SUNNYSIDE, Wash. -- When most people think of cattle drives, they imagine dust-covered cowboys driving large herds of longhorns across Texas and Oklahoma toward Kansas railheads.
The Pacific Northwest, let alone Yakima Valley, really doesn’t seem like the place for cattle drives.
But Ben Snipes made his fortune raising cattle in the Lower Valley and along the Columbia Gorge, driving them north to the gold fields of British Columbia. A remnant of Snipe’s cattle kingdom sits in Sunnyside’s Central Park as a monument to the region’s history.
Snipes was born in 1835 in North Carolina, and by the time he was 12 his family had moved to Iowa where he caught gold fever. His pleas to his father to relocate to California’s gold fields were met with refusals that did little to dampen the young Snipes’ dreams of riches.
In 1852, Snipes got his chance when a neighbor hired him to tend his livestock as they traveled the Oregon Trail. Snipes, it is said, did so well that his company lost fewer livestock along the trail than other groups of travelers who made the trip in the same amount of time.
After settling in Oregon, Snipes hired on with a mule train headed for California and the gold fields, where he believed fortune awaited him.
Three days after buying a pan, pick and shovel, Snipes sold his prospect for $500 in gold dust, and went to work for the buyer. When the gold ran out, Snipes went to work for a butcher, and eventually opened his own shop.
That venture failed when Snipes’ customers would not pay what they owed.
About that time, Snipes heard about a gold strike along the Fraser River in British Columbia and set off once again to pan gold. But when he arrived he found every available spot was taken.
However, he did spot an opportunity. Food — beef in particular — was in short supply in the mining camps and there were no cattle in the area. He headed back to Oregon with the idea of filling the need for meat.
Snipes linked up with a cattleman interested in driving cattle north. As Snipes rode herd on the cattle, he went traveled through the Yakima Valley and hatched the idea of raising them on the vast grasslands and then driving them to the gold fields.
With backing from the Oregon cattleman who first employed him, Snipes grazed 102 cattle in the Yakima Valley and drove them to Canada in the spring of 1856, earning $12,750 — $345,724 in today’s currency — of which he paid half to his backer and went into business for himself.
Snipes moved his operation into the Valley, becoming the first non- Indian to build a home in the area in 1859 at the base of what is now known as Snipes Mountain, 4 miles west of Sunnyside.
That cabin was one of a chain of shelters he built for himself and his hired hands. Today, the cabin is located in Sunnyside’s Central Park.
By the fall of 1861, Snipes had anywhere from 25,000 to 40,000 head — at least — in the Yakima Valley. But that winter turned out to be severe, with a 3-foot ice cap on the ground.
By spring, Snipes discovered his herd now numbered no more than 3,000.
Snipes was not about to be beaten, though. Borrowing $50,000, he bought up the remaining livestock from other ranchers who sold their animals at deep discount so they could quickly leave the area. He was able to earn enough to almost pay off the loan and restore his place as the Northwest’s Cattle King.
The coming of the Northern Pacific Railway and cattle boats on the Columbia spelled the end of cattle drives. Snipes diversified his interests, opening a flour mill in The Dalles, Ore., buying more than 100 acres of land in the heart of Seattle, and opening Ellensburg’s first bank and a branch in Roslyn.
Snipes’ bank failed during the panic of 1893 and his assets were sold for pennies on the dollar. He was reported to be working on rebuilding his fortune when he died in 1906. He is buried in The Dalles.