The race to be named Washington’s capital city pitted boomtown against boomtown
in 1889, and omitted the territory’s largest cities that failed to garner support.
While touting the advantages of their centrally located cities, two contenders traded
barbs. North Yakima called Ellensburgh “cold and frosty.” The Walla Walla Journal
added, “So long as Ellensburgh will insist on spelling the name with an ‘h’ at the end,
we feel that the superfluous letter will be the straw that will break the camel’s back.”
Ellensburgh accused North Yakima of corporate allegiances to the railroad.
Candidates in the hard-fought campaign went to extreme lengths to win. Two brothers
in Ellensburgh built a three-story governor’s mansion. Olympia spent $4,000
expanding the capitol and hosted a clambake for delegates at the constitutional
convention where the challengers had sent lobbyists.
The convention opted to settle the issue by referendum in the fall of 1889—at the same
election where voters adopted the state constitution. The ballot included top
challengers Olympia, North Yakima and Ellensburgh—as well as the cities of Centralia,
Pasco and Yakima City (now Union Gap). Olympia captured the most votes, followed by
North Yakima and Ellensburgh. With no clear majority, a runoff election between the
leading three candidates was held on November 4, 1890. Olympia, Washington’s
territorial capital since 1853, won the honor by more than 37,000 votes.