The history of
Cle Elum

Cle Elum, Washington is a town where the past is always present. Just take a look around! All you need to do is walk around town for a peek into this area’s unique history. There are nearly 20 buildings in Cle Elum in the historical register – keep an eye out for plaques that provide historical information.

Gold Rush Begins in Swauk Creek
Gold was first discovered near the Kittitas Valley in 1867 when a prospecting party, consisting of five men including two Goodwin brothers, were following a Native American trail leading through the Swauk Creek area to the Peshastin district. They were camping near Swauk Creek when one of the men found a bar that looked like fine gold. The party went further north to see what they could find, not before naming this location Discovery Bar.

In the fall of 1873, Benton Goodwin and his brother passed through the Swauk once more with W.H. Beck to look for gold. Despite the initial failure to see results, Benton Goodwin eventually found a gold nugget down the creek. After finding this, the rest of the group continued the search for days until they ran out of supplies, finding a little under $600 in gold. They had to restock on their supplies and the news about the gold spread, leading to the gold rush.
Liberty's Gold Mine Success

Despite there being multiple locations in Washington that discovered gold, the town that retained an old-style gold mining town that survived was Liberty, originally named William's Creek. Strikes in this town kept it relevant for years to come. 1891 saw Torkell Tweet strike so much gold that the Ellensburg Capital had gone on record that the mother lode had been found. Another Liberty resident, Ollie Jordin, found about $80,000 worth of gold in 1932. Clarence Jordin struck gold in the Ace of Diamonds-Flag Mountain worth about $40,000 in 1959. Many other citizens worked to find a large profit that they have seen before.

Liberty has been known for two kinds of miners: miner-gamblers and miner-settlers. The miner-gamblers have had more numbers in the West, but miner-settlers have been more integral to the town of Liberty by staying and supporting the town. In short, the miners were the ones who made Liberty their home and kept the heritage of the town alive. When it came time to reconstruct Liberty, it was a relatively easy task as many of the original families had descendants that stayed in town. Other miners continued their search for gold. Liberty was also supported by the residents and descendants of Ellensburg & Cle Elum who invested and participated in the mining operations in the town.

Liberty stands as a national and international landmark as it was one of the few areas to produce different kinds of gold in the same region. Liberty miners typically found gold nuggets, flakes, and wire gold. Another interesting find was a fish fossil replacing bones with wire gold. This rarity had been recognized in the 1890s at the Chicago World's Fair, and a place in the Liberty collection at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Liberty contains a strange collection of small buildings for shelter purposes only. Only one district was built, showcasing a variety of building methods used by early miners, supporting business in response to wilderness construction difficulties. The town had also struggled with the United States Forest Service who wanted to eliminate Liberty as an old style mining town along with its heritage. The citizens of Liberty and Kittitas County rebelled against this as they all believed the town would represent the way of life in the mining years of Washington. This was later settled in 1980 with a special act of Congress allowing President Carter to sell the citizens of Liberty their land.

Walter J. Reed & Thomas Gamble Found in Cle Elum
Thomas Gamble was a farmer that originally lived in Washington County, Pennsylvania. He decided to search for a new area that could serve as a better settlement than his original one. On April 28, 1881, Gamble found an area that was higher than the rest of Kittitas Valley but was also much more susceptible to snow and cold weather. Seeing the potential of this new area, Gamble went to the land office in Yakima where he found his old friend Walter J. Reed. The two filled out claims to two sections of land that Gamble found and became the two founding families of Cle Elum, building two cabins on their land.

It wasn't until 1884 that the Cle Elum area came to prominence when the discovery of coal was made in the hills on Gamble's property. At the time, the Northern Pacific Railroad was creating a railroad track to Stampede Pass & Puget Sound. Knowing this, Reed and Gamble used their land to provide coal for the locomotives and timber for other railroad equipment. This took business away from what is now Teanaway, as Reed convinced the Railroad to move their depot to Cle Elum. Reed and fellow pioneer Tom Johnson built the largest sawmill in central Washington at the time. The town of Cle Elum would be officially platted on July 26, 1886 by the Reeds.
Railroad Completion & Labor Clashes

By 1886, Cle Elum had become a functioning town due to the completion of the railroad on October 11, 1886. The town had a general store, sawmill, butcher shop, a school, and the Reed House, a hotel run by Walter J. Reed and his wife Barbara. The name Cle Elum was decided on by Gamble, the Reeds, and Johnson from the word that the local Indians used for the river close by; "Tie-el-Luim," meaning swift water.

In 1888, the City of Roslyn had fully developed its coal mines, and the railroad station had its construction crews in Cle Elum. During this year, miners had gone on a strike that originated in Roslyn and would spread into the city of Cle Elum. Tom Johnson's sawmill was threatened and the Reed House was the location where violent demonstrations by miners would take place. 1889 saw the Northern Pacific withdrawing its construction crews after they had completed the Stampede Pass tunnel. The population of Cle Elum had dropped from 400 to 300.

Cle Elum Fire
Starting as a forest fire, it spread into Cle Elum, burning the general store and a block from downtown. Only a few businesses were left standing, one of them being the Reed House, where the fire had completely burned out. This had a severe impact on both the natural landscape and the nationwide financial state.

Cle Elum did not have a bright future until 1894 when coal was discovered on Thomas Gamble's property. Before this, Cle Elum had only shipped coal that Roslyn needed for railroads and other needs but was now producing coal for itself. In response to this new business, the population rose to 1,900, introducing Italians, Germans, and Welsh immigrants looking for work.
Northwest Improvement Company

Gamble sold his lease in 1900 to the Northwest Improvement Company. This organization took Gamble's original mining operation and developed it into a more efficient operation. By 1904 the property value had increased and the work population had increased as well.

The mining operations at Cle Elum had become a large topic of the county, and many immigrants from Italy, Croatia, Poland, and Slovakia, not only for mining but for other work as well. One of the most noteworthy of them was the story of the Cle Elum Bakery, an old-world bakery that opened in 1906 and has remained open to this day. Coming from the Piemonte region of Italy, John and Letizia Pricco met on a boat heading to America in 1902 and married the next year. They settled in Cle Elum in 1906 where they gained financial support from Cle Elum State Bank owner Frank Carpenter. The Priccos made old-world style bread in a brick oven and sold their goods for years.

Cascade Canal Company organizes and plans to construct two large canals capable of irrigating more than 45,000 acres
As an area with a high focus on farming, the key to make a successful life in Kittitas Valley was irrigation. Ellensburg had already built canals, but the early 1900s saw the Cascade Canal Company begin the irrigation process on the east side of the Yakima River. This began the growth of the fruit and crops industry in the valley.

In 1911, the Kittitas Reclamation District began looking into the logistics of creating what would become the High Line Canal, the valley's largest irrigation project. This project had a lack of funding until 1925 when the federal Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation got involved, completing the canal in 1932. As this canal was finally functioning, farmers were able to produce more in their farms.
Cle Elum Incorporates
Following the rise of residents and business, Cle Elum decided to incorporate it into the union. On February 12, 1902, the vote to incorporate the town passed, and it was officiated on February 24 that same year. Thomas Gamble was elected the first mayor of Cle Elum that same year. Two years later Cle Elum became a town of the third class.

By 1904, Cle Elum had gained new establishments like a water system, a volunteer fire department, a city hall, and most notably John A. Balmer's rosary. This complex of fields and greenhouses for roses was one of the city's most successful businesses, shipping to Puget Sound cities. Balmer himself was a professor of floriculture at Washington State College and would later serve as mayor of Cle Elum.
A powder magazine in Cle Elum explodes, killing eight people
On July 16, 1908, a work accident at Northwest Improvement Company's mines occurred when a worker had dropped a can of explosive black powder while he was unloading a cart. This caused an explosion that killed four men inside the warehouse, three in a rail car, and a woman and her child that were living nearby. The fire from the explosion spread for hundreds of yards, and the powder magazine was about three-quarters of a mile from downtown Cle Elum. The site of the magazine was turned into a mere crater from the explosion, leaving nothing.
The New Snoqualmie Pass Road is Built

In 1915, the Snoqualmie Pass route was changed from a wagon trail to a safe road for automobiles. This original Wagon Trail was called the "Seattle to Walla Walla Wagon Road", which had a company incorporated to ensure that it was taken care of in 1883. The new road built in 1915 did not see many people try to travel on the Pass before 1913 until the state authorized the construction of Primary Roads, such as the Sunset Highway over the Snoqualmie Pass. While travelers still preferred the safety of established trains, more people were willing to ride in automobiles. These new roads became suitable boosters in Cle Elum's economy for a short time, but would later become vital aspects of the commercial prosperity of the town.

These roads were funded by property taxes. In 1919, the legislature imposed a tax of one cent per gallon of gas, bringing a prominence of road users in favor of the previous means of transportation. 1923 saw the repeal of a one-mil property levy and roads being built and maintained with taxes and motor vehicle licensing fees.

During the Great Depression, road building was a form of economic relief, shifting to addressing local needs instead of tailoring to state systems. In 1944, the Good Roads Association supported a vote to pass the 18th Amendment to the state constitution, eliminating gas taxes for anything that was not highways. By the end of World War II, a new highway boom took place as people purchasing cars became much more common. Highways became important not just for recreational means, but for residents being able to move from cities and suburban homes.

The Sunset Highway

In July 1915, the Sunset Highway was built in a way that isn't recognizable today. It was in the early 1880s when the Northern Pacific Railway surpassed Walla Walla. The Sunset Highway went from Cle Elum to the Wenatchee. The state purchased the Columbia automobile bridge from the Wenatchee Bridge Company, continuing north of the Columbia, reaching Waterville, Davenport, and Spokane. There was a short time where state officials had the idea of routing the Sunset Highway to reach Ellensburg. There was no bridge at Vantage at the time, so traffic would need to cross the river by much more complicated means such as a ferry or a longer route. After much debate from the locals, the Blewett Pass route was created with forest supervisor Albert H. Sylvester offered enough funds to build the road.

On July 1, 1915, Governor Ernest Lister hosted a ceremony for the Sunset Highway, going so far as to claim that this road's completion was more important to history than the transcontinental railroad in 1893. The highway had two lanes, giving more length than old wagon roads could. The first vehicle to cross the road was in April 1915.

The federal government began giving funds to states as regulated under the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1916. This act supported road construction that crossed national forest land. Washington used some of these funds to upgrade highways that crossed the state, one which was the Sunset Highway. In 1920, a new branch of the road went to Bothell, beginning at Fall City and reaching Redmond and Woodinville. This allowed travelers to go around the lake or reach ferry terminals at Medina, Bellevue and Kirkland.

In 1923, some roads were recognized as primary and secondary state highways and the Sunset Highway was given the new name of PSH 2, although people still called it by its original name. 1926 saw the federal government giving the PSH 2 a new designation of the U.S. 10, representing the connection of highways crossing the country. The highway was added to the "Yellowstone Trail'' route reaching Seattle to Chicago. This year also saw the Highway Department expand to the summit while the old wagon roads were reliant on switchbacks to get to steep areas of the pass. This went on to shift this road to the bigger old Milwaukee Road between Lake Keechekus and the west side of the pass. This road added a tunnel under the Yakima Pass, eliminating the need for the route over the Snoqualmie. The eastbound lanes of Interstate 90 follow this route to this day.

During the 1930s, the Highway Department began to improve the Sunset Highway by enhancing snow removal equipment for highway crews to ensure the road was open during the winter in 1931. The team paved the road between Seattle in 1934, increasing the quality of the road. This increase of quality roadwork led to the increase of skiers at Snoqualmie. Skiing was becoming prominent in Cle Elum during the 1920s, and the highway was kept open year-round after the 1930s improvements. The Mountaineers, the Milwaukee Road and the City of Seattle had fully operating ski facilities in response to this rising demand. It wasn't until World War II that the railroads were forced to stop running ski trains. Skiing was generally limited in what they could do in terms of climbing summits to help the war effort. After the war ended, skiing rose back into popularity.

The 1940s saw a new highway route being completed from Cle Elum and Spokane, and the Sunset Highway/U.S. 10 shifted to this same road, reaching Ellensburg, Vantage, Ritzville, and Sprague. The Sunset Highway route over Blewett Pass was renamed to U.S. 97. After World War II, when automobile ownership and traffic rates increased dramatically, the state began work to ensure the Sunset Highway could have a bigger capacity. This included expanding the road to have four lanes and building snow sheds over the Lake Keechelus road to protect drivers from avalanches. In 1956 the U.S. 97 changed to merge with the Swauk Pass road just east of Blewett Pass, allowing curves to the 37 highway instead of the 248 highway.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Highway Department worked on the roadway to get four lanes on it, and built interchanges that meet the required modifications in compliance with the Interstate Highway Act. In 1992, the final modification to Interstate 90 was completed, becoming a freeway that reached from Seattle to Spokane. Just as the territorial legislatures predicted, these changes led to the rise of highway transportation, increasing trades and population growth in the state. By 2009, it was estimated that more than 22,400 passengers would pass the Snoqualmie Pass a day by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The Cle Elum Fire

On June 25, 1918, an overwhelming fire ran through the streets of Cle Elum, destroying 205 homes and impacting half of the business district. It is believed that the fire was started from a tossed cigarette near a pile of garbage outside a theater, building up with the aid of the strong winds, destroying the district. It was not long until the residential districts fell victim to this fire, destroying the homes of many Northwest Improvement Company miners. The fire lasted all afternoon, never leaving the borders of the town.

The citizens of Cle Elum were not easily brought down by the damage the fire brought upon the town. A good example of this is how the Cle Elum Bakery was destroyed by the fire, but the Priccos were able to rebuild their location and get out of debt in the next two years. While many of the citizens did not move, the population went from an unofficial 3,650 to 2,661 by 1920.

The Gradual Decline of Coal

After World War I, the coal industry began to go down in business and value due to less demand, more competition, and the strikes from mineworkers in both Cle Elum and Roslyn. This was made worse in the early 1930s by the Great Depression when it reduced coal prices and demand. In 1933 both Cle Elum and Roslyn dropped their coal production by half. Jobs became harder to find, and this would lead to the population drop from 2,508 to 2,230 in 1940.

Coal's slow decline continued throughout the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1950s, Cle Elum would have a few spots in town where the nightlife for those lonely miners and loggers. By the 1960s, the mining companies that remained operating in the Cle Elum-Roslyn area were the Northwest Improvement Company and the Roslyn Cascade Coal Company. They tried to reignite the spark to the coal industry with a coal-powered power plant near Cle Elum Lake, but it was dismissed as it was faced with many economic obstacles. In 1963, both companies finally shut down while logging became a primary source of income for many Cle Elum families.

Skiing Takes Prominence
In 1921, Cle Elum transitioned from coal mining as a legitimate business to skiing. John "Skye" Bresko founded the Cle Elum Ski Club and built the first skiing area west of Colorado. The ski hill was south of town, featuring a ski jump. Later in 1923, the club built a larger ski area overlooking the Teanaway Valley. At this time, ski jumping was extremely popular, and the Cle Elum Club capitalized by hosting annual tournaments with ski races, with 3,000 to 5,000 people coming each time. The 1930s marked the point where the Cle Elum Club faded away in popularity due to the rising competition, and it closed in 1936.
The Interstate Era

When Interstate 90 was completed in Cle Elum on October 5, 1964, the local economy was renewed. Cle Elum began to rely on the new identity of being the first major town east of the Snoqualmie Pass, being a stopping place for travelers that wouldn't be out of their way regardless of which direction they were headed. Regardless of this, the population of Cle Elum was still declining, going as low as 1,778 in 1986.

The Plum Creek Timber Company

In 1993, the Plum Creek Timber Co. became interested in using its land near Cle Elum into a destination resort. Despite community skepticism with environmental impacts and logging concerns., the project proceeded onward. The project became the Suncadia resort, featuring an inn, golf courses, and horseback facilities. Beginning construction in 2003, the first homes were done by 2005, and the location welcomed a new spa and lodge in 2008.


In these modern times, Cle Elum proudly incorporates their past with their present and will continue to do so for their future. This mountain town embraces a charming, nostalgic roadside brand, while also promoting creativity and innovation within their community. A variety of unique businesses flourish within nearly 20 historically registered buildings, local artisans find inspiration from the surrounding landscape, and outdoor activities can be enjoyed year round. Cle Elum entices visitors with comfortable lodging, recreation gear rentals, and its outdoor oasis.