Wheat’s played big role in Washington’s growth



Jerri Honeyford

On the Tacoma waterfront close to the Tacoma Dome there is a mile-long building that attracted my attention, and I did find a story there.

This is the Balfour dock that loaded out wheat to all parts of the world from about 1900 to 1936. Old pictures show stacks of burlap-bagged wheat waiting for the boat.

The trains would stop on the land side of the building, the wheat bags were stored inside, then on the water side the great wooden schooners were waiting to load.

During most of the century before 1900, wheat was driven by horse and carriage to local mills to be ground to flour. The first mill in what was then Oregon territory was built near Kettle Falls in 1816 by the North West Company; the second in 1828 on Mill Plain in what is now part of Vancouver by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The first American owned mill was built in New Market, now Tumwater, by Michael Simmons, using the water power of the Deschutes River.

An interesting sideline is that Clanrick Crosby bought the Simmons mill and later brought in his nephew, Nathaniel Crosby III, to run a general store. Nathaniel Crosby was Bing Crosby’s grandfather.

Sylvester Wait was a miller from Vermont who built his mill on the Touchet River. The town that grew up was named Waitsburg. Wait helped Jesse Day start a mill and that town became Dayton.

Many other towns carried a miller’s name or perhaps his wife’s name, as in Ellensburg.

Spokane had a great source of water power in its falls, but it didn’t have a mill until 1878. By 1900 Spokane was the seventh largest milling center in the nation.

Eastern Washington was a great place to grow wheat. Too much was grown for the towns to use themselves so the railroads rushed to provide transportation. The Walla Walla and Columbia River railroad opened in 1875 to connect with the wheat-growing farms all around Walla Walla to transport the product to Wallula, where it was loaded on Columbia River boats and barges. The Northern Pacific was the railroad that brought wheat to the Balfour Dock in Tacoma.

Although there was a mill in virtually every town, most of them were built of wood, and most of them have burned down or been replaced. There are now only two still in operation: the one at Thorp and the one at Cedar Creek near Woodland.

There are many grain elevators near every wheat growing area, which hold the wheat from harvest until it is sold and shipped out. Counties such as Whitman, Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Franklin near the Columbia and Snake rivers still truck their grain from the elevators to the barges.

But the railroad is still a major transport of wheat. We actually have a Grain Train! In 1994 the Washington State Department of Transportation bought 29 used grain cars with a grant from the U.S. government. This train collects bulk grain, both wheat and barley, from Warden, Schrag, La Crosse, Prescott, Endicott, Willada, Thornton and St. John, and carries it to Kalama, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver and Portland to be shipped around the world. The Department of Transportation figures it saves wear and tear on roadways and it is done without tax subsidies.

Isn’t it amazing what one can learn from visiting a century-old building on the Tacoma waterfront!

‑ Jerri Honeyford, wife of Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), provides her “Across our State” column while the couple is in Olympia during the legislative session.


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