Pre-Dam History of Rattlesnake Canyon

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, there was a huge split right where Crescent Lake is today named Rattlesnake Canyon. It was about twice as deep as it currently is, with steep basalt cliffs and huge granite boulders strewn among cheatgrass and sagebrush. It was filled with quail, and snakes, hawks and rabbits, life was everywhere. There was a creek that ran from a spring in the up river corner down through green fields, through a orchard and out into the Columbia River. Their had been a farm there that had come into ownership of Sam and Len Dillman. Some people say the Dillman’s started the farm, others say they just took it over, but either way it had a nice farm house, several outbuildings and water irrigated from springs in the canyon walls.The Dillman Brothers moved into the canyon during a time of paranoia between the settlers and the natives. At night the sounds of war drums emanated from the Okanogan side and the Dillmen were to be the first line of defense, ready to flee at a moments notice. If an incursion did occur the Dillmans would ride ahead of the war party warning the other settlers down by Steamboat Rock and Northrup Canyon. The attack never came though and the natives continued to use the trails and ferries throughout the Coulee alongside the settlers without incident. Sam moved out leaving brother Len alone to mind the farm and fledgling orchard. Len later sold the farm in what turned out to be a small string of owners and would-be entrepreneurs until finally it came under the ownership of A.L. Davis, his wife and children. By the early 1910’s the orchard had grown into a wonderful canopy of fruit and willow trees. Families came from all over to buy the fruit and enjoy a day in the park like settings. Grand picnics were held there. Mrs Davis was quite the artist and designer, she would die scraps of cloth and make hooked rugs based on seed catalog art that she would sell alongside the fruit. The canyon was renamed Davis Canyon from the previous name, Dillman Canyon. In its prime the Davis family hosted parties of all types under the old orchard trees and beautiful endless blue sky of what would later become known as the Noble Ranch. Sometimes during the picnics the younger kids would run off to explore the dilapidated dug-out home of outlaw Texas Jack. Texas Jack is said to be the first settler that lived in Rattlesnake Canyon. He he was an unsavory fellow and no one really knows when he moved into his cave like dug out in the canyon wall, but he was there when the Dillman Brothers showed up to farm the land. It was almost like he came with the canyon to settlers and travelers who would later encounter the huge rip in the floor of the coulee known as Rattlesnake Canyon. People said Texas Jack was a true outlaw on the run and laying low from the law. Jack was a cantankerous man, very unclean and had a companion with him he simply referred to as ‘Woman’. Woman was an interesting character herself, she was both uneducated and slow witted, she dressed like a man and was very unkempt like Texas Jack himself. Jack and Woman had a habit of showing up on farms unannounced, and there were several in the area by the early 1900s. Most people looked at Texas Jack with suspicion, accusing him of looting abandoned houses and helping himself to others carefully procured goods. After a while Jack decided that there were too many people for his outlaw lifestyle and he better get out while the getting was good. The last time he was seen was during the winter when he and Woman were spotted riding a weathered horse down an old trail. Woman reportedly had socks on her hands. After the two left stolen goods were found buried around Texas Jack’s dug out. Many years later Charlie Osborn told Hu Blonk that Texas Jack was a horse thief as well, an offense that was often considered a capital crime back in pioneer days.

Even before Texas Jack came down the Coulee and descended further into what is now known as Rattlesnake Canyon, there had been people there for countless generations. On the downriver side there were sandbars that were used for fishing, and up river at the other end near the Noble Ranch was a winter campground. It is said that one winter become so bad many elderly and children perished. Since the ground was frozen they were laid to rest under piles of coyote prof shale, which as time passed became swallowed up by the ground, all long before the arrival of Texas Jack and even before the creation of the Colville Reservation in 1872.

By the early 1900s there were a few other people living in the canyon. Herb Buelen became well known around the area from Steamboat Rock to beyond Seaton’s Ferry as a reliable seasonal farm hand and hired help. He settled in the mouth of Rattlesnake Canyon on the down river side. It is said that Herb moved the lumber upriver from a sawmill to build his small shack. He would collect wood from the river and pull it up onto the nearby sandbars. Pretty soon he met a nice young lady from Almira named Inez. She was a book learned lady, the daughter of the publisher of a periodical called “The Big Bend Outlook”. Romance bloomed and after a wedding she moved into the bottom of Rattlesnake Canyon with Herb. It was a very hard and rugged life, and Herb worked hard were ever he could, plus pulled wood out of the Columbia. Slowly their property came together, sections for gardens, and the house also grew larger. When the time came for a housewarming party a wagon was sent around to collect local families for the dance. The party was attended by people from as far away as Steamboat Rock and a lot of historical names were represented, like the Osbornes, Langes and Scotts. There were several other well known families living around the area back in the early 1900s. As the wagon approached the way down to Buelen’s property everyone could tell it was obviously a new road, winding sharply down the canyon wall, and obviously untested as the wagon bounced along threatening to plunge over the side at any time. The girls decided to walk instead of risking their life and nerves on such a ride. It wasn’t long after that Inez became pregnant, and gave birth nine months later in that shack that Herb built at the bottom of Rattlesnake Canyon. But life was hard and it wasn’t long before rumors of marital discord due to poverty started to circulate and sure enough, Inez and the baby returned to Almira, while Herb left his land and moved on to points unknown. His dilapidated abandoned house could be seen years after the construction of the dam had begun, it sat where it always sat at the bottom of the canyon. Busses full of tourists would crane their necks to get a look as the tour guide pointed out; “A relic from a long by gone and forgotten era.”

Next the world’s largest conveyor belt was put up and millions of cubic yards of sludge, clay, rocks, dirt and other debris from the Grand Coulee Dam’s excavation site was hauled across the Columbia and dumped into the canyon in the same exact spot where Inez had struggled on that dark night to give birth, the Buelen farm.

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