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Ellensburg

Neatly laid out on the flat floor of Kittitas Valley, Ellensburg is in approximately in the geographic center of the State, and has preserved much of its early Western atmosphere. Stooped prospectors, and leather-jacketed students once mingled with sedate professional men.

Originally called “Ellen’s Burgh,” after Ellen Shoudy, wife of John A. Shoudy, one of the original settlers, the town dropped its “h” by order of the Post Office Department. It is the seat of Kittitas County.

The first settlement here was picturesquely styled “Robber’s Roost”; this name appeared on the sign of a log trading post, the only structure in the valley at that time. The building was erected in 1867 near a spring, now within the city limits, by Wilson, the renegade. Wilson sold out to A. J. Splawn, a young and adventurous cowboy who called it Robber’s Roost after his outlaw predecessor.

In 1872, Ellensburg consisted of a general store, saloon, post office, blacksmith shop, and a few residences. Growth was more rapid after 1883. With the coming of the long-awaited Northern Pacific Railway in 1886, the town was incorporated; when the Milwaukee arrived in 1907, Ellensburg boomed.

Gold from the Swauk Creek district continues to pass through. Farming and dairying, stabilized by irrigation, were supplemented by coal mining in near-by mountain communities.

An annual rodeo, staged for a three-day period ending on Labor Day, is second in the Pacific Northwest only to Pendleton’s famous “Roundup.” The event brings to the city leading professionals in riding and roping and spectators from all portions of the State.

Images

1911 view of cutting alfalfa with horse teams near Ellensburg. Photo by Asahel Curtis.

Source: Washington State Historical Society

Ca. 1920 image of the NRHP listed Administration Building (Barge Hall) at Central Washington University, formerly the Washington State Normal School, Ellensburg.

Source: Washington State Historical Society

Ca. 1945 photo of the downtown parade for the Ellensburg Rodeo.

Source: Washington State Historical Society

Taken between 1935 – 1945, this view shows a sheep ranch near Ellensburg.

Photo by Bert W. Huntoon. Source: Washington State Digital Archives

Points of Interest Points of Interest icon

Shoudy Block

The property eventually came into the hands of John Shoudy, who replaced the log structure in 1889 with a more substantial commercial building.  Known as the Shoudy Block, the structure is part of the historic district today (that same year, Shoudy began construction on his Queen Anne “mansion” house. While Wilson’s original “Robber’s Roost” is long gone.

Kittitas County Historical Museum

The multi-faceted story of Ellensburg’s history and development, and that of the county in general, is nicely interpreted at the Kittitas County Historical Museum. Housed in the 1889 Cadwell building at the corner of East 3rd Avenue and South Pine Street, the museum is located within Ellensburg’s historic district and has walking tours of the district available at no cost.

Central Washington University

Formerly the Central Washington College of Education, by the 1940s the University consisted of a group of ten buildings and several school residences in a setting of green lawns and old shade trees. The administration building, a chateau-type four-story structure, with mansard roofs and a domed central tower over an arched entrance, is the oldest on the campus. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the 1893 building is one of only a handful in the state designed in a style known as Richardsonian Romanesque, so named after the famous East Coast architect H.H. Richardson. Other buildings are rectangular brick structures with pseudo-classic porticos, the pediments supported by fluted columns. Formerly known as the Washington State Normal School, the college is one of the three institutions in the State specializing in training teachers for elementary and junior high schools. It is supported by legislative appropriation, and no tuition is charged; students pay only their living expenses. Established in 1890 by the first State legislature, the school opened in September of the following year. The departments of the college today include language and literature, mathematics, education and psychology, fine and applied arts, social science and history, training school, health education, and music. About 800 students attend the college. Today, while still offering a teacher certification program, Central Washington University operates as a full-service institution of higher learning with nearly 10,000 undergraduates. Tuition, however, is no longer free.

Themes You'll Find at this Main Street

Central Location

An early gathering place for Native American tribes, Ellensburg’s location at the confluence of the Yakima River, Manastash Creek and Wilson Creeks and near the geographic center of Washington, continues to make this a natural gathering place and convenient home of Central Washington University.

The Great Fire

In the running to be the state capitol, a fire destroyed the entire downtown in 1889, changing its course for the future.

The Ellensburg Rodeo and Kittitas County Fair

The Kittitas County Fair and Ellensburg Rodeo draw over 40,000 people to Ellensburg annually.

Stories

Trading Center

In the early 1800, the central location and access to the Yakima River, Wilson and Manastash Creeks, created a natural place for Native Americans throughout the region to gather on Che-lo-han (now the Kittitas Valley) to trade, gamble, hunt, and congregate. In 1861 Andrew Jackson Splawn claimed it to be, “the loveliest spot I have ever seen…it was truly a land of plenty.” Splawn eventually created the first store in what is now the downtown corner of 3rd and Main, naming it Robbers Roost. In 1871 John Shoudy purchased Robber’s Roost and the surrounding 160 acres which is now downtown Ellensburg, founding the town and naming it after his wife, Mary Ellen Stewart. By 1887 there were over 195 houses, 6 hotels/lodging houses, 5 restaurants, 12 saloons, and many other stores and businesses. Ellensburg became a pass through town for many seeking Seattle and the coast. In 1909, the Northern Pacific Railway, which was established in the early 1880s, was joined by the Saint Paul Railroad line, facilitating travel to Seattle and as far east as Chicago, Today, Ellensburg’s location at the intersection of I82 and I90 make it a natural stopping and gathering spot for travelers.

1888 view of Ellensburg.

State Capitol

The year of 1889 was full of excitement for Ellensburg, as the town was in the running to be named the state capital due to its central location and great prosperity. However, on July 4, 1889, while most of the town was out celebrating the holiday, a fire started in the 400 block of North Main Street.  The fire consumed over 200 homes and 10 blocks of downtown. Despite the disaster, the people of Ellensburg rallied and began rebuilding their beloved town. Most of the downtown buildings were rebuilt within 6-9 months after the fire, creating a snapshot of 1889 architecture, much of which still exists today. Likely due to the fire, Ellensburg was not chosen as the state capital, but was granted the Washington State Normal School in 1890. In 1894 the first structure, Barge Hall, was completed and today houses the Presidential and Administrative Offices of Central Washington University. Downtown Ellensburg was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

View of Ellensburg following the fire that burned the majority of downtown.

Ellensburg Rodeo

Ellensburg farming and ranching history has deep roots, being the heart of the central Washington cattle region and home to world famous Timothy Hay, its largest export. Beginning as early as 1885, the Kittitas County Fair has been a major annual attraction for Ellensburg, joined by the first official Ellensburg Rodeo in 1923, when the rodeo arena and first permanent fairgrounds buildings were erected. Local ranchers, cowboys, businessmen, the Fair Board, and Native Americans gathered to plan for the arena and grounds but faced huge obstacles to find the resources to pay for the land and construction. Some state support was given, but the Fair Board called upon the valley residents to donate materials and labor for the construction and July 14, 1923 became “field day” to building the arena. Today the Ellensburg Rodeo is one of the top 10 rodeos in the country and Fair and Rodeo weekend draw over 40,000 visitors to Ellensburg. The Kittitas County Fair and Rodeo Grounds were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.