The economy of Cle Elum has managed to keep pace with changes in railroading, coal mining, and saw milling. It now depends primarily on logging and recreation. The Native Americans referred to it as the "beautiful valley," but what ultimately spurred white settlement of the upper county communities of Cle Elum and Roslyn was something dark dug out of the ground-coal, black gold. Although rich in Native American history and lore, the northern portion of Kittitas County was not the home of year-round Yakama Indian settlements. The Yakamas did frequent the area during the summer months to fish and pick berries. Cle Elum (which means "swift waters") traces its history to 1881 and a pair of friends from Pennsylvania, Walter J. Reed and Thomas Gamble.
Gamble, a prospector, had traveled through the region, and upon a chance meeting with Reed in Yakima, told him of the beauty and possibility of rich resources in the area. Reed and his wife, Barbara, traveled to northern Kittitas County from Yakima and were immediately taken with the territory. In the spring of 1891, Reed filed a preemption claim of what is now the original town site of Cle Elum.
In 1894, Reed and Pete Brosious discovered coal in what is now Roslyn. Coal created boom towns of Cle Elum and Roslyn. By 1905, Cle Elum's population was 1,500 and eventually reached a peak of 3,000. Reed and his wife envisioned Cle Elum as "another Pittsburgh." Cle Elum steadily declined in population through the century as the coalmines closed and the timber industry dwindled. Cottages built for miners and mill workers give residential streets a homogeneous, turn-of-the-century appearance.
Cle Elum has Barbara Reed to thank for its broad streets the wife of the founder of this town. She was determined that the town should have this amenity. The Reeds lobbied the approaching Northern Pacific to build a depot on their land and even offered the company half of all profit from lot sales in their newly platted townsite.