Special Reports

When Kahlotus was home to 200 dancehall girls

Kahlotus is a respectable small town. Quiet, peaceful when you drive through it. A great place to raise a family.During the late 1880s to early 1900s Kahlotus had a different reputation.

Old-timer recalls Kahlotus in its rip-snortin’ days

By Charles Lamb, Herald staff reporterPublished on Jan. 1, 1955

You wouldn't call Kahlotus any metropolis, nestled as it is with its half-a-hundred inhabitants among the foothills of northeast Franklin County.

But the vest pocket farm hamlet is a lot more civilized today than it was 67 years ago when George Harter hove onto the scene. From a sidetracked boxcar in the late 1880's, Harter saw Kahlotus grow to a bustling construction town in the early 1900's when the SP & S Railway was building a train tunnel nearby.

After the tunnel was built, Harter stayed around to see his town become a crossroads trade center for cattle ranchers and wheat farmers, a status it still enjoys.

He calls 1908 the peak year of population, but adds it was far from civilized even then. “That is,” he said, “Unless you'd call a gang of hard drinking Swede tunnel workers civilized.” Wide-open saloons and 200 freewheeling dancehall girls quartered locally didn't add to the refinement much either, to hear Harter tell it.

Things were prosperous though with that railroad payroll coming in regular. Harter said they had every kind of gambling game on God's green earth going the clock around. He and Mrs. Harter had occasion four years ago to recall one incident that happened at the First and Last Chance Saloon in 1908.

Ten Swedes and their foreman rode into town from Windust on a handcar one night for a weekend spree. And, as Harter remembers, they started to celebrate at the First and Last Chance. Harter's barn now sits where the saloon was once situated.

Fearing his hands would spend all their wages; the frugal tunnel boss took most of their cash and cached it under a sagebrush behind the saloon. “Wouldn't you know it,” said Harter, “The boss ended up getting the drunkest of all and forgot which sagebrush he'd hid it under.

The “mystery,” oddly enough, was solved in 1950 when Mrs. Harter's chickens scratched a decomposed old wallet, a moldy roll of bills and $4.86 in time-tarnished coins out of the ground.

All Harter could tell was that the long-lost bankroll was a fat one, probably $500 or more. He sent the fragments to a bank and has never seen or heard of it since. The coins - several old V nickels, four silver dollars, a half-dollar and a “Cannuck” penny - the couple keep as souvenirs.

James P. Harter, George's dad, died in 1889 after starting a free entry farm near Adams County. George, now approaching 76, married in 1902 and with his wife spent the next three decades raising children and farming.

The ten Harter children, now grown and married are: Ted and Jim Harter, Pasco; Harold, Kennewick; Gene, Walla Walla; Donald, Connell; Mrs. Viola Aiken, Colfax; Mrs. Pearl Kimbley, Southwick, Idaho; Mrs. Vivian Milam, Hooper; Mrs. Georgia Hoefle and Mrs. Margaret Cain, Washtucna.

Kahlotus actually started by accident, Harter said. He says long before he came, the old OWR and N Co. (Oregon, Washington Rail and Navigation Co.) had a track running from LaCross to Connell, and the track, now owned by the Union Pacific, made a bend at the present town site.

Harter said a boxcar got detailed on the bend one day, and an enterprising man named Munn started a store in it. From this humble beginning the town grew until 1896, a year Harter will always remember.

It was in 1896 that George McCrae put in the town's first saloon. “Old McCrae used to sit in the shade all day and sometimes sell two glasses of beer. Then came roundup time, and he'd sell a keg of the best beer a nickel would buy,” Harter attests.

Harter marks 1889 as the year the Mortz Brothers were shot dead by Frank Bly over a horse deal - how Hans Harder talked Bly out of committing suicide and took him to the sheriff at Palouse Junction (now Connell) on a handcar. Bly got 20 years for his crime and never came back to town.

If Kahlotus was started by accident Harter tells of another accident that kept the town from being called Washtucna today. The older timer claims, in fact, the town was originally Washtucna, while the town now called Washtucna, was then known as Kahlotus.

That was before a blacksmith named George Bassett sent in to Spokane from Washtucna for a supply of horseshoes. Harter says the shoes mistakenly got tossed off the train in Kahlotus, scoring a “ringer” on an adjacent hitchrack. Rather than declare the railroad in error, the two towns decided to just trade names.