Establishment of Fort Dalles
Volunteer militia provided by the Provisional Territorial Government occupied the abandoned Wascopam Mission in early 1848, calling it Fort Wascopam or Fort Lee after their commander, immediately after the Whitman Massacre. The volunteer militia were a ragtag group of settlers, including Whitman’s nephew, Perrin Whitman, who felt an armed response to the Cayuse attack on the Whitman mission must be organized. At the time, Oregon Territory was not yet a state, and the volunteers were not recognized by the U.S. government as official military troops.
In 1849 the first U.S. army troops stopped briefly on their way from Ft. Leavenworth to Ft. Vancouver. Some returned to establish a small post. This movement of troops came to be known as “The March of the Mounted Riflemen.” On March 30, 1850, Colonel William W. Loring arrived in the location of the dalles of the Columbia, and established a post, utilizing the abandoned Wascopam Mission buildings. He had with him Major Osborne Cross, and two illustrators, George Gibbs and William Tappan. Tappan and Gibbs produced many drawings which became the first visual recording of the area.
With the help of hired Oregon trail emigrants they built a log barracks and several frame buildings. Most had dirt floors and no ceilings and were drafty, leaky, and uncomfortable. The post was undermanned with usually a few dozen men.
Two U.S. army companies officially established Camp Drum in May 20, 1850. Army policy was to patrol the Emigrant Road and to send settlers on their way to the Willamette Valley as quick as possible either down the Columbia or south around Mt Hood on the Barlow Road. There was a shortage of rations for the troops and priests at the newly formed Catholic mission at The Dalles helped furnish food for them. The army established a military reservation that covered 10 square miles, and extended all the way to the river. Camp Drum later became Fort Drum, and eventually Fort Dalles in 1853.
The city later became a major outfitting center for gold mining in Eastern Oregon, and a key operational base for the U.S. Army through its local garrison. Under the direction of Capt Thomas Jordan, German-born architect Louis Scholl designed several new buildings for Fort Dalles, using a Gothic Revival style. Today, only the Fort Dalles Surgeon’s Quarters and the Gardner’s cottage survive from those early military buildings. The buildings are a part of Fort Dalles Museum.
The county had jurisdiction over a territory reaching from the Cascades to the modern-day states of Montana and Wyoming. When gold was discovered near Colville, it brought more traffic through. Violence increased. Major Granville O. Haller, using regular and volunteer troops, captured and killed some Indians defending their territory from the encroachment of the emigrants and wagon trains, but the military was greatly outnumbered east of the mountains. In 1855 attempts were made to sign treaties near Walla Walla and The Dalles.
The period that Colonel George Wright was stationed at Fort Dalles with the reorganized 9th Infantry Regiment was its busiest era. They came to force compliance to the treaties. The fort was headquarters for the regiment and the main military supply depot for the development of Fort Simcoe, Fort Walla Walla, and Colville.
The fort buildings formed an octagon with a grassy parade ground in the center. Timbers were cut nearby and sawed in the fort’s own mill on Mill Creek and at 3 other nearby civilian mills. Sandstone was quarried on the nearby bluff for foundations and chimneys, some of which was hauled to Ft. Simcoe. The Surgeon’s Quarters at Fort Dalles was the smallest and least expensive of the four officer’s houses, costing a little less than $5,000 in 1856. Col Wright’s house cost $22,000 but was referred to by amazed emigrants as the “$100,000 house.”
Government inspectors were not impressed with the Fort’s distinctive buildings even though Wright and Jordan upheld that all construction on the frontier was costly and that much of the expense had maintained posts at the Cascades, Ft. Simcoe. and Ft. Walla Walla. But additional funding was denied. Unfortunately Jordan had neglected to construct a water system and the funding was denied for a pumper for fighting fires.
Eventually the military reservation was reduced down to only one square mile. By the late 1850s the Indian frontier had moved east and after temporary use in 1867-68 there was no further function. There was no longer a need for a fort at this location. By the end of 1867, a flaw that seemed to be a faulty mortar in the chimneys caused the three largest houses to burn to the ground. Only the surgeon’s quarters remain today. Though the fort was abandoned after 1867 the town was well on its way to growth. The fort supplied the first sawmill, first newspaper, first school other than the mission school, military band, makeshift theater.
The army kept a caretaker at the fort until 1880s when the remaining buildings were left to squatters and the elements. Most of the buildings were demolished, but a group of stalwart citizens banded together to save the Surgeon’s Quarters from destruction. Members of the newly organized Oregon Historical Society, they utilized the authority of OHS to gain congressional approval for the project. They met with success in 1904, and in 1905 the Fort Dalles Museum opened to the public, making it one of Oregon’s oldest history museums. The Fort Dalles Surgeon’s Quarters is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Ownership of the Fort Dalles Surgeon’s Quarters was transferred to Wasco County, which now shares joint operation with the City of The Dalles. Today the Fort Dalles Surgeon’s Quarters, is a museum dedicated to the early history of pioneers in Wasco County and the military history of Fort Dalles. Exhibits include pioneer artifacts, an antique vehicle collection, the Anderson Homestead, and more.
Today you can visit Fort Dalles Museum at 500 W. 15th St., The Dalles Oregon (on the corner of 15th & Garrison Streets). Call 541-296-4547 for hours. Visit the museum online at www.FortDallesMuseum.org.