By Luke Ellington

(Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image by Williamborg, 2008)

Timeline of Waterville

1883Territorial governor W. A. Newell approves bill creating Douglas County
1886Waterville voted county seat
1887First courthouse built by A. T. Greene
1889Washington is 42nd state admitted to the union
1892Between 350 and 500 area residents
1913First North Central Washington District Fair held in Waterville
1950Approximately 1,000 residents
2004Approximately 1,200 residents
PresentApproximately 1,150 residents

Founding Family Names

Many families and individuals took part in the formation of Douglas County settlements in the late 1800s. 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 Waterville:

Adams, Ballard, Boise, Brett, Brownfield, Burks, Foote, Greene, Honor, Howe, Kelogg, Kincaid, Miles, Porter, Rogers, Ruud, Shuart, Snow, Steiner, Stowell, Tuttle, Walter, White, Wilcox, and Wilson.

A Look Back

“Waterville, the county seat and metropolis of Douglas County…” begins a historical record of the area written in 1904. At a whopping 2,622 feet above sea level, travelers and residents across the Waterville Plateau have always taken advantage of a panorama of scenery. Beyond the green, oasis-like community, amber waves of grain roll along hills that were once sage-brush covered cattle country. Beyond a nearly endless expanse of wheat fields, lie the rugged mountains of the Okanogan Valley in the east. Just south of Waterville is Badger Mountain with its natural spring water and popular wintertime ski hill. Westward, past the Columbia River Valley, are the snow-capped mountains of the Cascade range. Looking to the north, the mountains surrounding beautiful Lake Chelan stand in the distance. It is not hard to imagine what Albert T. Greene, the “father of Waterville,” saw when he first stood atop the plateau.

View from Badger Mountain

If Albert T. Greene is the “father of Waterville,” then surely Stephen Boise is the grandfather. In November of 1883, the County of Douglas was approved by the territorial legislature and named in honor of Stephen A. Douglas, a US senator from Illinois. Its single town and county seat at the time, Okanogan, consisted of no more than Walter Mann, his tent, and a small log courthouse. A constant concern was the acquisition of water, which was nowhere to be found in Okanogan. A common sign on the “town hall” read, “Gone for water, will be back in a week.” Just a few short miles to the west, however, Stephen Boise had already taken a squatter’s claim and dug a productive well – a well that provided opportunity along with abundant water.

In the spring of 1885, A. T. Green traveled west from Davenport and purchased Stephen Boise’s land claim. It is said that A. T. Greene had always wanted to be the founder of a town. This newly acquired land he had his chance. After his land was surveyed, Mr. Greene donated a 40-acre tract of land for his ambitious townsite. The abundant water from his hand-dug well made Greene’s land a popular destination for early settlers and provided the name for his town. It would not be long before Greene could secure Waterville as the county seat.

The first attempt to remove O’kanogan’s title as county seat was made by the community of Douglas in 1885. The proposal was voted down by a two-vote majority. However, it was around this time that Waterville’s friends took to the Democratic convention in O’kanogan the infamous “barrel of water.” The barrel, filled by Waterville’s well, was conclusive proof that the new town had an abundant water supply. In 1886, an overwhelming vote made Waterville the county seat for Douglas County. It has been recorded that a sheriff had to be sent in to remove documents from the county auditor, who had refused to move his office from O’kanogan to Waterville.

E. E. Stowell’s blacksmith shop was the first building erected in Waterville. It was not the last. By the spring of 1888, eight buildings lined the streets of the town, including an office for the probate judge and a post office for postmaster A. T. Greene. In 1889, the first courthouse was built by Greene at a cost of $3,000 and donated to the city for $1. The current, and much more elaborate, courthouse was built in 1905. The Douglas County Courthouse was renovated in 2002 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Local Landmarks

Canton, William J., House at 305 W. Ash Street

Douglas County Courthouse at 203 S Rainer

Downtown Waterville Historic District on Locust and Chelan Streets

Nifty Theatre at 201 Locust

Schmidt, Christian, House (aka “Chris” Homestead, J&J Ranch) at 391 L NW

Smith Hospital and Douglas County Press Building at 109 N Chelan

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church at 313 N Chelan

(Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image by Richard Bauer (rustejunk), 2011)

The fate of Waterville was forever altered in the winter of 1889. Temperatures reached well below zero and snow drifts continued into April, killing cattle by the hundreds. The cattle-based economy of Waterville was destroyed as attention was shifted to wheat farming.

(Source: Waterville Chamber of Commerce. Image by Unknown, 1889)

(Source: Waterville Chamber of Commerce. Image by Unknown)

On April 14, 1890, a petition signed by 30 Waterville area residents resulted in an election to determine whether or not Waterville would become incorporated. On May 3rd 1890, under the laws of the newly-formed state of Washington, a unanimous vote incorporated Waterville as a town. Two years later the ample well water was pumped through town water mains. Waterville began to live up to its name. Prospects for Waterville looked even greater when the Great Northern Railway began making plans to construct a spur line to run from the Columbia River, through the Moses Coulee, and up north to Mansfield. To the dismay of Waterville’s residents, the line went through Douglas, two miles east. Thus, the Waterville Railway Company was quickly established to begin construction of its own spur line to Douglas. This became known as the shortest railroad in the country.

Arrival of 1st Passenger Train in 1910

(Source: Blogger (SDP45). Image by Witter, 1910)

Always the site of celebration for the county, Waterville started the North Central Washington District Fair, then called the Douglas County Fair, in 1913. The four-day annual celebration near the end of August offers a carnival, livestock auctions and exhibits, horse races, food, and fun for the whole family.

Waterville’s First Automobile Arrives at the Fair

“Horses dozing at the rail about the race track wakened with snorts of fear, shooting their ears forward, and bellying suddenly against the rail as tho they would burst through it…everybody looked at everybody else, eyes big with unspoken questions. The noise came closer and closer to the fair grounds. The horses became more frightened. Men climbed from hacks, buggies and wagons to grab at the reins of their draft animals, and into the fair grounds, kicking up dust, smelling very much, and rattling like the crack of doom, came a strange vehicle…he was Holland the furniture store man. His vehicle moved forward, stopped, backed up, went forward again and stopped – and it had no visible horses fastened to it to make it perform any of these miracles.”

[Written by Arthur J. Burks (born in Waterville in 1898) in Here Are My People]

Access to the railroads helped the sturdy settlers keep the wheat-based agricultural community of Waterville thriving. In 1917, Fred Fachnie’s combine became entangled with an 82 pound rock from outer space. Now weighing 73 ¼ pounds, the first meteorite recovered in Washington State can be seen in the Douglas County Historical Museum in Waterville. The museum offers an extensive rock and petrified wood (Washington State’s official gem) exhibit. The many trinkets and gadgets have been collected and donated by Waterville’s citizens. You have to go downstairs to view the ever-popular two-headed calf, which lived for 10 days after birth.

On hot summer days, the children of Waterville swarm to the Carl Koenig Memorial Pool/Park. The pool is Waterville’s third since 1928 and has the only high-dive board in the county. With no lakes or rivers nearby, the bright blue pool is one of the best ways to stay cool on hot days. Residents come and go throughout swim hours, which go until 9:00 at night. Lifeguards cover the pool with a thermal insulated pool blanket, purchased with help from the Rural Economic Development Fund. For many Waterville residents, this pool has been an important part of childhood. The high-dive is a rite of passage.

Carl Koenig Memorial Pool

The town has highest elevation of any incorporated Washington town, but the residents of Waterville do not have their heads in the clouds. This is a place with a remarkable history, one that can be seen all around in the old barns, historic buildings, and rustic farm equipment from days gone by. These reminders speak to a community that had the drive and flexibility to survive. Residents of Waterville enjoy a slower pace of life. If you show an interest in Waterville’s history, you’ll find a lot of folks proud to tell you what they know.

Waterville’s Mission

“Our mission: In a constant partnership with Waterville citizens, we will continue to build our community into a safe, people friendly place we can all proudly call our town.”

We Believe In

Opportunity – Opportunities for community growth
Unity – Unity with citizens and town officials
Rebuild – Rebuilding our downtown

Together – Togetherness and keeping our town safe, clean and prosperous
Open – Open communication
Work – Working for a better community
Nature – A respect for our environment