Walla Walla's Economic
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).