Founding Trains 

Any student of Washington State history will learn that the fate of many towns was determined by trains. Ritzville, about 60 miles southwest of Spokane, is no exception. The train that established Ritzville, however, wasn’t one of the locomotive-driven variety. Ritzville owes its beginnings to a wagon train.

In the 1870s, the Northern Pacific Railway had not yet reached the Ritzville area. The settlement was made up of about 50 cattlemen. In 1882, that population quadrupled overnight when a wagon train of 17 Volga German families decided to stop in Ritzville. They had started in Russia.

Volga Germans are ethnic Germans who immigrated to land along the River Volga in Russia. They were among a group of Europeans in the mid-19th century who were invited by Catherine the Great to colonize Russian lands. The Volga Germans were allowed to maintain their language, religion and farming culture. When they started to be drafted into the Russian army, they packed their bags and headed to the United States, many making their way to the western frontier – places ideal for farming, like Ritzville.

With an infusion of Volga German famers Ritzville began its reliance on farming in earnest. The town was officially founded, wagon trains were replaced by Northern Pacific Railway trains and a depot for shipping out wheat was constructed. By 1901, Ritzville became the largest exporter of wheat in the world – a fact I learned, among other things, on my visit to this small eastern Washington town last week.

“Most people assume Ritzville is the gas station and restaurant you see from I-90,” said Ann Olson, a descendent of one of the 17 wagon train families and manager of Ritzville’s two museums. I must admit, like most people, my experience in Ritzville has been limited to refueling while driving from Spokane to Seattle. Ann gave me a tour of the town that opened my eyes to the critical contribution Ritzville – and so many towns like it – have made to the state’s heritage.

Among the most interesting places I saw on my tour was the Railroad Depot Museum. If railways were the lifeblood of towns on the frontier, depots were the heart. Ritzville’s railroad depot was more than just a place to load and unload traincars of wheat. It’s where people voted, bought their newspapers, sent telegrams and went to church. The railroad depot was the community center. It was apparently also the town’s clock. To this day, the noon whistle blows loud enough for the entire town of Ritzville to hear.

Given depots’ role as communications hubs the most important position at these places was the Agent-Morse Telegrapher. This person was responsible for keeping the depot’s telegraph office open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The agent not only had to be competent in operation of the telegraph system; he or she also had non-railroad duties, such as issuing marriage licenses and serving as notary public.

As Ann was showing me around the Ritzville Railroad Depot Museum, in walked – as if on cue – one of her octogenarian volunteers, L.R. Keith. He’s a trained telegrapher, making him perfect for showing museum guests the depot’s main exhibit: a working telegraph office.  L.R. takes his trade very seriously. He proudly wears a telegraph key belt buckle.

“I’m going to be buried with this belt buckle,” said L.R. as he slid into the telegrapher’s chair and quickly started to input code into the telegraph key sitting on the desk.

“How many words per minute can you type?” I naively asked.

“You’re asking the wrong question,” L.R. sternly replied. He then recited the dozens of different types of codes a telegrapher must learn, each corresponding to a different industry. L.R. used to work for Western Union. Like many others before him, his last stop as he moved west was Ritzville.

L.R. Keith, professional telegrapher and Railroad Depot Museum volunteer

After our encounter with L.R., Ann showed me around the rest of the museum, which has 150 years of Ritzville’s history on display. Newspapers. Sports team uniforms. A horse driven hearse. The old dentist’s chair. I was amazed by how comprehensive the place was.

“Every time granny dies, somebody brings us stuff,” said Ann, as she showed me 100-year old wedding dresses and fur coats, each of which comes with a photo of its former owner.

Ann Olson, manager of Ritzville’s two museums and descendent of early Volga German settlers

After a few hours with Ann, I have a much deeper appreciation for – and understanding of – the small towns (and their trains) that served as the foundation for Washington State. If you find yourself driving through Ritzville on I-90, I strongly encourage you to investigate further than a few hundred feet off the interstate. The Ritzville Railroad Depot Museum is a must-see.

Ann and I said goodbye as she realized she needed to get to a 12:00 meeting. How did she know what time it was? The noon whistle blew.

Ritzville’s Railroad Depot Museum

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