Whitman County Gazette - Serving Whitman County since 1877

Moscow & Pullman Building Supply

By Will DeMarco
Gazette Reporter 

Stone buildings at LaCrosse in line for restoration work


July 19, 2018 | View PDF

LaCrosse stone houses

The stone service station in LaCrosse.

Efforts by LaCrosse Community Pride and the Whitman County Library to restore LaCrosse's historic rock houses have transformed the structures in recent years, and there's much more to come.

Built from basalt rocks deposited by the Missoula Ice Age floods, the stone structures were built in the 1930s. Clint Dobson, a LaCrosse businessman, built two homes, three bunkhouses and a service station between 1934 and 1936. The houses were used as rental units for farm workers and sleeping quarters for Union Pacific Railroad crews.

After housing demand fell, the facilities went unused for decades. An article by The Spokesman-Review pointed to the derelict buildings as emblematic of failing rural towns.

The houses made Washington Trust for Historic Preservation's list of "The Ten Most Endangered Historic Sites" in 2016. The article characterized the houses as "in critical danger of collapse if they do not receive repairs to stabilize and secure the stone and structural elements."

Since then, Peggy Bryan, a former library staffer, has partnered with LCP to preserve and improve the basalt structures, recruiting an abundance of local volunteers.

Community Pride projects at LaCrosse have provided a grocery store, a community meeting area, two office spaces, a bank and a library. Two of the additions - the bank and library - were especially impactful, as the town did not have either at the time.

Overall, the center has added five new businesses with ten employees between them.

According to Alex McGregor, an LCP board member, the group is now working to produce an exhibit and interactive video demonstration to tell the story of the houses and the Ice Age Floods that brought the rocks here, carving eastern Washington's distinctive rocky valleys and rolling hills in its wake.

The group has hosted educational hikes and speeches along the lower Palouse canyons, which, according to McGregor "are well-attended from the ancient glacial lake country in Montana all the way to Portland and the mouth of the Columbia, filling the events to capacity."

Moving ahead, LCP is working with Lloyd Stoess and the Palouse Falls Chapter of the Ice Age Floods Institute to identify items in the Whitman County Rural Heritage Collection, McGregor said. LCP said the station will "inform visitors about local history, both distant and recent."

Jeff Johnson, a local contractor leading the rock house efforts, estimates the new visitors' center and museum project, or "step 1" as he calls it, will cost about $115 per square foot.

In step two, historic documents and artifacts will be moved into the new visitors' center. Then, the two smallest unimproved bunkhouses will be converted into a single unit and bathrooms will be added to the bunkhouses.

For additional revenue, the bunkhouses will be rented out through the online hospitality service Airbnb.

In step three, the two-bedroom rock house on the westernmost side will be rebuilt, spanning 1,200 square feet and featuring a new, covered front porch.

LaCrosse stone houses

An artist's sketch of a future visitor center.

LCP and WCL are seeking additional grants to fund the project, as well as volunteers to help put it all together. The Whitman County Economic Public Facilities Project awarded the two groups $9,000 this spring for construction of the Ice Age Floods exhibit.

"There were skeptics aplenty when we took on a project of proving wrong the prediction of the inevitable demise of LaCrosse and other rural towns. Few thought we could find a bank willing to serve a town of 300, but the community believed - 122 families pledged to support any such bank," McGregor said. "It takes a ready and inexhaustible reservoir of optimism, tenacity and, yes, stubbornness," he added.

McGregor said the outlook is now immensely positive for the once-seemingly-doomed ancient structures, as well as LaCrosse as a whole, which he dubs "the little town that could, and did!"

McGregor Co.

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