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Wenatchee Flat: From horse racing to apples

By on March 27, 2021 in Columnist with 1 Comment
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

Philip Miller had a fine view. 

His homestead was at the southwest corner of the Wenatchee Flat where the flat begins to climb into the foothills. He looked north across the flat with Burch Mountain in the distance. 

Streams flowed from two canyons at the west edge of the flat and meandered to the Columbia River. An Indian racetrack stretched for a straight mile across the north end of the flat. 

On the northeast edge of the flat the collection of tents that was the trading post looked out of place. There was nothing else on the flat taller than a sagebrush.

About 4,500 years ago, the climate changed and became colder and wetter. Indians living in higher locations in the mountains around Lake Wenatchee were forced to move from villages they had used for thousands of years to warmer locations along the lower Wenatchee River and its confluence with the Columbia. 

About 2,500 years ago, the climate warmed and dried and the Wenatchee Flat became a gathering place and council grounds for local Indians and others from around north central Washington.

On the 14th of August, 1811 Alexander Ross and a party of Pacific Fur Company men pulled their canoes on shore at the Wenatchee/Columbia confluence. They were the first white men to set foot on P’squose land. 

Wenatchee in 1900. Panoramic view down upon Wenatchee, up the Columbia River to confluence with the Wenatchee River and across to Douglas County.  Miller Avenue is in middle of picture. The ferry ran from the foot of Orondo Avenue to the ferry building on the east side of the Columbia River. (No other buildings on the east side.) A dirt road ran north on the east side ferry stop to Corbaley Canyon uphill to Waterville, out of sight over Badger Mountain. Photo courtesy of Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center, 009-70-11

Alexander Ross wrote later, “Indians met us in great numbers, and vied with each other in acts of kindness.”

Up on the Wenatchee Flat the fur company men made camp next to a sizable Indian camp. Ross recalled, “Sopa (the chief) invited us to pass the day with him, which we did and were highly gratified to see the natives hunt the wild deer on horseback. They killed several head of game close to our camp.”

Thirty years later Navy Lieutenant Robert Johnson led an expedition to explore the upper Columbia. They reached the Wenatchee/Columbia confluence on June 4, 1841. 

Lt. Johnson wrote that they encamped on the south side of the confluence “in a beautiful patch of meadowland of about 100 acres in extant, which the Indians had enclosed in small squares by turf walls and in them they cultivated the potato in a systematic manner.” The meadow also held numbers of grouse and curlews along with wild currents just ripening.

The meadow is not the Wenatchee Flat. It is the grassy meadow that still exists where the KPQ radio towers stand. It’s a delta created by material washed down the Wenatchee Valley by melt water from the Icicle Glacier. The Wenatchee Flat borders it on the south and west sides.

Captain George McClellan brought a well-armed force of soldiers to the Wenatchee Flat in 1853. The flat was covered with tipis and mat lodges. Hundreds of Quiltenenock’s people from Rock Island were gathered with as many P’squose led by Tecolekun. Owhi, head chief of the upper Yakamas, was also there. They had all come for a council with McClellan.

At the close of the council the Wenatchee Flat was, again, the place of an epic horse race. The course was a straight line close to a mile long with a post at the far end where riders turned then whipped their horses a mile back to the start.

In May of 1879 the Wenatchee Flat saw its last great horse race. All of north central Washington’s tribes gathered at the traditional council grounds to hear General O.O. Howard, Territorial Governor Elisha Ferry and Chief Moses describe and discuss the newly created Moses/Columbia reservation.

Army Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood described the view from the Wenatchee Flat as the tribes rode in and set up camps.

It was a “gorgeous setting in the evergreen and snow clad hills: the eternal snow peaks high in the air against the blue sky; the irregular streets of dusky tepees… the lounging men, the playing children, the sneaking dogs and the working women.”

The council ended with a two horse race on a straight stretch of about a mile along the half grass-grown plain between the camps and the foot of the mountain. Lieutenant Wood called the race.

“A faint cry at the other end of the line, a whirl of horses, a tumult down there, a waving of whips, a wild yelling growing nearer, louder, and here they come — flying, side by side, the naked riders plying the lash with every terrific bound. Here they come! Heads out, eyes strained, nostrils stretched, fore hoofs seemingly always in the air, the whip thongs falling with a quickening vigor. 

“A horse, wild shouting, a deafening burst of yells, a swish in the air, an apparition before the eyes, a bound over the finish line, and the race is over, the white just half a length ahead, and there they go down towards the river, the boys pulling them in for dear life.”

Two years later, in 1881, white settlement began on the Wenatchee Flat. 

Tom Doak claimed 160 acres fronting on the Columbia at the foot of Fifth Street. By 1883, 160-acre homesteads were starting to fill the Wenatchee Flat. Families were moving in: Tallman and Arzilla Tripp next to Tom Doak, George and Margaret Blair with five children between Fifth Street and Washington Street and the Rickman family west of Western Avenue along Fifth Street. 

These were families determined to farm and who appreciated a big piece of flat land that could be plowed in straight rows.

There were other flats just right for farming but not so large as the Wenatchee Flat: Warner Flat below Cashmere, Brown’s Flat that became Monitor, Burch Flat where Olds Station is now and Pogue Flat, the largest Kame terrace in Okanogan County.

By the late 1880s and into the early 1900s irrigation came to all the flats. The Highline Canal turned the Wenatchee Flat from a sagebrush and boulder covered wasteland to green productive land full of alfalfa and orchards.

Philip Miller’s fine view was changing but Miller didn’t live to see the final transformation when houses began to replace crops on the Wenatchee Flat. 

Finally lawns and gardens became the users of the flat and its irrigation water.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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  1. Tom says:

    Enjoyed the read!

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