The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Jim Fisher
For The Sentinel 

Wishram holds centennial celebration

 

Contributed: Jim Fisher

CELEBRATING A CENTURY: Saturday marked the celebration of Wishram's 100 years as a community. Close to 400 people showed up to mark the occasion, which included a release of 100 balloons.

Last Saturday, residents, neighbors, railroad history enthusiasts, fun-seekers and old friends gathered at the Wishram Railroad Park to honor the town's centennial. Indeed, Wishram has been around for 100 years in one form or another, but its real age as a community is a number even respected historians would be hard pressed to pinpoint. Most anthropologists agree that the Native villages on either side of Celilo Falls have been continuously inhabited for more than 15,000 years, due to the salmon bounty that was made possible by Celilo Falls and the place's location as a natural crossroads for the entire northwestern part of the continent. Some say no other single place on earth has been called "home" by humans for so long. That would make for a whole lot of Wishram centennials that didn't get a proper celebration.

Saturday found the town filled up and decked out for the occasion. Old signs and storefronts were painted and decorated. A free lunch of pulled-pork sandwiches and accompanying sides were served, and the crowd was treated to the folksy music of the band Huggy and the Bears. Collages of old photos covered fence and wall, and a cannon was fired several times for spectators. Scott and Felicia Gray, of Goldendale, could be seen high up in a man-lift, masterfully painting a giant mural on the back of Bunn's old store that when completed will depict an image of the falls before their inundation and the famed Celilo Indian Chief, Tommy Thompson.

Planning for the Wishram Centennial event started more than two years ago, conceived, in part, by longtime resident Kenny Ratliff and carried through by Wishram native Dee Dee Gabbert-Dillon. Ty Ross, of Goldendale, is a descendant of George Bunn, and he also jumped at the opportunity to get involved, handling the bulk of the celebration's planning and execution. The hard work appears to have paid off, and the day was deemed a raging success by organizers and attendees alike. Found smiling at a booth in the Pastime that evening, Dillon was visibly pleased with the event she helped create. "I just couldn't be happier with the way things have turned out today," she said. "The weather was beautiful and the people were smiling!"

The centennial served as a massive reunion as well, both for the old SP&S railroaders and their offspring who once attended school there. Friends long ago lost were reunited and old stories and jokes were swapped. Former SP&S crewmembers lined up for a photo in front of the giant steam locomotive on display at the park and stretched nearly from one end to the other.

Lana McEwen has been a Wishram resident since the early 1970s, all but one year of her life, and is proud to say so, as are most such honored citizens of the tight knit community. "I just had a really great time visiting family and old friends," said McEwen, "I think they put on a nice little celebration for this nice little community."

At the end of the proceedings (but still far from the end of unofficial celebrations, which lasted well into the night) 100 balloons were released into the air to the sound of cheers and the distinct ringing of a steam locomotive's bell, that great iron beast of yesteryear being briefly brought out from her slumber as if to say, "Oh yes, Wishram, I remember too!"

History

As far as Europeans go, Lewis and Clark camped there in preparation for their wild boat ride through "the Long Narrows" on their way to the sea. Washington Irving, author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, once visited and described the village and its inhabitants extensively in his 1836 work Astoria Or, Anecdotes Of An Enterprise Beyond The Rocky Mountains:

"We would make especial mention of the village of Wishram, at the head of the Long Narrows, as being a solitary instance of an aboriginal trading mart, or emporium. Here the salmon caught in the neighboring rapids were "warehoused," to await customers. Hither the tribes from the mouth of the Columbia repaired with the fish of the sea-coast, the roots, berries, and especially the wappatoo, gathered in the lower parts of the river, together with goods and trinkets obtained from the ships which casually visit the coast. Hither also the tribes from the Rocky Mountains brought down horses, bear-grass, quamash, and other commodities of the interior."

The company that would eventually be known as the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway (SP&S) first laid tracks through the sandy dunes of Wishram in 1908, during the final phase of construction on their line called The North Bank Road, which followed just above the Columbia River's waterline between Pasco and Vancouver. Incidentally, this feat provided Goldendale with its first major link to the outside world via a solid connection to the transcontinental railroads at the Lyle terminus of the short-lived Columbia River & Northern R.R. (soon absorbed by the SP&S.) which was completed in 1903 to transport goods and passengers from the fertile and booming valley of The Little Klickitat down to a riverboat connection on the Columbia.

As noted in Don McManman's informative article that ran July 30 in The Sentinel, James J. Hill built the Spokane, Portland, & Seattle Railroad, from which sprouted the busy rail center along the north bank of the thundering falls of Celilo. Men in his employ created the hotel, 12-stall engine shed, restaurant, recreation building, the seven company cottages, 100,000 gallon water tank and various other rail-service related structures. These are the structures that were shown in an old photo published in last week's edition of The Sentinel, looking sparse and out of place amongst the sand dunes. But ask anyone who has lived there in the 100 years since it all began, and they will tell you that George Bunn built Wishram.

Bunn was born in 1888, the son of pioneers who took root in Wasco. A highly enterprising young man, at the age of 21 he strapped a suitcase to the rear end of his saddle horse and brought his first load of merchandise (gloves, overalls, shaving kits and other lesser items needed by empire builders) into the construction camps at Fallbridge. He did well enough to soon purchase land and construct a small shack from which he opened up his first real store. Things went well, to put it mildly. For the next decade Bunn steadily expanded his interests, buying and building and selling everything from groceries to the homes they would be eaten in. He ventured to the county seat in 1914 and had the town registered as Fallbridge, referencing the nearby falls and the large state-of-the-art railroad bridge that passed over them. His commercial endeavors culminated in the construction of a large brick building to serve as a grocery and tavern in 1920. Still in existence today, the tavern, called The Pastime, is currently enjoying the midst of its 94th year of continuous operation.

Bunn was a fixture in the town throughout its mid-century heyday and was still there selling its residents the things they needed well through the town's slow decline, brought about by various changes in the corporate worlds of railroading and aluminum production. The town revered him for his fair business practices and charitable heart. It is said that he fed dozens of starving hobos per day during the Great Depression.

His daughter, Nancy Ross, shared her memories of growing up as a young girl in mid-century Wishram with The Sentinel back in 1990, recalling that as kids they never lacked for entertainment, doing "A lot of fishing-salmon, bass, trout; hunting of deer, quail; photography; bird-watching; mushroom hunting; hiking; and rock climbing." She also explained that "We built a gym too, and in that we had a roller skating rink and some years we had a theater. We had a lot of dances-I used to look for people who'd lost their false teeth because I knew they'd give me a reward."

Wishram was often described as a "young town" during the railroad boom era, and with nearly all of its residents being employed by the expanding company, it was. Families sprung up left and right during the town's halcyon days, but one sharp baby boom in particular came about not long after a special passenger train from Spokane to Portland began thundering noisily through town at 3am every morning. As one railroader's wife explained "When that train whistled for the station, it woke everyone up, and at least at that hour it was too early to get up and too late to get back to sleep."

Ross also shared the story of how Fallbridge became Wishram in 1926. Railroad officials all the way back in St. Paul, Minn., decided they would honor the area's Natives by changing the town's title to reflect that of the local tribe, the Wishams. Even though the proposed name change was put to a resident vote and nearly unanimously nay-ed, "Fallbridge" was wiped from the map and the new moniker was given. The misguided gesture was further botched when the tribe was given the Ellis Island treatment and an R was tossed into the tribe's name, forming a sound not even used in their particular dialect of the Chinook Jargon. Nonetheless, Wishram stuck.

Despite the errant R, and the railroad merger that eventually led to most of the good jobs being moved elsewhere and the closure of an aluminum plant (which many thought would be the final, fatal blow) the town still stands defiantly between the cliffs and the river. Nearly all of the original railroad structures have been demolished, including the old depot and the much beloved Beanery, a company restaurant that served hot meals 24 hours a day. Bunn's store now stands vacant beside the lovingly decorated Pastime Tavern, which also sells a few essential groceries through a slide-window.

 

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