Lost Treasures of Wallula Valley

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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
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
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
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 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’
By 1920, Wallula had evolved to a
quiet little town known as a destination
for ghosts and potential buried
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
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
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
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
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
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
t r e a s u r e s
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 pos-
A wolves gnawing rawhide sketch from the
Whitman College Northwest archives.
sibly 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.
Fort Walla Walla
Museum – James
“ W e i r d
Wa s h i n g t o n , ”
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
Southeast Washington landscapes. Photos by Jed Vaughn.
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