"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

A determined German: Overcoming one hardship after another, Ernst Wagner never quit paddling toward success

By on December 24, 2018 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Rod MolzahnBy Rod Molzahn

It was a curious sight.

A large raft was slowly crossing the Columbia River from east to west under paddle power and more quickly moving downstream by current power.

The raft carried a stove, bedding, household stuff, 900 young apple trees and the Wagner family.

Ernst and Mary paddled furiously while their two young daughters, Emma and Julia and newborn son, Otto, huddled together with the cargo.

Ernst Wagner came to the United States from Germany in 1881 at the age of 21. He quickly started working his way west, stopping first in Chicago where he worked for a time on the Nickel Plate Railroad. He also met Mary Ann Marmon.

In 1882 Ernst went to Helena, Montana. He worked for a year in the construction trade then returned to Chicago where he and Mary were married. They returned to Helena and Ernst worked for a year on a crew clearing land for the new state capitol.

Ernst was unhappy with the extreme climate in Montana and, leaving Mary in their Helena home, started west to explore the country.

After a short stop in Ellensburg he went on to Tacoma then south to Cowlitz County along the lower Columbia River. He liked it there and bought a 40-acre produce farm. Mary soon joined him.

Ernst tried various ways to supplement his farm income. He even built a stern wheel river steamer to haul produce and freight up river to Portland. None of his endeavors made money.

In 1891 Ernst traded the steamer for property at Waterville where he had heard things were booming. The Wagners packed their belongings and took the train to Ellensburg where they spent the winter.

Early spring found them packing up for the trip over Colockum Pass. They hired a driver with an open wagon to make the journey. They encountered 14 feet of snow on the pass and were forced to stop at a woodcutter’s cabin to unload the wagon.

They stayed for three nights while the driver returned to Ellensburg to find sled runners for the wagon. With those they crossed the pass to Wenatchee where a ferry took them across the Columbia.

The wagon driver took the Wagners up the torturous Corbaly Canyon road finally reaching Waterville. The family opened a furniture store but, again, the business was not the success Ernst Wagner was hoping for.

In 1893, down along the Columbia, the new town of Orondo was heavily promoted by Dr. J.B. Smith, who owned a hotel and store there. That was enough to get the Wagners packing again.

Back down Corbaly Canyon they went to Orondo. They moved into an empty building next to Smith’s store for a one-time rent of $10 and converted part of it into an “eating house” offering meals for 15¢ a piece. They got few takers. Ernst recalled later, “I starved out.”

An itinerant salesman with a wagonload of 1,000 sapling apple trees to sell ran up a $4.50 bill at Wagner’s eating house but never sold even one tree. He couldn’t pay his bill. Instead, he offered Wagner the trees.

Ernst objected, saying he had no land to plant the trees on but he took them anyway as there was nothing else to take. J.B. Smith offered Wagner two rows of land on his orchard in exchange for labor. Nine hundred of the trees rooted.

Ernst and Mary closed the “eating house” and staked out a homestead claim near the mouth of Corbaly Canyon, built a house and an irrigation canal from the upper end of the creek to their land. They cleared land and transplanted the 900 trees. They planted vegetables to sell in Waterville.

That plan also failed, then a dispute with a neighbor began over water rights from the creek. Wagners agreed to sell the neighbor their share of water rights then they dismantled their house and used the lumber to build the raft.

Their intent was to cross the river and land at Entiat. Instead, the current carried them two miles downstream before they reached the shore. They claimed their new homestead where they landed. They took apart the raft and rebuilt their house. The 900 trees were planted — again — in among the sagebrush and hand watered by buckets from the Columbia.

Ernst had been a steeple-jack in Germany so, while he waited for his trees to produce, he got work on several area bridge projects.

He worked on the first Wenatchee Bridge as well as bridges at Cashmere, Peshastin, Pateros and Twisp. Wagner also designed an irrigation ditch to bring water from high on Swaukane Creek seven miles to his thirsty trees. Part of the system had to pass across a vertical rock wall.

The family worked together. Mary and Emma built wooden flume sections at the top of the cliff while Ernst roped up and lowered himself down the cliff face where he drove steel pins into the rock to support the flume. The sections were lowered down to Ernst who set them on the pins and fastened them together.

The water allowed the Wagners to expand their orchard. By 1900 the original 900 trees were producing and 165 acres were in trees by 1905.

By 1907 Ernst was weary of fruit brokers. He complained that when they were involved, “All the growers got was a pad and a stamp.” Wagner was determined that year to take his three carloads of apples to Seattle and sell them himself.

He didn’t find a buyer in Seattle but did learn that Australia wanted apples. He persuaded a steam ship company to take the apples and the entire Wagner family from Vancouver B.C. to Australia and to waive the freight and passenger charges until the fruit was sold. The plan worked.

The Wagners came back with a $5,000 profit. The following year Wagner took his crop plus an additional 30,000 boxes purchased from other valley growers and returned with a profit of more than $100,000.

Ernst Wagner was the first international exporter of Washington apples.

He continued to make annual selling trips to Australia, New Zealand, South America and Europe until the First World War took all the shipping space on all the steam ship lines.

He retired from the international market in 1919 but continued to develop the orchards at Wagnersburg, which was halfway between Wenatchee and Entiat on the Columbia River.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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