Dalles City

by Bruce Patterson, April 6, 2016

“Small rural communities are perpetually marketing themselves. Witness the annual Heritage Spudfest in Boonsboro, Maryland, or the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker County, Kansas.” –The NY Times

In 1857 the provisional government of the Territory of Oregon named the little town at the infamous dead-end of the Oregon Trail out at the wrong end of the Columbia River Gorge “Dalles City.” Even though back in 1857 there wasn’t much out there besides extensive Indian ruins, willow and aspen log corrals, a barn and blacksmith, trading post, boatyard, shanties and a burnt-out Methodist Mission, over on the right side of the mountains in Oregon City, Astoria and Stump Town, string-tied Men’s Club Titans, convinced they’d “Won the West,” loved talking in sweeping grandiosities. If ever you got tired of hearing one of them gentleman imbued with the spirit of Manifest Destiny broadcasting superlatives like chicken feed in a chicken yard, him cluck, cluck, clucking like giant old hen, why he’d just keep on broadcasting and clucking all the more.

And, sure enough, even though to this day Dalles City still ain’t any such thing, having 14,000 people in residence does qualify it as a substantial town. It’s a busy town, too, what with the riverboats and barges, the mainline railroad tracks and the Interstate 84 Freeway either passing by or cutting through. And since the very beginning—when Lewis and Clark passed through it was alive with people of various tribes—the proud Euro-Americans who settled the spot to offer support to the wagon train pilgrims cruelly halted just shy of the Promised Land have always and unanimously called the place The Dalles.

“These here ain’t just any old Dalles, stranger. These are The Dalles.” 

It took the United States Post Office 110 years (until 1967) to finally drop the name “Dalles City.” Yet, unable to bring themselves to call it “The Dalles” like everybody else, they christened the place “City of The Dalles.” What with the brand-new hydroelectric dam, the locks and the new bridge over the river opening up the Yakima market, the honchos in the PO’s Department of Names must have decided not to get too hasty with their historical revisions. Just as Bay Area’s Auto-Dystopia has advanced inexorably up the 101 Freeway Corridor and its feeder streams, or New York City has spilled over into Jersey or, like the Blob of old, Chicago has swallowed and dissolved Cook County, sooner or later Portland is bound to the leapfrog the Gorge and, at long last, The City of The Dalles will have finally earned its moniker.

Then again, at least if we listen to what our Holy Pentagon is saying about the USA’s possible “Future Scenarios,” maybe we should hold our horses, so to speak. Or, as PR kinds of people like to say to take the sting off crimes against humanity, crimes against nature or whatever: “It’s still too early to tell.”

Now here’s the funny part. Before the area’s Industrial Revolution roared to life in the 1940s and ’50s, up and downstream of The Dalles stretched a 12-mile-long series of waterfalls and roaring rapids. When French fur trappers came upon the spot in the 18th Century, they named it the dalles: “the gutter.” It looks and acts like a gutter, too: a ditch with plenty enough incline to keep the water moving.

Although The Dalles is only a two-hour backroads drive north of Prineville, Trish and I have only overnighted there once. Fact is I have trouble laying my eyes on the Columbia River without remembering the Lower Colorado River I knew as a kid. You know, back when the Colorado ran all the way to the Sea of Cortez. I was born with the West’s dam building craze back when most people still believed, as they do today (the miracle of communications technology), in the suicide mission called “conquering nature.”

Not too far upstream from The Dalles sprawls the mothballed Hanford nuclear ruins, their ungodly radiation escaping “containment,” the sprawling No Man’s Lands stolen from the local Indians not long before my big sister was born, the ongoing story shit-canned, the victims invisible.

For at least 14,000 years up and downstream from The Dalles sprawled vibrant communities. Why so many people and villages and ceremonial sites for so long in so small a place? Because every year up to twenty million salmon passed by their front yards. So many salmon came up the river that sea lions followed them up past The Dalles and to the base of Cielo (“echo of falling water”) Falls (now “submerged” behind the Dalles Dam). The river ran with so many salmon the sky filled with bald eagles and ospreys. So I’ve been kind of avoiding the place because, while I don’t believe in ghosts, I’ve hung with some of their descendants.

Then there’s the Interstate 84 Freeway. “Freeways” ruined my home town of LA; freeways have ruined every town they’ve sliced and diced. “Ruined” may be too strong a word but everybody with a country bone in their body knows what I’m talking about: radical change imposed from above. So folks here in Crook County—having peered into their crystal balls, the regional planners like calling it the “Ochoco Valley” or, even better, “Greater Prineville”—are rightly proud of how faraway the nearest stretch of Interstate Freeway is. It’s at The Dalles: 117 miles away, to be exact. If you leave Prineville and head east on US 126, it’ll be 210 up and down miles before you reach the Interstate 84 freeway at Baker City. But if you want to get to Boise or Salt Lake City, then you’d head south 31 miles on the George Millican Memorial Hwy, take US Hwy 20 east and reach I-84 in Ontario, Oregon, after 265 miles. If you want to reach I-80, then you’d head southeast for Winnemucca: 312 miles. If you want to meet up with I-80 at Reno, it’ll be 442 miles. But if you want to head southwest into California, then I-5 at Weed is only 208 miles. Head due west over the Cascades and I-5 is a measly 144 miles away.

Forgive me my trivia but, hey, in the Lower 48, you won’t find a town more “remote” from a freeway than Prineville is. While it may not be all that much to brag about, it sure makes things awfully quiet around here. Since probably 95% of people in the USA live within walking distance of a freeway, and since maybe about 85% of all of the USA’s traffic miles are put in on freeways, it takes some doing to get to Prineville. You’ve gotta watch what’s coming at you, for one thing; watch out for animals crossing the highway for another. The bottom line is that not many come here just to brag about having been here and, as unpatriotic as it sounds, I’ll drink to that.

So why are Trisha and I going to The Dalles? Mostly to tour the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Wasco County Historical Museum (two for the price of one Senior Discount). I want to see the exhibits and shop the bookstore. We also want to celebrate the first warm and calm days of 2016 while staying in the famed and newly refurbished 1950’s art deco Celilo Motor Hotel. Ninety-nine bucks per night double-geezer which includes free views of what has to be one of the ugliest dams on earth, it looking like the cross-section of concrete culverts stuck shoulder-to-shoulder and standing on end. Then we want to cross over the bridge to Washington and check out some of the more famous works of a fabulously rich and genuinely crazed 19th Century railroad baron by the name of Sam Hill. Like Death Valley Scotty, Sam Hill built himself a magnificent castle out in the middle of nowhere: “if I build it, they will come,” he wrongly promised himself.

In life Sam Hill was more like P.T. Barnum than “Three Card Monte” Scotty. Except Sam Hill was without the traveling circus and the five-story Broadway Boulevard Freak Show (“That’d be a ‘Museum’ to you, Mister.”) Mr. Hill named his castle on a hill “Maryhill” after his so-to-be ex-wife Mary—she wasn’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of sitting out there watching the dust blow—and now it’s a Western Art Museum that includes some paintings by Rodin. (Hey, why not? It’s the “High Desert,” ain’t it?) Nearby is Sam Hill’s concrete “replica” of England’s Stonehenge that, in 1918, he himself personally dedicated to the memory of Klickitat County’s Great War’s war dead. While I’m absolutely positive that during the war there were more unbroken horses in Klickitat Co. then there were Klickitat Co. boys over there dying on the Western Front, I’m at a loss to explain what Stonehenge has to do with any of it but I intend to find out. Oh, Sam Hill’s tomb is out there, too. His tomb plus extensive landscaping.

(NEXT: What in Sam Hill?)

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