An early history of Grant County

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Like a good chunk of the towns in the county, the formation of Grant County took place just after the turn of the 20th century.

Before 1900, there wasn’t much around. Cattle and bunch grass were the most common sights. While the Chief Moses and his family dug roots up on Beezley Hill, they didn’t live here during the rest of the year. The Wanapums lived around Beverly, along the Columbia River. But the deserts of Grant County were a wasteland that passersby only went through or went around.

“All of the early Indian trails and army wagon roads by-passed the desert section, for there were no watering places,” wrote Faye Morris in the 1976 book “They Claimed A Desert.” “Wild horses, renegades from the Horse Haven country to the southwest, found pasture on the desert during the winter.”

The counties of Grant and Douglas, as well as parts Lincoln, Adams and Franklin counties were known as Big Bend Country.

“It is a desert, pure and simple and can be dismissed in a few words,” wrote Lieutenant Thomas Symons, a surveyor who came through the Big Bend Desert in 1879 and 1880. “An almost waterless, lifeless desolation...no timber for building or fuel.”

“It should be called the Great American Desert,” C.F.B. Haskell, a surveyor from 1889 to 1891, wrote in a letter. “A great wrong was done when this country was taken from the Indians...no water for stock or humans.”

The first town to be formed was McEntee’s Crossing, now Coulee City. It was established by pioneers in the 1880s at the natural crossing of the Grand Coulee formation.

When the Great Northern railroad was built in 1892, sidings were placed every seven miles. The plan was that towns would be built around every other siding. Ephrata was platted in 1901, as was Quincy. Other towns, such as Hartline, Winchester and Trinidad, sprang up along the railroad. Warden also sprang up along train tracks. It was established along the Milwaukee Railroad. By 1910, the town had 173 residents.

Neppel was settled on the banks of Moses Lake in 1907. Around the turn of the century, Soap Lake was discovered by settlers and hotels and sanitariums began popping up.

During the early settlement of Grant County, the county was part of Douglas county. Settlers had to travel to Waterville to file land claims and do county business. In February 1909, the Washington legislature approved splitting Douglas County into two counties.

W. Gale Matthews, in “Memories of Grant County Washington” vol. XII, wrote that a Mr. Rogers came into Matthews’ Waterville office one day and, with a red pencil, drew a line down the middle of Douglas County.

“He told me to take the map to Norval Enger, who was the Deputy County Engineer of Douglas County and have Norval draw that line on section lines so that a legal description could be written,” Matthews wrote. “It was agreed between Mr. Rogers and I that we would leave Waterville for Olympia the next morning, taking with us the map which Enger and I would prepare, and over at Olympia a bill would be prepared and be submitted to the Legislature dividing the county where Mr. Rogers wanted it divided in case it became necessary.”

When news that Rogers was in Olympia became known, the various towns in the proposed county sent delegations over as well. Ephrata sent over a delegation headed by John Erickson, who had been given money to use as he needed, particularly when it came to securing Ephrata as the county seat. After arriving in Olympia, Erickson convinced Rogers and Matthews to move the line further north of Ephrata. He was also able to secure Ephrata as the county seat, as he was a friend of both parties.

Erickson put the money he was given good use. In Olympia, there was a one person who kept mudding the waters and making trouble. One night, the threesome got him drunk and took him to the home of a landlady to watch after him and keep him drunk, in bed and entertained for the until the legislation passed.

“She did her job well,” Matthews wrote. “He was not seen again until the legislation had passed. It has not cost Mr. Erickson too much of the money which had been supplied to him to secure the naming of Ephrata as the county seat of the new county. Of course, there were some considerable sums paid to the landlady to who I have referred previously, but he had a lot of money with him.

The bill creating Grant County and naming Ephrata as the county seat was passed by the House on Feb. 9, 1909 and the Senate on Feb. 15. It was signed into law by Governor Cosgrove on Feb. 24, 1909. The bill contained a provision that allowed the bill to take effect immediately.

Rachal Pinkerton may be reached via email at rpinkerton@columbiabasinherald.com.

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