History of Mansfield

On May 14, 1804, the future of the Pacific Northwest would change forever. Meriweather Lewis and William Clark began a journey that would take them two and a half years, and covering over eight thousand miles. The journey was requested by president Thomas Jefferson, who asked them to  "explore the Missouri River and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct and practical water communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce" (Americanwest)

In 1848, the United States acquired all land from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. This prompted the Westward Expansion, which many associate with the California Gold Rush. However, gold was not the only attraction to the west. The government was offering 320 acres of free land to anyone who would farm it.

Early reports indicated “glowing accounts of harvest, amount of wheat, and a long distance from town to town” among the Waterville Plateau. James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railroad, realized here was a large untapped area. In 1908, Great Northern Railroad began purchasing the rail line right-of-way into the wheat country.

The original plan for the railroad in 1907 would take it from Wenatchee, up the Moses Coulee, and into the town of Waterville. In November of 1908, engineer A.F. Whitcomb approached Great Northern Railroad in regards to extending the tracks to a place near the town of Mansfield. Here, there laid a large belt of wheat country all under cultivation. Great Northern agreed, and plans for the track were extended.

In 1909, the railroad neared completion. Great Northern Railroad bought a quarter section of land in which they laid out streets and blocks. Mansfield, which at that time existed about one mile to the northeast, was moved to this area that was being developed by railroad. This settlement soon took on the name Mansfield, making it the third and final destination of the town.

In an issue of the 1909 Mansfield News, it was said that railroad employees represented the countries of Cuba, China, Greece, Italy, Germany and Ireland. They were noted as being honest men who wanted to help develop the country. Some of these workers made their homes in the area, while others spoke pleasantly of it and wished it well.

A telegraph line was soon installed at the Mansfield Station, connecting the settlement with the rest of the world. In November of 1909, the train Engine 1147 made its first run up the tracks to Mansfield. From that point two trains left per day, a passenger train in the morning and a freight train in the afternoon. In the first year, 405 thousand bushels of wheat were transported out of the Mansfield area by means of the railroad.

The introduction of the Great Northern Railroad literally turned the tracks for Mansfield. What was once known formally as the Yeager Precinct, population 250, was transformed into a boomtown reaching nearly 2,500 people. In 1911, the settlement of Mansfield was incorporated by the state of Washington and became an official town. “The wheat brought the railroad, the railroad built the town” (Jayne, Helen).

Two weeks after Mansfield was incorporated, the first town council meeting was held. It was noted that “Mansfield was a young town, a growing town, a town full of hope for the future.” It was the goal of the town’s citizens and the railroad to make this settlement the best that it could be. James Hill’s city in the center of a Douglas County wheat field finally became a reality. 

Historic Fires

On January 1, 1914, the goals for success took a step back when the first building to be erected in the town, the Scully Company Store, was destroyed by fire. With the help of volunteer fire fighters and a heavy snowfall, damage was minimized to only $10,000.

Over the next few months, the town continued to grow at an alarming pace. W. Alexander moved to Mansfield from the Wilbur area and he became the town’s official photographer. He built a house on what is now known as Harry Beard Park (Triangle Park). The first car was also introduced in Mansfield. A chain driven Ford Model-T was used to transport mail from Mansfield to the Delrio and Bridgeport areas.

By June of 1914, Mansfield was a well developed area. It had two hotels, three real estate agents, a bank, a doctors office, and much more. Mansfield had quickly turned from an agricultural landmine into a popular resort town attracting visitors from across Central Washington. However, changes were soon on their way.

Three days into June of 1914, the town was awakened early in the morning to the sound and smell of fire. Knox Store, once known as “Mansfield’s Greatest Store” had erupted into flames. By the end of the day, high winds had pushed the flames over both sides of the first block of Main Street causing $200,000 in damage.

Store owner C.H. Knox, who had originated from Waterville, was one of the few that did not rebuild and to this day, his whereabouts after the fire remain unknown. In November of the same year, the second block of Main Street was also destroyed by fire.

After the devastating fires of 1914, the town council passed ordinance 29, which states “all blocks 7, 8, 13, and 14 of the original town of Mansfield constitute the ‘fire limits’ of the town of Mansfield.” This ordinance required all buildings to be built of fire proof material and it prohibited the use and installation of wooden sidewalks. 

Perhaps the greatest attraction to Mansfield in the early 1900’s was the Cross Hotel, which was built by its owner Robert Cross. Cross, who was a contractor that built many houses that are still used today, provided some of the finest accommodations and dining in North Central Washington. In 1922, however, his luxury hotel burned to the ground. The cement walls remained for many years as a reminder of the town’s historic fires.

Mansfield Elevators

The first elevator to be built in Mansfield was constructed in 1910. It was built at the west end of town and was owned by the Farmers Union. In 1917, it was sold to the Waterville Union who operated it until the 1970’s.

In 1916, the first concrete elevator was built by C.F.W. (Dutchy) Schmidt. It was later bought by the Seattle Grain Company, who in turn sold it to Centennial Mills in the 1940’s. By 1958, all elevators in Mansfield were owned by the Waterville Union. In 1972, the Waterville Union was purchased by Central Washington Grain Growers.

The most historic of all Mansfield elevators was built at the east end of town by E.L. Olwell of Coulee City. It was later purchased by Strauss & Company. In the late 1920’s, the Milwaukee Grain Company took ownership of the structure. They operated it until 1948 when it too was sold to Centennial Mills. The history of this structure came to an end in 1952 when it caught fire and burned to the ground.

Drought &  Depression

From Mansfield, the train ran across the wheat fields to Withrow and Douglas. It then crept down a canyon along Douglas Creek where it would often times stop during the summer months. From there, it continued through the Moses Coulee to the Columbia River and back up to Wenatchee.

Great Northern was confident that the rail line would have a bright future. They purchased the right of way through the wheat fields to Leahy. The line would then follow Foster Creek and conjoin with the Okanogan line, forming a complete circle from Wenatchee. However, expansion was soon halted due to competition.

During 1916, it was estimated that Mansfield would ship 600,000 bushels of wheat, half of the year’s crop. However, at $2.00 a bushel, it would mean a great deal of money to the area’s economy. During that year, the two banks in Mansfield saw a total of over $3.7 million in monetary transactions.

The Wenatchee Daily World reported around 1917, “The shacks of the homesteaders who built in the Mansfield country only ten to fifteen years ago are rapidly giving place to the substantial farm buildings of a prosperous country…Mansfield is one of the really substantially built towns of the North Central Washington Country.”

Throughout the years, the circus was a popular attraction in Mansfield. The Bluestem Lane Celebration also attracted many crowds to the area. “I remember only vaguely the concession stands, the games…but I remember vividly one of the acts. There was a rope tied across the street from the top of the stores…and there was a high wire performer who wore pink tights” (McGrath, Marjorie).

In the mid 1920's, Mansfield was hit hard by a drought and the looming of the Great Depression. Poor crops forced people from the Mansfield area to seek work. Over time, the economy and the crops recovered. However, the boom Mansfield saw nearly twenty years earlier would not be seen again. 

A few years after the drought, the round house was torn out and the train engines were no longer serviced in Mansfield. Work crews were pulled out and placed in a centralized location. In the 1950’s, the Mansfield Station building was sold and moved from town. All that remained of James Hill’s dream was a set of tracks that faded into the sunset.

In the mid 1980’s, Great Northern Railroad left Mansfield for the last time. The small size of the train could no longer handle the needs of the communities located along it’s tracks. Since it was impossible to run a larger train on the same line from Wenatchee to Mansfield, the tracks were pulled out  never completing the circle to Wenatchee. This made the town of Mansfield, the town at the end of the rails.

Mansfield Today

Today, Mansfield’s population has declined to about 320 people. The town hasn’t changed much over its period of nearly 100 years. The dirt roads have been replaced with pavement and the wooden sidewalks have been replaced with cement. However, many of the buildings that were built during the boom era are still used today.

In the early years of agricultural production, grain was thrashed and bagged into burlap sacks in the field. Today, farmers use combines and trucks to haul their crops to the elevators in town which take in nearly 1.7 million bushels of grain annually. In 1981, Mansfield saw its largest grain intake ever totaling 3.2 million bushels.

There is no doubt that the historic fires of the early 1900’s have played a part in today’s emergency services. Douglas County Fire District #5 (Mansfield) currently has 2 ambulances and over 15 fire fighting vehicles covering over 500 square miles. Mansfield may also have one of the fastest volunteer response times in the state. Emergency crews have been seen rolling out of the fire hall in the middle of the night within a few minutes of a call going out.

Among the wide open fields of Northern Douglas County, Mansfield has set its own identity as “a town you drive to, not through.” From the few rolling hills, to the flat plains, and the erratic boulders, it’s known throughout the state for many of its aspects. “In fact, Mansfield is one of the few places in the state where pilots can fly in and walk from the airport right into downtown for a bite to eat” (Douglas County PUD). Mansfield is currently listed in a nation wide book entitled The $100 Hamburger.

A book has been written about Mansfield, although many may know it. Marjorie McGrath and Helen Jayne wrote the book, "Mansfield - The Town at the End of the Rails," which tells the story of Mansfield from the start to present. Very few copies were printed of the book, but if you do manage to find a copy you will find a history so rich that it fills a book over an inch thick.

Today, Mansfield is a bustling place. Though small in size, the citizens are here for one reason....the peace and tranquility. With exploration beginning in the 1800's to the century old traditions still used today, the dreams and possibilities live on; especially in a small town called Mansfield, the town at the end of the rails.

Americanwest. "Westward Expansion." http://www.americanwest.com/pages/wexpansi.htm>

Bayless, Ric. "Interview." March, 2003.

Douglas County PUD. "Mansfield." <http://www.douglaspud.org/pud-web/communities/mansfield.htm>

Jayne, Helen. "The Town at the End of the Rails." Pg. 7.

Purner, John F. The $100 Hamburger. <http://www.100dollarhamburger.com/8w3.html>

Posted on September 24, 2008