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And what a fight it was.

History will tell us, or in this case, Temperance organizations were gaining traction across the country and by 1916, over half of the U.S. states had created statutes that prohibited the use of alcohol. The 18th Amendment was ratified 100 years ago on Jan. 16, 1920 and the time called Prohibition was upon us.

But the battle in the Pacific Northwest started nearly six years ahead of national history when those claiming alcohol contributed to the breakdown of value systems pushed for the Bone-Dry Law.

“What people don't recognize today is how much drinking disrupted the family 100 years ago, and how heavily it impacted women and children,” said League of Women Voters of Kittitas County president Kathy Matlin.

“In an economy where women didn't work outside the home, they were dependent on their husband's wages. If the husband was drinking up the household income, it was a huge impact. It made sense, that (alcohol consumption) was an area where women voters were concerned. It also makes sense that Women's Suffrage lasted longer than Prohibition did.”


According to, on Nov. 3, 1914, the Anti-Saloon League was successful in its lobbying efforts statewide. Washington state voters approved Initiative Measure Number Three, prohibiting the manufacture and sale, but not the consumption of liquor statewide. 

The initiative exposed the split between urban and rural voters, the report said. Even though it failed in Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane, the initiative won statewide. City people opposed and small town and rural people were in favor.

“Ellensburg was one of the first cities in the state to actually ban the sale of alcohol, going dry around 1914,” Kittitas County Historical Museum director Sadie Thayer said.

What happened over the next 18 years (between 1914 and 1932) was quite frankly a war of wills. Local history reports stories of moonshiners and revenuers (the Bureau of Prohibition); smuggling down the Columbia River or over the Canadian border; the Great Ellensburg Shootout in which then-Ellensburg Chief of Police Alva Tucker was killed in the line of duty; and the Ronald Still explosion that burned 32 houses, several businesses, and leaving 136 people homeless.


It was chaotic times in the Roaring 20s where people just trying to get a drink clashed with those sworn to uphold the law. One day it exploded in a fiery gunfight on Third and Main in Ellensburg.

According to the July 5, 1927, Evening Record, moonshiner and founding member of the Rattlesnake Whiskey Company Johnny Emerson had previous run-ins with the Ellensburg police. As the city prepared for the Fourth of July celebration, Emerson rolled into town armed with a .32 automatic. He was stopped at the corner of Third and Main (July 2, 1927) by Chief Tucker and officer William Edmondson at the intersection of Third Avenue and Main Street.

The gun battle that followed left two dead, including the 15-year Ellensburg Police veteran, who had been chief of police for 10 years, the Evening Record reported. Emerson opened fire on law enforcement. Tucker was able to return fire, killing Emerson.

“Rattlesnake Whiskey Company was one of the most well known moonshine companies in Kittitas County during the Prohibition. They had several stills and produced about 1,000 gallons a week during their peak production,” Thayer said. “Johnny Emerson actually had a taxi company that not only provided rides, but delivered alcohol.

“They knew how to hide it. People would get their delivery inside their garbage can.”


Liquor violations in Upper County exploded, quite literally, with the Ronald Still explosion on Aug. 18, 1928, drawing statewide attention when bootlegger Bertholomes “Bert” Pellegrini accidentally touched off a 250-gallon batch of “White Mule” whiskey in a hidden room underneath the Falcon Pool and Dance Hall.

The small coal mining town a couple of miles west of Roslyn in northwest Kittitas County was in flames in minutes, according to, and before it was extinguished, 32 houses, several businesses, and 136 persons homeless. Oddly enough, only Roslyn miner George Radabaugh was injured in the blaze. Pellegrini later died of severe burns.

“The map shows this dance hall was right in the middle of town. It's amazing there was anything was left,” Thayer said.

A hundred-yard tunnel was later discovered by Kittitas County Sheriff George  “Scotty” Gray, running from Falcon Pool Hall to a storage chamber the Donadio Garage that Pellegrini owned, the report said. A shaft, equipped with a block and tackle opened into the now defunct building where bootleggers would load trucks with barrels of moonshine for transport to Seattle and Tacoma.


The Washington state initiative  allowed alcohol consumption if it was prescribed by a doctor. And of course, where there's a will, there's a way, and drug stores with prescription liquor boomed. Hundreds of prescriptions were written for alcohol.

According to, a 1985 master's thesis comparing the effects of Prohibition on various West Coast cities said 65 new drug stores opened in Seattle between January and March, 1916.

In her writing for “Swiftwater: History of Cle Elum 1848-1955,” Northern Kittitas County Historical Society treasurer Charlene Kauzlarich wrote, Upper County saloon keepers generally supported the prohibition law, but often times fell back into old habits, appearing in court every now and then for liquor violations.

“Prohibition was sort of a joke (in Upper Kittitas County). It was a fun cops and robbers story,” she said “I enjoyed talking to the old timers about the Ronald Fire. They were all quite young at the time and I'm sure that they heard the stories from their parents. But it was interesting uncovering a buried piece of history.”


During the time before the Bone-Dry Law of 1916, Upper County had 40 saloons, according to reports in the Cle Elum Echo — 23 in Roslyn, 12 in Cle Elum and two in Ronald. The first two buildings in Roslyn in 1889 were the General Store and the Brick Saloon, which is now the Brick Tavern.

The Brick Saloon and six others converted their operations to card playing rooms. But as Kauzlarich points out in “Swiftwater,” the Dry Squad raided a card room called the “Hole in the Wall” and found a storage room next to the card room, where players were served via a opening in the wall between the two rooms. They also found milk bottles behind the Brick Saloon that had been painted white to suggest milk, but really contained moonshine.

The first moonshine still, Kauzlarich writes, was discovered of all places, a home in the hills northeast of Cle Elum where the Dry Squad arrested a Cle Elum city councilman. He was found guilty and sentenced to six months in the Yakima County Jail.


The cat-and-mouse game from 1920 to 1932 continued, some of the local reports include:

n Bootleggers stashed bottles of whiskey in culverts, under sod along the roadways and railroads. Many homes had secret places built into them for people hide their illegal whiskey and liquor (Swiftwater: History of Cle Elum 1848 – 1955)

n Ronald bars stayed in businesses: Glass pitchers of moonshine were kept behind the bar. If the Feds came up from Yakima and Ellensburg or anyone not recognized from town, the moonshine was poured down the sink with running water. (Kittitas County Historical Museum)

n When the United States adopted national prohibition in 1920 — ironically, just as Canada was abandoning its own national and provincial experiments with prohibition — U.S. tourists and dollars promptly headed north and Canadian liquor went south. Despite repeated efforts, Americans were unable to secure Canadian assistance in enforcing American prohibition laws until 1930. (Bootleggers and Borders, Stephen Moore)

n After the Great Ce Elum Fire of 1918, Prohibition officers discovered many homes with false cellars which concealed the wine-making operations. (Swiftwater: History of Cle Elum 1848 – 1955)

n The Frontier Tavern in Ellensburg opened for business in the 1870s, making it one of Ellensurg's first business establishments. It burned down in the 1889 fire and was rebuilt, under the name of Kingery & Lee. Three years into the Washington Prohibition in 1919, the Kingery & Lee stopped serving alcohol and started serving soft drinks. (Kittitas County Historical Museum)


By Feb. 20, 1933, the United States Congress passed the 21st Amendment to the United States constitution, repealing the 18th Amendment and the state of Washington ratified it on Oct. 3, 1933 and the battle was over.


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