Ellensburg’s history has some interesting and scary stories


The Pearl porch seating on a sunny afternoon. Photo by MJ Rivera

MJ Rivera, Columnist

You already know Ellensburg is a small town and home to CWU, but do you know the history of the buildings you see around town? Inspired by the upcoming historic pub crawl, I wanted to share a few stories from Ellensburg’s past that you likely haven’t been told, including one about murder.

I had the privilege of interviewing the director of the Kittitas County Historical Museum, Sadie Thayer, and the owner of The Pearl Bar & Grill, Blake Collins, to put these stories from Ellensburg’s timeline together.

Where The Huntsman Tavern is now: A story of the Kleinberg brothers

The Huntsman Tavern is a restaurant and bar located downtown on Pearl street in the Kleinberg building. 

The Kleinberg building is named after the Kleinberg brothers, who were merchants of textiles and hay, and part of one of the only two Jewish families in Ellensburg in the early 1900s, according to Thayer.

“They actually brought hay to the market in Seattle and all across the world,” Thayer said. “Around 1900-1910, they’re the ones who opened the Kittitas Valley hay industry to the world. They’re the ones that really put us on the scene and made the hay industry what it is today, or [they] helped to create that boom.”

According to Thayer, there was also a Jewish meeting hall on the third floor of what is now The Huntsman Tavern. The second floor was a hotel, and the main floor was the Kleinbergs’ clothing store. The building was also larger, but the second half of the building on the south side was destroyed in the fire of 1935.

“The second and third floors [were] essentially trapped in time until the more recent remodel that happened here just a few years ago, that then turned [them] into [an] apartment,” Thayer said.

A scary story placed where Pita Pit and Grocery Outlet stand today

Just two doors away from the Kleinberg building, where our Pita Pit resides today, was a bar that many Ellensburg residents were fond of in the late 1800s called the Teutonia Saloon.

The story goes that in 1895, a 55-year-old man named Samuel Vinson followed a man named John Buerglin into the Teutonia Saloon, demanding him to buy him a drink. Buerglin refused and Vinson stabbed him in the side with a knife, according to Thayer.

It was at this time that the owner of the bar, Michael Kohlhepp, tried to break up the fight with a club. Then, Vinson’s son, 29-year-old Charles Vinson, followed his father into the saloon with a revolver and shot Kohlhepp, who died later that night. The Vinson men were taken to the Ellensburg jail. Buerglin died from his stab wounds two days later, according to Thayer.

That night that Buerglin died, a mob of Ellensburg residents, angered by the deaths of their friends from Teutonia Saloon, decided to break into the jail to bring the father and son to justice.

Perhaps they wouldn’t have been so inclined to take the fate of these men into their own hands were it not for the then-recent sloppy handling of a crime in Roslyn a couple years prior.

“The crowd was tried to be reasoned with multiple times, saying that cooler heads will prevail [and] that they will get justice,” Thayer said. “The crowd was like, ‘no, there will be no justice except our own,’ because they looked at the miscarriage of justice…when the Roslyn bank robbery happened in 1892. There was witness tampering [and] witness intimidation. The bad guys got away. Communities had no faith in the justice system.”

So, the mob with over 40 angry citizens held police at gun-point as they forced the jail door open. The mob took the father and son to a light pole on 7th and Pearl street and attempted to scale it, intending to hang the Vinson men from it. 

But, a man who lived in a house by the light pole came outside and explained to the mob that his wife was upset by all of their commotion, and he asked them to take their business elsewhere. The mob actually did as the man requested.

“It was probably not so much that they wanted to listen to him,” Thayer said. “They were having trouble scaling the light pole to get up there to provide a way to lynch the father and son.”

According to Thayer, they took the Vinson men to a cottonwood grove where the Grocery Outlet now stands and they hung them, using the father and son as counterweights to each other. 

“Eight men were actually arrested as a result of the lynching, but because it happened at dark with torch light, no one could really see anything,” Thayer said. “Anyone who was actually tried [either] got off on a mistrial or they were released. Nobody was convicted for the crime, for the lynching.”

Thayer said one strange part of the story is that the Teutonia Saloon was open on a Sunday, against “blue law,” which dictated that bars would not be open on Sundays.

Kittitas County Historical Museum against a blue sky. Photo by MJ Rivera

A story of Ellensburg resilience: Pearl street and the fire of 1889

Okay, we can stop talking about murder now. This is the story of the fire that burned the city down and the unsolved mystery of the fire’s origin.

“It was a really dry summer, just like some of the summers we have now. It was really, really windy, like some of the days we have now,” Thayer said. “On the 4th of July in 1889 at about 10:30 p.m., Ellensburg caught fire.”

The blue front door of J.S. Anthony’s, a general goods store located where The Early Bird is today, caught fire.

“[With] the gale-force wind, a lack of water and [a] wooden building burning in downtown Ellensburg, that fire swept through the downtown, hot enough that brick melted like candle wax,” Thayer said.

According to Thayer, the fire put itself out by 3:30 a.m. and downtown was gone, 10 blocks of buildings were ashes, except for one building on 5th and Pearl, where Pearl Street Books & Gifts resides today.

“That’s the only surviving testament to before the fire,” Thayer said.

There is still speculation about what caused the fire.

“Could it have been a candle? Could it have been oily rags leading to spontaneous combustion? Could it have been fireworks? It was July fourth, but the city of Ellensburg had enacted an ordinance in honor and recognition of Seattle, which had burned the month before, saying we would not have fireworks,” Thayer said.

Thayer also mentioned the possibility that the fire could have been started intentionally. Seattle burned in June, Ellensburg burned in July, and Spokane burned in August. Could someone have planned this fire tour across the state?

“We don’t know what caused the great fire,” Thayer said. “We know downtown was destroyed in four hours. We know we rebuilt in four months.”

Remembering resilience over a century later: The phoenix on the Davidson building

The Davidson building, located on 4th and Pearl, features a mural of a phoenix on the wall next to the entrance of The Pearl Bar & Grill. A phoenix is a bird-like mythological being that resurrects itself from the ashes of its former self, representing the life that follows death, according to phoenix.gov.

“The Davidson building was built in 1889 [and] it was the first building rebuilt after the great Ellensburg fire,” owner of The Pearl Bar & Grill Blake Collins said. “We were the first building erected from the ashes of Ellensburg. So, [the] phoenix coming from the ashes.”

Collins also explained that the Davidson building has a spire on the top of it that was meant to capture people’s attention from a distance, perhaps as they were riding the train through town.

The Pearl Bar & Grill: The “martini glass” of Ellensburg

Old history is cool, but so is recent history, like that of The Pearl Bar & Grill.

The Pearl Bar & Grill opened in 2019, following the Starlight Lounge, which was open from 2001 to 2018.

“The Starlight was [the] lounge that kind of brought the martini glass to Ellensburg,” Collins said. “The Pearl has kind of…continued that ingredient-focused, a little bit more elevated, experience that the Starlight kind of broached Ellensburg with.”

Collins said that inside The Pearl are several nods to Starlight Lounge, where he was a bartender during his time studying business management and leadership at CWU. 

“The gummy bear martini that we had for a while was the Starlight’s cocktail,” Collins said. “[There’s also] the sign above our front bar that says ‘smile,’ and then there’s photos of myself and our bar manager with little Polaroids, that’s an old Starlight tradition.”

The back bar used to be a room for cigars and pool, but The Pearl turned it into a space called the Phoenix Lounge which they use for live music on Fridays and private events.

According to Collins, the idea to open The Pearl came to him while he was working in Seattle.

“I was in a gnarly skydiving accident while I was running a restaurant in Seattle and then decided it was time to come back and open The Pearl when I saw the opportunity,” Collins said.

Collins said he feels that knowing the history of the building is important for any owner of the location.

“I think this building is like the icon of Ellensburg…and I think anybody who is a tenant in this building, in this space, should take pride in the fact that…it’s a piece of history,” Collins said.

Ellensburg’s historic pub crawls

If you have enjoyed these stories of Ellensburg’s past, you might consider attending one of the twice-annual historic pub crawls, put on by the Kittitas County Historical Museum. I was unable to cover the event, due to tickets being sold out.

“The first one was [in May of 2022], so this is fairly new,” Thayer said. “We’ve only done it twice, this is our third one. And we’re already talking about the one for October, which will be [Thursday], October 26.”

Thayer recommends that anyone interested in the historic pub crawls should check out the Kittitas County Historical Museum website or their Facebook page for ticket drops.

“The first one, when it launched, sold out in about a couple days,” Thayer said. “The second one sold out in about three hours. [The one happening on May 26] sold out in about two and a half hours.”