The guy at Brick Road Books was full of stories. He told me about the biker gangs that congregate at Palace Cafe and the many permutations of place names that change with the tides of patronage. He also talked about the kind of outside real estate development that made the city what it is today. His way of speaking was hazy and circuitous, kinda like a Kerouac novel, so it was hard to grasp everything he was saying about the dynamics between locals and outsiders trying to make this place more attractive, but I do remember that, at one point, he said something that made me reply:
“So this place was always a poetic landscape.”
“Exactly. That’s it exactly,” he said.
You can make a case that visits and representations like mine are just another stanza in a very long ode to this “western progress.”
Ellensburg as we know it is a direct effect of which the railway was the cause, & travel here was not left to chance. City histories make sure to note that “in April 1889, The Northwest Magazine (published by the Northern Pacific Railroad and distributed onboard) devoted 13 pages to an article extolling Ellensburg’s charms.”
Behind the poetry & the charm, though, is a universal story of infrastructural statecraft & consolidation of power through violence; rail enthusiasts the world over tend to forget that when they lament the bygone eras lost to the modern violence of the automobile society.
In Lebanon, we lost the train & the tram, seemingly forever, but city historians remind us that outsiders had imposed those infrastructures without local consent, just as they were imposed here; Beirutis came to rely on empire’s rail, but as it was first being built, they’d call the locomotive “the devil’s wheel.”
The publicist behind that magazine extolling Ellensburg’s charms wrote a book about Northern Pacific. His candor is sobering, so I want to quote him at length below, lest we forget:
“No historical account of the Northern Pacific enterprise would be just or complete without an acknowledgment of the very valuable services rendered by the army of the United States in protecting the surveys and construction of the road, and in reducing to subjection the hostile Indian tribes along its line, and removing them to reservations, so as to open the country to settlement and civilization. When the building of the Northern Pacific began, the greater part of the country through which its line was projected between the Red River of the North and the Columbia River, was occupied as a hunting ground by warlike tribes of savages that acknowledged the authority of the Government only in an intermittent sort of way, when forced to do so by defeat and hunger. War was their trade and diversion, and they were not slow to take advantage of slight pretexts for breaking off peaceable relations with the whites. They were intelligent enough to know that the building of a railroad across the plains, where they roamed at will, meant the destruction of the buffalo, on which they depended mainly for food, the influx of white settlers, and their own confinement to small areas of territory. This knowledge added to their natural combativeness a feeling of barbarous patriotism, which urged them to a stubborn resistance to the invasion of a region which they regarded as their own by birthright.
… Gen. W. T. Sherman, the Commander-in-chief of the army, having a thorough knowledge of all the new country of the Far West, gained by long and toilsome journeys between the two frontiers—journeys which took him through every Territory and to nearly every military post—was from the first an earnest friend of the Northern Pacific enterprise, regarding it from both a military and a patriotic point of view as an agency for settling forever the Indian question in the Northwest…”