Even the journey of a thousand miles

The road from yesterday to now has been long and winding.



Remember when? Only photos carry the memory of Main Street from the 1880s.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first installment of a three-part look into the history of street building in Walla Walla.

WALLA WALLA - Building and maintaining roads and streets into and through this community appear to have grated on residents since the city was born one-and-a-half centuries ago.

Main Street, consisting of just a handful of structures when the town was platted and named in 1859, was built on the Nez Perce Trail - a rugged span from Idaho's Bitterroot Mountains to the Columbia River.

Three years later, the Northwest's first highway - Mullan Road - for buggies, wagons and stagecoaches was completed, connecting Fort Walla Walla and the city with a steamship port at Wallula and Fort Benton on the Missouri River in Montana. By 1870, at least part of the road already had seen better days.

Our early pioneers slogged their horse-drawn carriages through dust, dirt, rocks and mud in the city for three more decades. But with the arrival of automobiles at the turn of the century came a push to improve the streets. Paving of downtown arterials with asphalt began in 1904 and hard-rock surfaces known as macadam were laid in residential areas.

By 1917, the city of Walla Walla could boast about 32 miles of hard-surfaced roads and one vehicle for every 14 of the 34,000 residents of the county. During this period, however, some of the roadwork was looked upon as shoddy and there were public calls for further and faster street improvements.

Historic photos of the following decades depict the never-ending struggle of crews repairing and resurfacing streets until much of their work was reduced to rubble in the Mill Creek flood of 1931.

Despite periodic promotional literature touting Walla Walla's beautiful boulevards, city officials warned residents as early as 50 years ago that many thoroughfares were in need of extensive repairs, if not complete reconstruction.

Citizens came through with $6 million in improvements in the 1960s, but not enough has been accomplished since that era of better roads.

Walla Walla is known as "the cradle of Northwest history." So, not surprisingly, some of the underlying water and sewer lines, now dating back 100 years, were installed in a mishmash fashion and in accordance with now-inferior standards and workmanship.

Too-few new or refurbished streets have surfaced after freezing, thawing and rupturing during decades of cold winters. And sufficient, routine maintenance that prolongs the lives of our roadways has been sorely lacking. Thus, residents now are faced with streets totaling 140 miles -- in addition to neglected, appurtenant structures underneath - of which many are failing.

Earliest memories

W.W. Walter was among the first wave of immigrants who came to Walla Walla in 1862 after the area was opened to white settlement. In an essay, he recalled Main Street then "as a development of the old Indian trail along the natural elevation of the south bank of Mill Creek, forming a dry ridge much used by the Indians in horse racing before the whites appropriated it for the more advanced purposes of a business street ..."

"Architecturally viewed it would seem that the earliest occupants of this street differed in their opinions as to the established width, for at that time there was gross irregularity in the building line, as well as ups and downs in the sidewalks, each owner apparently deeming it his own affair, that of fixing the line."

A contemporary, Mrs. B.L. Sharpstein, arrived here in 1865 by wagon train. She later recalled the community of about 3,500 - the largest in the territory - as "a typical frontier town," with "one church, a public school and about 40 gambling houses," according to an article in the local Up-to-the-Times magazine.

In a 730-page tome, "Lyman's History of Old Walla Walla County" published in 1918, author W.D. Lyman discussed eras of early transportation in the Old West.

He listed as first, steamer lines that navigated rivers such as the Columbia, along which cities formed. Next came stage lines like the one connecting Wallula to Walla Walla that opened in 1859. By 1870, according to one account cited by Lyman, sections of the road were worn several feet deep and for years there were four or five tracks.

During this time, city, county and territorial roads were not much more than difficult-to-maintain, wide dirt paths and trails.

Roads in the county - which then included much of what is now Washington state, all of Idaho and part of Montana - were supervised by county commissioners. Territorial roads, those that passed through two or more counties, were established by legislative act.

In 1877, the Legislative Assembly declared that streets and alleys in cities and towns - such as Walla Walla, which was incorporated Jan. 11, 1862, - were public highways. But the state didn't provide funding and owners of adjoining property had to keep them in repair, according to a report currently appearing on the state Department of Transportation website.

The first state Legislature convened in Olympia on Nov. 6, 1889, the report says. "This first Legislature recognized the urgent need of better roads, and an act was passed which provided a way to take care of this condition." Counties were permitted to issue bonds and provisions were made for a tax levy. "The reason set forth for such emergency was that highways in many counties were impassable."

A few steam cars started appearing on highways about this time, prompting the 1890 Legislature to address rules of the road. Lawmakers also continued to encourage better types of road surfaces with specifications for amounts of earth, stone and gravel.

Laws continued to evolve the next several years. State funding reportedly switched to a poll tax and property was assessed within two miles on either side of an improvement.

In Walla Walla, dirt streets - which at times were covered with straw to help maneuver through mud and dust - were laid out in and adjacent to the downtown area. The most densely populated segment of the city was generally bordered by Pine Street to the north, 11th Avenue to the west, Maple Street to the south and Clinton Street to the east, according to a map published around 1890.

Some of the streets weren't aligned exactly as they are now or hadn't been opened to their entire current lengths. In addition, several outlying streets had been designated, but were earmarked with different names and weren't populated to a significant degree.

As the 20th century came into view, 9,087 "souls" lived in Walla Walla, according to a city and county directory published at the time. (Although that figure differed from the official census of 10,049.)

The directory touted recent accomplishments, such as the city embarking on "a magnificent sewer system, aggregating 23 miles in length, that will minimize the death rate by introducing better sanitary conditions."

Also, the city had just purchased the privately owned Walla Walla Water Company system (the site of the present Pioneer Park) following a special election of voters June 20, 1899.

But the series of ponds and springs, alone, was deemed unsuitable. "About 1900 the growth of the city extended so much toward the east that a number of pumping stations were installed," a later Up-to-the-Times magazine story said.

"It was only a few years until the service became inadequate by reason of excessive draught and low pressure."

Mill Creek then became the primary water supplier.

Part two of this report, next Sunday, will examine the city's plunge into paving projects, which began downtown in 1904.


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