Regarding Mr. Sterling's House, and the Northern Pacific Railroad


August 6, 2009

The Walls are Talking: Tales from Cheney's old house


Cheney Historical Preservation Commission

The lumber in the Sterling – Moorman House tells its own story. Perhaps it's not as directly as the newspapers used for insulation or wallpaper backing, but an important story nonetheless.

The lumber, window glass, door hardware, cook stove, kerosene lamps, and wallpaper all were manufactured somewhere else, and shipped to Cheney. The only way a working class home as large as the one Mr. Frank Sterling built could be constructed at a price he could afford was if there was economical transportation for all those materials he needed with which to build the house.

The material he used to build his home was shipped to Cheney by rail. A small log cabin was the typical frontier abode because it could be constructed from local materials and required few metal parts.

Shipping freight by wagon was expensive. A 100-mile shipment cost between two and 4 cents per pound – about $40 to $80 per ton. The rough lumber for the Sterling house probably came from a sawmill near Marshall. Even if Sterling obtained a very good rate, the rough lumber was not inexpensive, possibly costing $10 a ton to ship.

The finished siding would have been prohibitive to ship overland from Portland, its most likely source in 1884, probably costing between $120 and $200 per ton. Steamboat navigation on the Columbia could help, but this was costly, requiring portages around rapids at the Dalles and Celilo Falls, and the boats could only reach the mouth of the Snake River a few months out of the year. Low water in the summer months often made it impossible to bring the boats beyond Wallula.

The Northern Pacific arrived in Cheney from the west in May 1881. In September 1883 it was completed in Montana, allowing easy shipment of manufactured goods such as cast iron stoves and door hinges, doorknobs, paint and window glass from the eastern states.

Finished lumber came from the western parts of Oregon and Washington. Railroads reduced the cost of shipping freight substantially. Finished lumber, pre-made window sashes and doors, paint, and the furnishings for the house were all easily obtained by a builder like Sterling, at prices he could afford.

The big business around Cheney, however, wasn't lumber and building supplies for the growing town. Grain, especially wheat, became an important source of business for the NP. The lower cost of transporting wheat from the central Columbia Basin to flour mills or ports for export eventually made dry-land farming west of Cheney profitable.

Most of the wheat grown in the interior of Washington was shipped west to Portland or Tacoma for export. Grain elevators were common along the railroad in Eastern Washington.

Another wheat-related business grew along the NP track in Cheney: The F. M. Martin Flouring and Milling Company. Wheat grown in the central part of the state was purchased, shipped by rail to the mill, and made into flour. Some was sold locally, but much of the flour was shipped to consumers by rail.

Today, the Martin Mill is owned by the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) corporation and much of the wheat arrives by truck, not by train. Most of the flour, however, is still shipped from the mill by rail, in bulk.

The Cheney Historic Preservation Commission is working to restore the 1884 Sterling-Moorman House to pre-World War I condition.

Donations of time, materials, or dollars are welcome! Contact the Cheney Planning Department for details, 498-9240.


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