Ritzville, Washington

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After driving for miles and miles across the wide-open and monotonous plains of eastern Washington, you’ll welcome any diversion.  The two small towns of Ritzville and Sprague provide two good excuses to stop.

Location

Ritzville is located off Interstate 90, just east of the US Hwy. 395 junction.  Sprague is about 25 miles east of Ritzville, also on I-90.

My Visit

First, let me say that whoever is in charge of Ritzville’s tourism industry is brilliant.  Probably flat broke, but brilliant nonetheless.  Here’s how they draw you in:

A few miles before you reach the town, you see a sign for a low-wattage radio station, offering tourist information.  You tune to it, of course, because there’s almost no other radio station in range.  The recorded message gloats about the town like a proud parent at a dance recital (you know your eight year old isn’t all that great, but you still drive your friends insane talking about her talent).  “See the new clock in the town square”… “Check out the sculptures next to the train station”… and my favorite one of all, “Don’t forget to stop and say a few words to Mr. Ritz.”

What, this poor Mr. Ritz just hangs around the town square, hoping someone will pull off Interstate 90 to have a chat?  Perhaps he has long since died, but his body lies in state under glass, like Lenin?

The radio message continues to play, over and over again, as you ponder these questions.  Suddenly, you realize you really want to see the farm equipment display.

They’ve hooked you.

As soon as you exit the freeway, you start to see that Ritzville is a town that receives its charm from its rough edges.  There are several truck stop/restaurant/cafe’s along the drive, most with funky old neon signs–some of which I imagine, may even still work.

The town is built along railroad tracks, which slice it in two.  The grain elevators are the only skyscrapers around here.  Again, rough edges.

Finally, you’re there!  All the exciting attractions you’ve heard so much about lay out before you.  The Gritman Building, with its rounded corner!  The Ritz theater!  The new clock in the town square!  And plenty of free parking!

On this Sunday afternoon, Ritzville was all but a ghost town.  There wasn’t even someone nearby to stare at me, and wonder why I was taking a picture of an empty street.

While it wasn’t the thrilling tourist attraction promised on the radio, the recording hadn’t lied.  Which made me seek out the one person I truly wanted to meet.  Sure, a half hour ago I didn’t know he existed, or his town, but now I was determined to have a talk with Mr. Ritz.

And there he was, in the middle of the downtown he helped create, at the corner of Main and Washington.  It turns out, ol’ Ritzy (as President Bush would probably call him) is only a statue.  Not one of those cast-bronze creations, but rather, cut out of sheet metal, just like the other pieces of artwork in the town.  It had rough edges.

As I told Mr. Ritz how much I was enjoying my break from the road through endless wheat fields, I thought of one way this experience could be improved.  I propose the town of Ritzville equip Mr. Ritz’s statue with a speaker box and a push button.  Once activated, he could tell everyone about his namesake metropolis.

Of course, the radio station clearly stated that visitors should say a few words to him, it never promised that he would talk back.

About a block away were the railroad tracks, the old train station, and a long stretch of miscellaneous farming junk, arranged in such a way as to be considered an educational exhibit.

And, as promised, the statue/artwork dedicated to the 16 German pioneer families who, upon reaching eastern Washington, decided they had gone far enough west, and ended their journey in this area.

After that, I wandered around town for a while longer, enjoying every abandoned building…

… and every old neon sign.

Ritzville has done a great job marking its historical buildings.  Almost every building around town displays a plaque listing its date of construction, and former uses.  The downtown district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Also of interest nearby: Rosenoff Road, an excellent scenic alternative to I-90 through the area.

Sprague, Washington

After my positive experience in Ritzville, I was pleased to see another dot on the map, coming up quickly.  Sprague, it turned out, was an entirely different experience.

Once again, this was a town built on the railroad tracks, to service the area’s wheat industry.  Sprague did have a nice church, and some historic old brick buildings with painted signs…

… and of course, grain silos near the railroad tracks…

… but mostly, it had junk.  I particularly enjoyed the sign in the middle of this junkpile:

I bet that’s a big problem for the owners of this junk.  Darned people bringing back junk and trying to take more junk, all without a receipt.

It wasn’t just junk, it was graffiti, and a general sense that no one was making an effort to tidy up the town, or make it the least bit appealing for tourists from the interstate.  Mr. Sprague (if there was such a person) wouldn’t be able to proudly stand on his street corner.

I’m not saying that stopping in Sprague was a total disappointment.  I did manage to take a few good pictures here.

Perhaps it was my gas-buying experience in Sprague that soured me the most on the town.  I was running on empty, and feared I wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it to Spokane (just a little more than 20 miles away).  So, I forked over $10 at the only station in town, which was charging a hefty $3.17/gallon–the most I have ever paid for gas, anywhere (the average price during my trip was around $2.89/g).

If there’s one tourist draw that’s helping keep Sprague alive, it’s Sprague Lake, just west of town.  It’s good for fishing, apparently, but not especially scenic, so I didn’t bother with it.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.  Much of the same area was covered in the Big Sky trip in 2014.

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