Nation’s far corner achieved statehood 125 years ago

The timber-built, frontier towns of Seattle, Spokane Falls and Ellensburg were consumed by fire, but were rebuilt in mostly fire-proof brick and stone.

The fertile soils, thick timber stands and salmon runs drew thousands of fortune seekers to the far northwest corner of the country. Many arrived on the second transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific, which was completed in 1883. It cost four cents a mile to cross America.

The year was 1889, and the Washington Territory, which had grown in population from 1,200 in 1850 to nearly 350,000, was about to become the 42nd state.

Statehood was declared official Nov. 11, 1889. To mark the state’s 125th birthday, a party to celebrate the state’s history and cultural diversity is set to unfold Tuesday in the state Legislative Building.

One of the highlights of the event will be the unveiling of the latest history exhibit in the the Secretary of State’s Office. The display of photos, artifacts, and rich, contextual script is titled “Blazes, Rails and the Year of Statehood.”

The exhibit, crafted under the leadership of the office’s Legacy Project Director Trova Heffernan, highlights the events, the people, the spirit and the landscape of a territory on the verge of statehood. The cornerstone of the exhibit is a rare, 42-star American flag on loan from Stuart Halsan, a history buff and former state legislator from Lewis County.

Heffernan found the people of the day, found their stories, then weaved it all together to show the nation’s far corner achieving statehood.

Congress passed the law enabling the Washington Territory to become state on Feb. 22, 1889, along with North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. Before that, the last state admitted to the union was Colorado, 13 years earlier.

The next step on Washington’s path to statehood was the election of 75 delegates, three from each of the territory’s voting districts, to convene in Olympia on July 4 to draft a state constitution. The all-male delegation — women had yet to gain the right to vote — included 21 lawyers, 13 farmers, six merchants, six doctors, five bankers, four cattlemen, three teachers, two loggers, two lumbermen, a minister, a surveyor, a fisherman and an engineer. There were 43 Republicans, 29 Democrats and three independents. But the real split was between populists and business interests.

The only delegate born in Washington was Gwin Hicks, a 31-year-old real estate and stock exchange manager in Tacoma. Hicks was born in Olympia in 1858. Other delegates included former Civil War prisoner of war George Tibbetts and J.J. Browne, who purchased a quarter of the Spokane Falls town site when he arrived in 1878, making him one of the territory’s wealthiest men.

The delegates wrestled with the hot topics of the day, including the sale of tide lands and regulation of railroads. They established several statewide elected offices to share the responsibility of governance. They completed their work Aug. 22, but no transcribed account exists of their debates and word-wrangling. They left it up to voters to decide some major issues separately, including prohibition, the voting rights of women and the location of the state capital. Washington voters approved the constitution Oct. 1, 1889, by a vote of 40,152 to 11,879. The voters rejected prohibition and women’s suffrage. Olympia was the top vote-getter to remain the capital city, but didn’t garner a majority vote until the following year in a runoff with North Yakima and Ellensburg.

Territorial Gov. Miles C. Moore forgot to sign the certified copy of the state constitution before it was sent to the “other Washington” for President Benjamin Harrison to approve. This led to at least a one week delay in the president’s approval of the bill, which happened Nov. 11, admitting Washington to the Union. The delay cost Washington its chance at being the 41st state. That honor went to Montana on Nov. 8.

Moore was sharply criticized in the media for his oversight. “Washington’s territorial governor must be a terrible ignoramaus,” The Chehalis County Chronicle in Elma opined.

The exhibit is rich with human stories, including women’s suffrage crusader Zerelda McCoy, a 50-year-old native Midwesterner who led the newly formed Equal Suffrage League and lobbied the convention delegates long and hard to include women’s right to vote in the state constitution. A week before the delegates finished their work, they received a letter from McCoy, claiming she should be exempt from taxes because she was denied the right to vote. The state approved women’s suffrage in 1910.

While McCoy’s story and activism are well-documented, the Legacy Project folks have yet to find any photograph of her. Is there anyone out there who can help?

The three town fires were calamitous. The Great Seattle Fire in early June consumed 25 city blocks. British poet Rudyard Kipling said the aftermath of the fire appeared as “a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth. I know now what wiped out means.”

Stop by the lobby of Secretary of State’s Office and see the exhibit. Here in the nation’s far corner, history is measured in decades, instead of centuries, and the origin of statehood was not that long ago.