In 1885, more than 100 buildings from what is now Union Gap were hauled four miles north to form what is now Yakima, as depicted in this painting at the Yakima Valley Museum by Phil Kooser. The Northern Pacific Railway bypassed Union Gap, then known as Yakima City, to establish North Yakima as the home of its depot in the Yakima Valley. (DONALD W. MEYERS/Yakima Herald-Republic)

Regular readers of this column will notice that sometimes I will refer to Yakima as “North Yakima.”

New residents might question if present day Yakima was North Yakima, what happened to the original Yakima?

The tale of the two Yakimas is one of railroads, political intrigue, a precedent-setting Supreme Court decision and an application of dynamite.

Shortly after the Treaty of 1855 forced the tribes and bands of the Yakama Nation to cede 11 million acres to the federal government, non-native settlers began moving into the area.

In 1865, a wagon train bound for Puget Sound decided to follow the Yakima River instead of following the Columbia River west and, instead of going to the coast, they settled down when they got to the land between Ahtanum and Rattlesnake ridges.

The settlement, first called Spring Hill Homestead, attracted more settlers and by 1869 it was known as Yakima City. In 1870, it was designated the county seat by the territorial Legislature.

Residents’ hopes for greater growth and prosperity were fanned by news that the Northern Pacific Railway was building a line from Ainsworth, a railroad construction town near present-day Kennewick, to Tacoma. At that time, the only way to move goods and people to and from Yakima City was by overland stage or wagons on rough roads.

But it wasn’t until the 1880s that the Northern Pacific finally brought its line to Yakima City, due to its going bankrupt during the Panic of 1873, a global economic depression. The railroad arrived in December 1884, amid a celebration that drained the six barrels of whiskey brought in by the first freight car.

But while the tracks passed through Yakima City, Northern Pacific planned its depot 4 miles north, and was offering business owners free building lots in the new community if they would move by May 1, 1885.

Northern Pacific representatives argued Yakima City would be too swampy for the railroad once irrigation was in place. Other accounts suggest the city was less than generous in what it was offering for the new depot.

There was also speculation the railroad wanted to start a town from scratch, which would give it greater control. And one of the attorneys who tried to convince residents to accept the railroad’s offer owned land in the new city site.

Desperate to keep the railroad in the city, Yakima City officials offered the railroad half the vacant land if it would abandon the effort, but the railroad turned it down. The officials then convinced the territorial government to file suit against the railroad, which Yakima City won in district court and later in the territorial Supreme Court.

But as the lawsuit was working its way toward the U.S. Supreme Court, the railroad was proceeding with its plans to develop North Yakima. More than 100 Yakima people literally moved their homes and businesses north when the Northern Pacific offered to pay to relocate the structures.

One building, the Guilland House hotel, remained open for business during the three weeks it was winched across the Valley on log rollers to the new town.

But the Yakima Signal newspaper office did not make the trip. It was blown up as it was being prepared for the move north, apparently by someone who believed the paper’s editor and early railroad critic J.M. Adams was betraying his neighbors by accepting the offer to move.

In another act of sabotage, two young girls coated the rails heading north with grease, keeping the Northern Pacific’s train from leaving Yakima City until the tracks were cleaned.

By the time the U.S. Supreme Court got the case and ruled in favor of the railroad in 1892, North Yakima was an established city and the new county seat, while Yakima’s population had dropped from 500 to 150.

The high court found that Congress did not specify Yakima City as a stopping place for trains and had no obligation to establish a depot there.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice John Harlan lamented how the railroad essentially destroyed the county’s most prosperous town for the sake of corporate gain.

“There is no reason of a public nature why (Yakima City) should not be made a stopping-place,” Harlan wrote.

In 1917, the Legislature voted to change Yakima City’s name to Union Gap, and the following year, North Yakima dropped the north from its name and became simply Yakima.


It Happened Here is a weekly history column by Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers. Reach him at 509-577-7748 or dmeyers@yakimaherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/donaldwmeyers.