Umatilla City, Umatilla County, Oregon


The glory of Umatilla has long since departed. At one time it had not its counterpart in the whole state of Oregon. It teemed with life, throbbed with excitement and bustled with business activity. Now its eager throng has gone, and its stores and dwellings are no more, save a few that still remain to testify to the grandeur of the past. It was built upon the sand, and fell before the storm of adversity that beat upon it, and the sand that was once the foundation of its buildings, now flies about the empty streets, a plaything of the winds. The desolation is more apparent than real, however, for two large mercantile houses still remain and do an extensive merchandising and forwarding business, such as, were it a new town like many in the county, would be considered enormous, but in comparison to the business of the past is as the few grains of wheat gleaned from the field when the reapers have passed.

     In the fall of 1861, before the county had been created, and when a few ranchers and stockmen along the streams were its total population, Umatilla City was conceived in the mind of A. J. Kane, now a citizen of Portland. He was then working for a forwarding firm at Wallula, and became impressed with the conviction that a great trade would soon spring up with Grand Ronde valley, which could be supplied from some point further down the river. In low water boats could not ascend to Wallula with full cargoes because of Umatilla rapids, and Mr. Kane's idea was to start a landing place at some point below that obstruction. At the close of navigation in 1861, he made an examination and selected a point about eight miles below the mouth of Umatilla River. He then went to Portland and formed a partnership with H. H. Hill. At the opening of navigation, in March 1862, they came up the river with a stock of goods and took possession of the spot. A town was laid out, and in view of the expected trading point, was named Grand Ronde Landing.

     Quite a trade at once sprang up with the new settlers in Grand Ronde valley and people along the Umatilla, as well as a large retail trade with emigrants and travelers following the river road from Dalles to Walla Walla. It was made a regular landing place for the boats plying on the river. They lived and did business at first in. tents, but log houses were soon brought down from Umatilla River, which gave the town a more stable appearance. A hotel business was among the pioneer industries of the place, a canvass spread on the ground serving the purpose of a table, and one dollar being charged for meals cooked near by at a log fire. Discovery of the Granite creek mines that summer added a new source of trade, and by fall they had a paying and firmly established business. The Powder River and Boise mines opened that year, re-resulted in quite a number of people deciding to follow Mr. Kane's example and start in business at some convenient point on the Columbia for supplying that trade. They made preparations to begin as soon as goods could come up the river in the spring.

     On the eight of August 1862, Jesse S. Lurchin made application to the governor, to pre-empt about 120 acres of land just above the mouth of Umatilla river, being the town site of Umatilla City. He offered to sell this to Mr. Kane for $600. Being at the mouth of the river, it looked like a more favorable location for a town than Grand Ronde Landing, and would have been so were it not that the rapids interfered with navigation between the two points. A steamer could take a full cargo to Grand Ronde Landing in low water, but could only take half a load over the rapids. Mr. Kane appreciated this objection and declined the offer. The channel has since been cleared by the government. Navigation opened early in the spring of 1863, and with it came a man named Spencer, with a stock of goods, who wanted to have Mr. Kane's store house at once and go into business there. This he could not obtain, and he decided to start an opposition town at Lurchin's place. He found there an empty log cabin, one that had been built by men catching driftwood. This he occupied for a store, and laid out a town, which he named Columbia, but which was soon known and called Umatilla Landing. It was the season of high water then, and people not as familiar with steamboating as was Mr. Kane thought nothing of the rapids below the town. Deceived by the high water, other parties looking for a good location passed Grand Ronde Landing and selected the new place. The people were like sheep; the tide having set in, all followed with a rush, and in a week a town sprang up at Umatilla Landing such as even it founders had not dreamed of. Mr. Kane cared more for his business than he did for a town site, and reading quickly the hand writing on the wall, abandoned the old location and moved to the new, where he opened and conducted for several years the largest business house at that place.
     Umatilla Landing became in one year a worthy rival to Walla Walla. A line of stages was established between this point and Powder River and Boise, and teams and pack animals lined the road to these places. A perfect stream of travelers going and coming passed between Umatilla and the mines. Thousands of people and millions of pounds of freight paid tribute to this new city on the sands. The raw winds of the Columbia whistled around rude frame and canvas structures that formed the city, but within those walls were stored goods of enormous value, while freight in great quantities was piled up on the river bank. Saloons and gambling houses with the throngs that frequented them, formed a large portion of the bulk and population, but not of the business. They were an adjunct, in those clays considered a necessary one, and only flourished because of the prosperity of the city in its more substantial lines of trade. The roughest and most desperate characters in the mines made this their temporary home at times, and quarrels, with the consequent "man for breakfast" were frequent. It was a repetition of the scenes of every "live camp" since the days of '49 in California. No one expected anything else, and, in fact, the saloons were generally considered as a standard by which to judge of the prosperity of a town. It is almost impossible to realize the amount of business transacted in that city built on the drifting sands of the Columbia. There were six stores that sold an average of $200,000 of goods each per annum. In 1866, the firm of French & Gilman alone sold $500,000 of merchandise, chiefly groceries, both wet and dry. Besides these there were three or four smaller trading stands, a drug store, three hotels, twenty-two saloons, two dance houses, two feed stables, two barber shops, two blacksmith shops, and a number of other establishments. The rough element became so bad at one time that it became necessary for the citizens to caution them. In view of the work being done at that time by the vigilance committee in Walla Walla, more than this was unnecessary. A vigilance committee at the Meadows, twelve miles up the river, hanged a man in 1864, for horse stealing, a crime that was prevalent at that time. A tripod was made of three rails to serve as a scaffold. This was the only case of lynch law in the county.
     During the years 1864-5-6 the regular population was about 1,500, while the floating and transient element numbered nearly as many more. The county was organized before the town sprang up, and it therefore was not until March 1865, that Umatilla secured the county seat. It was then the only regular town within its limits. By Act of October 24, 1864, Umatilla City was incorporated, with a mayor, five aldermen, recorder, marshal and treasurer. A year later the people decided that the burden of supporting a municipal government was unnecessary, and the charter was repealed by Act of December 18, 1865, to take effect June 5, 1866. George Coe was the first mayor, and Daniel French second. Judge L. L. McArthur served as recorder both years. In 1865 and 1866 Idaho mines began to be supplied from San Francisco by way of Chico and Honey Lake valley, drawing largely from the trade of Umatilla. From that time the town entered on the down grade. In 1868 the Central Pacific railroad was completed into Nevada, and the bulk of Idaho trade followed it. This was a Waterloo to Umatilla, and her businessmen began to leave, but none without taking a well filled purse as a result of their few years' residence here. It was now time to commence kicking the dead lion. This was done by taking away the county seat in the spring of 1869, as has been related elsewhere. Gradually the town dwindled in trade and population until the building of the railroad to Pendleton in 1882 took the last forwarding business away. There are now two large stores, J. R. Foster & Co. and J. H. Koontz, that have for years done an immense forwarding and commission business as well as trade in goods. Until the O. R. & N. Co.'s road was completed in 1882, the produce of Umatilla County sought the river at this point for shipment. Over 2,000,000 pounds of wool have been shipped annually by these firms for a number of years, and now wheat has begun to go out in large quantities. The building of the railroad, with its numerous stations, has taken away the bulk of shipping, and left little but a retail trade to sustain it. This, however, is quite large and will undoubtedly increase in the future, especially in view of the settlements now being made on the opposite side of the Columbia. The buildings that once composed this bustling city have been torn down to reduce the danger of fire, or removed to other points. The town now contains two large stores with stone warehouses, two hotels, two saloons, a blacksmith shop, livery stable, shoe shop, express office, post office, telephone office, U. S. Signal Service Station, steam ferry boat, school house and church, railroad depot, warehouse and cattle yards, a number of residences and a population of about 200.

The Umatilla and Pendleton Telephone Co. was organized in 1880 with a capital of $2,500, and a wire was put up to Pendleton the same year, a distance of thirty-nine miles, at a cost of $2,856. A donation of $300 was made by people interested. This was the first communication by wire with the interior of the county. The building used for a schoolhouse and church was erected in 1866 at a cost of $1,800. A six months' school with an attendance of about twenty-five scholars is now maintained.

Umatilla Mills were built in 1874-5 by J. R. Foster & Co. and H. U. Myers, who operated them until the summer of 1882, when they were sold to Mr. Hoffman, of Portland. They have two run of burrs.

Umatilla Lodge No. 40, A. F. & A. M.-Dispensation granted in March, 1867; charter June 26, 1867 ; lodge consecrated July 24, 1867. Charter members: A. E Rogers, W. M.; M. Powell, S. W.; Jesse Davis, J. W.; Peter Rothenbush, T. Peason, J. H. Fisk, R. B. Morford, William Mitchell, C. B. Reeder, R. K. Lansdale, and J. B. Benson. Masters: Amos E. Rogers, 1867; J. H. Fisk, 1868; H. C. Paige, 1869-70; J. S. Schenck, 1871; J. H. Kunzie, 1872-6; J. E. Bean, 1877-8; J. M. Leezer, I879; A. L. Gordon, 1880; J. H. Kunzie, 1881; John Bartol, 1882. Hall built in 1868; cost, $4,800; size, 28x40. Largest membership, 73 in 1869; at present, 48. Meets the second and fourth Saturdays of each month. This is the parent lodge of Eastern Oregon, from which the others have all sprung; 200 members were initiated in one year.

Overland Lodge No. 23, I. O. O. F.-This lodge has existed in Umatilla for years, from which we have received no statistics.

Additional Town Resources

Umatilla County

Latest Content

Oregon Obituary Database

We changed our name, and have expanded!

Contains obituaries for Baker, Crook, Grant, Hood River, Lane, Linn, Malheur, Umatilla, Union, and Wallowa Counties.

 Umatilla County
Report broken link

Oregon Host

USGenWeb Member Site

ORGenWeb Member Site

Contribute to Oregon Genealogy
If you have information you would like contribute to the website, please use our comment form!! If you find a broken link please let us know!