington. The territorial governor, however, refused to recognize the regiment due to its lack of sufficient supplies.
Dayton in the 1880s
The early 1880s brought more developments. In 1880 Jacob Weinhard arrived from Portland, where he had worked as a foreman in his uncle’s brewery. He noted the region’s grain farms and founded the Jacob Weinhard Brewery.
Within 25 years he would become a leading businessman in Dayton, running the brewery, the Weinhard Saloon and the Weinhard Lodge, a malt house and outdoor German beer garden, and the Weinhard Theater. He also purchased a stake in the Local Citizens National Bank.
In the fall of 1880, a two-story schoolhouse was built at a cost of more than $4,000. The next year two more buildings were added and a high school erected. Enrollment for school year 1881-1882 reached 350. The high school was the first to be accredited in the state of Washington.
Also during 1881, the railroad arrived in Dayton. Henry Villard (1835-1900) brought a branch line of his Oregon Railway & Navigation Company to the town, linking the farms to markets on the coast and enabling growers to net better prices for their grain.
On July 19, 1881, Engine No. 439 pulled the first passenger train to leave Dayton en route to Walla Walla. During the first few days of operation, “a train of flat cars loaded with excursionists was backing from Waitsburg to Dayton ... and just below Huntsville, ran into a number of cattle. Nine cars were thrown from the track ...” (Gilbert, 395). The passengers went flying off their flat car benches. Two men were killed and several injured.
The Dayton Depot was built in 1881 and remains the oldest existing railroad depot in the state. It was moved on rolling logs from the original building site, pulled by horse and winch, according to the Dayton Historical Depot Society, Inc. It was used as a train station until closed in 1972. The depot reopened to the public in July 1981 as a heritage museum, completely restored with railroad memorabilia, local turn-of-the-century furnishings, and a photography exhibit.
Smallpox Visits Dayton
The winter of 1881 will always be remembered with horror as the year of the smallpox scourge. An epidemic struck Dayton and the surrounding countryside. It was so dangerous that Dayton was quarantined for 10 days. Trains stopped running to the town. The smallpox virus was a deadly threat to public health, spread through coughing and personal contact.
Doctors in and around Dayton diagnosed the disease in October, including well-known physician Dr. Marcel Pietrzycki (1843-1910). He quickly insisted that the public take strong action to fight the spread of disease and his quick action has been recognized as helping to limit the epidemic.
Pietrzycki was appointed as the city’s first public health officer. Once he had the attention of the community, a health board of county citizens met and ordered Dayton under quarantine, effective November 17, 1881.
People were prevented from leaving or coming into town. Schools were closed. Businesses were shuttered at night, including saloons. Citizens acted as sentries to ensure that the quarantine was obeyed to prevent further spread of the disease. Health officials were given the authority to display a revolver if necessary to enforce the quarantine.
Even after it was lifted, some safety measures remained, including closed schools and suspended mail deliveries. Yellow flags hung in front of homes to signal those still under quarantine.
In all, 11 Dayton residents died. The number of Columbia County deaths due to small pox reached 21, according to the Dayton Board of Health final report issued in January 1882. There had been 167 cases across the county, though many more people were thought to have had the disease but chose not to report their infection.
Dayton's Plague of Fires
Another plague on Dayton was fire. Some were the work of arsonists.
The first major blaze began in the kitchen of the Palace Hotel and Restaurant in December 1880. Several businesses were lost. In August 1881 another fire erupted and burned at least 10 buildings.
But it is the flames of 1882 that is called the Great Fire. During the early morning hours of Sunday, April 2, 1882, a saloon was engulfed in fire. The flames spread to the adjoining Northwestern Hotel where guests narrowly escaped by crawling through windows.
The fire grew and burned many buildings before townspeople cut Wait’s mill-race, which allowed water to flow into the streets and collect in holes. People filled their buckets and put out the fire. Losses totaled about $90,000 for the three blocks that burned. Only about a third of that was insured.
In January 1884, an arsonist attempted to burn Wait’s flour and planing mills. Parts of the mills had been soaked with coal oil and fuses led to powder kegs. Public anger and suspicion ran high and three were arrested during the summer. Two sat in jail awaiting trial. The third, Charles F. McClary, secured bail and was released from custody. He was tried in Dayton on September 24-25 and acquitted.
In 1885, the Dayton Woolen Mills, among the founding industries of the town, burned. Two more fires, one on June 24, 1887, and one on August 11, 1890, each caused losses in excess of $110,000.
Crimes and Arrests
In 1890 a rash of break-ins were reported and in some cases home and business owners caught the burglars in the act and tried to shoot them.
In December, lawmen made a series of arrests. Notably arrested was Leroy Burris, a print office foreman. Charges against Burris were dropped for lack of evidence, to the disgust of residents. The episode led to another case of vigilantism. Burris was seized and rushed outside of town. He insisted on his innocence even though the vigilantes strung him up by the neck three times. He was let go with a warning: Leave town within 24 hours. Burris left and sued, but lost, twice.
The New Century
The community grew over the next two decades and weathered a couple of economic downturns. By 1910, Dayton had a population of 2,389.
Although Prohibition in the 1920s cut Dayton’s barley production, farmers offset any losses by growing more wheat. But the good times were about to end. The Great Depression blitzed Dayton. A third of the town's businesses failed.
Then in May 1934 came big news. The Central Wisconsin Canneries, Inc., and the Minnesota Valley Canning Co. would join to build a new cannery in Dayton. Newspapers across the state shared this tonic for tough times with readers, announcing that the cannery would employ hundreds of people to process peas. At the time it was among the largest in the United States and during its first season canned 7,500 cases of peas per day. It expanded in 1939 to process asparagus.
The cannery was sold to the Minnesota Valley Canning Company in 1947, and in 1950 it was affiliated with the Green Giant brand.
During World War II, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp built near Dayton was turned into a military police training center. By 1945 the site had become a labor camp for German prisoners of war.
In the mid-1960s dam-builders started on the Snake River north of Dayton. Its completion would mean river barge competition with the railroads for transporting wheat and the 37-mile-long Lake Bryan is used for recreation. In 1981, Bluewood opened as a downhill skiing destination about 21 south of Dayton in the Blue Mountains.
During the past decade Dayton has delved further into the energy business. Fifteen miles northeast of town, 87 wind turbines rise 221 feet from the fields. Puget Sound Energy’s project, called Hopkins Ridge, can generate enough electricity to serve 40,000 households.
The Downtown Dayton Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. There are 117 buildings in all listed on the National Historic Register, including 15 that were built before 1900, when the town’s leading families turned a stagecoach stopover into one of Washington’s wealthiest and rowdiest communities.