Excerpts from HistoryLink.org
Essay #7845 by Phil Dougherty
Photos by Todd Timmcke
The Columbia County Courthouse, located on 341 E. Main Street in Dayton, is the oldest working courthouse in all of Washington’s 39 counties.
When the courthouse was completed in
1887, Washington was still a territory.
Columbia County’s Seat
Dayton, the county seat of Columbia
County, was platted in 1871. Development of the town quickly followed. A
square of land was reserved for county
purposes in the 1870s, but the only building built on the square in its early years
was a wooden jail. County officers were
forced to use rented rooms in which trials were also held. Yet the citizens of
Columbia County were slow to approve
construction of a courthouse, twice voting down a building much less expensive
than the one ultimately built.
At last, in February 1886, the Washington Territorial Council passed a bill
authorizing the construction of a courthouse in Columbia County. The job was
bonded for $40,000. Stone and brickwork contractor A. J. Dexter turned the
first sod on June 1, 1886.
Building the Historic Building
The architect, William Burrows, created
an attractive building with a large, ornate
cupola (complete with an iron railing)
atop the roof. Bronze statutes of Blind
Justice, complete with sword and scales,
graced the tops of both front and back entrances. Bronze eagles perched atop the
roof peaks. In the front entrance, wide
steps took a visitor up to a covered porch.
Inside, a double stairway rose from opposite sides of the building to the second
floor courtroom, which had a 19-foot ceiling. A new jail occupied the basement.
Altering the Building
With the exception of some
minor modifications to the
courtroom in 1906, the
courthouse remained as
it was originally built for
nearly a half-century. By
the mid–1930s, however,
Columbia County commissioners felt the building
needed to be modernized.
This resulted in sweeping
changes beginning in the
mid-1930s. The entire look
and feel of the courthouse
In 1935, the bronze
Blind Justice statutes and
eagles were removed (
during World War II, they
were melted for scrap metal). In 1938,
the building got a more sweeping “face
lift,” as it was then termed. The old exterior finish and Victorian detail was taken
down, the cupola removed, and the building painted black and white. It was such a
dramatic change that a Columbia Chronicle article in November 1938 remarked
that the courthouse had taken on the
appearance of an entire new building.
The modernization trend continued.
In 1950, the building’s remaining orna-
mentation was stripped, and a new coat
of stucco was applied on the remaining
bare surface. Also in the 1950s, half of
the indoor stairway was removed, parti-
tions were built, and ceilings
lowered. In 1952, the locust
trees planted in the court-
house yard in the 19th cen-
tury were chopped down.
During the 1970s, Dayto-nians began taking steps to
preserve the town’s rich architectural history. In 1975,
the courthouse was listed
on the National Register. In
1984, a large-scale restoration program for the building began, with the goal of
returning it to its 19th-centu-
ry splendor. Restoration was
completed in the summer
of 1993. The cupola was returned to the roof and the scales of justice
once again rose above the front entrance
of the building. NWL
F. A. Shaver, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington (Spokane: Western Historical
Publishing Company, 1906), 327–328; W. F.
Fletcher, Early Columbia County (Fairfield, WA:
Ye Galleon Press, 1988), 62–64; David Chapman, “Blind Justice on the Touchet,” Columbia
Magazine, Winter 1993/1994, p. 14–20; “City
History,” City of Dayton website accessed on
July 26, 2006 ( www.daytonwa.com/history.
htm); “Downtown Historic Dayton Walking
Tour,” brochure, Dayton Historic Preservation