November 2016 issue- Text only. Subscriptions are required for links to magazine archives
Lost Treasures of Wallula Valley, Washington- by Jed Vaughn
In the early 1870’s, Wallula Valley became home to the first rail line ever built in Washington State. Earlier in 1859, a gold rush broke out to the north in the Colville District. In pursuit of the precious yellow metal, miners journeyed through Wallula Valley using this railway as part of the trek to the new gold rush area. The Columbia-Baker line, affectionately referred to as the Rawhide Railway, had ties consisting of split wood lashed with strap iron. Dorsey Baker came up with the idea to create a smoother ride and to mellow out the rattling and shaking of the cars that ran the narrow gage track. Over time, these iron strappings were confused with rawhide strips, giving it the nickname, and the rawhide railway legend grew as folklore. Rawhide is tough, resilient, and hard as iron in its various wet and dry stages. It was used to hold building framework together as well as harnesses, water bags, and other various construction applications. A story and sketch depicted by Indians tells of the rawhide straps
being chewed and decimated by wolves and coyotes during the long hard winters. And Baker was known for using home-made substitutes, such as hogfat, for lubricant, boilers filled by hand with buckets, and even a dog in place of the engine’s cowcatcher. Even so, very few believe any of the strappings were anything other than iron. Stories began to swirl around about buried gold along the train route by two train robbers in the 1880’s. Legend has it that two bandits
jumped the early single railway express car and absconded with several pounds of bullion with the law hot on their trail. As the story is told, the pair bailed off and buried the stolen gold somewhere along the 46-mile-long rail line as they pressed on toward the Columbia River. Planning to catch a riverboat headed to Portland, the bandits were reeled in by the posse before they could escape the chase. They were reportedly hanged at the point of capture in spite of the gold being nowhere to be found. Treasure hunters have been in search ever since. Hunting for buried gold and treasure became tricky for those in pursuit, as the town of Wallula was moved not once, but twice. The original Fort Walla Walla was established in 1818 by the Northwest Fur Trading Company. Built of driftwood and called the Gibraltar of the West, it ultimately burned down in 1841, later being rebuilt with mud and bricks. When the fur trade ended in 1850, the US Army occupied the fort and, after the army left, it became the town of Wallula. In 1883, the entire town, population 800, was moved a short distance away to be closer to a rail freight center with roundhouses. It soon became a Wild West town reminiscent of Deadwood where murders and robberies were frequent in back streets and alleys. Tales surfaced of miners burying gold and valuables before visiting the town, which ultimately became lost treasure upon the murdered miners’ demise. By 1920, Wallula had evolved to a quiet little town known as a destination for ghosts and potential buried treasure. The third township wasn’t established until 1950 when the second was condemned.
Once again the town of Wallula was moved, this time to make way for the McNary Dam by the Army Corp of Engineers. The first two Wallula locations were flooded, but not before construction workers, treasure hunters, and even geologists pursued the rumored buried caches…to no avail. What they did find were buried remains from the original township and the Corp made an agreement with the residents to relocate the town including the buildings and cemetery.
James Payne is the curator at the Fort Walla Walla Museum. He specializes in documenting historical events and facts relating to the original Fort Walla Walla. Meticulous depictions and story boards describe how the area evolved dating back to the infamous journey by Lewis and Clark. James shared a tale of lost treasure dating back to a time when only stagecoaches roamed the valley. It was told by Fred Mitchell, a current Walla Walla resident, who is now 80-years-old. Fred claims to be the last person to stand on the now submerged river banks where the two previous Wallula town sites were located. As he tells it, the water rose several feet a day as a result of the back waters from the new McNary Dam. He amusingly shared a story about a 6-foot sturgeon he battled with as the river was rising in the 1950’s. He also recalled a handed down tale of a gold stash that, at the time, was worth $40,000. It disappeared, presumably buried somewhere, as it was being transported by stagecoach. While fishing with his father one day, Fred happened upon a large, deep hole being dug by three fortune hunters who thought it might be the spot where the stagecoach bounty could be buried. They were digging in the area of the original Fort Walla Walla on property owned by the Hudson Bay Fur Company. They were not successful and, unfortunately for modern day treasure hunters, the area is now under water. Today, the town of Wallula sits quietly in its third location at the mouth of the Walla Walla River where it flows into the mighty Columbia. It’s a very small town absent of a store, gas station, bar, or restaurant and primarily houses workers of the Potlach Lumber Co. sitting across the highway on the banks of the Columbia River. The town is just upstream from the Wallula Gap, a narrow passage of basalt anticlines created 17 million years ago. The Columbia River passes through it winding its way toward the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps Wallula’s biggest claim to fame today is having a Mars C r a t e r named after it in 2006, so the lost treasures of Wallula V a l l e y are off the minds of those in search of buried gold, but there is no doubt in my mind that the buried treasures did exist, and possibly still do. However, the possibility remains that much of the treasure may have been found and never reported. Today, it would behoove those finding buried treasure in the region to share the news for the notoriety, but maybe not so much back in the old days of the Wild West. One thing is for sure…if there is lost treasure there, it would be a daunting task just to pin point a place to spend time searching. Especially since most of the area is under water. To get to Wallula, follow interstate highway 12 from Pasco Washington towards Walla Walla. Be sure to take a drive through the dramatic basalt cliffs of the Wallula Gap before heading east through the Wallula Valley. Sources: Fort Walla Walla Museum – James Payne “ W e i r d Washington,” Jeff Davis and Al Eufrasio. Sterling Publishing Company 2008 W h i t m a n College NW Archives – Railway photos and sketches Fred Mitchell – Stagecoach photos and family accounts.