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

Buying Chelan County

In most places in Washington State, where a town developed was decided by the people who first inhabited the area or by the European settlers and American pioneers who showed up later.  Seattle owes its map to the Dennys and Mercers. Spokane (originally Spokane Falls) grew up along the Spokane River because early pioneer James Glover saw the falls as a great place for a sawmill. Most towns have a similar story: somebody shows up and says, “let’s settle here” – usually due to proximity to a natural resource like a river, bay, forest or farmland.

This week I learned that early development of Chelan County – and the placement of its county seat, Wenatchee – was decided by a guy who never lived there. The great folks at the Chelan History Museum introduced me to local historian, Rod Molzahn, who told about the decisions that drove early development and governance of the region.

In the late 1800s, railroads were rapidly making their way west – the most significant of which was the Great Northern Railway. Its owner, J.J. Hill, was friends with a Seattle attorney and judge by the name of Thomas Burke (as in the Burke-Gillman Trail in Seattle).  Burke’s good friend, Hill, fed him some very valuable inside information: the route his railroad would take through central Washington.

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At the time, the town of Wenatchee had already started to take shape. It wasn’t where current downtown Wenatchee is; instead, it was up on the flat. According to Rod, “it had all the things a town needs to thrive – a meat market, hotel and a saloon.”

Burke knew the railroad would cut through the land closer to the Columbia River, well below the already established town. So, like any good insider trader, he quietly bought up 640 acres – at a very low price – along the river. Burke’s Wenatchee Development Company started a campaign to get people to move their businesses from “old town” to “new town.” He hired a couple from Ellensburg to start a newspaper in Wenatchee and act as his propaganda arm. He even sweetened the deal for businesses by offering to move their buildings closer to the river. Eventually, Burke’s scheme started to work. Businesses began to move, people learned about the railroad’s plans, and the value of Burke’s land by the river started to skyrocket.

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Judge Thomas Burke by cartoonist Edwin F. Brotz

As Wenatchee and surrounding towns such as Cashmere, Chelan, and Stehekin started to thrive, a bill was passed in the state legislature to create Chelan County by carving off pieces of existing Kittitas and Okanogan Counties. This was fought aggressively by Okanogan County, which finally acquiesced in exchange for $77,000 in damages paid to them by the newly formed Chelan County.

The formation of a county required the appointment of county commissioners, the establishment of a county seat and the building of a courthouse. A compromise was struck between the geographically dispersed towns of Cashmere, Chelan and Wenatchee: the state legislature appointed three commissioners – one from each town.

With county commissioner representation decided, the towns couldn’t agree on the placement of the county seat. Chelan argued its nearby hydropower made it a good choice. Wenatchee, of course, had the railroad. Nobody had money to build a courthouse, though. After all, they had a $77,000 debt to pay to Okanogan County.

Guess who had a solution? Good ‘ol Judge Burke just happened to own a 3-story hotel in “new town” Wenatchee that he was willing to deed to the City of Wenatchee – for one dollar – provided that the County Commissioners name Wenatchee as the County Seat. The County Commissioners accepted the offer and to quiet the objections from the Chelan people ,the commissioners appointed Chelan area men to be the county’s first officers, including Sheriff Frank Keller, a rancher from Stehekin – a  tiny town accessible only by boat at the north end of Lake Chelan. “That was a great recipe for rapid response,” joked Rod, as he continued the story.

Because the county commissioners had to travel long distances to get to the county seat, Burke gave them each a room on the third floor  of his hotel – rent free. That’s how Wenatchee became the county seat for Chelan County. Coincidentally, that’s also how Judge Burke’s land increased in value.

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So far on the ProjectWA road show, I’ve been fortunate to meet with several town leaders who have provided some colorful stories about their respective communities’ history. Early on, natural resources such as rivers, farmland or forests usually determined where a town grew. Later – as Judge Burke demonstrated – the railroad started to play that role.  In the information age, I think the next major economic factor for communities might be interesting stories. If so, Chelan County is going to do pretty well.

If you’re interested in some of those stories, stop by the Chelan Museum – they have quite a few. While you’re there, collect your points for visiting in the Washington State Insider app.

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Left to right: Chelan Museum Board Member, Linda Martinson; Board Member, Roberta “Peach” Simonds; Museum Manager, Ron McGaughey; Board Member, Mary Sherer

The Enloe Dam Challenge

“Let’s just leave the car here and walk down,” Kristine and I said in unison as our little Ford Fiesta bottomed out on the steep, rocky road. We were intent on getting to the abandoned dam and waterfall below, but we were also intent on getting to Republic that evening in one piece. So we walked, well, scampered down to the river.

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I’d been wanting to check out Enloe Dam ever since Ava gave a presentation on this endangered property back in February. When I found out this was named one of the 2016 Most Endangered Historic Properties by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, I insisted that we add it to our summer road trip itinerary. After hiking down to see it, I’m glad I did.

Henry and Ruby beat Kristine and me to the bottom. As I approached the river, I saw Ruby scaling the chain link fence at the river’s edge. I heard myself scream, “Ruby, haven’t you ever seen the Niagara Falls scene in Superman II!”

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The Similkameen River falls are stunning. The mist rising up from the rushing water was very welcome, given it had turned into a warm day. We hiked down river to the point right across from the powerhouse. The building is in pretty bad shape, but I found myself imagining what could go on there if somebody restored it. Given its perch on the river and view of the falls upstream, it’d make a pretty spectacular restaurant. It would have been a great place to work 100 years ago, before Bonneville Power made the dam unnecessary.

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After snapping some photos to document our accomplishment, we began the long walk back up the hill. The Fiesta made it out, but I’d recommend 4-wheel-drive to anybody planning on checking out Enloe Dam.

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The Birthplace of Smokejumping

Six weeks ago, Andrew Thibodeau stood at a doorway. He slapped both sides of the door frame and then grabbed a pole to his right. A guy crouching behind him yelled “Get ready!” A moment later, that same guy slapped the back of Andrew’s leg. That was his signal to jump through the door. He was 1500 feet above a forest.

“I was doing fine until I grabbed that pole,” said Andrew, telling the story of his first parachute jump during a 6-week training course at North Cascades Smokejumper Base just outside of Twisp, Washington. Today, the ProjectWA team was lucky enough to get a history lesson and tour from Andrew on his first official day as a rookie smokejumper. After a rigorous training, he joins an elite group of 25 other parachuting firefighters stationed at an airfield situated in the Cascade foothills.

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A CASA C-212 Aviocar sits ready to fly within 5 minutes of the alarm.

The Methow Valley became the birthplace of smokejumping in 1939, when fire guards, Francis Lufkin and George Honey, made 58 experimental parachute jumps to determine under what conditions firefighters could safely land in inaccessible mountainous areas to fight wildfires. Lufkin, who had spent several years dropping supplies by parachute into wilderness fire areas, said, “If we can deliver boxes via parachute, why can’t we also deliver people?” Today, smokejumping is the most cost-effective wildfire fighting method employed in the U.S. More than 400 smokejumpers are stationed at nine main bases and dozens of satellite bases in the western U.S.

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Francis Lufkin, ready for his first experimental jump in 1939.

The critical role smokejumpers play in fighting wildfires has received more attention in recent years, as forest fires have increased in frequency and intensity. The 2015 Okanogan Complex fire was the largest in Washington State history.

Most people don’t realize the other critical contribution smokejumping has made to history. Until 1939, people didn’t voluntarily jump out of airplanes. Parachutes were for in-air emergencies, usually at high altitudes. Francis Lufkin’s new firefighting method demonstrated the feasibility of parachuting from low altitudes, with extreme precision, into a hostile environment.

In 1940, U.S. Army Major General, William C. Lee, visited the North Cascades Smokejumper Base to better understand how this new skill could be used for military purposes. Later that year, Lee became the first commander of a new parachute school at Georgia’s Fort Benning, which became the U.S. Airborne Command. Paratrooping was born. Four years later, 13,000 American paratroopers made night drops during D-Day, which turned the tide of World War II.

After taking Andrew’s tour, I understand the similarities between preparing for war and training to be a smokejumper. As if parachuting and firefighting aren’t hard enough, smokejumpers must also be expert rappellers and tree climbers. Though landing in meadows is the goal, sometimes they land in trees; so smokejumpers have to be in great physical shape to first get themselves untangled and then make their way to the ground, sometimes 40 feet below – all while wearing Kevlar jump suits and a 100 pounds of gear. They can’t just leave their chutes in the tree, which means climbing back up to retrieve them.

Once on the ground, parachuters turn into fire fighters and survivalists. They bring supplies that allow them to fight fires for as long as three days: axes, chain saws, shovels, food and drinking water. Everything gets dropped in boxes at the same time as the smokejumpers. The firefighting is done by digging 18-inch-wide paths, creating lines around a fire area – effectively starving the fire of the vegetation that fuels it.  After a few days of nonstop work, the crew has to hike to the nearest accessible road to be picked up.

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The job doesn’t end when smokejumpers get back to base. The work simply transitions into other tasks so that the crew is prepared for the next jump: sewing up ripped chutes and suits, packing boxes with gear, food and water; and packing parachutes. All so that, within 2 minutes of the alarm, smokejumpers are suited up and on the plane. Then there’s all the other chores associated with day-to-day living.

Smokejumpers are self-sufficient on – and off – the fire line.  They cook for themselves, tend their own garden and mow the lawn. And they sew.  Every smokejumper knows how to operate a sewing machine – a tool just as critical to the whole operation as axes, shovels and airplanes.  With an average of 45 jumps per year (the record is 1066 in 1970), chutes and suits get torn and have to be immediately, expertly mended. I was surprised to learn that all the gear – shirts, suits, pants, and chutes – is made by smokejumpers right there on the base.

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One of the most important smokejumping tools.

When they’re not jumping out of planes, firefighting or sewing, smokejumpers are staying fit. They devote at least an hour and a half to exercise every day. Their 6-week training course is what I’d imagine boot camp to be – probably harder. Andrew showed us the tower from which smokejumpers practice their “PLFs” (Parachute Landing Falls). “A lot of misery went down here,” Andrew mused as he gazed up at the 40-foot structure, which he referred to as “Torture Tower.”

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Andrew Thibodeau, Rookie Smokejumper in front of the “Torture Tower.”

There were many things that impressed me about smokejumpers. What struck me most is their culture of complete trust and reliance on each other. Every smokejumper knows how to do every job on the base – from sewing and packing chutes to being the “JIC” (Jumper in Charge). It’s all about efficiency. When every second matters, there’s no time for figuring out who within a jump crew has seniority. Whoever is in the seat closest to the airplane door automatically plays the role of JIC – whether they are an 18-year veteran, like Kathlyn Russel, or a brand new rookie, like Andrew.

So who is in charge of the smokejumpers, overall? They are part of the U.S. Forest Service, which is run by the Department of Agriculture. Though they are federally funded, there are gaps.  The smokejumpers sell souvenirs to raise money for the Fallen Firefighters Fund (I bought myself a cool smokejumper coffee mug).

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If you are anywhere near the Methow Valley, the North Cascades Smokejumper Base is a must stop.  You’ll get one of the best free tours around, learn some important history that’s relevant to all of us, and get a chance to thank a group of individuals that put their lives on the line to keep us all safe. Before you go, download the Washington State Insider app so you can get your points for visiting.

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As of June 23, 2016, the jump counter is still set at 0. The average number of jumps per year is 45.

Pybus Market: From Steel Foundry to Gathering Place

According to his April 5, 1961 obituary in the Wenatchee Daily World, Elias “Tom” Pybus’s first impression of Wenatchee was “of board sidewalks, dusty streets and a stifling hotel.” He used to say: “the whole valley seemed like a furnace.” Two decades later, the U.K. immigrant blacksmith constructed his own furnace along the banks of the Columbia River in Wenatchee, which grew into one of the region’s most successful steel foundries. E.T. Pybus Steel Company started out making wagon parts and auto springs, and eventually provided steel for the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, Hanford and WWII ships for the U.S. Navy and Air Force. By the time he died in 1961, E.T. Pybus’s contribution to economic growth in Chelan County rivaled that of the apple industry, for which the area is mostly known, historically.

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Over the years, the early pioneer’s steel company was eventually split into separate companies, and the large warehouse that used to house Pybus’s foundry became the home of pigeons floating in off the Columbia. Despite the impact E.T. Pybus had made on Wenatchee in the 20th century, later generations had no idea what that building on the corner of Orondo Avenue and Worthen Street represented.

“As a kid growing up in Wenatchee, I had no idea this building even existed,” said Caitlin Gillespie, Operations Administrator for Pybus Market, as she gave me a tour of one of the coolest structures in Wenatchee.

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The Pybus building emerged from obscurity when, in 2012, Mike and JoAnn Walker established the Pybus Market Charitable Foundation to work in collaboration with the Port of Chelan County to refurbish the 25,000-square-foot space. The year-round Market was opened in May 2013 and now houses some of the best businesses that Wenatchee has to offer: a produce stand, florist, brewery, wine tasting room, cheese shop, restaurants, butcher and more.

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On the recommendation of Cascade Loop Association Director, Annette Pitts, I popped in on Steve Robinson, the Executive Director for the Pybus Market Charitable Foundation. Steve, along with Caitlin Gillespie, manages day-to-day operations and marketing for the Pybus Market.  After they showed me the space, my assessment is that their most important marketing job is to simply get people in the door. The building does the rest.

The Pybus Market has a very inviting vibe. After my official tour, I hung out for another hour, drinking coffee and writing while periodically lifting my head to people watch. The Market is nicely situated along the Columbia River between downtown Wenatchee and the Apple Capital Loop Trail that runs along the river. It’s a natural spot for people to congregate – visitors and tourists alike. The design of the Market was inspired by the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco. When I saw the Pybus Market from the outside, it immediately reminded me of the indoor market in San Francisco.

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One of things that gives the Pybus Market its cool vibe is the live music.

Even better than the architecture and location are the extremely friendly local merchants. The Pybus Market has a concentration of high quality regional businesses – from locally brewed beer to produce to local meat. On my way out, I bought some local beef from Mike’s Meats to take back to this week’s ProjectWA headquarters in Lake Chelan.

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Mike’s Meats at Pybus Market

A big focus for ProjectWA so far has been preservation of historic properties, so I asked Steve about the impact the restoration of the Pybus Market has had on the community. “When cities develop waterfront, good things happen,” Steve said.  “It has put [Wenatchee] on the map.” The Market has created more than 100 local jobs, and the rest of the waterfront is starting to redevelop. A new hotel is going in down the street, which Steve suggests probably would not have be happening without the presence of Pybus Market.

After more than three years of year-round operation, the Market has evolved into a community center. “People congregate here,” said Steve. It’s no wonder, then, that the Pybus Market was named “Best Place to take an Out-of-Town Guest” by the Wenatchee Business Journal Readers’ Choice Awards.

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The creation and growing popularity of the Pybus Market has coincided with the emergence of an evolved identity for Wenatchee – from a small town known almost singularly for its apples, to “an outdoor mecca” known for skiing, biking, and countless other types of recreation. E.T. Pybus would be proud.

If you want to see the intersection of Wenatchee’s history and future, I strongly recommend you check out Pybus Market. If you download the Washington State Insider app, remember to collect your points for visiting.

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ProjectWA Students Become the Teachers

Yes, ProjectWA is about connecting history and place. For five Lopez Island Middle School students, their teacher, and me, it’s been about so much more. Fundamentally, ProjectWA has been about connecting people. Anna, Ava, Mallory, Sonnette and Shayna have made many connections this semester: with historical figures, with preservation advocates, and with each other. Today, they connected with the 4th Grade Lopez Elementary Social Studies class.

As their final ProjectWA assignment, our students were to write a blog post on one of this year’s Most Endangered Historic Properties. They learned quite a bit in the process: different approaches to research, how to interview an expert, and how to write a compelling call-to-action. The final articles are great. Mr. Rovente and I wanted the kids to go a step further – by turning those written works into presentations.  Lori Swanson, the Lopez Island Elementary social studies teacher, agreed to provide the audience for those presentations: twenty fourth-graders, whose final topic of the year is Washington State History.

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It was gratifying to watch the ProjectWA students become the teachers. The fourth graders were engaged throughout, and their questions for the middle schoolers were great. After every presentation, the younger kids got a chance to connect history and place the old-fashion way – with stickers and laminated maps of Washington State. Apps are cool, but stickers make everything more fun.

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With the student presentations complete, this semester’s ProjectWA class has come to an end. Now it’s time for me to go to school. For the next two months, my family and I will travel all around Washington State, checking out as many of the students’ app locations as possible. We’re also in search of other historic places, so we’re inviting people to send us suggested locations for us to research and then incorporate into the Washington State Insider app.

I’m incredibly proud of what Anna, Ava, Mallory, Shayna and Sonnette accomplished this semester. I’d like to thank them – and their awesome teacher, Anthony Rovente, for taking on something that had never been done before. We all learned a ton. I know there’s a lot more to learn.

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“Maybe not a gas station… but always a museum.”

Last week I paid a visit to the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma to give Erich Ebel a preview of the Washington State Insider app, which is set to launch by mid-June. Erich is the Marketing and Communications Director for the Washington State Historical Society, who manages the History Museum. They have agreed to give discounted admission to Washington State Insider app users who have collected points by visiting historic places around the state.

Erich had just returned from a whirlwind trip around the state, passing through many of the same places that my family and I plan to visit during our ProjectWA summer tour. After visiting dozens of small towns across Western and Eastern Washington, Erich was struck by the one thing they all had in common. “Every town, no matter how small, has a museum,” he said. “Maybe not a gas station or a stoplight, but always a museum.”

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Erich is absolutely right about this. My home, Lopez Island, with a population of only 2,400, has no stoplights or sidewalks. But it has a great museum. This phenomenon makes a statement about the priorities of smaller communities; and it is why, according to Erich, “people are gravitating toward heritage tourism.”

Museums of all sizes are critical to reminding us of our history. If our cultural heritage is to be preserved, though, we need more than museums to curb the advances of shorter-term commercial interests that can be antithetical to historic preservation. In Woodinville, the City Council wants to tear down the town’s original schoolhouse to make room for a parking garage. In Kent, the last barn standing – representing the area’s agricultural roots – will likely be torn down if the City Council’s current plan to widen the Green River is implemented. During my trip last week I visited both the Woodinville Schoolhouse and the Dvorak Barn in Kent. Losing them would be a massive loss for each community.

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Left: Rick Chatterton, Board President, Woodinville Heritage Society | Right: Nancy and Chuck Simpson, long-time Kent residents

The groups fighting for the protection of these endangered properties are not necessarily advocating for keeping these old buildings in their original state. They recognize that economies, industries and demographics change. Instead of creating relics that have no apparent use in today’s communities, they would like to see these buildings preserved and used as community gathering places of some kind. History and modern life don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

It is this integration of yesterday and today that is driving the development of the Washington State Insider app. 80% of Americans walk around with smartphones today. Let’s find a way to capitalize on that trend in a way that helps raise awareness of and preserves our cultural heritage.

Over the next week, students from Lopez Island Middle School will be posting stories about the Most Endangered Properties of Washington State that they want to see preserved. Those places, along with nearly 70 other locations around the state, will also be found in the Washington State Insider app, available for iPhones and Android devices.

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For most Lopez School students, the word “endangered” brings to mind species of plants or animals that live in this fragile ecosystem that is the San Juan Islands: disappearing lichen from rocks on Iceberg Point, diminishing populations of sea birds, or hundreds of other species of concern around the Salish Sea. In the past few weeks, we’ve learned about another endangered list: historic properties around Washington State.

In late April I attended a conference in Chelan, called RevitalizeWA, organized by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. With my summer history trip around the state approaching, I thought this would be a good way to get a sense of some of the communities I’d be visiting in advance of hitting the road to promote the Washington State Insider app. During the opening reception of the conference, Chris Moore, the executive director for Washington Trust, announced the 2016 Most Endangered Properties List for Washington State – seven at-risk properties that embody the cultural heritage of their respective communities and the region overall. I was surprised to see that the #1 Most Endangered Property is Enloe Dam – a location that Ava, one of our ProjectWA students, had identified to put in the Washington State Insider app!

I learned so much at RevitalizeWA – from strategies to “right size” legacy cities to innovative approaches to preserving communities’ Main Streets – that I had to report back to our students upon my return to Lopez. To my surprise and delight, the students suggested that their final ProjectWA projects (a blog post to be published on this site) should be focused on this year’s Most Endangered Properties List. The idea makes so much sense, and I’m thrilled that this was the students’ idea, not mine.

We immediately took action on this idea. Each student picked one of the properties from the 2016 list, reached out to that property’s champion (usually the local Heritage Society), and created a location entry for the Washington State Insider app. We have a small class of just five students, but we’ve created app entries for each of the seven properties. For their blog posts, Ava picked Enloe Dam, given she was already interested in that place; Anna picked Woodinville Schoolhouse; Shayna picked Providence Heights College, Mallory picked the Dvorak Barn; and Sonnette picked the LaCrosse Rock Houses. Every one of the students’ property contacts replied immediately with enthusiasm – answering questions and providing more background information, maps, photos and videos. The students are now in the process of writing their blog posts.

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Lopez Island Middle School students work on their final projects, Most Endangered Properties

When Mr. Rovente and I came up with the idea for this semester’s ProjectWA class, we had no idea this is where we’d end up. We started with a good cause: raising awareness of the lesser known aspects of Washington State history while raising money for new text books. We’re ending up with an even bigger objective: helping preserve the places that represent Washington State’s cultural heritage.

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From George Vancouver to Kurt Cobain

We’re a little more than one month into Project WA. I’m pretty sure I’ve learned more about Washington State history in the past four weeks than I learned in the previous four decades. My fellow students, Anna, Ava, Mallory, Shayna and Sonnette; and our teacher, Mr. Rovente, have uncovered some pretty interesting stories along the way – from George Vancouver’s long-lost anchor to life and death of Kurt Cobain.

A big challenge for any student of history is finding a deeper meaning behind people, places and events. To avoid simply generating random trivia, Mr. Rovente and I constantly challenge the kids to ask themselves: Why is this significant? As we told the group on the first day of class, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. To that end, ProjectWA is more a search of Why than it is the search for Who, What, Where and When.

I think our students are beginning to appreciate that they’ll learn a lot more than Northwest History in this class. To start the semester, we simply required them to turn in short reports for each region of Washington State. Last week, much to the students’ chagrin, we added weekly presentations to that. Now they’re learning the art of storytelling and public speaking.

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To give the kids a sense of accomplishment along the way, we’re having them place pins on the big Washington State map every time they finish a region. So far, we’ve covered The Islands, Peninsula and Coast, and Seattle regions. The upper left quadrant of the map is looking pretty good. Next up: The North Cascades.

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History by Students, for Students

ProjectWA is a quest to build interest in Washington State history by crowdsourcing historical information from across the state to live in a smartphone app. In 2016, students from Lopez Island School are researching and documenting the people, places and events they view as the most interesting in Washington State history. The students are publishing articles to this website and creating a companion mobile app called Washington State Insider, which is free for anybody to download. The app, built and donated to this program by 468 Communications, has a game component that can be used for fundraising. Users of the app can collect points every time they physically visit a place that’s listed in the app. For every point collected, 468 Communications will donate $1 to the purchase of new Washington State History textbooks for Lopez Island School District.

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