HISTORY OF WATERVILLE

Since its founding in 1889, Waterville, along with the designation of being the Douglas County Seat, boasts a rich history filled with farming, recreation destinations, and diverse economic trends.

In 1883, Stephen Boise placed a squatter’s claim on the shrub steppe plateau in Eastern Washington, high above a big bend in the Columbia River.  Soon, he built a cabin and dug a well.  The well produced water, and lots of it…it was the only available water for miles around.   Before long, the site was to become a county seat; the precious liquid would give the Town of Waterville its name.

A.T. Greene bought the Boise land claim in 1885, with visions of building a town.  He deeded and platted 40 acres for use as the original townsite, which he called Waterville.  Waterville boosters wanted the town to be the county seat of newly established Douglas County.  The problem was, Douglas County already had a county seat, a small town named Okanogan, six miles to the northeast.  Okanogan, however, was dry… despite several attempts, not a single well produced a drop of water.  So at a political convention in Okanogan, the Waterville contingent produced a barrel of water and insisted on moving the county seat to its source.  Bowing to popular demand, the Commissioners did so on May 2, 1887, declaring Waterville to be the new county seat. On March 22, 1889, Waterville became an incorporated town in Washington Territory.  That same year, town founder A. T. Greene built the first Douglas County Courthouse in Waterville and sold it to the newly formed county for one dollar.

Washington became the 42nd state in the union shortly thereafter, so the Town of Waterville was re-incorporated under the laws of Washington State on May 3, 1890.  By 1892, the town boasted several hundred residents, and a number of merchants to serve them and the surrounding rural population. 

Early dreams of cattle farming on the plateau were dashed when the harsh winter of 1889-1890 killed most of the local stock.  Thereafter, potatoes and wheat vied for supremacy as the dominant cash crop.  Eventually, wheat farming won out and became the mainstay of the local economy.  Blessed with fertile soil, plenty of winter snow and spring rain, dry summers, and high market demand, local wheat farmers prospered in the early years, and the Town of Waterville grew and prospered with them. 

Fire wiped out many of the early wood frame commercial structures in Waterville.  The commercial street was moved one block as new buildings sprang up, this time of fire resistive masonry construction.  The buildings in this district became a lively and prosperous economic hub that served the entire region.   Today, the one hundred year old Waterville commercial district is listed on the National Register of Historic places, as are the nearby Waterville Hotel and the Nifty Theatre, other buildings from the same era.  In 1905, a stately brick courthouse, still in use today and listed on the State Historic Register, replaced the original wood frame courthouse built in 1889.

Over the decades, the economy of Waterville adapted to the vagaries of wheat farming and changes of life style.  Farmers faced tough times when drought or disease caused crop failures, or when market prices bottomed out. Thanks to efficient machinery, labor intensive farming practices went by the wayside… but with them, a traditional source of local employment.   Attracted to malls and big box stores in the valley, many local residents started shopping elsewhere.   Because of these changes, sadly, Waterville’s business sector lost much of its former luster. 

Recently, some historic commercial buildings have been lovingly restored and reopened, or converted to new uses.  Other buildings wait patiently for new opportunities to serve the community.  Today, fiber optics and cheap electricity show promise of attracting more entrepreneurs and creating new jobs.  Attracted by clean air, sunny weather, and incredible local geography, visitors are also discovering that there are plenty of fun things to do in the area, away from crowds. Waterville is experiencing a revival as a small American town, and a good place to live, visit, and do business.

For more information about the history of Waterville, visit the following sites: 

Douglas County PUD - Waterville History Page
Town of Waterville History Page
Waterville Alumni Memories Website

or, visit the Douglas County Historical Museum in Waterville.  In addition to a wealth of displays and archived material about Waterville, the museum sells several books about the history Waterville and the surrounding area.   www.museumsusa.org/museums/info/1158127