40 for 40: Douglas County
Douglas County Courthouse

By Holly Chamberlain previous story | next story | all stories

In the western United States, we are keenly aware of the historic ramifications of water and water rights. However, Washington’s Douglas County serves its H2O history with a political twist.

Originally part of Spokane County, and for four days part of Lincoln County, Douglas became its own entity in 1883 -- named in honor of Illinois politician and Abraham Lincoln presidential opponent Stephen Douglas. The territorial legislature declared the newly-platted Okanogan City (different from today’s Okanogan 60 miles to the northeast) the county seat. Okanogan City’s primacy was challenged as early as 1885, however, due to its lack of water. The territorial legislature authorized an election in January 1886 to determine a new site. Boosters of the new townsite of Waterville claimed it should be the political hub by virtue of having well water, which Okanogan had been unable to produce by that time. Watervillians showed up at a political convention in Okanogan with a convincing barrel of their water and the promise (or was it a bribe?) of the use of a building (turns out it was a shack – but still an upgrade from Okanogan’s tent). County commissioners referred the matter to voters. The election was inconclusive but Waterville was eventually designated the new county seat – after some votes were thrown out, the records forcibly removed from the county auditor by the sheriff, and an official act in 1888 by the territorial legislature. Great wild west stuff.

Waterville’s small wooden shack served as a courthouse until a more permanent two-story frame structure with a classic pedimented portico was built in 1889. Like many wooden buildings of the era in Waterville and elsewhere around the state, however, it was destroyed by fire. More solid construction was the order of the day, not only for a new courthouse but also other buildings in Waterville. The current brick and stone courthouse, designed by versatile Yakima architect Newton Gauntt, and built by contractor William Oliver, was completed in 1905. Originally a Hoosier, Gauntt was especially known for his school designs, but he also created residential and commercial plans, and was a rancher and inventor. Gauntt’s eclectic design for Douglas County has a central front tower topped with a cupola with a steeply-pitched octagonal bell-cast roof. The low-pitched main roofline is finished with extended eaves with exposed rafter tails. The heavy stone surround of the main entrance has a Mission-influenced outline but its solidity says “Richardson.” Other Gauntt-designed courthouses can be found in Yakima and Cathlamet, and in Lewiston, Montana.

Placed on the National Register in 1975, the building retains a high level of integrity despite additions to the rear and side. However, the 2003 statewide Historic County Courthouse Assessment identified about a half million dollars in needed preservation work. Courthouse Rehabilitation state grants in 2005 and 2009 from the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and administered by the Washington Trust helped with those needs, including the rehabilitation of the leaded glass windows at the entry.

Note to potential visitors: sure, the water is great in Waterville. However, Douglas County is part of the Columbia Valley appellation, so you will find other things to drink there as well!

The restored "widow's walk" of the Douglas County Courthouse.

This story is part of a series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. This story highlights the Historic County Courthouse Rehabilitation Grant Program and demonstrates the value our state has placed on preserving this tremendous legacy of civic buildings. Please consider making a special gift to the Washington Trust in honor of our accomplishments as we celebrate this year together! Continuous stewardship is needed to protect that irreplaceable legacy for future generations – we appreciate and look forward to your ongoing participation and support.

Here's to 40 more years of saving places that matter across Washington! Please sign up for our special weekly e-newsletter to recieve stories like this in your inbox all year long.

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