Dayton, Washington (population 2,715), is the seat of Columbia County, in the southeastern part of the State. Dayton is nestled in a valley 1,600 feet above sea level, at the confluence of the Touchet River and Patit Creek. In 1806, members of the Lewis and Clark expedition were perhaps the first white people to set foot in what is now known as Columbia County.
Dayton is known for being part of the "Forgotten Trail," a portion of the Corps of Discovery's journey that historians often leave out. The expedition camped on the banks of the Patit Creek, a short distance from the present site of the Columbia County Courthouse.
As part of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, Dayton created a full scale, historically authentic model of the Patit Creek camp site, including the restoration of period vegetation and an interpretive kiosk. In 2006, Dayton and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla will co-sponsor Corps of Discovery II, a traveling National Park Service interpretive exhibit.
By 1855, pioneers had moved out of what would become Dayton due to Indian attacks, and from 1855 to 1859, wars or rumors of wars abounded between Indian tribes and American settlers and troops. In 1859, however, Governor Stevens announced the treaties that ended the wars. New settlers arrived that spring, and Indian land with 75 to 100 teepee frames was established.
Dayton was known as "Day's town" after settler Jesse Day, who filed the plat of the town site and owned most of its businesses. Dayton was incorporated in 1874 and soon became a thriving community. From 1876 to 1878, Dayton was a wild and wooly town, with gambling and 15 saloons for its 1,500 people. Some of the best-known desperados of the West were entertained here until law and order were established.
Between 1880 and 1910, prosperous Dayton businessmen and farmers built residential, commercial, and public buildings in the Queen Anne, Italianate, Gothic, and Craftsman styles. Today, 117 of those buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and form three National Historic Districts. Self-guided walking tour maps are available for each district.
Dayton's Historic Depot, originally built in 1881 in the Stick/Eastlake style, is now the oldest surviving passenger station in the State. The depot features a variety of exhibits depicting the history of Dayton, Columbia County, and Washington State.
The county's 1887 courthouse, the oldest working courthouse in the State, features beautiful Italianate architecture. A major renovation to restore the exterior ornamental detail was completed in the early 1990s. Dayton has also recently renovated the Liberty Theater on Main Street, and offers annual Depot Days and Historic Home Tours.
A popular tourism program is the Art, Wine, and Heritage Getaway package, which includes historic hotel lodging, a movie in the restored theater, historic depot admission, wine and art gallery tours, and local maps. Historic preservation and heritage tourism have helped diversify and revitalize Dayton's economy.
The downtown business district is enjoying the highest occupancy level in over 20 years, population is increasing for the first time in more than 100 years, and poverty has dropped significantly.
Designated a Preserve America Community in January 2005.