White Salmon -- Thumbnail History

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 2/27/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22654
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White Salmon, a town of 2,540 residents in Klickitat County, is on the north side of the Columbia River, 65 miles east of Portland, Oregon. The town was named after the nearby White Salmon River, which had been given that name by explorers Lewis and Clark when they saw white-fleshed salmon being caught by local tribes. The first non-Native settlers were Erastus and Mary Joslyn, who arrived in 1853 and started an orchard and vegetable garden on 320 acres. Around 1859, the Klickitats, Cascades, and other Columbia River tribes were moved to the Yakama Reservation and the region was opened up to more settlers. Pioneer families included the Jewetts, who helped grow White Salmon, and the Suksdorfs who settled in Bingen two miles away. A decades-long rivalry over municipal services, including the post office and the railway station, dogged both towns. White Salmon was incorporated as a city of the fourth class on June 3, 1907. In 1912, legislation was introduced to divide Klickitat County and create White Salmon County, but no action was taken. During the twentieth century, fruit and lumber defined the city's economic structure. In more recent years, the city has tried to capitalize on the tech sector, fermentation industries, and outdoor sports, including windsurfing.

First Non-Native Settlers

Situated on a bluff about 550 feet above the Columbia River, White Salmon is three miles downstream from the mouth of the White Salmon River. Archaeological evidence shows that at least 12 villages of the Klickitat tribe had occupied the area for generations. The town was named after the White Salmon River, which was named by Lewis and Clark in 1805 after they saw white-fleshed salmon being caught and dried by the local tribes.  

The first recorded non-Native settlers were Erastus S. and Mary Joslyn, who arrived in 1853 from Massachusetts. The couple was able to claim 320 acres through the federal Donation Land Law enacted in 1850. They had no legal obligation to compensate the Klickitats for the loss of their land, but did so voluntarily, giving the tribe blankets, flour, cloth, and other items as payment. By the end of the first summer, the Joslyns had built a log cabin and barn and established an orchard and vegetable garden.

War and Displacement

In 1856, the Yakama War escalated and the Joslyns sought refuge in the blockhouse at Fort Cascades. A treaty secured the previous year by territorial governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) required Native American land to be ceded to the United States

"in exchange for reservations, some payments, and the right to fish. The imbalance in the treaties was quickly realized by the Native Americans, some of whom lashed out at the white settlers flooding into the territory. The Yakamas, Klickitats, and perhaps local Indians targeted the settlements at the Cascades, which they knew to be of strategic importance to upriver settlements. In March 1856, Indians attacked Fort Rains, a blockhouse built at the Middle Cascades to protect the portage railway. Ten settlers and three soldiers died; in retaliation, the U.S. Army hanged nine Indians" ("Skamania County – Thumbnail History").

After the war, the local indigenous peoples, primarily the Klickitats but also the Cascades and other Columbia River tribes, were allowed to remain in the area for several years until they could be relocated to the Yakama Reservation. To establish a temporary reservation, territory officials took over the Joslyn claim, possessing "said lands and improvements, and set the same apart as an Indian reservation, and located thereon a large number of Indians, together with a sub-agency, its employees, and a detachment of troops for their protection. This occupancy continued for three years and the lands were held and used to the entire exclusion of the said Joslyn and his family" ("Report to the House of Representatives"). More than a decade later, Joslyn requested $4,000 from the government in rent and damages, testifying that his fence, orchards, and large quantities of timber were destroyed during the three-year occupation. In 1872, the U.S House of Representatives Committee on Indian Affairs agreed to pay the Joslyns half that sum.

New Arrivals

On October 31, 1858, after the Klickitats lost their ancestral lands, the area around White Salmon was offered to pioneers and the region grew quickly. One early settler was the Reverend E. P. Roberts, who moved there in 1862 from The Dalles. Roberts, who had served as a missionary in the South Sea Islands, bought land above Joslyn's tract. His son, A. S. Roberts, was born there in 1862, said to be the first white child born in the town.

Other early families were A. H. and Jennie Jewett and the large family of German immigrant Detlef Suksdorf, all of whom arrived around 1874. The Jewett family settled in present-day White Salmon, while the Suksdorfs preferred a site about two miles to the east. In 1873, the first White Salmon post office was established at Warner's Landing on the Columbia River, but in 1880 it moved to the C. M. Wolford store in White Salmon, where Jacob Hunsaker was postmaster. Those living by the river had to walk uphill to White Salmon to get their mail. Finally, the Suksdorf family had had enough. In 1892, son Theodor Suksdorf (1854-1948) platted his own town, which he called Bingen in honor of Bingen-on-the-Rhine in his native Germany. In 1896 he became the town's first postmaster, and was also its first mayor after the town was incorporated in 1924. 

A Naming Controversy

The post office squabble was just the first of several rivalries between the two towns. When rail service was established in 1908 by the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway, a dispute broke out over the naming of the train depot. As the larger community, White Salmon thought their name should appear on the station, but Bingen residents disagreed. "White Salmon has commenced to put on airs and was rather uppish yesterday when Harry M. Adams, general freight and passenger agent for the Spokane, Portland & Seattle, would not consent to immediately paint out the name of White Salmon on the depot buildings" ("Railroad Leads Way ..."). 

The joint name of White Salmon-Bingen was proposed and lasted a few months before the railway company removed Bingen's name from the station building, timetables, and other railway materials. "Bingen was laid out and platted some fifteen years ago, and has had a post office for twelve years, but three months after the advent of the first train over the Spokane, Portland & Seattle road, about a year ago, the name of White Salmon appeared on its depot. Bingen was not found on the time cards or tariff sheets issued by the company. The citizens of Bingen charged the town of White Salmon with interfering with their business prospects and just rights. Considerable controversy has passed between both towns and the railroad management until recently, when the state railroad commission and their attorneys met at Bingen and gave the citizens a hearing" ("Unwelcome Name ..."). Bingen's name then was added to the station building, but that was not the end of the matter.

In 1912, the state supreme court held that Washington's public service commission, supported by the superior court of Klickitat County

"acted arbitrarily in attempting to force the Spokane, Portland & Seattle to use on tickets and folders the bracketed names White Salmon and Bingen for a station on its line. The station is in the unincorporated village of Bingen but the railroad uses the name White Salmon, a town about two miles away. The court says as practically all of the business at the station comes from White Salmon, and its tributary territory, it is beyond the power of the commission to force a change" ("State Commission is For ...").

Education and Religion

The first school at White Salmon opened around 1880 with lessons taught by Mr. Levison, and later by Hattie Eaton of Oswego, Oregon. Classes in the early years were at the New Congregational Church, built in 1880. "Before the building was erected open air services were held by Reverend Atkinson under the shade of the oaks. The work of building was mostly voluntary, and the money came from many unexpected sources. Two years later a bell was given us by a dear old lady in New York who had heard about us, and a belfry added to the building. When it was in place and for the first time rang out its call to worship, there was no church at Hood River, and it was the first church bell to sound along the Columbia, between Vancouver and The Dalles" ("Memories of White ...").  

In July 1908, a wooded hillside lot was purchased from the Lauterbach family for 100 gold coins. St. Joseph's Catholic Church was built on the site and was dedicated on April 14, 1912. Among the guests at the opening were church officials from Seattle and Vancouver, Washington, who were treated to lunch at the Colburn Hotel.

Incorporation and Hopes for a New County

The election to incorporate White Salmon was held on March 30, 1907. There were 53 votes in favor of incorporation with six against. C. M. Wolfard (also spelled Wolford) was elected mayor, receiving nearly two-thirds of the votes. R. Lauterbach ran unopposed for treasurer, and four council members were chosen. The fifth council seat ended in a tie and would be decided several months later through votes cast only by city officials. The town's incorporation papers were filed on June 3, 1907. Two years later, electric lights were installed and residents approved a $60,000 bond to install a water system. A 30-foot dam was built on the White Salmon River, providing 1,500 horsepower to pump the water.

In 1912, a bill was introduced in the state legislature that would create a White Salmon County out of part of Klickitat County. The bill passed the Senate but never got out of the House. In 1913, it was reintroduced, but legislators decided to postpone taking any action. Lawmakers in favor of creating White Salmon County included Rep. F. Pierce of Kitsap County and Rep. Houser of King County. Not surprisingly, Rep. N. B. Brooks of Klickitat County was opposed.

A Missed Opportunity

White Salmon's history might have taken another path if businessman Sam Hill (1857-1931) had played his cards differently. Hill, founder of the Maryhill Museum of Art in nearby Goldendale, initially wanted to build his home on the Jewett property, and he offered the family $80,000. The papers were drawn up and signed, but when Hill suggested a celebratory toast, Mrs. Jewett, a fierce teetotaler, immediately dissolved the contract.

Hill ended up purchasing 5,300 acres along the Columbia River, about 40 miles east of White Salmon, where he started building his mansion in 1907. The remote location and spotty water supply caused so many construction delays that Hill decided to turn his mansion into a museum, named for his wife Mary. The building was dedicated, still unfinished, in 1926, and became a major tourist attraction. 

Fruit and Fame

The animosity between White Salmon and Bingen continued to crop up over the years. In the early 1890s, White Salmon farmers transported their fruit to a ferry landing on the Columbia River through a right of way at Bingen until Theodor Suksdorf closed it down. White Salmon "responded with a massive volunteer effort and built their own steamboat dock, the Dock Grade road in 1892, and the Bluff Stairway in 1897. The stairway ran from the old Ziegler place at the foot of the bluff to a landing at the top of the bluff between the Pollard and Teunis Wyers homes. Most accounts have the total number of steps at 652" ("The Columbia River: ..."). The steps were used for about 15 years, then gradually rotted away until destroyed by a bluff fire in the 1950s.

The lush agricultural land surrounding White Salmon enhanced nearby property values and increased transportation options:

"A strip less than two miles long and 100 feet wide, [the north bank road] has taken $48,000 to acquire. A new road will run through the strawberry land of White Salmon, and the owners ask fabulous prices for their property. In addition, the railroad has been compelled to grant many privileges, agreeing to make crossings for them where their land is divided by right of way ... A land boom has struck White Salmon and the price of real estate is soaring skyward. One piece of property changed hands three times in one week, more than $3,000 being made on it in the last two days" ("Paying High ...").

Claims about the region's climate and soil found their way into real estate advertisements: "Do you know that the White Salmon Valley … raises finer berries ten days earlier than Hood River; that our berries are ripe now; that we do not have to irrigate; that we have a better climate and richer soil than Hood River; that our cherries, peaches and applies are hard to excel" ("Do You Know").

The assertions were not far wrong. In 1905, White Salmon farmers met to discuss building a canning facility to process berries, cherries, and peaches as well as tomatoes, asparagus, peas, and other vegetables. That same year, the town sent its best cherries and stalks of seven-foot-tall rye to the Klickitat County exhibit at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon. A gigantic parsnip -- "one of the largest vegetables ever exhibited in any of the Northwest states" ("Husum Has a Big Parsnip ...") measuring nearly 6 feet long -- was picked by W. A. Davidson in 1909 and exhibited at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle.

Apples and pears were also important crops. "The high grade of apples shipped from here have made White Salmon Valley famous the world over. With the completion of prospective improvements in view, the year 1910 will see a marked change in the industrial and fruit lines in the valley" ("Orchard Industry Growing ...").

The Eyrie on the Bluff

In 1910, C. W. J. Reckers, a Seattle hardware-store owner, purchased 23 acres of land above White Salmon to build a resort property that included cabins for guest use. He called his resort The Eyrie, an alternate spelling of aerie (a bird's nest, often that of an eagle, built on high ground). Early newspaper accounts compared the property's setting to "some chateau in the Alps or the Pyrenees" ("The Eyrie Inn ...").

To raise visibility, Reckers invited a handful of railroad executives to be his guests at The Eyrie in 1915. The entourage was suitably impressed and happy to promote the resort to customers. More positive media coverage followed, including this description in the May 23, 1915, issue of The Oregon Journal: "On the verge of a dizzy cliff that drops almost sheer for 1,500 feet to the river, ten Portlanders stood yesterday and cried out in ecstasy at the panorama of mountain and sky and the great sweep of the Columbia that may be seen for miles to the westward and far to the eastward" ("The Eyrie Inn ...").

In spring 1919, Reckers took ill and became paralyzed from the waist down; he died on September 11 that year. His wife operated the resort for a few years before putting it up for sale in 1924. The asking price of $13,000 included eight cottages, eight tents, 20 acres of orchard land and recreation grounds, barns, and a garage. There were no takers. The following year, the price was reduced to $7,500.

More Recent Times

White Salmon's first newspaper, the White Salmon Enterprise, began in 1903 as a weekly and continued until 1941, when it changed its name to The Enterprise. In 1998, the paper merged with The Dalles Chronicle and the Hood River News to form the Columbia Gorge News.

In 1929, the White Salmon Women's Club had established the city's first library, which became part of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library System in 1973. By the 1990s the library had outgrown its small storefront space, and the SDS Lumber Company arranged to lease a bowling alley to the community for $1 a year. It then chipped in $250,000 for labor costs to convert it to a library, and the community raised another $200,000 through bake sales and donations. The library district contributed $600,000, and when the White Salmon Valley Community Library opened in 2000, it occupied a space five times the size of its former location.

Festivals and Sports

Since 1978, White Salmon has hosted a May Fest, which includes a parade, competitions, games, and family events. A new event, the White Salmon Wildflower Festival, launched in 2023, included a photo contest and guided field hikes to encourage greater appreciation for conservation of the region's varied wildflowers.

In an attempt to turn White Salmon into a Bavarian-styled, tourist-friendly town similar to Leavenworth, Glockenspiel Tower was erected in 1977 as part of the white stucco building that houses city hall. When built it was the only such device west of the Mississippi River, but in 2002 another was dedicated in Esther Short Park in Vancouver.

Outdoor sports were another arena in which White Salmon hoped to profit. Poised above the Columbia River Gorge, one of the country's most famous windsurfing areas, White Salmon wanted a share of the economic boom connected to windsurfing, which exploded after the sport was added to the 1984 Olympic Games. But the town ended up falling far behind nearby Hood River, Oregon:

"The neighboring Washington towns of White Salmon, population 1,900, and Bingen, population 640, look with envy at booming Hood River, where civic planners had the foresight and money to attract the restaurants, hotels, marinas and windsurf-equipment makers. That foresight and investment has transformed their town into the sport's North American mecca … Another major difference is the sales tax. Klickitat County has a sales tax of 7 percent. Oregon has no sales tax. On the purchase of a $1,000 sailboard, that's $70 saved" ("Oregon Side of Columbia Cashes In …").

A 1987 study illuminated the disparity: Gorge visitors were spending $3 million on the Washington side of the Columbia, but nearly $60 million on the Oregon side. That translated to 80 more jobs for Washingtonians, but 1,430 more jobs for Oregonians.    

Into the Twentieth-First Century

By 2020, White Salmon had 2,540 residents who enjoyed the "laid-back mountain town with a vibrant arts scene and filled with folks who love the outdoors, craft beer, tasty wine, and good food ("Explore White Salmon"). Although the logging industry and fruit production built White Salmon, city leaders saw their future growth in the tech and fermentation industries.

In 2023 the White Salmon Valley School District served 1,150 students, including youths from the communities of White Salmon and Bingen, and the district had four public schools -- Whitson Elementary, Wallace & Priscilla Stevenson Intermediate, Henkle Middle, and Columbia High -- and the White Salmon Academy, an alternative school.

In November 2019, Mayor Marla Keethler was elected to a four-year term, serving with five elected city council members. The city's 2023 strategic plan outlined its priorities as increasing availability and access to childcare; improving economic development; expanding recreational activities, including a new pool; and prioritizing wildfire mitigation.  

One of White Salmon's largest thoroughfares, Jewett Boulevard, named for the founding father and also known as State Route 141, runs through the town center before turning into Oak Street when it reaches Bingen. The two cities have a shared police department, which in 2023 comprised a full-time chief and six officers.


"Erastus S. Joslyn," H.R. Rep. No. 62, 42nd Cong., 2nd Sess. (1872) (https://digitalcommons.law.ou.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=9035&context=indianserialset); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Klickitat County – Thumbnail History" (by Paula Becker); "Samuel Hill: 1857-1931" (by David Wilma), "Skamania County – Thumbnail History" (by David Wilma) https://www.historylink.org/ (accessed December 16, 2022); "For Sale – Unimproved Farms," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 21, 1906, p. 17; "White Salmon Votes for a Water System," Ibid., February 21, 1909, p. 2; "Northwest Briefs," Ibid., March 4, 1909, p. 9; "Husum Has A Big Parsnip for Fair," Ibid., March 11, 1909, p. 9; "Ice Plant for White Salmon Valley," Ibid., March 29, 1909, p. 2; "Farmers' Institute at White Salmon," Ibid., April 22, 1909, p. 9; "Exhibit Building Erected," Ibid., May 15, 1909, p. 2; "Unwelcome Name is Discarded by Bingen," Ibid., June 28, 1909, p. 4; "New County Killed," Ibid., February 18, 1913, p. 7; "Do You Know" (advertisement), The Seattle Times, May 7, 1905, P. 26; "Canning Factory Planned," Ibid., June 24, 1905, p. 4; "Paying High for Right-of-Way," Ibid., December 21, 1905, p. 15; "Railroad Leads Way to Many Millions," Ibid., September 24, 1908, p. 9; "Orchard Industry Growing at Husum," Ibid., December 26, 1909, p. 14; "State Commission is for Free Canal Tolls," Ibid., August 19, 1912, p. 2; "County Division Fights Promising Excitement," Ibid., January 15, 1913, p. 18; "County Division Measure Killed," Ibid., February 17, 1913, p. 4; Nicholas K. Geranios, "Oregon Side of Columbia Cashes in on Sailboarding," Ibid., September 3, 1989, C-11; David G. Lewis, "Early History of the White Salmon Reservation," March 1, 2018, Quartux: Journal of Critical Indigenous Anthropology website accessed December 19, 2022 (https://ndnhistoryresearch.com/2018/03/01/early-history-at-the-white-salmon-reservation/); Albert J. Thompson, "Memories of White Salmon and Its Pioneers," The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2 (April 1923), pp. 108-126; "White Salmon, Washington," The Columbia River: A Photographic Journey website accessed December 19, 2022 (http://columbiariverimages.com/Regions/Places/white_salmon.html); Ben Carscallen, "The Eyrie Inn – on the Bluffs of the Columbia," May-June 2021, Webfooter Extra website accessed December 19, 2022 (http://www.thewebfooters.com/html/Webfooter-Extra-05-06-21.pdf); Explore White Salmon website accessed December 19, 2022 (https://explorewhitesalmon.com); "About the City of White Salmon," White Salmon website accessed December 19, 2022 (https://www.white-salmon.net/community/page/about-city-white-salmon-1); Bingen & White Salmon, Historic The Dalles, website accessed December 16, 2022 (https://historicthedalles.org/bingen-white-salmon/); "History of White Salmon, Washington," GorgeConnection website accessed December 14, 2022 (http://www.gorgeconnection.com/white-salmon/history.php).


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