Wallula -- Thumbnail History

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 9/09/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10524
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Wallula, an unincorporated census-designated place in Walla Walla County, was originally located near the site of Fort Nez Perces. The fort was one of the first white settlements in the state, and was a center for fur trade. As barges became plentiful in the mid- and late 1800s, Wallula's location near the junction of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers made it a bustling freight hub to nearby Walla Walla and points northeast. An 1875 rail line from Walla Walla to Wallula further increased Wallula's commerce as transportation became more efficient. In 1947 construction began on McNary Dam, on the Columbia River about 30 miles downstream from Wallula. The dam created a reservoir (Lake Wallula) that submerged the old townsite. By 1953, the town of Wallula had moved to higher ground about two miles away. Wallula's population did not grow much after the move, and was listed at 179 people at the 2010 census.

Early Days

Migrating bands of Walla Walla, Nez Perce, Cayuse, and Umatilla peoples traditionally populated the area around Wallula. The name "Wallula" is another form of "Walla Walla," a Nez Perce name that means "running waters" (Paulus). The Wallula area was the birthplace of Smohalla (1815?-1895), a well-known Wanapum spiritual leader. Smohalla was a shaman, and his powers included predicting salmon runs and earthquakes. Smohalla vigorously opposed ceding land to whites, or assimilating into white culture. He was later named one of the 100 most influential people in state history in Washington’s Centennial Hall of Honor.

The area around Wallula became one of the first white settlements in Washington state when Donald McKenzie (1783-1851) of the North West Company built Fort Nez Perces (later known as Fort Walla Walla). The fort, on the site of the future Wallula, was built in 1818 as the North West Company vied with the Hudson's Bay Company for control of the Northwest fur trade. The Hudson's Bay Company acquired the fort in 1821. 

Even before the fort was built, the area around Wallula had some illustrious tourists. Its location on the east bank of the Columbia River (at the mouth of the Walla Walla River and roughly 10 miles downstream from the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers) was perfect for explorers scouting the area by canoe. In 1805 and 1806, Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) passed through on their Corps of Discovery expedition, stopping on their return trip to camp with a party of Walla Wallas at the mouth of the Walla Walla River. They received a gift of a white horse from Chief Yellept. In 1810-1811, Canadian explorer David Thompson (1770-1857) arrived in the vicinity under the banner of the Pacific Fur Company.

The fort survived its fair share of trouble. In 1841, it burned to the ground, but was rebuilt shortly after (using adobe bricks, for good measure). During the Indian wars of the 1850s, the fort was abandoned for fear of violence. (It was eventually moved to a location closer to the current city of Walla Walla.)

A Thriving Port 

After the closure of Fort Nez Perces, Wallula was saved from oblivion by its location on the Columbia. It soon became an all-important port to supply the growing Walla Walla. Steamers and barges shipped loads to Wallula, where coaches and other freight-laden vehicles would proceed overland to the bigger city. One estimate states that by 1862, nearly 150 tons of freight landed at Wallula weekly. In addition from 50 to 600 passengers came through each week. Old-timer Wallulan A. S. Johnson, writing in an opinion piece for The Spokesman-Review in 1929, recalled that during those days Wallula was "a real steamboat town," and goes on to say: 

"It was from this old village that freighters with their four, six and eight horse teams and pack trains loaded their freight and with the Concord stage coaches left with passengers for Walla Walla and other northern points. Most of the freight was consigned to merchants in Walla Walla, and there redistributed to different points in the upper country, now known as the great Inland Empire" ("Old Wallula Finds Champion"). 

Despite a desperate need for a rail line to expedite commerce, trains had yet to arrive at Wallula. The resourceful residents decided they couldn't wait for the Northern Pacific. Dorsey S. Baker (1823-1888), a Walla Walla physician, took matters into his own hands and helped build a rail line with the help of area financiers and labor. The line stretched from Wallula to Walla Walla, and was completed in 1875. A $5 fee allowed a user to transport a ton of goods on the line. Earning fame as the "Rawhide Railroad" or "Strap Iron Line," the 32-mile stretch of railway consisted of wooden rails and strap iron. Some lore claims that rawhide was actually used to bind the steel, but by most accounts this was a myth: the name came from the fact that the worn wood and metal resembled rawhide strips. 

By 1876, the Oregon Steam and Navigation Company was receiving 16,766 tons of freight at Wallula; only 1,500 of those tons were from coaches or teams. The other 15,266 tons were by rail. By 1881 the line had been converted to a standard gauge and made part of the Northern Pacific line from Portland. As Wallula had gone from being a fur post to a shipping post, now the town adapted to being a rail hub as cars from Portland, Pendleton, Spokane, and Walla Walla all stopped at the station to receive and deliver loads to the ships on the Columbia River.  

A Going Concern  

The little town of Wallula was such a going concern that by 1879, it had a couple of hotels where travelers could rest for the night. The Rescue Hotel probably did not host such glamorous guests as a 1954 Spokesman-Review story claimed when it breathlessly reported that a guestbook had been found boasting signatures from East Coast newspaper mogul Horace Greeley (1811-1872), former president James Garfield (1831-1881), and frontiersman Kit Carson (1809-1860) -- who supposedly listed his address as "the Rocky Mountains" ("The Town that Wouldn't Give Up Reviving"). Both Carson and Greeley were dead before the doors of the hotel opened, and Garfield had not mentioned a trip to Wallula before he was assassinated in 1881. There is some possibility that Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893) did stop in Wallula while stumping for Garfield's election in 1880, as reported in Helga Anderson Travis's history of the Wallula area, Nez Perce Trail

When the railroad men were in town, they stayed at the rival Wallula Hotel (later called the Union Pacific or U.P. Club). Built in the 1880s, it was the region's dance hall and the place to go for socializing. It also had its own myth, in the form of a ghost story: a couple found murdered in one of the rooms supposedly haunted the place. 

Wallula originally held classes for youngsters in old Fort Nez Perces, but in 1889 a school was built to accommodate the growing population of children. The Wallula Herald was also publishing by that time, and a fire department was established the same year. Two grocery stores, a drugstore, a millinery, and "Chinese laundries" were also accounted for in Wallula by 1889 (Nez Perce Trail, p. 126). Mail arrived quite early to the area, perhaps signaling the little town's importance; a boat from The Dalles reportedly started delivering by 1861, and in 1862 a post office was established.

An Unincorporated Railroad Town

Despite the hustle and bustle of its earlier days, Wallula never formally incorporated, and is officially referred to as a "census-designated place." The lack of formal incorporation makes finding records of population or growth difficult.  A Seattle Times article from 1950 reports that old-timers in the area estimated the population in the mid- to late 1800s as anywhere from 1,000 to several thousand people. 

Throughout most of Wallula's history, it was known as a center for railway activity. A 1911 Seattle Times story described the little city as a "railroad town," and it was often called that up until the 1950s ("Fire Destroys Three Blocks of Wallula"). Despite early efforts at farming -- in 1911, Wallula planted a 20-acre apple orchard that didn't come to much -- most of the residents of the town were employed on the railway or at the depot.   

It's also worth noting that floods had always been an issue in Wallula's history. Because of the town's location near the Walla Walla and Columbia rivers -- only 326 feet above sea level -- Wallula was often subject to the dangers of high waters. A flood in 1876 temporarily made Wallula nothing more than a five-acre island surrounded by water, as the railroad bridge was loaded with rock and gravel to prevent it from lifting with the water. In an 1894 flood, rising waters inundated almost every home in Wallula.

As the little town chugged along, its history provided some occasional archaeological finds. The Seattle Times reported in 1950 that an informal group of hobbyists set upon the site of old Fort Nez Perces with metal detectors to sniff out the old cannons or firearms of the early traders. Calling itself C.H.A.O.S. (Cannon Hunters Association of Seattle), the group was particularly interested in finding a coehorn mortar that was buried somewhere under the silt of several floods. Travis's Nez Perce Trail also recounts that Spode china was found on the site, as well as glassware and upholstered furniture from its days as a fur-trading outpost. 

The town continued as a "railroad town" until well into the twentieth century. But Wallula -- which lived off the commerce of fur trading, steamboat freight, and rail transport throughout its history -- was now at the mercy of a burgeoning technology it couldn't survive. Hydroelectric power, a godsend to the growing region around the little town, would spell Wallula's demise. 

McNary Dam

There had been some call for dams even before the twentieth century; navigating the Columbia had always been difficult. By 1931, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had conducted a study on the feasibility of dams and recommended dam placement along the Columbia in 10 places. One recommended dam would be located near the Umatilla Rapids, about 30 miles downstream from Wallula. In 1945, Congress secured funding for the project and by 1947, McNary Dam was under construction.  

With McNary Dam came Lake Wallula. That was the name given to the reservoir that would hold water backed up by the dam. Lake Wallula would submerge Wallula -- and its all-important rail lines. The site of old Fort Nez Perces would be the first to go under the lake, and so Wallulans held a farewell party for the fort in April 1953. Speakers from town recalled the history of the place for nostalgic old-timers and curious youngsters in the area.   

In 1950 the town made the decision to relocate and residents began moving houses to higher ground. The roughly 25 families that moved established themselves about two miles northeast of the original town. They kept the town name of Wallula. Residents were compensated for their forced removal, and the government covered the costs of moving their homes.

On March 8, 1953, old Wallula was submerged under Lake Wallula. After McNary Dam was raised to its full height, Lake Wallula covered the old town in 16 feet of water. Before the McNary dam decision, the town had about 500 residents. But as it became clear that removal was imminent -- and employment in the new Wallula, with its lack of a rail line, would be limited -- many moved away. In 1953 the population of the new Wallula came to about 60 residents. 

One issue was what to do about the burials in area cemeteries. According to The Seattle Times, there was concern about a Native burial ground, before "a council of Indian elders pronounced this judgment: 'Let the water flow above the graves of our people'" ("The Ironic Joke of a Town's Name"). The Army Corps of Engineers spent $18,000 removing and reinterring bodies from two other local cemeteries.

Wallula After the Dam

Wallula never received a boost of population or industry after the move. By 1979, the town had grown to about 100 people. There was a combined post office, Greyhound bus station, and grocery store. A Boise Cascade plant two miles north of town provided a few residents with a steady income. However, the plant (and a nearby feedlot) polluted the air, with Wallula recording readings of twice the accepted amount of pollution. It was only in 2005 that Wallula came off the "nonattainment" list of Clean Air Act violators.

The area has recently seen the development of wind farms. Turbines can be seen for miles along the banks of the Columbia. In 2008, land near Wallula was leased to research whether carbon emissions could be captured safely underground. By 2013, the two-week experiment had begun -- 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide was injected into basalt, and monitored for leakage. 

The Wallula stone, a boulder covered in Indian petroglyphs, is a present-day reminder of the ancient peoples of the Wallula area. The boulder originally stood near the old Fort Nez Perces. In 1910 it was moved to Portland. It resided in front of the Portland City Hall until 1996, when it was transferred to the Warriors Memorial on the Umatilla Reservation. 

Wallula's population at the 2010 census was 179 people. 


HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Homeward bound, the Lewis and Clark Expedition leaves Washington state on May 5, 1806" (by Cassandra Tate), "North West Company builds Fort Nez Perce on future site of Wallula" (by David Wilma), "Washington Territorial Legislature incorporates City of Walla Walla on January 11, 1862" (by John Caldbick), "Walla Walla & Columbia River Railroad is completed from Wallula to Walla Walla on October 23, 1875" (by Elizabeth Gibson), "President Eisenhower dedicates McNary Dam on September 23, 1954" (by Elizabeth Gibson), "Walla Walla"(by Michael Paulus Jr.), "Walla Walla County" (by Paula Becker), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 2013); Jess C. Moll, "An Old Town Sinks Beneath the Waters," The Spokesman-Review, January 10, 1954, p. 14; "Moving Time Will Be in Spring," Ibid., January 23, 1953, p. 16; "Town That Wouldn't Give Up Reviving," Ibid., July 22, 1954, p. 7; Frank Hewlett, "Firm Buys Wallula Site," Ibid., January 5, 1968, p. 1; "Downtown Wallula Growing," Ibid., February 6, 1979, p. 6; "Old Wallula Finds Champion," Ibid., May 12, 1929, p. 4; Jim B. Schick, "Deserted Old Wallula Waits for Watery Graves, Oblivion," Ibid., March 8, 1958, p. 20; "First 100 Years Were the Hardest," Ibid., April 22, 1962, p. 19; "Wallula to be on the Line of North Coast," The Seattle Times, June 4, 1907, p. 11; "Will Build Line from Dayton to Pasco," Ibid., August 20, 1909, p. 4; "Wallula Tests Fruit," Ibid., April 19, 1911, p. 2; "Fire Destroys Three Blocks of Wallula," Ibid., July 6, 1911, p. 2; "Vignettes of Washington History," Ibid., October 12, 1949, p. 29; "Seattle Cannon Hunters on Safari," Ibid., March 23, 1950, p. 17; "Old Fort Walla Walla was Lonely Outpost Century Ago," Ibid., June 4, 1950, p. 64; Fred Zavattero, "Wallula Folk, Living Behind McNary Dam, Must Seek New Homes Next Year," Ibid., June 5, 1950, p. 10; E. B. Fussell, "The Ironic Jokes of a Town's Name," Ibid., December 17, 1950, p. 76; "Petroglyph Stone Rededicated," Ibid., July 30, 1996, p. B-2; "Agriculture, Not Pulp Mill, Blamed for Town's Pollution," Ibid., January 6, 1991, p. B-2; Hal Bernton, "As Wind Power Booms, So Do the Challenges," Ibid., May 23, 2010, p. A-1; Kate Riley, "Science At the Bend of Climate Change," Ibid., May 27, 2008, p. B-6; Sandi Doughton, "A Fix for Global Warming Under Our Feet?" Ibid., July 27, 2013, p. A-1; Columbia River Images, "Wallula, Washington," website accessed August 2013 (http://columbiariverimages.com/Regions/Places/wallula.html); The Historical Marker Database, "Fort Walla Walla," website accessed August 2013 (http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=34559); "Establishment of Fort Nez Perces," TrailTribes.org website accessed August 2013 (http://www.trailtribes.org/umatilla/establishment-of-fort-nez-perces.htm); Joshua Binus, "Fort Nez Perce," Oregon Historical Society website accessed August 2013 (http://www.ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/historical_records/dspDocument.cfm?doc_ID=F6A8332B-99C4-6A9D-DB54C6E7817A2698); William Denison Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley, Washington (Chicago: S. J. Clark Publishing, 1919); William Denison Lyman, History of Old Walla Walla County (Chicago: S. J. Clark Publishing, 1918).
Note: This essay was clarified on September 1, 2017, regarding the junction of the Walla Walla River with the Columbia River.

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