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W. T. Clark – Rags to riches to rags

By on September 24, 2018 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Rod MolzahnBy Rod Molzahn

William Timothy Clark’s story is filled with contrasts; success and failure, wealth and poverty or, as Clark would say, “Boom or Bust.”

He was called “The Father of Wenatchee” though he didn’t arrive in the valley until 1902, 10 years after the town was incorporated.

Clark was born in 1860 at Delphos, Ohio. In 1882 he married Adelaide Wear. They settled first in Logan County Kansas where Clark was named manager of the Union Pacific Townsite Company and charged with attracting settlers and building towns along the Union Pacific rail lines. Things went well until 1887 brought drought and non–stop hot winds to dry up western Kansas. That, as Clark said later, “Busted me wide open.”

Clark and his growing family headed west to Seattle the next year where the city was in the midst of a red–hot development boom. Once again Bill Clark was doing well until the national financial panic of 1893 took it all away, “and down I went ‘kabang’ again.”

During the good times of the Seattle boom Clark invested in real estate. When the panic was over all Clark had left were two sections of land in the Moxee district east of Yakima.

With his family and belongings loaded in a wagon (he couldn’t afford train fare) William Clark headed for the Yakima Valley to become a farmer. He drilled an artesian well to irrigate part of his land. That served his needs until a farmer on the bench below him drilled his own well and drained Clark’s well dry.

He was broke again and, according to his daughter-in-law, Helen Van Tassell, “He was hard pressed to feed and clothe his family of five children.”

On one occasion Clark went to buy supplies but had no money. The grocer pointed to a sack of potatoes and said, “Bill, if you can carry that sack home on your back I’ll give it to you.” Bill Clark hefted the sack onto his shoulder and made the long walk home.

Maybe it was on that walk that William T. Clark’s vision came clear to him. Build an irrigation canal to consolidate the water from many wells.

W.T. Clark: A heavy loser in the Highline Canal. Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center 75-49-158

He raised $100,000 and, over the objections of many in the valley, built the Selah/Moxee canal, completed in 1898, that turned 8,000 dry, brown acres into green, productive fields.

Clark didn’t make much personal profit from the project but he gained experience and a wide reputation as a builder of canals and a bringer of water.

In 1901 that reputation reached the newly formed Commercial Club of Wenatchee. They were involved in an effort to increase the productivity of the town and valley. They needed a “Big Ditch” to bring water to all of the lower valley and Wenatchee Flat.

The Commercial Club sent a committee of three men to Yakima in an effort to convince W. T. Clark to bring his ditch building expertise to Wenatchee. Clark agreed to visit the valley with his engineers, Marvin Chase and C.C. Ward. After looking over the valley the three men gave a positive report to the Commercial Club and headed back to Yakima.

Clark recalled that, “We, ourselves, didn’t have more than enough money to get back home.” The following year, 1902, construction began on the Highline Canal.

Clark, though personally broke, did know men on the coast who had money and convinced an Oregon Bank to make a $225,000 construction loan to build the canal. That amount, it turned out, was not even half the total cost of the canal.

The need to raise additional dollars was a constant drain on Clark. He said later in an interview, “Many times I walked down the streets of Wenatchee not being able to recognize anybody for the reason that I was worrying over the problem of raising the thousands needed for expenses and payroll, and all this without a cent in the bank.”

The canal was completed in 1903 but the cost of buying the rights of way of earlier small canals was expensive driving the final construction costs above half a million dollars which, according to historian L. M. Hull, “made Clark a heavy loser.”

Once the canal was designed and under construction Clark moved his family, again by wagon, from Yakima to a rented house in Wenatchee. He also sent his engineers, Chase and Ward, off to Montana to oversee the construction of a long ditch that reclaimed 50,000 acres of arid land.

Clark and his engineers realized a substantial profit from the Montana project and Clark returned to Wenatchee with money in his pocket.

Over the next six years Clark made numerous investments in the Wenatchee Valley.

In 1903 he bought the Wenatchee Republican newspaper but sold it within months to Leonard Fowler. Clark founded the First National Bank of Wenatchee and served as the bank’s first president. He was also president of the Monitor Orchard Company that put 1,000 acres into fruit production.

Anxious to finally make some money from the Highline project, Clark created the East Wenatchee Land Company to acquire about 5,000 acres of undeveloped land east of the Columbia River.

At the same time he began promoting the construction of a wagon bridge to cross the Columbia. He raised $100,000 to build the bridge. Completed in 1908 the bridge also carried two large pipes to bring the Highline Canal across the Columbia to irrigate all of the East Wenatchee Land Company’s recently purchased acreage.

That resulted in a windfall of profits for Clark and his partners.

The next year Clark began construction of a home for his family. “Clarks Cobblestone Castle,” designed by Adelaide Clark featuring 17 rooms with a ballroom large enough for 40 couples to dance while the band played.

The stone castle, with a turret, on 10 acres along Fifth Street cost an eyebrow raising $50,000. The family moved in during 1910.

That same year Clark was elected president of the Washington State Horticultural Society.

It was a boom time for William Clark. It didn’t last.

Poor business decisions and bad investments began to chip away at Clark’s financial security.

He couldn’t weather the economic collapse that followed World War I and by the early 1920s he was half a million dollars in debt. He was forced to sell all his land holdings then, finally, his castle in 1919 to Alfred Zachariah and Emogene Wells.

Clark paid all his debts but he was left with nothing. He left his family in Wenatchee and moved to Los Angeles where he lived alone in an attic.

In 1925 the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce made him its first honorary life member. He was notified by telegram. A year later another telegram brought the news that Adelaide had died.

In 1935 an old friend gave Clark a job researching farming in Nebraska. In January of 1937 William Clark suffered a heart attack that put him in an Omaha charity hospital. He recovered enough to return to California.

“The Father of Wenatchee” went bust for the final time in May of 1937 at the age of 77. His ashes rest next to Adelaide in the family mausoleum at the Wenatchee Cemetery.

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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