Mark Brown has been asked why the state of Washington needs a park just five miles from another one in Franklin County.
“We don’t pick our state parks,” the state Parks and Recreation commissioner said Friday at Lyons Ferry State Park. “History and Mother Nature do, and this is a perfect spot.”
On Friday, the state and Army Corps of Engineers celebrated the reopening of the popular park under state management, just in time for two free Saturdays. No state Discovery Pass or daily parking fee is required at state parks June 6 and 13.
Speakers had plenty to say about the rich history of the park and the substantial improvements made since a new lease agreement was signed between the Corps and the state.
But the big attraction, particularly for the members of the Dayton high school and middle school band who performed at the celebration, was the swimming area on the park’s 52,000 feet of shoreline. They dunked each other and threw footballs in the river between their performances.
Visitors to the park can hike, boat, water ski, kayak, swim, fish, watch for trains on the historic trestle nearby or just have a picnic on the grass under the park’s abundant shade trees. They form a green oasis in the shrub steppe.
The park, on Highway 261 in Franklin County near Starbuck, was built for the public at the confluence of the Palouse and Snake rivers as part of the federal Lower Monumental Dam project. Owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, it was leased to the state starting in the early ’70s but was dropped from the state system in about 2002 amidst tight budgets.
Corps policy is to close leased parks that are returned to the agency, but it made an exception for Lyons Ferry. Private concessionaires had attempted to operate the park but failed to generate enough revenue before its operation fell to volunteers.
Now the park is open again regular hours, 6:30 a.m. to dusk through Labor Day. There is no overnight camping — although that could be a longterm option — but camping is available five miles up the road at Palouse Falls State Park.
The first step of the state was to get the park reopened under its management, said Ryan Karlson, the state’s interpretive program manager. Then Parks and Recreation Commission then can work on solidifying the statewide significance of the site, showing how its multiple layers of history transcend local history, he said.
Rehabilitation of the park has included cutting back the overgrown trees for the first time in a decade, said Gary Vierra, the state manager for area parks.
An irrigation and domestic water pump has been installed that could eventually be used for possible overnight camping spots, the parking lot improved and the shower house by the swim area remodeled by the state. The boat launch has been resurfaced and striped.
The Corps has helped by building a bathhouse with showers and flush toilets near the boat launch.
Money for the state improvements came through the efforts of Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who worked to secure $600,000 to help.
“Seeing Lyons Ferry reopen as a state park will be like greeting a friend you thought you might never see again. At the same time, the improvements will make it seem like a brand-new park,” he said before the state re-opening of the park.
With state budget discussions ongoing in Olympia, Schoesler, the Senate majority leader, was unable to attend the ceremony Friday.
The geology of the park was shaped by the Ice Age Floods, which rerouted the mouth of the Palouse River from near the Tri-Cities to its current site, Karlson said. The park likely will be along the Ice Age Floods Geological Trail, an auto route from Missoula, Mont., to the coast being established by he National Park Service.
The park area has been used by humans for thousands of years, Karlson said. A mile upstream on the Palouse River is the Marmes Rock Shelter, a nationally significant archaeological site.
In the 1960s, a Washington State University archaeologist led work there that discovered human remains dating back about 11,000 years. At the time they were the oldest found in North America, said Lloyd Stoess of Washtucna, who has lived in the area for 62 years.
The Lewis and Clark expedition traveled through the area and documented it, Karlson said. The reopening of the park under the state system also will give it a chance to re-establish itself as a stop along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
The Palouse Nation had its largest village near the confluence of the two rivers. But when Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery floated down the Snake River on Oct. 13, 1805, no one was home in the village of Palus, Stoess said. They were out on hunting and gathering expeditions to prepare for the upcoming winter.
For a time, Native Americans and whites peacefully co-existed and traded, Stoess said. But less than eight years later, John Clarke, an Astorian trader and his party of men visited Palus for the second time.
Clarke showed off two silver goblets for a toast with the chief, and later one of the goblets went missing. When the goblet was found, Clarke had the Palouse thief hung from gallows made from the man’s own lodging, Stoess said. The Palouse flung their coats to the ground in disgust.
In 1859, the park’s history as a key transportation point for the military and settlers began with a Fort Walla Walla major following native trails and crossing the Snake River with 36 wagons pulled by six mules each and two companies of infantry where the park now stands, Stoess said.
Much of the route he took was picked by Lt. John Mullan, who was in charge of building what came to be called the Mullan Road between Fort Walla Walla and Fort Benton in Montana.
The next year on June 5, 1860 — shortly before the Civil War and 155 years to the day before Friday’s park ceremony — Lyons Ferry began operating.
The ferry gave settlers a convenient way to cross the Snake River with their animals and wagons, allowing settlement to the north of the river, Stoess said.
Named for operator Dan Lyons, the ferry depended on a cable across the river to guide it. The current pushed it back and forth across the river as the operator changed the pitch of the boat. The trip could take 20 minutes or, during spring floods, five minutes, Stoess said.
Near the park is the Joso railroad trestle, built by railroad magnate Edward Harriman and the Union Pacific Railroad between 1910 and 1914 for $2 million. It is almost 4,000 feet across and almost 300 feet high, Stoess said.
“When it was finished, it was the longest and highest of its kind in the world,” he said.
The Lyons Ferry would operate for 108 years until Lower Monumental Dam was built and an already constructed bridge was moved to near the ferry. Before 1968 travelers had to go as far west as the Tri-Cities to cross the Snake River.
The Lyons Ferry boat remains moored at the state park, which is now the 125th park in the state system