Enoch Bryan had been president of Washington State College for 16 years when he purchased 296 acres of fertile land on Brown’s Bar above the Snake River in 1909. His plan was to market an agricultural settlement he called Riviera to people eager to build a life in the country. The Riviera Company promised to plant their land “with any kind of fruit you desire” and turn over the land in four years, “a complete project.”
In his Historical Sketch of the State College of Washington, Bryan described 1906–7 as the close of “a second period of development” of WSC, marking a time of great satisfaction, but also of exhaustion. In 1907, Bryan had taken a leave from his presidency to recuperate from typhoid, his first break since becoming president in 1893. He then tried to resign in 1910. Perhaps he had hoped to invest all of his energy into his agrarian dream. But he was dissuaded from resigning by vigorous protests from faculty, students, citizens, and regents.
The early twentieth century was a time of great regional excitement for fruit raising and country life, and Bryan’s endeavor had considerable context. As historian John Fahey reflected in recalling Arcadia, a land venture near Deer Park, Washington, in 1906, “When the great rush of land-seeking immigrants to the interior Pacific Northwest slowed…, sellers of irrigated tracts used skillful salesmanship to attract buyers, largely middle-class, who idealized country living and yearned to escape from cities.”
Bryan certainly knew about Arcadia and other such schemes. Arcadia’s early success might well have inspired him as he contemplated a rural life, and income, after WSC.
But more significant than these business inspirations were Bryan’s agrarian roots and values. Raised on a subsistence farm in southern Indiana, Bryan idealized rural life, his values developing into a passion for his land-grant vision.
Advertising for Riviera promoted these ideals, sometimes to hyperbolic extremes. “Prepare for the Change THAT’S COMING,” blared an ad promoting the project. “The people must go back to the soil to avert a financial crash.”
For a short while, Riviera showed promise. According to Don Clarke in the Bunchgrass Historian, the company built a store, a post office, a blacksmith shop, a boarding house, and a school. Bryan built a cottage for his family. Accounts vary, but there were as many as a dozen or so houses at the community’s height. At one time, the school enrolled 35 children. But that success was fleeting.
Bryan’s son Arthur was the manager and secretary-treasurer of the Riviera Company. In a letter to his father barely a year after the land was purchased, Arthur noted that Riviera was overdrawn at the bank and there was no money to pay for electric poles or freight. His father had bought an electric company in Starbuck, with the goal of stringing electric wires 11 miles down the rugged breaks to Riviera to run irrigation pumps.
Although Arthur wrote to his mother a few months later that the line to Riviera had been finished, their attempt to electrify the town and irrigation pumps eventually failed, as the generator in Starbuck could not produce enough power. An attempt to deliver water via a wooden flume upstream from the settlement also failed.
Even if efforts to establish ample irrigation at Riviera had succeeded, it may well be that Bryan’s dream was nevertheless doomed. It was simply too isolated. Other than the very rough road from Starbuck to Riviera, the only way to reach, and supply, Riviera was by train to Ridpath Station, across the river from Riviera, and then by ferry.
And then came World War I. A letter from Arthur to his father dated February 4, 1918, reports that he was on his way to the rifle range at Annapolis, where he was stationed with the 56th U.S. Engineers. He asks his father to take care of some finances and notes that he was probably overdrawn to the company.
Other accounts report that remaining residents of Riviera were lured away by war industry jobs.
Even though the failure of Riviera was undoubtedly a great disappointment, Bryan met it with the same determination he did the challenges of founding a college. He eventually paid off the mortgage, and upon his death in 1941, Riviera was listed as a major asset in his estate. His agrarian dream now lies under the waters of Lake Bryan formed by Little Goose Dam.