By Luke Ellington

Sign mounted on brick that reads welcome to rock island with an image of a town map

Timeline of Rock Island

1805Lewis and Clark explore lower Columbia River
1811David Thompson reports approximately 800 Sinkiuse at a nearby camp
1860sIngraham and McBride open a trading post
1883Douglas County established
1886Waterville voted county seat
1888Capt. W. P. Gray 1st to navigate steamboat past Rock Island Rapids
1893Construction of first steel railroad bridge across Columbia River finished
1930Incorporated with approximately 420 residents
1932Construction of Rock Island Dam completed
1950Approximately 360 residents
1990Approximately 520 residents
PresentApproximately 800 residents

Founding Family Names

Many families and individuals took part in the formation of Douglas County settlements in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some names appear in many historical accounts and biographical sketches, while others have been lost to time. These are some of the names which have survived in books about Rock Island:

Edwards, Ingraham, Keane, McBride, and Pendell.

Origin of the Name

The townsite of Rock Island took its name from the Rock Island Rapids, which were referred to as Squah-ah-she by local Indian tribes.

A Look Back

Much like the treacherous rock island formation in the Columbia River that nearly blocked pioneering river trade routes, the City of Rock Island is often overlooked these days. Driving along state highway 28, passersby might not think the quaint town was much more than a roadside gas station and truck stop, but there is much more to Rock Island than meets the eye at 60 miles per hour.

In the teacup valley in which Rock Island is currently located, two men, Ingraham and McBride, opened a trading post in the early 1860s. Their patrons were mostly local Indians, who often fished that stretch of the Columbia when the fish were running. The two pioneering men would later move their post to the mouth of the Wenatchee River, leaving little trace of their stay.

Excerpt from “Rock Island Era” by Lucy Keane

“When the glacier moved, it was so strong
It carried huge boulders as it inched along
Depositing river sentinels here and there
And islands of rock, stark and bare
This erosion of land caused canyons deep
And bluffs inaccessible – columned and steep
Then the ice melted and water ran
Leaving sand, rocks, gravel, an alluvial fan
Then the water channeled with a raging roar
It created a river of rapids galore
With boulder dotted islands away from shore
Tall river sentinels on water evermore
Eons passed and vegetation grew
Sagebrush flourished and grasses too
Animals inhabited this pastoral scene
Feeding on vegetation, lush and green
Oregon Territory then its name
And “Mighty Columbia” the river became
Wild salmon braved the rapids upstream to spawn
Indians fished these rapids everyday from dawn…”

This is just a taste of Lucy Keane’s poem “Rock Island Era,” written for the town of Rock Island. Lucy’s deceased husband, Delbert, is the grandson of James E. Keane.

The most notable figure in Rock Island townsite’s founding is James E. Keane. He was the first permanent settler to the Rock Island area and arrived with a crew of men in 1887. Keane planned to build a home and improve the land that he had acquired through the homestead, pre-emption, and desert acts. Four years later, the Great Northern Railroad made its first survey of the area and began construction toward the valley from the east. One half mile upriver from the well-known Rock Island Rapids, Mr. Keane platted a townsite that he hoped would become a grand railroad town. He named it Hammond. Great Northern, however, changed its plans, and the townsite of Hammond faded away.

The railroad instead chose to cross the Columbia River roughly 2 ½ miles north of Hammond, just outside of the aptly named Rock Island. James E. Keane was also the founder and proprietor of Rock Island and planned for it to be the metropolis of the Big Bend country. Between 1891 and 1893, Rock Island became a town of considerable importance for the railroad. The mammoth steel bridge that was built across the Columbia drew many laborers to the area, and the small town boomed. Several stores popped up to meet the needs of the workers, and the Rock Island Sun newspaper began publication. In 1893, however, the completion of that first bridge across the Columbia marked the downfall of Rock Island. With few jobs in town to entice them, the workers from that project moved away. In The History of the Big Bend Country, published in 1904, Rock Island is referred to as being little more than “a flag station on the Great Northern Railway.” It would not be the last time Rock Island felt the sting of regression.

Old railroad trestle over the water

(Source: Blogger (MB Line). Image by Unknown, 1905)

The Keane Wheat Chute

Designed and implemented by James E. Keane in 1910, the Keane Wheat Chute was a marvel of modern engineering in its day. Consisting of 2,600 linear feet of galvanized piping, the chute allowed threshed wheat to be poured into a hopper above Rock Island and come out down by the train tracks. Clogs were handled by kicking and shaking, but they were rare. The chute was used until 1941 and handled over 10,000 bushels of wheat per year. Pieces of the chute are currently on display at the Rocky Reach Dam Museum of the Columbia.

Rock Island was able to shine again in 1930, when the Puget Sound Power and Light Company began construction of a dam just below the Rock Island Rapids. The project was estimated at 10 million dollars and was first dam on the Columbia River. On November 3rd 1930, Rock Island was officially incorporated as a Washington State town, with a population of 421 residents. The town boomed for a second time in its history as workers for the dam project created temporary villages near the town. When two of the dam’s generators began producing power in 1931, and the final spillway was closed in 1932, its prosperity marked the beginning of another detrimental regression in Rock Island’s history.


(Source: University of Oregon. Image by Unknown, 1933)

It is a well known fact among Rock Islanders that their economy has historically depended upon single industries. The more recent “Hanna Mining” facility looming over Rock Island from across the highway remains a constant reminder. Though it has been some years since the factory has been shut down, Rock Island business owners still feel the effects of having fewer customers. Today, Rock Island leaders are beginning to focus on a different endeavor they hope will diversify the community’s economy: tourism.


Rock Island Golf Course

The city is in a process of removing milfoil weed from the lakes surrounding the golf course and town. These local lakes are some of Rock Island’s greatest features and are the focus of two of Rock Island’s larger city-planned events. Fishing Days, held in Spring, is a chance for local kids and teens to congregate at Pit Lake and fish to their heart’s content. A huge supply of fish is dumped in for the event, and the participants are treated to a barbeque and give-a-ways. The Mini-Hydroplane Races, in August, draws crouds to watch as the remote control hydroplanes tear around a local lake. The annual Rod Run in September offers a classic car show that gives Rock Island gear-heads an opportunity to show off.


Rock Island’s Elementary School is a part of the fast-growing Eastmont School District and is the place “where every child succeeds.” Located just east of of town, the school is designed for Kindergarten through fourth grade. However, staff and administrators have worked hard to be able to accommodate classes of fifth graders, when needed to alleviate crowding around the district. In addition to providing great elementary education for children in and around the town, the school is a premier site for local community and sports groups to meet. Of course, the Rock Island Elementary School is also the site for larger town meetings.

Rock Island is a small town that has an unparalleled ability to bounce back from misfortune. Few towns have survived quick booms and even quicker busts the way Rock Island has. The people you meet around town are resilient, happy, and in love with a style of life they can’t find anywhere else. Many say the town is due for another boom. History informs us that booms are unpredictable. What is important for Rock Island residents is that their community is here to stay.