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Walla Walla

The seat of Walla Walla County, lies in the center of the rich farm lands of the Walla Walla Valley. To the southeast rise the hazy peaks of the Blue Mountains; northward, gently rolling hills fade into the distance. Many streams water the valley, Mill Creek meandering through the very heart of the city. The pioneers retained the Native American name for the site, Walla Walla, which means the “place of many waters,” a name eminently suited to the region.

From its beginning as a trading and distributing point, the city grew as circumstances dictated, not according to plan. Commercial and industrial buildings mingled freely with residences. Here and there among the newer, more pretentious structures, were a few old stores and office buildings, relics of the boom days of the 1860s and 1870s. The residential streets, quiet and peaceful, were bordered by many trees, which change kaleidoscopically with the seasons; from brilliant green of spring through the heavy fragrance of locust trees in bloom, to the dark lacing of autumn with its cascades of yellow leaves, and, finally, winter, with snow and the bare-brown sheen of branches. In settings of neat green lawns, brightened by seasonal flowers and shrubbery, were homes representing various adaptations—Colonial, English, and American farm houses. Several church spires rose above the tops of the trees.

The Walla Walla region has been intimately bound up with the history of the Northwest. Before the coming of the white men, an Native American trail ran through the valley, its course approximating the location of Main Street. The valley on Mill Creek was a favored council ground of the Native Americans. Six miles west, in the “valley of the rye grass,” Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, set up a mission in 1836.

A fort for protection against attacks was one of several in the region named Fort Walla Walla and was built in 1856. The following year a village was built up around the fort. On January 11, 1859, an act of the Territorial Legislature approved the name Walla Walla City.

When it boomed in 1862 during the Idaho gold rush, the village was incorporated and platted from land in A. J. Cain’s claim. The city is the center of a rich, agricultural area.

The Native American name means “…place of many waters…” referring to the tributaries of Walla Walla River, and the many small streams and springs in the vicinity. Previous names were Steptoeville and Steptoe City, for Lieut. Col. Edward J. Steptoe, who fought in the 1850s Indian wars.


1941 view of downtown Walla Walla.

Source: Library of Congress

Historic view of the NRHP listed Marcus Whitman Hotel in Walla Walla.

Source: Washington Dept. of Archaeology and Historic Preservation

1936 image of wheat fields near Walla Walla. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.

Source: Library of Congress

Points of Interest Points of Interest icon

Fort Walla Walla Historic District

Fifteen buildings erected between 1858 and 1906, a parade ground, and a cemetery remain from the old fort. The buildings and parade ground have been assimilated into the Veterans Administration facility, while the cemetery is part of a city-owned park that also contains the Fort Walla Walla Museum. The museum tells the intriguing story of the fort and its involvement in the many Native American/settler disputes of the 1850s.

Marcus Whitman Hotel

Construction of this hotel indicated Walla Walla had “arrived.” Its 11 storys of brick and cast stone, gilt embellishments, brass chandeliers, oak columns and terrazzo floors were the result of a “crowdfunding” effort in which 500 citizens of Walla Walla raised $150,000 through stock purchases to support a developer’s investment. Notable guests of the hotel included President Eisenhower and Vice-President Johnson. It closed in 1968, was turned into apartments, but rehabilitated beginning in 1999.

US Post Office

This two-story brick building with Mediterranean ornamentation was erected in 1914 as the post office and federal building. A 1965 rear addition complements the original building.

Liberty Theater

This whimsical building is a survivor and a testament to adaptive re-use. Built in 1920 as the American Theater, it received a 1939 interior renovation in the Art Moderne style. It closed in 1980. In 1991 it was incorporated into the neighboring Bon Marche (now Macy’s) Department Store in such a way as to be able to reverse the minor changes necessary.

Electric Light Works Building

Built in 1890 with a 1911 addition, this is the last piece of the Walla Walla Gas Company complex. The company pioneered production of gas and later electric power to homes, businesses and streetlights.  It has new life now as the Power House Theater.

Saint Patrick Church and Rectory

Saint Patrick’s represents the longstanding presence and influence of the Catholic Church in the community, dating from 1847 with the founding of the first mission. The impressive Gothic Revival building was constructed in 1881. The rectory was completed in 1905 and complements the church architecture. The school building was demolished in 1997.