Cultural Resources

Whitcomb-Cole Hewn Log House

You might think all the FWS does is manage wildlife and its habitats. Not true. Like every other federal land management agency, the FWS is responsible for the conservation and preservation of our cultural and historic heritage. Conboy Lake has a rich history, both from it's early use by Native Americans and from the early settlers to the valley.

Native Americans


Conboy Lake is located within the southwestern portion of the Southern Plateau Precontact Culture Area. Studies of the archaeology and prehistory of the region typically divide the precontact cultural sequence into multiple phases, or periods, from around 11,500 years ago to around 280 years ago. These phases are academic in nature and do not necessarily reflect tribal viewpoints.

Period 1a (11,500 years ago to 11,000 years ago): A single site from the Southern Plateau, the Richey-Roberts Clovis Cache, has been dated to this period. The site contains bone objects, large bifaces, biface blades, fluted points and unifacial implements. The assemblage is attributed to the Clovis culture, a group of highly mobile terrestrial mammal hunters. Rare isolated fluted points associated with the Clovis culture have been found throughout the region.

Period 1b (11,000 years ago to 7,000/6,400 years ago): Archaeological assemblages from post-Clovis cultures typically include a wide variety of stone, bone and antler technology, with occasional assemblages containing fishing gear, abraders, milling stones and anvils. There is temporal variation in projectile point form during this period, with shouldered, stemmed and unstemmed lancolate points prior to 9,000 years ago, laurel-leaf shaped points between 9,000 and 7,800 years ago, and side- and corner-notched points after 7,800 years ago. Based on the composition of the artifact assemblage, people from this period were highly mobile hunter gatherers with low population densities that moved annually, as well as seasonally.

Period 2:  This period (7,000/6,400 years ago to 3,900 year ago) is characterized by reduced investment in chipped stone tools; the paucity of edge ground cobbles and prepared cores; and the appearance of milling stones and semi-subterranean house pits. There is also evidence of increased reliance on roots and salmon for subsistence, indicating a transition towards increased sedentism. Near the end of this period, projectile point styles become highly variable over space.

Period 3: This period (3,900 year ago to 280 year ago) is characterized by the widespread use of pit houses, increased capture and storage of salmon and intensive exploitation of camas. Perishable wood and fiber tools appear during this period, as well. The concentration of winter use pit houses around drainages and occurrence of summer use special use camps in the uplands during this period is consistent with ethnographically documented settlement patterns, indicating a continued move towards sedentism.

Conboy Lake NWR is located in an area known as the Camas (or Tahk) Prairie on the south side of Mt. Adams. Archaeological, ethnographic and historical evidence indicates that cultural use of the Camas Prairie extends into the early to middle Holocene (Period 2) and occurred as recently as the historic past. Previous archaeological investigations within the Camas Prairie resulted in the discovery of lithic artifacts with diagnostic attributes, indicating human use between 7,000 and 11,000 years ago.

Ethnographic research indicates the prairie was traditionally used by the Yakama and Klickitat Tribes and was an important seasonal gathering location for plants and animals. Since the Camas Prairie is located at a relatively high altitude, the growth and development of plants is delayed relative to plants located at lower altitudes. The traditional inhabitants may have taken advantage of this delay to extend the harvesting season for camas bulbs, berries and other plants known to have existed in concentrated patches in the area. As a result, it is likely that the Conboy Lake area would have been used as a seasonal resource collection camp in support of larger villages located along the Columbia River. Examination of General Land Office surveyor notes indicates that a network of “Indian trails” crossed through the Camas Prairie, particularly on the eastern side of the refuge.

During the 1830s, the Yakama and Klickitat were decimated by smallpox epidemics, resulting in severely reduced Native American populations in the project vicinity. By the time Euro-American settlers permanently moved into the valley in the mid-1850s, fewer than 100 Native Americans were living around the Camas Prairie. Following the ratification of the Yakama Treaty in 1859, the traditional inhabitants of the area were displaced to the Yakama Indian Reservation.

Threshing Crew


Euro-American Settlement


The earliest Euro-American settlement of what is now Klickitat County began in 1852 along the north side of the Columbia River. Hudson’s Bay Company trappers reportedly inhabited the Camas Prairie vicinity during seasonal trapping excursions at least as early as the 1850s, and Captain George B. McClellan led an expedition through the area in 1853—camping at several locations on the prairie—while exploring possible railroad routes through the Cascades. Klickitat County was formed in 1859, with county elections held the next year, and the first sawmill in the region was built in 1860 as lumbering began in the nearby mountains. It was not until 1872, however, that Peter Conboy, Sr., filed the first land claim in the Camas Prairie. After Conboy’s death in 1875, his widow and children continued to live in the valley, assigning their family name to the small lake near their claim. After 1875, the name Conboy Lake appeared in various land surveyor notes.

Accounts written by travelers, explorers and other settlers spoke highly of the valley’s beauty and abundant resources and lured even more settlers to Glenwood and the Camas Prairie area during the 1870s and 1880s.

Peter Conboy is also credited as being one of the first Euro-American settlers of the unincorporated community of Glenwood, along with the Joseph Silva and Richard Kelly families. Glenwood is approximately three miles north of Conboy Lake NWR. Other small communities, such as Laurel and Fulda, were also established around the Camas Prairie, but these communities have not survived to the present.

The Klickitat County’s first inland post office was operated by Stephen Whitcomb in Fulda from 1877 to 1881. During this time he operated the post office out of his house. When other community members took on the role of postmaster, they too operated out of their homes.

Early settlers established homes in various parts of the Camas Prairie. For example, in 1891 John Cole acquired land from Whitcomb and built the main structure of the house now known as the Whitcomb-Cole Hewn Log House. Although the house was moved by the FWS to its current location, it is listed on the National Register and is considered historically significant as one of the last examples of early pioneer log house construction in the region. Many of the known historic sites in the Camas Prairie are the locations of these early homesteads.

Agriculture and raising livestock were the basis of the Camas Prairie’s early economy. Initially, during the 19th century ranching was more feasible than agriculture for residents of the Camas Prairie. The nearby hills provided ample grass for grazing cattle and sheep, which could be more affordably transported to markets than carts of produce. The agricultural potential of the prairie, however, was known and eventually exploited. As early as 1873, land surveyors noted the rich lakebed soils would be highly suitable for agriculture, if only the lake and marsh could be drained.

Commercial logging was first established in the area at the turn of the twentieth century. The Menominee Lumber Company began log drives on the White Salmon River, and a sawmill was constructed in the community of Laurel. The town of Glenwood emerged as the primary commercial center for the Camas Prairie during this period.

Economic growth from the increasing diary, logging and milling industries influenced a boom in the local economy of the Camas Prairie communities between 1910 and 1930. At least half of the farmsteads identified during the 1990 survey of the refuge were established during this period. The excavation of the Camas Ditch also began in 1910, greatly expanding the amount of arable land. The Camas Ditch stretched across the center of the valley and effectively drained Conboy Lake and the marshes to create more pasture land for livestock grazing and to help irrigate agricultural fields by diverting water to small, intersecting creeks that once fed the marsh.

The Camas Prairie’s boom ended in the 1930s. By this time, the rich lakebed soils were depleted, and the valley experienced several years of poor agricultural production, contributing to the Great Depression. Ranchers went bankrupt, and residents began leaving Glenwood and the neighboring communities of Fulda and Laurel. A small wave of people moved back into the valley following the end of World War II. These new residents took up ranching and dairying. A resurgence in the logging and agricultural industries occurred in 1950s, followed again by subsequent declines in the 1960s. Today, the Camas Prairie has a population of approximately 600 to 700 people, is home to Conboy Lake NWR and serves as a principal to recreation on nearby Mt. Adams.

Chief White Swan


Archaeological Resources


Five cultural resource surveys and investigations have been conducted within Conboy Lake NWR. A survey of the entire refuge was completed in 1990, during which 30 prehistoric, 35 historic-period and 5 multi-component archaeological resources were identified. The multi-component sites typically contained remains of historic farmsteads and prehistoric lithic artifact scatters. The greatest concentrations of both prehistoric and historic-period sites were found in the eastern half of the refuge. In 2000 a pedestrian survey was conducted in association with the development and realignment of Lakeside Road through the northeast corner of the refuge. The survey identified three historic refuse scatters, one prehistoric lithic scatter and three prehistoric isolates. A data recovery excavation was later conducted at one of the refuse scatters, “Can Dump Number 2,” which contained a wide range of early 20th century food and domestic debris.

Conboy Lake NWR contains 76 recorded archaeological sites. Most of the recorded sites have been found on the surface during pedestrian surveys. The known prehistoric archaeological sites within refuge are primarily classified as lithic scatters. About one-third of these sites include only flakes and fire-cracked rocks. The 1990 cultural resources survey recorded 15 prehistoric archaeological sites with formed tools, with only six sites containing a single diagnostic stemmed point. Although temporally diagnostic artifacts were few, based on the discovery of a point similar to the Windust Phase it has been suggested that humans have been using the Camas Prairie for as much as 10,000 years.

The known historic archaeological sites located within the refuge include concentrated refuse deposits and structural remains with surface scatters of domestic, agricultural and architectural artifacts. Most structural remains (ranging from rock foundations to corral poles to rotting plank sheds) are associated with late 19th to mid-20th century farmsteads.

Four recorded sites are associated with burials. One site is associated with 1873 land survey notes, which mention an “Indian Graveyard” estimated in the vicinity of a prehistoric lithic artifact scatter. The other three sites are small historic cemeteries or unmarked burials associated with the farmsteads and Euro-American settlers.

One historic structure on CLNWR is listed on the National Register. Known as the Whitcomb-Cole Hewn Log House, the structure is considered historically significant as one of the last examples of early pioneer log house construction in the region from the 1870s to the 1900s. No other historic resources on the refuge have been determined eligible for listing on the National Register or the Washington Historic Register.

Visiting Whitcomb-Cole Cabin


Whitcomb-Cole Hewn Log House


Drawn by accounts of the valley's abundant resources, settlers like Peter Conboy, for whom the lake is named, began arriving in the area during the 1870s. The Whitcomb-Cole Hewn Log House near refuge headquarters is an example of the homes they built and is one of only a few pioneer log homes still standing in Klickitat County.

This log house originally stood two miles across the lake on land settled by Stephen Whitcomb, who ran the first post office in the area out of his cabin. In 1891 John Cole acquired the land from Whitcomb and built the main structure of the house from hand-hewn logs. The large downstairs room served many purposes, including kitchen, dining, sitting and family room. Imagine a family of seven living in such cozy conditions. The Coles sold the property in 1911. Later residents added the kitchen in 1914.  Inhabited for another 40 years, the house was abandoned in the late 1950s.

Lacking a proper foundation, the home fell into disrepair. Logs began rotting away and floors buckled. In 1987 the entire structure was put on a truck and moved to its current location where it could be protected and enjoyed by Refuge visitors. Great care was taken to restore the house, not just with similar materials, but by also using traditional methods. The replacement timbers were harvested by hand, delivered by horse-drawn wagon, and hand hewn to fit. A rock and concrete footing now supports the house, the only concession to modern construction practices.

Today the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors are invited to wander through its rooms and listen for the echoes of life on Camas Prairie over a century ago.