Once upon a time, and not so long ago, there was a deep canyon that sat at the bottom of the Grand Coulee. It wasn’t far from Seaton’s Landing, and the road down to the ferry crept along the steep 400 foot embankment that would spell certain death to any wagon careless enough to wander off the edge. The canyon had many names by the many diverse people that came along and claimed it, but most modern people know it as Rattlesnake Canyon. The canyon itself was a bend in the Columbia River that got cut off, dried up and left behind as the mighty river dug deeper into a new bed. On the upriver side was a narrow gap where the waters of the river once ran, now it was filled with wave after wave of deep basalt rocks and boulders. In some places where there was soil, grass, sage and pine trees grew, making it a wild natural habitat filled with all sorts of wildlife. Cougar, bear, deer, pheasants, it was a lively ecosystem and for generations visited by the indigenous people. The canyon had many fresh water springs, a few resembled streams running from the rocks and the river had a shallow spot with sandbars that could be used for fishing. In the center rose a great hill filled with granite boulders. In the winter there were caves hidden among the granite that became shelters against the harsh conditions. Rumors of great wars, hunts and trials can still be heard resonating out of the canyon.
The first white person to set up home in Rattlesnake Canyon was a man the history books call Texas Jack. Most people say Texas Jack was on the laim, hiding out from someone or running from something in his past. This was around the late 1890s and the region was sparsely populated, but more settlers were slowly arriving. Jack set up his place of residence in a cave down at the bottom of Rattlesnake Canyon and he lived off the land, hunting game and foraging. His cave had a wooden support and was about halfway down the canyon. He could walk to the sandbars and fish, or to the more rough area at the mouth where the indigenous people sometimes camped. Texas Jack wasn’t alone, with him was a person he called “Woman” as if that was her name. Some say she was a half breed, and she was uneducated, rarely spoke and was in awe of the trappings of modern civilization. Sometimes Jack and Woman would venture out of the canyon and drop in unexpected at their neighbors. They would always ask for a cup of sugar or some weak excuse, and they always looked tattered and bewildered, even a bit dangerous. Woman in the same ragged style mens clothes as Jack, and cussed just as fiercely. They were always eyed with suspicion, and some say it was because they were ‘uneducated’ that they were treated unfairly. Texas Jack and Woman were last seen one winter astride a single horse headed down an Indian trail, Woman had socks on her hands and they were both wrapped up tight for a long ride. In the spring when the people went to investigate Jack’s cave they found buried evidence indicating that Texas Jack and Woman had indeed been up to no good. Many years later long time coulee pioneer Charlie Osborne told Wenatchee World reporter Hu Blonk; “Texas Jack is a horse thief and a lair.”
There is another story that takes place around this time that may or may not have anything to do with Texas Jack and Woman and also takes place in the winter at Rattlesnake Canyon. This time early winter, on a cold dreary, foggy day. As mentioned above, there were other people living around in the Coulee at this time, Texas Jack just choose to live at the bottom of a 400 foot canyon in the bottom of a 600 foot coulee. The walls were really steep, and without crawling or tumbling, only a few places you could go in and out of the canyon with any degree of success, which lent to its seclusion. As the story goes… two men were returning down the coulee on horseback when they decided a drink of whisky would help warm them up a little. One of them, Jim, knew a man around Rattlesnake Canyon that had a still and sold moonshine, but he wasn’t a very friendly fellow, in fact, he was down right cantankerous. Still, that whiskey sounded good, so Jim decided to take a chance and call on the fellow. “Wait here” he told Bill, and started off down the draw towards Rattlesnake Canyon. As Bill sat there on the hill by the old Grand Coulee spring peering off into darkness he saw something moving and coming his way up the draw from Rattlesnake Canyon. It was the old moonshiner and his still. Pretty soon a scuffle occurred and guns were drawn, but the bootlegger shot first hitting Bill in the gut. While the old man escaped into the night Bill lay there on the cold ground holding in his life, and that is just how Jim found him when he returned whiskeyless. Against all odds Bill survived and not so surprisingly the bootlegger got away. Neither Bill nor Jim had any whiskey that night.
It wasn’t long after Texas Jack and Woman left than an enterprising fellow got the idea of starting an orchard at the bottom of Rattlesnake Canyon. It was Pitt / Zimmerman, they worked the land and using nearby springs that ran freely from the canyon walls, were able to get an orchard started. The irrigation created small creeks around which the wild life gathered. The ranch was sold to the Dillman Brothers, Len and Sam. The Dillman Brothers came to the Grand Coulee region in 1878 working for the government. Their had been some worries in 1878 about the Indian Wars spreading to the Columbia River, and the Dillman Brothers were the first line of defense. Stationed near the river, if they caught wind of an uprising it was their job to race down the coulee warning the ranchers as far away as Steamboat Rock. The uprising never came, in fact, relationships in the Grand Coulee area were very friendly, so by the mid 1880s the Dillman Brothers were looking for a new line of work, and the orchard in Rattlesnake Canyon was for sale. The Dillmans moved onto the orchard in the bottom of Rattlesnake Canyon and started developing the land more, and also working on the only real wagon road into the canyon at the time. Len Dillman is a character of note. It seems the hard work didn’t suit him so much and it wasn’t long before he moved down further by Coulee City. Len is known as being an eternal optimist, it didn’t matter what the issue was, he would always see the silver lining.
By the early 1900s Herb Buelen became well known around the area from Steamboat Rock to beyond Seaton’s Ferry as a hard working and reliable seasonal farm hand or hired help. He settled near the mouth of Rattlesnake Canyon by the rapids, on the downriver side. It is said that Herb moved the lumber upriver from a sawmill to build his small shack; fighting the currents of the Mighty Columbia with only a paddle, lumber in tow. Herb would collect wood from the river and pull it up onto the nearby sandbars at the edge of his property where the Natives used to fish. Some of the wood he would use and others he would sell. Herb’s land was small, rocky and at the bottom of an almost unsurpassable 400 foot drop, the trail down to it was treacherous at best. To make money and survive, Herb had to work hard in a place where jobs were scarce. Through his constant networkings looking for work, and being hired, he met a nice young lady from Almira named Inez. She was a book learned lady, prim and proper; daughter of the publisher of a periodical called “The Big Bend Outlook.” Romance bloomed and after the 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, spending days and sometimes weeks away, and when he was home and the opportunity arose he would pull wood out of the Columbia to sell. Slowly, and through even more hard work, 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. By the time the wagon approached the way down to Buelen’s property full of people all dressed in their best and hoping for a night of live music and dancing, everyone could see it was a new road, 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. She returned with the baby but also a changed woman. 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.
By the early 1910’s the orchard in Rattlesnake Canyon had grown into a wonderful canopy of fruit and willow trees. It was now under the ownership of A.L. Davis, his wife and children. Families came from all over to buy the fruit and enjoy a day in the park like settings. Everyone thought it was a novelty to sit in the middle of a desert munching on a pear or apple. The fruit was even boxed and sold, as well as gift baskets as souvenirs. Mrs Davis was quite the artist and designer, she would dye scraps of cloth and make hooked rugs based on seed catalog art that she would sell alongside the fruit. She was also known for her beautiful floral arrangements of which she would grow all the flowers herself. By the 1920s the orchard took on the distinction of being a ‘show’ orchard, a wonderful miraculous place that people could spend a whole day and be entertained. A beautiful crystal clear fresh water spring ran from the old irrigation down the center of the canyon towards the river, and it always seemed sunny and hot. The canyon itself became known as Davis Canyon.
It wasn’t until the feds came sniffing around in the early 1930s that the canyon picked up its notorious moniker; Rattlesnake Canyon. By the time the United States Bureau of Reclamation showed up the show orchard belonged to the Noble family, who also owned land across the top of the canyon directly above the old orchard and farm. The orchard at this date was just a reminder of what it once was, the orchard having died off somewhat still had wonderful spots and wild fruit trees, while in the shadows buildings sat falling in. The creek, once created by irrigation, now ran wild down the canyon towards the old abandoned Buelen farm. Herb’s dilapidated house could be seen for a while after the construction of the dam had begun, 400 feet down at the bottom of Rattlesnake 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…” Rattlesnake Canyon.
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 are hauled across the Columbia and dumped into the canyon on the the Buelen farm, the Nobel farm is flooded and a new name is coined. The History of Rattlesnake Canyon part 2: In the Name of Progress