James “Cashup” Davis was a puny kid with a quick smile, a brilliant mind, and a dream of traveling from his home in England to the American West. The British immigrant combined eccentricity, intelligence, and unstoppable drive, and left everything to come to the very edge of western settlement. More than 100 years later, his apple trees still bear fruit and his legacy lives on. After hearing about Cashup’s Steptoe Butte hotel since he was a boy, his great grandson, successful businessman Gordon W. Davis, decided to research the story. He reveals it in the new Basalt Books biography, Cashup Davis: The Inspiring Life of a Secret Mentor.
With his wife Mary Ann and nine of his eleven children, Cashup was among the first to plow the Palouse in 1870. Living at first in a simple sod house, they turned their bunchgrass acreage into a farm, built the first house in St. John, befriended Native Americans despite a war ignited by the U.S. government’s treaty violations, and eventually opened an immensely popular and prosperous stagecoach stop. Cashup was a regional celebrity, but he had another dream—one that may have sprouted from the English castles he saw as boy. Despite his advancing age, he was determined to build a luxury hotel on one of the region’s highest points. People told him it was a ridiculous idea, but obsessed, nothing could stop him. He faced extreme snow and rain, a cricket invasion, money woes, manpower shortages, construction site disasters, and more.
Against all odds, Cashup’s opulent Steptoe Butte hotel opened on July 4, 1888—a sensation reported in newspapers throughout the region. He reveled in entertaining, and hosted acclaimed parties with a decadence that belied the place and time. He featured magic shows of smoke and light, a telescope that peered beyond the horizon, and delicacies that partygoers had never seen before. Soon, Cashup became one of Washington’s first national celebrities—until it all came crashing down. Abandoned, the hotel burned to the ground in a spectacular 1911 blaze.
To uncover the details, Gordon, along with award-winning investigative television reporter Jeff Burnside, combed the archives of small-town museums, scoured burial records, sifted through countless newspaper articles and family records, and searched obscure digital archives. The pair used drones, and even put up posters in eastern Washington farm towns with the question, “Is Cashup Davis in your attic?”—all with the hope of finding additional photos, documents, letters, and artifacts to lend insight into the story. Eventually Jeff formed The Cashup Crew, an informal squad of people interested in unearthing as much as they could about the unlikely hotel’s builder. And it worked.
(Image above is artwork from a 1904 postcard featuring the Steptoe Butte hotel.)