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Mystery City On The Yellowstone Trail Rediscovered

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I want to share the amazing discovery of a lost city on the Yellowstone Trail and National Parks Highway, but I want to leave the opportunity for the first description to go to our colleague, Eric (Sit_Properly). Through a combination of genius and persistence, he led us to re locate the long lost city of Spencer, Washington today.


We met at Waterville and then traveled to the Moses Coulee, using a map he had discovered, and I had overlaid on Google Earth. The results and what we found are a roadie’s dream, so suffice it to say that his report will delight and astound you.


I will post my perspectives after he has spoken up here….but Eric, don’t delay because I am chafing at the bit to share the tale.




Keep the Show on the Road!

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Dave and everyone!


Tell the tale! I'm getting my photos together and will have them up tomorrow sometime. This discovery was really fun and on the way home it hit us that we discovered a "ghost town." That's pretty cool, if you ask me. We even drove a bit on the 1913 alignment west of the Coulee.


I'm tempted to just get the pictures up now, but I'm totally exhausted.





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Here is my After Action Report from here.



Spencer, Washington was hardly ever a town. The name may have been around since the 1880s, but the Post Office was only there from 1911 to 1918. A hotel was also there at the time and probably lasted into the late 20s or early 30s.


Not much seems to be remembered about Spencer.


But for some reason, this lost ghost town (all buildings and traces of the place are gone), has captivated me. I've spend hours pouring over old maps, searching for references to it and trying my best to figure out not only what it was but exactly <em>where</em> it was.


Spencer is somewhere in Moses Coulee, a canyon along US Route 2, about 20 miles east of Waterville in central Washington. No rail service ever graced this town. There was never a service station (that we know of) or a place to grab a bite to eat. But there was a post office and a hotel.


Yesterday, we set about to find them.


We met up with Dave (a fellow roadie from the American Road Magazine forums) who is also fairly obsessed with Spencer. After a tour of Douglas County's fine museum and a fairly fruitless attempt at finding out more about the town (nobody seems to remember this place at all!), we all head out to the site.


Calder, Sarah, Dave and I tramped across the sage brush, trying to follow a road that has completely disappeared. A slightly later alignment of the Sunset Highway/Yellowstone Trail/US 2 is very accessible and open to traffic, but this old segment where Spencer lived is completely gone. Even traces of the road were impossible to find.


Thankfully Dave had programmed the plot points that he got from a small bit of map work that I did into his GPS. We followed that, even though we were pretty convinced we found a site. It had some oddly placed rocks and an old tree limb that Calder found (there are no trees out here - so that was suspicious).


The site turned out to be something (but impossible to say what). Still, we headed north, staying about .2 miles east of Jameson Lake Road and about double that distance north of US 2.


Looking at the 1915 map, I tried to line up the telephone poles and thought that we should head farther north. We pushed on, moving past where we thought it was.


Calder and Dave found a bit of metal from a can and I scurried off to find Sarah who found a clearing with no sage brush in it. Sarah's find turned out to probably just be a clearing (though why it was clear, I don't know). However, Dave found the motherload and we rushed back to check it out.


Dave's find proved to us that he had found the site. He picked up a bit of glazed ceramic China which read "HOTEL" on in. This was it. It had to be.


Around Dave's discovery (which I stupidly neglected to photograph!!), we spread out and found bits of glass, more china, tea pot handles, cold cream jars, medicine bottles and other various man-made things.


As we moved north (the debris field seemed to spread north), Sarah found an object that gave us a date! She picked up a piece of metal and said "is this a license plate?" Sure enough it was! Way to go, Smartz!


She had found a plate from 1916. That's impressive. What a lucky find! This was now definitely the place. We also found an insulator from a telephone wire, which proves that there was electricity here and that we had found not only the hotel, but the road (and probably the post office, which was right across the road from the hotel).


This made all the hours of research worth it. I can't believe we actually discovered an old town site. It may seem like a trifling and silly matter to most, but for Dave and me (Sarah and Calder too - they grew to share my obsession, especially when we started to find stuff) this was a very good day.


After the find, Dave had to head back, so Sarah, Calder and I did some more exploring of the Moses Coulee area and visited Dry Falls.



I'd like to make some sort of small marker to indicate what's there. I'd also like to find some old photographs of Spencer. I'd be willing to bet that they exist, if only we knew of some historical society that could help us out with that....


You can check out all of my pictures here.



*Edit - One thing I neglected to mention was how Spencer got its name. Nobody really seems to know. The person who runs the Douglas County Historical Society did a project on place names in Douglas County, but failed to come up with anything for Spencer. According to her research, nobody named Spencer lived there or owned properly there.


However, I came across a P.K. Spencer who ran for two county offices in 1888. He lost the election for Prosecuting Attorney (receiving only one vote), but won the race for Joint Representative (253 to 207). This info can be found <a href="http://www.scribd.com/doc/13270117/1888-Douglas-WA-Precinct-Level-Election-Returns">here</a>.


Now, exactly who P.K. was and what happened to him is anybody's guess. I'm not even sure that Spencer was named after him. But it's the only lead we've come across.

Edited by sit properly
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Eric’s post describes the day to a “T.” and his blog post is great. Kudos! I assure you that without his skills and persistence, Spencer would have remained undiscovered.


Spencer is “important” to this group of roadies because it was a marked site on a Yellowstone Trail map and it appeared as a described site in at least two editions of the Automobile Blue Book. It had a hotel and post office, and of course when I call it a city, I’m joshing.


It was probably not unlike hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small settlements in out of the way places that served stagecoach and early automobile traffic. Not even the well informed curator of the Douglas County Historical Society Museum could identify a Spencer family in the local materials, although Eric had identified one Spencer who stood for election in the late 1800’s.


To put it into a bit more “context,” the Waterville – Coulee City Wagon Road took this alignment before the automobile days, so it was natural that the early (1913) Sunset Highway went through Spencer as well. When the National Parks Highway was blazed in 1916, it too passed through Spencer, as did the Yellowstone Trail in its later (post 1926) route.


The Hotel and post office were important enough to be noted and used as a distance marker in the 1915-16 and 1917 Automobile Blue Books in my collection. It even appeared in the 1935 Yellowstone Trail brochure map.


The good folks at the Douglas County Historical Society opened the society museum so we could take a look at what they had. Lori, the curator, laid out a number of old maps for us to peruse, including an original of the one that Eric had spotted on the web, and which led to the identification of the town’s location. But we found no old photographs or period descriptions of the site.


I want to comment on a tool that proved to be very helpful in locating Spencer. If you never expect to want to locate an old alignment from an old map, skip the next four paragraphs


Eric had discovered a 1915 Atlas map of Douglas County on line that was fairly detailed, perhaps 1.5 inches to the mile. These county atlases were fairly common a hundred years ago, and often showed land ownership, and most important, were marked with section and townships.


In trying to find old alignments, its great to have an old road map, but it is very difficult to associate an old road map with a specific location on the ground today. But when you have section lines on the old map, you can align the old map exactly on Google Earth, using Earthpoints. Earthpoints provides the section and township lines superimposed on Google Earth. Although Earthpoints now has a charge attached, it is very modest.



If you have ever tried to align two or three known points on an old map with the same points on a modern map, you know the frustration generated by inaccuracies in the old map. But section lines are usually pretty accurately fixed on old maps, so the use of Earthpoints on Google Earth is a real breakthrough.


Using Google Earth’s overlay transparency adjustment to see through the old map to the underlying Google Earth, you can determine the coordinates for any site on the old map.

This is what I did, so I could identify the “exact” coordinates for Spencer and the old alignments. I also printed maps with the old 1915 map superimposed on the Google Earth image, along with the coordinates.


It turned out that the actual site of Spencer was within about two hundred feet of the coordinates, which is very good. Spencer was within a section (a mile on a side), and remembering that the 1915 map was not built from aerial or satellite images, a 200 foot “error” in the middle of a section is something to be expected.


I had entered the location of Spencer as a waypoint on my GPS, so it gave us continuous readouts of bearing and distance to the site. Without the GPS coordinates determined from the 1915 map Eric found, we would have been searching an area of a square mile or more, instead of a couple hundred feet.


We located several artifacts on the surface that confirmed the location. While Eric and Sarah were off exploring another nearby location, Calder and I looked around a site closer to the coordinates and I noted a piece of ceramic about the size of my hand. We turned it over and on the bottom it was marked Hotel China. A pretty big clue! We called Eric and Sarah back, and the four of us started looking near the Hotel ceramic.


I think it was Sarah who found what I believe were parts of an old stove, and I know it was Sarah who made the find of the day…a 1916 license plate! Calder picked up a square nail, and I spotted a telephone line insulator. The importance of the insulator is that the map placed the old telephone line as along the road, so it fixed the location of the Waterville – Coulee City Wagon Road, Sunset Highway, National Parks Highway, and Yellowstone Trail..


One last note. There was a John W, and Clara Spencer in the 1910 Census in Pierpoint voting precinct. Luckily my very small old newspaper collection has a map of Douglas County voting precincts in 1910, and Pierpoint is the precinct where the town of Spencer is located. There is no other person named Spencer in the 1910 Census, so we can be relatively certain that the “town” was named for John and Clara Spencer, and that the hotel and post office probably belonged to them..…a little genealogy there!




Keep the Show on the Road!

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If its alright with you, I'm going to let John and Alice Ridge of the Yellowstone Trail Assn. know about your find. They are on the board of the American Road foundation. They are also members of this Forum -- and probably already saw your post. . . . Perhaps there is something we can do to help obtain recognition for Spencer.

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If its alright with you, I'm going to let John and Alice Ridge of the Yellowstone Trail Assn. know about your find. They are on the board of the American Road foundation. They are also members of this Forum -- and probably already saw your post. . . . Perhaps there is something we can do to help obtain recognition for Spencer.




Thanks for the note! And I appreciate very much your interest!


John will certainly get a kick out of the story, even though Spencer was not on the Yellowstone Trail until late in YT history, and probably after Spencer’s “heyday.” If I would get going on the National Parks Highway project, it would be more fitting, as it passed right through Spencer at its “peak.”


Nonetheless, I appreciate your interest very much. What I will call “roadside archeology” doesn’t have a big audience, and I know that. For example the truly amazing story of the rediscovered Monumental Highway carving gets a tenth the interest of a single reference to Bonnie and Clyde!


But I can’t complain. If there was an interest in roadside archeology, Spencer would already be just a bunch of shovel pits.


What is perhaps most interesting to me is that Spencer may have been a classic example of the early mom and pop roadside business / hotel, on the cusp of the transition from wagon to auto travel, at least in the west. And finding a license plate “on the ground” from exactly that period, on the site, was unbeatable. I just hope it doesn’t “spoil” Eric (or me) into expecting that kind of treasure every time! :lol:


I have another of these “lost cities” in mind on US20. The Deschutes County, Oregon, Surveyor has been helpful in narrowing the area down, so perhaps we will have another hotel from the teens to “discover” this spring.


Again, your interest and note is very much appreciated!




Keep the Show on the Road

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US20? Nice! I'm generally a fan of US 20 in Oregon. I'd be up for it. And nope, it hasn't spoiled me, I didn't find much at all in Spencer. You found the China and the insulator, Calder found some stuff, Sarah found the lions from the stove and the 1916 license plate (!!!) and I found... well, not much at all. There's that one raised roadbed thing that I found, but that seems really out of place (neat though). So nope, not spoiled, but itching for more!


I've heard that they're soon expecting 12 - 16" of snow over the passes, which really does end the road season for me. Such a shame. But there's a long time to study up for next season!




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  • 10 years later...

I came across this old photo in the July 30, 1916 issue of the Oregonian. It may be the only photo of Spencer that is known. I also included some photos of an expedition to Spencer in June of 2019 showing what we found.

Happy trails


spencer 07 30 1916.jpg




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Very cool finds! Makes me want to get a detector and go over parts of the Ridge Route.

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