Ghost Town of Elberton

Waypoints in the Palouse Tour - Story 7

The towns of the Palouse followed similar patterns of early growth as white settlers flooded into the area, followed by a long and gradual decline with the greater mechanization of farming. Some simply vanished. Today,the ghost town of Elberton stands as a silent witness of rural depopulation.

Elberton's story started in the 1870s when, due to an abundance of timber in the area, a sawmill powered by the nearby Palouse River was built. Within the next few years the Oregon Railway & Navigation Co. had constructed a line through the river valley. These enterprises brought more settlers to the area and in 1886 the town was platted by Sylvester M. Wait. Fruit orchards were introduced and apples and plums quickly became the chief source of Elberton's prosperity for many years.

At the height of its prosperity, Elberton had a population of nearly 500, a flour mill, sawmill, two stores, a post office, three churches, and also boasted the "region's largest" prune dryer. The most important attraction was the Elberton Picnic held from 1893-1924. The annual Picnic was a three day, fair-like event that was known throughout Whitman County and attracted hundreds of visitors. According to long time resident John Elwood, the Elberton Picnic was so popular that presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan even showed up to give a speech during his famous 1896 campaign.

Elberton's quick rise to regional prominence would only last a few years as a series of unfortunate events occurred during the early 20th Century, beginning in 1906. This is the year that the district around Elberton was deforested enough to force the sawmill to move to Idaho. In 1907 the O.R. & N pulled its area service, and then the flour mill soon followed suit. In 1908 a fire burned part of the town and in 1910 a catastrophic flood submerged much of what was left of the struggling community.

The final blow came in the early 1930s when the stock market crash and the Great Depression helped to seal Elberton's fate. The town was nearly empty by the 1950s. After years of existing as a residential bedroom community, Elberton was officially disincorporated as a Washington town in 1966. It was around this same time that Whitman County fire crews began using many of the town's long-abandoned structures for training purposes, lighting them ablaze to extinguishing the fires. Elberton's decline is representative of the economic strain experienced in most Palouse farming communities during the '30s.

The only original structure to survive to the present-day is the United Brethren Church, built in 1913. Although nearly all of Elberton's buildings were destroyed or damaged during fires and floods, the United Brethren Church managed to endure. It has not been in use for many years, and still retains much of its old character. Its dilapidated state only adds to the personality of this Washington ghost town. The cemetery lurks on a hill overlooking Elberton, which also adds a certain 'hallowed' quality to this abandoned community.

Today there are only about 15 residents in the vicinity of Elberton, but a trip there will not disappoint as there are interesting things to see and do. Remaining landmarks and structures include the United Brethren Church, the abandoned railroad trestle and the old cemetery off Oral smith Road directly northeast of the church. Remnants of the original orchards and even private gardens can be seen during the spring and summer. If you look close enough you can even find some structural remains beneath the overgrowth.

Video

From "Up and Comer" to Ghost Town
Elberton resident, John Elwood, explains the many waves of industry to enter and leave the Elberton area and how this affected the small bedroom community. Audio courtesy of John Elwood.
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