| Single Vote Robbed Vancouver of State Capitol
Compiled from the Columbian Archives
But for a single vote of the Territorial Supreme Court 100 years
ago, press correspondents now might be filing their stories on the
state legislature with a Vancouver dateline.
Ambitious Vancouverites almost succeded a century ago in uprooting
the capital of what was then Washington Territory and moving it to
the banks of the Columbia River.
It all started in December, 1860, when a bill authorizing the transfer
was somehow maneuvered through the territorial legislature.
During most of 1861, the Vancouver faction alternately tried to cajole
and coerce territorial agencies into complying with the legislature's
Vancouver was even the scene of a rump session of the territorial
legislature -- attended by only a handful of legislators from Southwest
Washington -- but nonetheless conducted with all due ceremony in December,
But in all their pushing and hauling, Vancouverites overlooked a seemingly
innocent legal technicality that ultimately spelled disaster for the
The wording of the legislature's act was clear and undisputed: "From
and after passage of this act, the seat of government for the territory
of Washington shall be and remain at the city of Vancouver in Clarke
A following section was equally explicit: "The Capitol commissioners
are hereby empowered and directed to locate the grounds and erect
the Capitol building thereon at the city of Vancouver, according to
the instructions from the government of the United States and the
laws of this Territory in relation thereto."
Someone, however, neglected to date the act, identify it as a statute
of the Washington Territory and preface it with the words "Be it enacted
The oversight (some said later it was a deliberate omission) proved
In a 2-1 decision in December, 1861, the Supreme Court voided the
act on the grounds that according to tradition, an enabling clause
was required to validate a piece of legislation.
Justice Ethelbert P. Oliphant, author of the majority opinion, ruled
that "where enacting words are prescribed, nothing can be law which
is not introduced by these very words."
In what a Clark County chronicler was later to describe as a "long,
able and convincing opinion,"
Justice James E. Wyche dissented from the majority view of Justices
Oliphant and Christopher C. Hewitt. Justice Wyche maintained the intent
of the legislature was clear and held that neither legal precedent
nor the Organic Act for Washington Territory required an "enacting
style" to make a law valid.
Although rivalry between Olympia and Vancouver undoubtedly played
a part in the court's decision, Justice Oliphant loftily disclaimed
Wrote he in the orotund phrases of his day: "As individuals it is
a matter of indifference to us whether the seat of government for
Washington be located on the banks of the Columbia River of fame historic,
the Cowlitz, Chehalis or the golden regions beyond the Cascade Mountains
or on the shores washed by the waves of the ocean."
Reaction to the court's decision among Clark County residents was
one of dissapointment mixed with indignation. "
As is natural to suppose," a local historian wrote later, "this decision
aroused a feeling of deep indignation in the hearts of the people
of Clarke County and rge residents generally along the Coulmbia ...
They stigmatized the enacting clause in their wrath as a silly quibble
and looked upon such an objection as unworthy of the dignity of a
Today, Vancouver's ill-fated bid to become Washington's political
hub perhaps seems more remarkable for its near success than for its
How was the legislature ever persuaded to move the capitol out of
the Puget Sound area in the first place?
What little evidence remains points to fast political footwork on
the part of the Vancouver delegation.
Caples, a member of the territorial council in 1860 and
grandfather of Vancouver attorney D. Elwood Caples, is reported
to have remarked afterward that "much underhanded work prevailed
at the session."
Judge William Ranck, Clark County representative in the territorial
House of Representatives, also may have had something to do with piloting
the bill to final enactment.
At any rate, once the act was on the books, Clark County residents
went to work with a will to bring the capital south.
According to one account, Clark County citizens offered to foot the
bill for moving territorial agencies and records.
But territorial officials, firmly ensconced in Olympia, refused to
Legal action against J.C. Head, territorial librarian, for failing
to comply with the legislature's directive to move to Vancouver was
thrown out by the Supreme Court -- in Olympia.
Despite strenuous efforts, no progress had been made by December,
1861, when the fifth territorial legislature convened in Olympia --
According to the late Glenn Ranck, former city treasurer and local
historian, the "legislature" met in Vancouver at Brant's Hall, now
the site of the Ford Building at Sixth and Main Streets.
It was a great event.
Judge Ranck and a few representatives attended -- all those for whom
it was easiest to come to Vancouver. Henry Caples was present as the
sole member of the territorial council which corresponded to the present-day
Senate. The house elected first.
Then it adjourned itself and came in along with as many others as
could find room to watch Henry Caples elect presiding officers.
According to Ranck's
account, Caples did a good job of it.
Perfectly serious, he
called himself to order, called for nominations, nominated himself,
closed nominations, held an election, installed himself and presently
For a week or more, the
two rump legislatures met, one in Olympia and one in Vancouver.
Before the Supreme Court
in Olympia, meanwhile, representatives of the Vancouver delegation
challenged the high court's authority to hear the case anywhere
After all, argued the
Vancouverites, hadn't the legislature already transferred the seat
of government to Vancouver and wasn't the court required by law
to assemble at the legally constituted capital, namely Vancouver?
No, said the justices. They had convened at Olympia, a few days
later the court handed down the Seat of Government decision, thus
ending Vancouver's bid for a place in the sun.