In many ways the history of Leavenworth is the history of a typical western frontier town. Its evolution from a Native American salmon fishing ground and trading spot, to railroad boomtown, to fading rural small town is the picture of small town America west of the Mississippi.
Question: What sets Leavenworth apart today?
Just kidding, sort of. What does set this small town apart from other small towns is its ability to overcome the hardships of the post Depression era and reinvent itself as a tourist destination. The not-so-secret secret: It used the natural beauty of the North Cascades and the resemblance to the Bavarian Alps region of southern Germany to recreate itself as a Bavarian-style vacation destination.
Leavenworth, originally called Icicle Flats, was first settled in about 1885 as a trading post. The first white settlers came to trade with the Wenatchi, Chinook and Yakima tribes. The native tribes had long used the confluence of the Wenatchee River and Icicle Creek as a salmon fishery and hunting ground.
With the completion of JJ Hill's Great Northern Railway in 1893, Leavenworth, as Icicle Flats was now known, began to come into its own as a northwest frontier town. Platted in the same year by Captain Charles F. Leavenworth, the town became a powerful timber center. The Lamb-Davis Sawmill was one of the largest in the country. Proximity to The Great Northern Railway brought many jobs to Leavenworth. At the time Leavenworth was first mapped in 1904 it had a population of around 700.
The town thrived until The Great Northern Railway pulled out of Leavenworth. The new route, which would be subject to snow closure less often, bypassed the town, causing the timber companies based along Icicle Creek to fail. The town languished nearly to extinction until the early 1960's when town leaders came up with a plan to convert the town's primary source of income to one based in tourism.
Town leaders and business owners drew up a plan to transform the appearance of Leavenworth from frontier town to Bavarian village. In addition to the change of appearance, community leaders came up with a series of festivals, that once established and expanded upon, would be eventually responsible to bring over 1 million visitors to the village each year!
The Leavenworth Festival Calendar began in 1966 with the Autumn Leaf Festival and the Christmas Lighting Festival and expanded in 1998 to include the incredibly popular Oktoberfest. Leavenworth's Festival Calendar now includes festivities year round. Almost every month of the year is cause for celebration; from IceFest in January, to the Wine Tasting Festival in August. Child and family-centered festivals include Maifest and Christkindlmarkt.
The real secret of Leavenworth is the spirit of community cooperation and an irrepressible can-do attitude!
Prior to 1885: The area is used by native tribes as fishing and hunting grounds
1860's: A gold rush brings traders and gold hunters to area
1885: White settlers establish a trading post
1890: Town is built on Icicle Flats
1892: JJ Hill of the Great Northern Railway (GNR) begins laying tracks across the Wenatchee Valley and over Stevens Pass
1893: The town is platted by and renamed after Captain Charles F. Leavenworth
1890's: The Lamb-Davis Sawmill is the first and largest of many sawmills built in the area
1910: Tumwater Canyon is the scene of one of the nation's worst railway disasters: The Wellington Train Disaster
1920's: The Lamb-Davis Sawmill is closed and the GNR moves main operations from Tumwater Canyon to Wenatchee
1930's: With the Great Depression, Leavenworth is left with more than 20 empty storefronts along its two block commercial district
1962: A group of local business people and community organizers meet with the Bureau of Community Development, at University of Washington.
1965: The plan is formed to transform Leavenworth into a Bavarian Village
Mid 1960's: The first Autumn Leaf and Christmas Lighting Festivals are held
1971: Maifest is added to the Leavenworth Festival Calendar
1996: Projekt Bayern is formed by community leaders to revitalize interest and make Leavenworth more authentically Bavarian in nature
1998: First Oktoberfest
2009: November is the expected date for travelers to once again have the opportunity to visit Leavenworth via rail with the opening of the brand new Icicle Station as a stop for the Empire Builder.
Today: Leavenworth welcomes more than a million visitors throughout a year packed with festivals and events.
Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.