The City of Ellensburg [†] sits at an elevation of 1,540 feet in a fertile basin next to the Yakima River, east of the Cascade mountain range, and on the western side of the Columbia Plateau. Enormous basaltic lava flows 15 million years ago, and a series of glacial flooding events after the ice age, shaped the landscape of central and eastern Washington. Ellensburg has a climate that experiences both hot summers and cold winters. Temperature patterns vary considerably within the seasons. The Cascade Mountains to the west effectively block much of the rain from the wetter side of the state, producing a dry climate with less than an average of ten inches of rainfall per year.
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There are four distinguishable seasons and a strong breeze in the spring and summer months. High summer temperatures (June through September) average about 80° Fahrenheit, and winter temperatures (December through March) average around 21° Fahrenheit. The Ellensburg basin is composed of agricultural land with a good portion within the 100-year floodplain. The surrounding topography includes snow-capped mountains, irrigated valley land, desert terrain, and two major rivers: the Yakima and the Columbia.
The first inhabitants of Kittitas Valley were Psch-wan-wap-pams also known as the Kittitas band of the Yakama or Upper Yakama Tribe. The Kittitas Valley was one of the few places in Washington where both camas and kouse plants grew. For this and other reasons the valley was an important gathering place for regional tribes who congregated to harvest these foods, socialize, fish, and trade.
Though fur traders and Catholic missions had established themselves earlier, white settlers in greater numbers began moving into the Kittitas Valley in the early 1860s. By the end of the 1860s, a trading post known as Robber's Roost was established near the present corner of Third and Main Streets. In 1871 John Alden Shoudy, who in 1875 platted the town streets and named the community Ellensburgh in honor of his wife, Mary Ellen, purchased this post. In 1894 the United States Post Office requested the 'h' be dropped from the City's name. During this platting period, The Northern Pacific Railroad donated land in hopes that the town would be a rail-based center for the area's abundant farmland, forests, and mines. Ellensburg grew slowly until plans for rail access were completed and the 1886 arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad helped stimulate markets in cattle, dairy products, timber, wool, and hay. Community boosters hoped Ellensburg would be the new state capitol due to its central location. Such speculation even led to the construction of a mansion to house the future Governor on the corner of what is now Chestnut Street and Third Avenue.
A disastrous fire on July 4, 1889 changed the course of the community's history. The fire, fanned by Ellensburg's famous winds, destroyed most of the business district and many homes. Although the community put forth a heroic effort and rebuilt its downtown within the year, Olympia was ultimately chosen as the state capitol. The efforts to place the state capitol did help bring an important element to Ellensburg; during the State Legislature's first session, Washington State Normal School (now Central Washington University) was established. In 1891 the doors opened for 86 students. Today Central Washington University has an on campus enrollment exceeding 9,600 students, occupies more than 300 acres, and is the county's largest employer.
The timing and coordination of the downtown reconstruction also helped by producing a downtown with a unified and attractive appearance. Later Victorian architectural styles with a few early twentieth-century Neoclassic and Art Deco styled buildings dominate downtown. The historic character and classic urban streetscapes define the community and serves as one of its strongest assets. Due in large part to community wide efforts that began in the 1960s to restore and revitalize downtown, most of the downtown core remains as originally constructed. By 1972 many of the downtown improvements seen today were being implemented, including street lamps, paver-stone sidewalks, and mini-parks. The City and the Ellensburg Downtown Association have continued to work on improving and maintaining the vitality of downtown. Keeping the downtown area as the heart of financial, service, government and retail activities was made formal policy in the City's first comprehensive plan in 1975. The importance of Ellensburg's downtown has been reaffirmed in the 1995, 2006, and 2017 Comprehensive Plan update processes.
Today, the community of Ellensburg has established its position as a central, rooted, and unique community influenced by the history and future of farming, University students and faculty that represent over half of the population, families that have been here for generations, and newcomers that have all chosen to call Ellensburg home. Community members consider Ellensburg a quiet, comfortable, safe, and family-oriented city (2016 What Matters Most Survey). Community members celebrate Ellensburg's year-round recreational activities, numerous downtown and University events and programs, variety of performing and visual arts, and diversity of shopping and dining opportunities.
To the world outside Kittitas County, Ellensburg is most famous for its annual Fair and Rodeo. The Ellensburg Rodeo was founded in 1922 through the combined efforts of local ranchers and cowboys, the Kittitas County Fair organization, local businesspersons, and the Yakama Native American tribe. The Ellensburg Rodeo served as a nostalgic celebration of the frontier lifestyle, where townspeople could join ranchers, farmers, and Native Americans in an annual gathering. The Fair and Rodeo has become a way to foster business and promote Ellensburg's identity as a destination.
† City of Ellensburg, Comprehensive Plan, 2022, ci.ellensburg.wa.us, accessed August, 2022.