-- Augustine, a Coeur d'Alene Indian guide
The Walla Walla Country was “the first locality to be differentiated from the whole” of the interior Oregon Country known as the “Great Plain of the Columbia.”(1) The original inhabitants were small groups of nomadic tribes who adopted a lifestyle similar to the Plains Indians following the introduction of the horse, which thrived on the dry grass.(2) Frontier settlement by whites followed a common pattern of exploration, fur trading, missionaries, mining and farming. Donald W. Meinig writes that “each frontier ... advanced its purposes within a particular framework of ideas regarding the nature of the land.” Among the varied natural features, “settlement was distributed at points connected by rivers and overland trails, a strategic rather than an economic pattern of occupance, and the position of the Walla Walla Valley made it the only continuing nucleus of these . . . frontiers.”(3) The geographical boundaries of the Walla Walla Country created a natural crossroads and Walla Walla developed as the preeminent town of the interior for several decades.
White occupation of the Walla Walla Country began on July 11, 1818 when a building party arrived to construct Fort Nez Perce at the mouth of the Walla Walla River. The site was chosen by Donald Mackenzie with the Northwest Company, who after a reconnaissance of the interior, proposed the abandonment of Fort Spokane, which he viewed as “useless and expensive drawback upon the trade of the interior.”(4) The new location was much preferred as the Walla Walla Valley was “the main rendezvous for parties departing for and arriving from the several peripheral districts.” The chosen location also had considerable significance among the Indians as it was their first encounter with the whites and where they had made an informal party of friendship with Lewis & Clark. Located at a key trading point, Fort Nez Perce was described as “the strongest and most complete fort west of the Rocky Mountains, and might be called the Gibraltor of the Columbia.”(5) Control passed from the Northwest Company to the Hudsons Bay Company in 1821.
The British maintained control of the interior trade under the flag of the Hudsons Bay Company, but the American missionaries were trickling into the Oregon Country. At first the missionaries bypassed the Walla Walla Country, settling in the Willamette Valley. In 1835, Dr. Marcus Whitman traveled by wagon to the Oregon Country, along with his wife Narcissa and Henry and Eliza Spalding. After some initial searching, Whitman decided to settle in the Walla Walla Valley establishing the Waiilatpu Mission along the Walla Walla River, 30 miles inland of Fort Nez Perce. The Spaldings set up a mission along the Clearwater River near present-day Lewiston, Idaho. Although the missionaries practiced agriculture their primary objective remained converting the Indians to Christianity. Within two years, additional missions were established at The Dalles along the Columbia River; Kamiah, 50 miles east of Lapwai on the Clearwater, and Tshimakain, north of Spokane. All five of the missions extended into the interior from the central point of Fort Nez Perce.
The missionaries encountered limited success with the Indians. Agriculture was necessary for the missionaries own subsistence and to demonstrate what they considered to be a civilized lifestyle to the Indians. In addition to the mission site at Waiilatpu, Whitman built a grist mill and established a sawmill on Mill Creek in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. From this settlement Whitman built up a surplus of supplies that he traded to immigrants traveling the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley.(6) The missionaries contributed significantly to the settlement of the Oregon Country, primarily through their writings back east regarding the progress of their work. Meinig notes that “after 1836 the missionaries were the most important single group in directing attention to this region.” Further, because of their “direct personal interest in settlement possibilities, they were looked upon as reliable sources of information.”(7) However, the large number of whites immigrating to Oregon was met with increasing hostility from the Indians. Tensions grew until November 29, 1847 when Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and twelve others were massacred at Waiilatpu. This event brought about an abrupt end to the missionary era in the Oregon Country.
The Cayuse War, waged to punish the Indians for the Whitman Massacre, and later uprisings in the interior in the mid-1850s, established a strong military presence in the Walla Walla Country. Fort Nez Perce, once so important, was abandoned in 1855, and a new fort called Fort Walla Walla was constructed the following year near present day Walla Walla. Fort Walla Walla was the headquarters for the military escorts provided to immigrant trains and incoming miners and to quell Indian uprisings. In this new role the Walla Walla Valley became the key location in the interior of Oregon Territory.(8)
Troop movements to the Northwest involved either a long and expensive passage by sea, or a dangerous and time consuming overland march. In 1858, Congress appropriated $30,000 for the construction of a military wagon road to connect Fort Walla Walla with Fort Benton on the Missouri River. The purpose of this road was three fold: one, the road was viewed as necessary for moving troops to the many forts located in the Oregon Country. Two, the road could be used by immigrants looking to homestead in the northern interior, and lastly, it could be used to transport material for the construction of a northern transcontinental railway.(9)
A wagon road to connect the headwaters of the Missouri with the furthest navigable point on the Columbia River was considered as early as 1824. Nothing came of the issue until 1853 when Congress authorized $150,000 for the exploration of four possible northern transcontinental railroad routes. The survey party for the northern route was headed by Isaac Ingalls Stevens, later governor of Washington Territory. During the winter of 1853, Stevens returned to Washington D.C., leaving a small party of men in the mountains under the command of Lieutenant John Mullan. In his Report on the Construction of a Military Road From Fort Walla-Walla to Fort Benton, Mullan wrote “the margin of authority left me by Governor Stevens was broad and liberal” and that “the most essential thing at that time was a general reconnaissance and exploration of the country before the question of location and construction of a railroad line could be at all profitably or properly considered.” While considering routes for a possible railroad, Mullan quickly realized that “one of the most essential aids . . . was a good wagon-road line” and locating such a route “became a subject of primary importance.”(10) Stevens was impressed with Mullans work and urged Congress to support the construction of the road. Indian hostilities in 1855-56 delayed funding until March 1859 at which time Congress granted an additional $100,000 for the construction of the road.(11) With a crew of 100 men, Lieutenant Mullan began work on July 1, 1859.
While constructing the road Mullans men discovered gold in the creeks and encountered immigrants bound for the Pacific Coast. Other than a 120 mile stretch through the Bitterroot Mountains that involved extensive timber cutting and heavy excavation, construction was relatively light and consisted primarily of building bridges. During construction in Montana, Mullans crew found “continual indications of gold” and Indians assured him they had found gold in another nearby canyon. Later, near the Coeur dAlene mission, rumors “set forth that this immediate section was favorable for gold developments.”(12) These initial discoveries would later contribute significantly to the growth and development of the Northwest, and in particular the new town of Walla Walla. Despite being constructed as a military road, miners and immigrants were the primary users of the new road.
After working their way back to Fort Walla Walla from Fort Benton, Mullan noted “we were overtaken by several small parties of emigrants, who had come from St. Louis by the steamers . . . and were now on their way to Walla Walla.” Mullan aided the emigrants “in everyway in my power,” including “leaving memorandum notes from point to point [and] setting forth the best camping grounds.” Of the emigrants, Mullan noted they were all a “very proper class of persons, mostly from the western States, where the civil troubles had caused a number to look towards the Pacific in quest of new homes.” At this time, Mullan was putting some finishing touches on the road, especially in the Bitterroots where construction was most difficult. The presence of emigrants traveling on the road must have been satisfying for Mullan, who had worked hard to justify the construction expenses. Reflecting on the emigrants, Mullan wrote, “the safe passage of these emigrants during this season proves the value of this line for emigrant purposes, and will yet cause it to stand in competition with other lines across the continent.”(13) The first emigrants over the Mullan Road carried with them not just household goods, but sawmills and gristmills, machinery essential to permanent settlement.(14) More importantly the emigrant party proved the viability of the northern transcontinental route.
Critical to the success of the Mullan Road was navigation of the Columbia and Missouri Rivers. The emigrants Mullan encountered were passengers on the first steamboats to ascend the Missouri River to Fort Benton, the eastern terminus of the road. From St. Louis to Fort Benton was 3,000 miles of unpredictable water. Dangers included shifting sandbars, snags, scarce fuel supplies, and Indian attack; because of the threat of Indian attacks, it was required that all passengers arm themselves for the voyage. Because of the difficulty and numerous dangers inherent in navigating the Missouri, steamboat arrivals at Fort Benton were sporadic for the first half of the 1860s.(15) However, on the Columbia River regular scheduled service began soon after the first steamboat landed at Wallula.
A year after funding for the road was appropriated, the steamboat Colonel Wright (16) was constructed and placed in service on the Columbia River, making a maiden voyage to Wallula in the spring of 1859.(17) This effectively provided service between Walla Walla and Portland, utilizing the Columbia River. A few months later, the Colonel Wright journeyed up the Snake River as far as the mouth of the Palouse River. The purpose of this trip was to forward supplies for Mullans road building crew to that point, which would serve as an advance depot.(18) As reported in the Dalles Journal on June 4, 1859, the Colonel Wright “will make her landing at the mouth of the Palouse, where she will also land the supplies for the road party in route for Fort Benton, under the direction of John Mullan, whose work the steam navigation of Snake River to the point will greatly facilitate and shorten. The year 1859 will be an important one in the history of this section.”(19) These initial and vitally important first trips into rough waters of the interior proved that navigation was possible and justified the construction of the Mullan Road. Transportation, so critical to the development of the interior, was enthusiastically welcomed and the Washington Statesman predicted that the Mullan Road “will yet become one of the most extensively traveled thoroughfares on the western slope.”(20)
Within five years of the Colonel Wrights first voyages into the interior, numerous other steamboats were constructed and placed into service after the formation of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company on December 19, 1860. Passengers and freight streamed into the interior at a rapid rate. In 1861, 10,500 passengers and 6,290 tons of freight was handled on the Columbia River between Wallula and Portland. A year later, those numbers more than doubled.(21) The OSN enjoyed a complete monopoly on the Columbia River trade. Most all of the supplies shipped into the interior in the early 1860s came from Portland through Walla Walla, including materials for the construction of the Mullan Road. Walla Walla was to enjoy unparalleled growth during the next decade.
In August 1862, Lieutenant Mullan returned with his crew to Walla Walla after making some final improvements to the road. The road cost $230,000 to construct, but Mullan estimated that it would require an additional $70,000 to the finish the road as he had originally planned. With the nation embroiled in the Civil War additional funds were not available; however, in recognition of his accomplishment Mullan was promoted to the rank of Captain on August 11, 1862.(22) Despite the tensions of Civil War, the 1860s were a boom for Walla Wallas prosperity and the Mullan Road contributed significantly to the cities growth.
Soon after disbanding his expedition, Captain Mullan left for Washington D.C., traveling by stage to Wallula and then by steamboat down the Columbia River to Portland and overland to San Francisco. In 1862 Walla Walla was already reaping the benefits of being a terminus of the Mullan Road. Mullan remarked of the influx of settlers into the Walla Walla Country. Of these he wrote: “the wilderness of yesterday has to-day given place to homes” and “the improvements along the banks of the Walla Walla, in the shape of new and additional enclosures for farming purposes . . . have been many, and mark with unerring certainty the future of the Walla Walla Country.” To Mullan, the future prosperity of Walla Walla was certain, yet the road builder initially employed as a surveyor charged with locating a route for the Pacific Railroad, believed Walla Walla could still improve on its transportation network:
It has more than once occurred to me that the Walla Walla River, by a system of locks, could be advantageously used as a line of connection between Wallula and Walla Walla, and one needs but see the long line of wagons and pack trains, heavily freighted for the interior, to become convinced that either this or some more rapid and economical means is positively demanded, in order to connect the heart of the valley with the Columbia River. Economy at the present would argue in favor of converting the river into a canal, but the prospective wants of the country are much more in favor of a railroad connection.
He admitted that some “heavy” bridge work was necessary to span the Walla Walla and Touchet Rivers but he felt the line could be constructed at a cost of $600,000 and was “a project in which every citizen could become interested.” Further, Mullan believed “that another twelve months will not roll around before the matter is taken up with a view to its practical execution.”(23) Mullans proposal to construct a railroad from Walla Walla to Wallula was the first publicized plan for railroad construction in the Walla Walla Valley. (24) After submitting his report in Washington in February, 1863, Mullan, newly married, resigned his commission in the army and sailed west, back to Walla Walla to take up farming.
When John and Rebecca Mullan arrived in Walla Walla in August 1863, the town was bustling with the activity of immigrants, miners and packers purchasing supplies along Walla Wallas rapidly expanding business district. “The budding city of Walla Walla,” wrote noted Walla Walla historian W.D. Lyman, “profited materially by the influx of gold-seekers, who made their way up the Columbia River and thence moved forward to Walla Walla, which became the great outfitting headquarters for . . . the gold country.” Lyman further describes the activity on the streets of Walla Walla by noting “Walla Walla was the scene of the greatest activity: streets were crowded; the merchants were doing a thriving business; and pack trains moved in a seemingly endless procession toward the gold fields.” So many miners poured through Walla Walla that “within a year  more than one and one-half million dollars in gold dust had been shipped from the mining districts.”(25) Walla Walla owed its beginnings to the military and by the mid-1860s Walla Wallas military connections were making it rich. G. Thomas Edwards writes, “by the early 1860s, connections with the military had helped Walla Walla establish supremacy over an enormous hinterland.”(26) The Mullan Road directed much of the mining wealth through Walla Walla and the “endless procession” of pack trains outfitted in Walla Walla supplied every major mining district in the northern West. From Walla Walla roads and pack trails led to mines in southern British Columbia, eastern Washington and Oregon, Idaho and western Montana. Most of the miners went through Walla Walla primarily because the recently constructed Mullan Road provided an easy and direct route of travel from the Columbia River to the mines. (27)
The Mullan Road provided a key transportation link between Fort Walla Walla and Fort Benton but it did not eliminate many of the hardships overland immigrants faced on other routes. Boosters from a Walla Walla newspaper called the Road “a trip for health, pleasure, and bold Rocky Mountain Scenery.”(28) However, those who actually made the journey thought much different. After construction, the road quickly fell into disrepair, making wagon travel exceedingly difficult and according to one traveler, “any other method of crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic is preferable to the Mullen [sic] Route.”(29) Damage to livestock and equipment was not uncommon. The constant need for maintenance, which was seldom performed, combined with the rugged terrain restricted the development of the Mullan Road and relegated it to the status of a pack trail.
Soon after construction of the Road was completed in the early 1860s, many wagon trains did make the journey from Fort Benton to Walla Walla. Even with the road in good shape it was still a challenge to take a wagon over the Road. Lieutenant Kautz, a member of the only large military deployment to use the road, known as the “Blake Expedition,” frequently commented on the inability of the oxen to pull the wagons and the time consuming necessity of “doubling the teams” for the hills. On August 16, 1860 he wrote in his diary, “We made a short march on account of the fatigue of yesterday to the cattle. The men succeeded in marching very well, and we would average twenty miles per day if the oxen could make it.” On August 31, after marching only three and a half miles all day, Lieut. Katz admitted “the road was very rough and rocky. The valley of the river has become quite narrow, and grazing ground limited.” The following day, after a “very late start” he noted “our road lay over high, steep hillside, cuttings dangerous in many places.” On September 7, in the country of the St. Regis Borgia, Lieut. Katz wrote
The road is very rough and bad on account of the stumps, and in one place crosses over a spur of considerable height. About half the wagons and the rear guard failed to reach camp. The Maj. sent back twenty men from each company to assist the wagons, but as might have been expected, they were of no assistance.(30) For the soldiers on foot, the road provided for an easy march and several of the men spent their afternoons fishing in nearby streams.
Despite all the short marches necessary to rest the oxen, the Blake Expedition marched from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla in 57 days. Certainly without the delay of doubling teams and short marches to rest the oxen, the trip would have been much quicker. It is interesting to note that the difficulties faced by the Blake Expedition occurred very early in the annals of the Mullan Road, when it must be assumed the road was in as good repair as it was likely to be. In spite of the numerous hardships, Lt. Katz noted some favorable conditions of the road. On August 18, after crossing the Divide near the Prickly Pear Creek, he wrote “We marched seventeen miles through a beautiful country and a good road. The divide is the most practical pass I ever saw in any mountainous country.”(31) The country the Mullan Road traverses contained severe challenges for the engineer and construction crews. Despite their efforts, the terrain dictated the nature of the Road.
The diary of Henry Leug, written while traversing the Mullan Road in 1867, echoes many of the observations of Lt. Katz. Mr. Leug made the trip later in the year than the Blake Expedition, not crossing the Bitterroot Mountains until October. Downed trees were a constant problem for wagon roads through mountainous terrain, and the Mullan Road was no exception. Leug noted “the timber stands very thick . . . many dead tree trunks blocked the road and had to be cleared away.” Due to the late season, the weather was a factor and it frequently rained. On October 27, Leug wrote:
The pack animals were never replaced entirely by wagons. Over the most heavily traveled roads, such as the Colville Road from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Colville and between Walla Walla and the steamboat landing at Wallula, wagons did handle most of the freight. Even after steamboats became common on many of the rivers and lakes, the pack animal connected the points of navigation. In some cases the animals were taken aboard the vessels with their loads left strapped to their backs and ferried to the head of navigation where they proceeded on the trail. Not until the full-scale construction of railroads did the pack trains lose their superiority.
Without the pack trains, the Mullan Road likely would have seen little traffic. The road quickly fell into disrepair; washed out bridges, over grown brush and fallen trees made wagon travel exceedingly difficult. Government funds for maintaining the road were not available due to the costs and concerns of the Civil War. Even after the War no repairs were made to the road until the late 1870s, by which time railroad construction was well underway. However, for a brief period in the mid-1860s, the Oregon Steam Navigation company extended navigation beyond the landings at Wallula deep into the interior in an attempt to improve overland transportation.