The History of Leavenworth Washington
From Native America to a Dream of Bavaria
Native Americans of the Yakima, Chinook, and Wenatchi tribes first settled the area where Leavenworth now sits with plentiful deer and elk for hunting and fishing for salmon in the Icicle Creek. The first non-native settlers came for furs and farmland, and with the gold rush of the 1860’s. The families made their homes at the Icicle “flats” near Icicle Road and the Wenatchee River in the Icicle Valley.
Leavenworth was Platted in 1893 by a group of financiers headed by Captain Charles F. Leavenworth. From the beginning the heart of the town was the Great Northern Railroad – inspired by railroad tycoon J. J. Hill. James Jerome Hill, dubbed “the Empire Builder” dreamed of a northern transcontinental railroad and in 1892 began laying tracks that crossed the Wenatchee valley and continued up the Tumwater Canyon where Highway 2 is today. Leavenworth prospered from the railroad money in the form of employees who constructed tracks through the Cascade Mountains.
With the employees came their families, schools, and churches. Because of the railroad the abundance of timber in the Northwest could now reach the unquenchable markets in the Midwest and East Coast. A large lumber mill was built by Lamb Davis in Leavenworth adjacent to the railroad for convenience in shipping.
The 1920’s brought drastic change. The Lamb-Davis lumber mill sold its land holdings and the Great Northern Railroad moved its operations to Wenatchee. With the economic crash of 1929 and the depression of the 1930’s, Leavenworth was left with 24 empty storefronts on its two-block business street. The town was devastated and nearly died for lack of economy.
In the early 1960’s the people of Leavenworth realized they needed to make an incredible effort to change their situation and decided to change the appearance of town to bring in tourists. In 1965, after much deliberation and research, the community leaders were swayed by the backdrop of Alpine hills and turned the town into a Bavarian Village. Determined to make the theme deeper than a facelift on buildings, the entire community banded together to create a credible illusion of a true Bavarian alpine village. With costumes that they designed and made in their homes and with entire families working together to man stores and services, the dream has become a reality. Major festivals have been created in the Bavarian theme and have become famous throughout the Northwest. The official Washington State Autumn Leaf festival, Maifest, and Christmas Lighting Festivals lead the show of 13 major events and seasonal entertainment.
Considered by many to be “Washington’s Playground”, The Leavenworth area is an adventure and outdoor enthusiasts dream. Activities abound from the extreme to the mild, from white water river rafting and snow sports to birding and walking along the Wenatchee River.
With more than two million visitors each year, Leavenworth has become one of the top destinations for visitors to the Pacific Northwest, and continues to change and adapt with new activities, festivals, and events. The Bavarian village is becoming known as a haven of the arts, culture, nature, and recreation.
A Short History of Trains and Railroads in Leavenworth
Over 100 years ago, the original train route followed the current highway 2 through Tumwater Canyon, and then switch-backed its way over the pass. The tunnels that were dug out of the thick rock were engineering marvels in their day. Spectacular wooded trestles and bridges allowed steam powered trains to transport timber, goods and people across Washington state. Traveling in the winter was extremely dangerous because of deep snow pack. The Wellington disaster of 1910 killed ninety-six people in a massive mile-wide avalanche that swept two locomotives off a steep slope. Dead were 35 passengers, 58 railroad employees sleeping on the trains, and three railroad employees sleeping in cabins enveloped by the avalanche. Workers had to shovel the tracks out by hand, and wait many hours for help to arrive at the small west side railroad stop.
A short History of Ski Hill in Leavenworth
“Bakke Hill” was a hub of winter activity from 1930 thru the 1970’s. International competitors came to Leavenworth and dazzled the huge crowds by jumping record-breaking lengths of 345 feet. Named originally from the Hall of Famer Magnus Bakke – who helped design the jump – the Leavenworth Ski Hill and surrounding acreage is still used today for downhill skiing, Nordic skiing and lower level jumping competitions.
The Leavenworth Fire of 1994
In 1994 all of Chelan County was plagued with wild fires. In total, about 180,000 acres of forested land burned. In Leavenworth two fires – “The Hatchery Complex” and “Rat Creek” – burned out of control and people were forced to evacuate.
Fire Facts from the 1994 Leavenworth Fire:
• 2,400 firefighters from 24 different states worked to save the town.
• The fire traveled at speeds exceeding 50 mph.
• 950,000 gallons of retardant were dropped over Chelan County.
• 14 homes were destroyed in the Icicle Creek Canyon.
• The fires started July 24th and were out December 24, 1994
Christmas Lighting Festival
In 1969 on December 6 Leavenworth first celebrated the renowned Christmas Lighting Festival. That first year celebrated the arrival of the first Christmas train from Seattle and buses from Spokane – all greeted by the locals and bands. The traditions of many families now include Leavenworth at Christmas time!
Call 1 (800) 558-2438 to learn more and book your reservation.