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"Another Way of Saying God's Country"

image US Army mule drawn wagon, Vancouver Barracks, Washington

(Chapter 2: "Another Way of Saying God's Country")


Washington residents never fully accepted the name of their territory and new state. The earliest pioneers criticized Congress for setting aside their local favorite, Columbia, in the 1853 legislation establishing a separate territorial administration for the northern regions of Oregon. During the 1880s, with admission on the horizon, the inhabitants suggested a number of alternatives, to better represent the region and its distinct identity. The sentiment persisted after 1889, with critics complaining that a distant federal government knew little and cared less about the Pacific Northwest. "It is exceedingly unpleasant," a Tacoma newspaper pointed out in reflecting upon a distasteful subject, "to be forced to constantly explain that you do not live in the national capital." One wit demanded that a change be made, at the least, to a full "George Washington," so as to avoid "much confusion," as well as the necessity of using the thoroughly undignified official postal abbreviation of "Wash" on personal and business correspondence.

Poorly designated by act of congress, Washington might still be provided with a proper nickname by its own citizens. An early suggestion, "The Corner State," was geographically to the point, but hardly scintillating in popular appeal. The "Evergreen State," however, passed into widespread use within two years of admission. Appropriately, given contemporary preoccupations with land speculation, the slogan was devised by a Seattle real estate brokerage, Crawford and Conover, to headline a promotional brochure published in 1890. The snappy name invented to peddle tidewater housing lots failed, though, to convey genuine meaning for an entire, often other-than-green, commonwealth.

Washington's borders encompassed nearly 70,000 square miles, with two-thirds east of the Cascades. Some truly magnificent portions were far from settled areas and visited only by Indians, cowboys, prospectors or foolhardy explorers. Grand Coulee, the product of prehistoric flooding so catastrophic as to befuddle end-of-the-century analysis, was, said an awed California visitor, a "temple of desolation." High basaltic walls, a broad sage and grass covered floor and the spectacular coulee mouth, suspended high above the Columbia River, provided scale enough to frustrate human comprehension. The "enormous rent in the face of mother earth," another traveler estimated while passing through in a wagon, varied "from three to eight miles in width, and only God knows how many in depth." A few herders tended cattle "Bedouin fashion," E.V. Smalley reported after a tour, "roaming about and having no other homes than little dirt-roofed shacks."

Lake Chelan, another romantic geological wonder, ran for 60 miles from deep in the northern Cascades before dropping 300 feet in a final three miles of "perfect torrent" in descending to the Columbia. Miners traveled to backcountry diggings aboard steamers based in the new village of Chelan, a tumbled-together supply station described by one writer as "a badly-scattered lumber yard." Towing scows loaded with pack animals, the boats huffed around the many bends in the two-mile wide lake, straining against the wind when passing beneath towering snowy crags. "The mountains increase in height and become more precipitous and wild," a touring merchant noted, "and the scenery correspondingly more magnificent." Passengers also remarked upon the Sierra-clear waters, supposedly the "deepest" in North America. "We easily countered the boulders near shore at a depth of thirty or forty feet," one prospector recalled, "but generally the great depth of the water gives the lake's surface an appearance of inky blackness… so pure… that photographers in surrounding towns keep a supply on hand for use in preparing negatives."

On tidewater, the Olympics soared above Puget Sound, seeming near and at the same time far away, in jagged heaps of snow, ice and rock. "A confused mass of mountains" interspersed with bits of prairie, the range appeared to possess "every requisite for a national park." Minds of promotional bent thought that the tall timber, the many bands of elk and the mineral deposits sure to be found in the interior fastnesses ought to be exploited at the earliest possible date. As "sparsely settled… as Kentucky was in the days of Daniel Boone," the lower elevations appeared ideally suited to agriculture. The problem was access, an obstacle more than adequately documented by the wretched experiences of the first exploring expeditions to venture into the pathless wilderness. "In all likelihood," the monthly Northwest magazine reflected in late 1890, the central part of the Olympic Peninsula "will be permitted to remain…. What it has been for ages past, the undisputed home of the elk and bear." Such places were wisely ignored by persons eager to make the most money with the least expenditure of time and effort. For the majority of the population, Washington's prime geologic feature was therefore the great dividing range of the Cascades, bisecting the state from the 49th parallel to the Oregon border. Blocking the marine air coming in from the humid Pacific, the high peaks produced two vast climatic provinces, one abundantly wet and the other uncommonly dry. So much rain fell on the west side that "a bright old lady" visiting Seattle supposedly "remarked that the noble mountain… must have been called Rainier because it was rainier than in any other section of the globe." According to another story, no doubt apocryphal, two men strolling on a Fairhaven pier in the midst of a typical vision-obscuring downpour innocently stepped off the final plank into the chilly waters of Bellingham Bay. Government weather reports, meanwhile, tallied an annual precipitation rate of barely 16 inches for eastern Washington with hardly any rain falling between May and October. Climate related economic difference established in earliest territorial times persisted into statehood distinguishing the regions and hardening cross-Cascades rivalries.


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This is an excerpt from Washington State : The Inaugural Decade 1889-1899 by Robert E. Ficken


If you would like to purchase this book or one of our many other titles relating to Washington History please feel free to visit us in the bookstore at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site Tuesday - Saturday 10:00AM-4:30PM or head over to our alibris site at http://fortvancouver.alibrisstore.com/

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