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Walla Walla's Economic History

The following was excerpted from "History of Old Walla Walla County" by W.D. Lyman.

Native American Indian tribes occupied the region around what is now Walla Walla County long before white exploration and settlement. The region's principal tribes included the Walla Walla, Cayuse, Umatilla and, to a lesser extent, the Nez Perce The names of other tribes are abound in local literature. Most, however, were subgroups of the tribes listed above. Few of these groups established permanent villages on account of the seasonal nature of their sustenance-gathering.

The tribes depended largely on hunting and fishing. Deer, elk, and other game were abundant in the Blue Mountains while salmon, sturgeon, and other fish were similarly abundant in the Columbia and Snake rivers. They supplemented their diet with roots such as camas and couse.

Native Americans were the first people of the region to engage in commerce, however limited it might have been. Between periods of internecine warfare, the tribes traded beads, shells, elk teeth, grizzly claws, and other ornate items.

White exploration of the region began in 1805 with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The expedition left St. Louis on May 14, 1804, with orders from President Jefferson to chart a commercial route to the Pacific Ocean. In October 1805, the party canoed down the Snake River (which they named the Lewis River) along what is now the northern border of Walla Walla County. On their return trip in April 1806, the expedition left the Columbia River near what is now Wallula and cut an eastward path across the middle of the county.

The explorers who entered the Walla Walla region after Lewis and Clark opened the new territory to the fur trade. The (British) Northwest Fur Company and (American) Pacific Fur Company were the first major players. The (Canadian) Hudson's Bay Company entered the competition a little later. Competition was fierce - often deadly - as each fought to control the region and monopolize the industry. At the industry's zenith, Walla Walla was arguably one of the premier fur trading regions in what is now Washington state.

Though fur trading was well-established along the Pacific coast of the Oregon Territory - for example around Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River - the Astor Company did not venture into the Walla Walla Valley until July of 1811. It proved a fortuitous venture indeed as the party secured 1,550 beaver skins from local tribes. The Joint Occupation Treaty (1818) compelled the British and Americans to respect each other's ventures in the territory. By then, however, financial disasters had all but eliminated the Astor Company and, by extension, the American fur trade presence. Later in 1818, Donald McKenzie of the Northwest Fur Company built Fort Walla Walla (first called Fort Nez Perce) near the fork of the Walla Walla and Columbia rivers. From there, the Northwest Fur Company carried on a profitable trade.

In 1821, the up-and-coming Hudson's Bay Company forced a merger with the Northwest Fur Company under the former's banner. With that action, the Hudson's Bay Company gained a virtual monopoly over fur trade in the region. Americans Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and Benjamin de Bonneville of exploration fame attempted unsuccessfully in the 1830s to break the British monopoly. The regional monopoly survived until the last days of the fur trade.

Missionary parties began entering the territory in the mid-1830s. Most stopped to rest and stock supplies at Vancouver, where they were encouraged by Chief Factor John McLoughlin of Hudson's Bay Company to strike out for the Willamette Valley. McLoughlin's kindness and generosity often overshadowed his determination to promote the interests of the Hudson's Bay Company. This included forestalling settlement of the north Oregon Territory (now Washington state) as long as possible. McLoughlin knew that migration and homesteading would mark the beginning of end the fur industry.

In 1835, Dr. Marcus Whitman (in the company of Dr. Samuel Parker) reconnoitered the Walla Walla Valley to assess the feasibility of establishing a mission. Much encouraged, Dr. Whitman returned to Rushville, New York. The party (led by William Gray) was made up of Dr. Whitman, his wife Narcissa Prentiss, Rev. Henry Spalding, and his wife Eliza Hart. Their 4,000-mile journey ended at Fort Walla Walla on September 1, 1836. The men soon established their missions; Whitman at Waiilatpu (6 miles west of present-day Walla Walla) and Spalding at Lapwai (12 miles from present-day Lewiston in Idaho).

Dr. Whitman and his party did more than bring their Christian faith to the Walla Walla Valley - they initiated new industries. With seed, fruit trees, and provisions secured from Vancouver, Whitman cultivated 300 acres of fertile land between the Walla Walla River and Mill Creek. He also erected a saw and grist mill, both of which were powered by Mill Creek.

The Whitman Massacre on November 29, 1847 effectively ended white settlement of the region until the conclusion of the first Indian War and subsequent Medicine Creek Treaty of 1855 between Governor Isaac Stevens and various tribes. The treaty relegated tribes to reservations in what had, since 1853, become Washington Territory - thus clearing the way for renewed white settlement. However, a second and even third Indian War later broke out after the tribes rebelled against what they considered to be poor adherence to the provisions of the treaty.

Meanwhile, Washington Territory was established on March 3, 1853; Walla Walla being one of 16 new counties. The county originally encompassed all of present-day eastern Washington, all of Idaho, and a quarter of Montana. Interestingly enough, the only white settlements in this large area were at Waiilatpu and Frenchtown - both of which were near present-day Walla Walla.

The end of hostilities brought renewed white immigration into and settlement of the Walla Walla region. This time, settlers were protected by the newly-created United States Fort Walla Walla (as distinguished from the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Walla Walla at Wallula). Cattlemen were among the first pioneers in the valley, drawn largely by the ranges of rich bunch grass. Other settlers sought out land that was fertile and near water. From this came the town of Walla Walla - a town that quickly became the focus of economic activity in the county.

Walla Walla in the 1860s was similar to other towns of the Wild West. Cowboys, gunslingers, gamblers, outlaws, vigilantes, and the like made up the colorful characters who passed through the town of Walla Walla and others like it. Moreover, this period also saw the emergence of key industries. The cattle industry, for example, emerged during this period. Historic cattle drives cut a path between Walla Walla Valley and the ranges of Montana and Wyoming. Moreover, a fledgling grain industry emerged after Charles Russell, an early county commissioner, successfully sowed and harvested a crop of barley and oats. Interestingly enough, he did it to ease the burden of transporting grain provisions all the way from the Willamette Valley to U.S. Fort Walla Walla.

In the 1860s, a gold rush in what is now the northeastern corner of the state promoted rapid gains in the county's grain industry. Despite Russell's success, most believed the that land was unfit for grain production. Prospectors and other newcomers, however, stimulated the demand for grain, prompting many to take a chance and experiment with the land. Grain production proved a success and continued to increase nicely over the next two decades. It exploded, however, in the 1880s as rail transportation made local grain an exportable commodity. As farmers began to realize this, grain production grew by leaps and bounds.

The emergence of grain production quite predictably led to flour milling. The county's first flour mill was built in 1859. Other mills followed through the 1860s. Sawmills also sprang up. The largest was Whitehouse-Crawford Company (1888), followed by the likes of Walla Walla Lumber Company, Oregon Lumber Company and Bridal Veil Lumber Company.

Grain production also spawned local businesses that manufactured agricultural machinery. Established in 1888, the Hunt Threshing Factory was the largest, building is reputation on the Pride of Washington Separator. Another key firm was Holt Harvester Works which helped develop and refine the popular side-hill harvester. Other major firms included Brown-Lewis Corporation, Ringhoffer Brothers, Washington Weeder Works, Walla Walla Iron Works, and Cox-Bailey Manufacturing Company.

Fruit and vegetable crops also flourished in Walla Walla County beginning in the 1860s. The orchards produced apples, peaches, and apricots while the fields produced potatoes, corn, squash, radishes, lettuce, onions, rutabagas, and even tobacco. Despite the disastrous winter of 1883, crops rebounded so successfully that Walla Walla became known as the Garden City.

The town of Walla Walla also benefited tremendously from the gold rush as thousands of prospectors got supplies and provisions in Walla Walla before heading north to the mines. Not surprisingly, this activity boded well for local proprietors. It is also felt to be singularly responsible for the rapid pace of settlement and development in Walla Walla County - and in eastern Washington as a whole. In addition to stores, saloons and banks, this decade saw the establishment of the Washington Statesman - Walla Walla's first newspaper, as well as the first newspaper published west of the Missouri River and east of the Cascades.

As mentioned, transportation was critical to the settlement and development of Walla Walla County. Stagecoaches were introduced in 1859 by J.F. Abbott (later the Rickey and Thatcher Line) and operated between Walla Walla and Wallula. In 1860, the Miller & Blackmore Line began running between Walla Walla and The Dalles. Established in 1871, the Northwestern Stage Company was the last great stage line to operate in the region. These lines operated into the 1880s before giving way to the railroad.

The railroad came to Walla Walla County in 1883 via the Northern Pacific Railroad Co. Northern Pacific's line extended from Walla Walla to Wallula and on to its western terminus at Tacoma. From Northern Pacific's main line branched the Washington and Columbia River Railroad (also known as the Hunt Road). The W.C.R.R. lines connected the larger towns in southeast Washington and across the border in northeast Oregon.

Most influential in Walla Walla County, however, was the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company. The O.R.N.C.'s transcontinental line connected major centers of trade such as Spokane, Yakima and Lewiston. It secured a monopoly on Walla Walla County trade when it acquired the Walla Walla and Columbia River Railroad (known as Dr. Baker's Road). Having already acquired the Oregon Steamboat Navigation Company, the O.R.N.C. succeeded virtually the entire county transportation network that preceded it. Steamers began plying the Columbia and Snake rivers in the 1870s. Larger, faster, and more powerful than the nondescript boats that preceded them, steamers added another dimension to the network of commercial transportation. Steamer use was enhanced by locks and dams which by 1915 allowed continuous passage down the Snake from Lewiston and on down the Columbia to the Pacific.

Strong demand for grain and beef during World War I and World War II led to more intensive agricultural efforts in Walla Walla County. These events permanently established agriculture as the dominant force behind the local economy, thus setting the pattern of local economic development. Walla Walla County is currently the fourth largest wheat producer among Washington counties with nearly 10 percent of the state's wheat output. The county also has healthy fruit, seed, and vegetable crops. Agriculture also contributes both directly and indirectly to the emergence and development of other major Walla Walla County industries. The wholesale trading of durable and non-durable agricultural equipment and commodities is just one industry supported by local agriculture. Yet another is food processing.

Walla Walla Cannery - the county's first - was established on an experimental basis in 1932. Its successful operation cleared the way for such major processors as Libby, McNeill & Libby in 1935 and the Bird's Eye Division of General Foods in 1946 (later D&K Frozen Foods Inc.). Food processing remains a large component of the local economy, and is presently dominated by IBP Inc., a beef processor.

Higher education has long been an important aspect of Walla Walla County's economy. Whitman Seminary became the first institution of higher education in Washington Territory in 1859. Chartered by the territorial legislature in 1883, the school dropped its religious affiliation and became the private, secular institution known as Whitman College. Walla Walla College was established by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1892, thus raising the number of local four-year institutions to two. Yet another institution emerged on the scene when state-supported Walla Walla Community College was founded in 1967. Their combined employment make them a major part of the local economy.

Health care is another longtime aspect of the Walla Walla County economy. The county's first major medical establishment was St. Mary's Hospital (founded in 1882). Walla Walla Veterans Hospital (now known as Veterans Administration Medical Center) opened its doors in 1922. Walla Walla General Hospital followed soon after in 1924 (the facility was purchased by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1931). Each facility has undergone expansion and renovation over the years. Today, convalescent centers and nursing homes are rapidly joining the list of local health care providers.

Given the county's role in the early growth and development of the territory, it comes as no surprise that government or public sector employment maintains a high profile in the local economy. The military, of course, has played a major role in Walla Walla County's history. U.S. Fort Walla Walla was an integral part of territorial development. The fort was also used as an infantry training camp during World War I. Walla Walla County was the site of a bomber air base during World War II, training roughly 8,000 officers and enlisted men. After the war, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers transferred its regional office from Portland to the air base (now the Walla Walla Regional Airport). Already mentioned was the impact of the Veterans Administration Hospital.

State government employment in the county has largely been driven by the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla. Originally built as a territorial prison in 1887, the facility was converted into a women's prison in 1935. Closed in 1971, the facility was renovated and reopened in 1981 as a standard minimum security complex. An intensive management (maximum security) complex was opened in 1984 to house inmates serving the death penalty as well as those with acute behavioral problems. A former part of the minimum security complex was fenced off in 1985 and reopened as a medium security complex. The penitentiary currently has 800 employees and a $23 million annual payroll. State employment is also tied closely to education through both the public K-12 system and Walla Walla Community College.

These industries helped transform Walla Walla from a cattle and railroad town in the late 1800s to a city of trade, services, and government. Moreover, Walla Walla County has become a regional center of trade and services (especially within health care) for residents across southeast Washington.

Manufacturing continues to play a strong role in Walla Walla County. Local manufacturing revolves around food processing (beef, vegetables, fruit, and dairy products), lumber and paper processing, printing and publishing, and other manufacturing (e.g., irrigation equipment, wood stoves, metal containers, and toys).

    Copyright 1997 WWICS, Inc. All rights reserved.
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