Pioneer James “Cashup” Davis dreamed big. At a time when most Washington settlers were carving farms out of the Palouse, he was so awed with the panoramic views of the Palouse from Steptoe Butte, he decided to build a hotel at the top.
Davis’s first career was as a well-to-do stonemason in England, but he left that life in search of adventure. In 1872, at the age of 57, he settled in Washington and built a bustling farm as well as a stage coach stop and dance hall.
While most Washington State University students only know of the butte as a landmark east of Highway 195, the story of Davis and his hotel has captured the interest of a few. Randall Johnson ’37 was so impressed with the story, he undertook to write a small book about it. The result is a 20-page typed account of Davis’s life from his birth in England in 1815 through his days as a Washington settler. Johnson’s account was refreshed in 2003 when student Marc Howard ‘03 wrote his own history of Davis for the Whitman County Historical Society.
According to Johnson’s account, Davis set his sights on Steptoe Butte, which stood 3,610 feet above sea level and about 1,200 feet above the Palouse, as an ideal location for a mountaintop resort.
He bought 880 acres, which included the butte and the surrounding land. According to Howard’s account, Davis spent the remainder of his estate, about $10,000, to build the most luxurious hotel ever seen in Whitman County. It had a grand main floor hall and 20 guest rooms on the second level. The very top was an observatory where visitors could look through a telescope and see all the way to Walla Walla.
At first hundreds came to the sky-high oasis, but the allure didn’t last and the crowds dwindled. At times Davis waited up there alone, ready to welcome the rare guest, according to Johnson. Though he realized his venture had failed, he so loved the hotel, Davis continued to live there until he died in 1896. With him, the dream of maintaining a resort atop the butte died too. It sat empty for years. In 1911 a fire, purportedly an accident caused by two young boys, turned the dry timbers into a bonfire “seen for miles in every direction,” according to Johnson’s account.
The McCroskey family, contemporaries of Davis, eventually purchased the butte and then gave it to the people of Washington as a public park.
“Enjoy the view,” Johnson wrote, “and think a kind thought about the little white-haired Englishman with the stovepipe hat. He dreamed dreams beyond his reach, but he wove some bright threads into the generally drab fabric of the pioneers’ lives.”