Washington's Touchet Valley

History comes alive in tiny Dayton and Waitsburg

John Gottberg Anderson / For The Bulletin /

Published Mar 10, 2013 at 05:00AM

DAYTON, Wash. — More than 200 years after the epic Lewis and Clark expedition, the Corps of Discovery continues to go about its daily camp chores in southeastern Washington’s Touchet River Valley.

Granted, the explorers — 31 men, native guide Sacagawea, her young child and various animals, including Meriwether Lewis’ dog, Seaman — are now fixed in position in rusty, two-dimensional steel.

But the unnamed artist’s rendition may well capture a moment in time, specifically, one that took place on the afternoon of May 2, 1806, a few steps from broad Patit Creek.

Having set up an overnight camp during their eastbound return to St. Louis, the adventurers are depicted in what might have been everyday activities — and an interpretive key identifies each and every one of them. Private Thomas Howard brings wood for the campfire. Private Hugh McNeal returns from a hunt with a duck. Sgt. John Ordway rations meat for cooking. Interpreter George Drouillard parleys with three visiting Indians. Sacajawea shows Captain Lewis how to peel and eat cow parsnip.

Every silhouette is engaged in some activity, whether it’s blacksmith William Bratton resting his ailing back or toddler “Pompey” watching his father, Toussaint Charbonneau, cook up a batch of boudin blanc.

The Touchet (pronounced “TOO-shee”) Valley takes its history seriously. The Patit Creek Campsite, which stands on private land 2 1/2 miles east of Dayton along Patit Road, is but one example.

In fact, this whole valley — an easy day trip from Walla Walla, and a worthwhile diversion for vacationers seeking a respite from weekend wine tasting — speaks to its heritage around every turn. Dayton, for instance, is justly proud of its historic depot and courthouse. Waitsburg has a main street that is straight out of the Saturday Evening Post.

Early Dayton

Thirty-two miles northeast of Walla Walla on U.S. Highway 12, not far from the point where the Palouse Hills discreetly merge with the Blue Mountains, is quaint Dayton. Its population is only about 2,500, slightly more than Sisters, yet it is the seat of Columbia County.

It has been so since 1881 — the year the town was incorporated. Ten years earlier, settlers Jesse and Elizabeth Day had filed a plat for the town, naming it for themselves. The Columbia County Courthouse was completed in 1887, and today it is the oldest operating courthouse in the state of Washington. It closed only briefly in the early 1990s, when it underwent a major restoration along with Dayton’s entire Main Street historic district.

The year 1881 was a big one for Dayton. A young German immigrant named Jacob Weinhard settled in town after having served an apprenticeship in Portland with his uncle Henry, owner of the famed Weinhard Brewery. The owner of the small Dayton Brewery was looking for a partner, so Jacob bought in. Two years later, he was the sole owner of the renamed Jacob Weinhard Brewery, which he expanded to include a malt house with a German-style beer garden.

In 1889-90, he built the Weinhard Saloon and Lodge Hall. Murals by Italian fresco painters covered the interior walls of the building, which boasted high ceilings, heavy doors and a beautiful back bar. The lodge closed in 1963 but new owners refurbished it as the Weinhard Hotel in the mid-1990s. Its Victorian wainscoting, moldings and other architectural elements were preserved, and its 15 rooms have been furnished with all 19th-century American antiques.

Weinhard had other commercial interests in Dayton, as well, but they didn’t include the town’s most famous building: the Dayton Historic Depot. It was also built in 1881, when trains first arrived in southeastern Washington.

Although there is no older surviving railroad depot in Washington, the Dayton station no longer greets trains. Fully restored, its original Stick/Eastlake architecture preserved, it has become a museum of regional history as well as rail history.

A life-size bronze sculpture of a stationmaster, by artist Keith McMasters, first attracts visitors to the station, located one block north of Main Avenue. At the heart of a park-like courtyard is a kiosk that displays additional artifacts and describes the history of the depot.

A few blocks across the tracks beside Patit Creek, the Boldman House Museum is maintained by the Dayton Historic Depot Society. It was willed to the society by the unmarried Gladys Boldman (1908-1999), who had lived almost her entire life in the house, on condition that it be restored to its 1912 condition and developed as a community resource and educational “showplace.”

Built as a small, three-room house in 1880 and expanded in Victorian style over the next three decades, the house today is filled with Boldman family artifacts and memorabilia that represent a Dayton time capsule. It is surrounded by gardens maintained in circa-1912 style.

Native heritage

Long before the first pioneers arrived with the Oregon Trail and Walla Walla’s Whitman Mission, this region was home to the nomadic Palus (pronounced “pa-LOOSE”) and Walla Walla Indian tribes, who hunted game and collected roots and berries in the area. As well, Nez Perce tribesmen followed a trail through the valley that took them from northern Idaho to the Columbia River salmon-fishing grounds at Celilo Falls.

A collection of relics from these early civilizations is displayed today at the Palus Artifact Museum on Main Avenue, along with a recreated country school, homesteaders’ keepsakes and an exhibit of native plants.

Another nod to Native America is a Carol Grende sculpture of Sacajawea. Titled “Arduous Journey,” the life-size bronze work stands at the corner of Commercial Street and North First Avenue, a block from the historic depot.

The tallest building in Dayton is the Columbia County Grain Growers’ mill, at the east edge of town. Wheat farming has driven the economy of the Touchet River Valley since the first farms were established. Fruit orchards, and pea and asparagus farms, thrived through much of the 20th century. In fact, the Blue Mountain Cannery, which opened in Dayton in 1934, was for a time the world’s largest asparagus cannery. Owned consecutively by Green Giant, Pillsbury and Seneca Foods, it was closed in 2005 — but still hosts a thriving seed-processing and research operation for Seneca.

Nearby is Dayton’s best-known place to dine, the Patit Creek Restaurant. A gourmet island in a meat-and-potatoes world since 1978, it has been operated by the same couple, Bruce and Heather Hiebert, for its entire 35-year life. I failed to make a reservation, so I was turned away. But I was delighted with an osso buco dinner at the Weinhard Cafe, across Main Avenue from the Weinhard Hotel (and under different ownership despite the shared name).

Since 2005, wind-energy turbines have begun to rise above the Touchet River Valley on Hopkins Ridge, northeast of Dayton. Operated by Puget Sound Energy (PSE) and Pacific Power, there are presently about 200 turbines, and the number is growing. PSE has already begun construction of the Lower Snake River Wind Energy Project, scheduled to more than triple the capacity of local wind farms.

Different types of towers stand in the Blue Mountain foothills of Umatilla National Forest, 21 miles southeast of Dayton. Two chairlifts and a platter pull (similar to a Poma lift) lure winter recreationists to Ski Bluewood, the largest ski resort between Pendleton and Pullman, Wash. Cited for its tree skiing and dry powder snow, the resort offers more than 1,100 vertical feet, 400 acres of terrain and reasonable prices: Daily adult lift tickets are $42.

Waitsburg

The 10-mile drive west from Dayton to Waitsburg offers ample diversions for road trippers. Travelers pass a state park (Lewis and Clark Trail), a winery (Dumas Station), a cheese-making farm (Monteillet Fromagerie), a brewery (Laht Neppur) and historic farms galore. But a bigger attraction is the village of Waitsburg itself.

With about 1,200 people, Waitsburg is about half the size of Dayton, but it casts a long shadow. As it’s just 22 miles north of Walla Walla, the community has become a popular destination for weekend and evening visits.

Waitsburg traces its roots back to 1865, when pioneer settler Sylvester Wait opened a flour mill on Coppei Creek, west of the modern town. His partner, William Bruce, platted the town in 1869; it was incorporated in 1881 and, two years later, Bruce built an elegant family home. Today on the National Register of Historic Places, it now serves the community as the Bruce Memorial Museum.

The Bruce mansion was just one of many majestic Victorian homes built here beginning in the late 1870s. With numerous small sawmills operating in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, prosperous businessmen found ample lumber to construct their homes. The streets of Waitsburg, as well as those of Dayton, showcase many beautifully restored period houses.

But it’s the handsome, two-story brick buildings lining Main Street that get most visitor attention. Since receiving a major facelift in 2008, the community has attracted investment dollars that have gone into several unique businesses, including a handful of quirky restaurants and bars.

There’s the Whoopemup Hollow Cafe, for instance. Chef-owner Bryant Bader and his pastry-chef partner, Valerie Mudry, serve a menu of Southern comfort food — from po’ boy sandwiches to cornbread-crusted catfish to jambalaya. It’s not the Deep South, but one is tempted to argue that Waitsburg is in Deep South Washington.

Across the street is jimgermanbar, which advertises “Euro bar food” to accompany a list of classic cocktails served at long tables. “We are not a restaurant,” its owners say, even as they offer tapas-style snacks and family-size paellas by reservation.

The Anchor Bar has none of the aesthetic of the other two establishments, but it’s impossible to miss: A giant American flag in black and white covers its entire outside wall. This is a popular stop for the biker set.

Palouse Falls

But no other place in southeastern Washington displays the incredible natural beauty of the Palouse Falls.

Geologists say this feature, which drops spectacularly nearly 200 feet over a cliff side into a deep round pool, is the only major waterfall that remains from the glacial path of the Lake Missoula floods of 15,000 years ago.

A legend told by the Palus people, who called the falls “Aput Aput,” maintains that the Palouse River once flowed smoothly into the Snake River, four miles downstream from the falls. The canyon was torn, their tradition says, by a giant beaver struggling for its life against mythical hunters.

Jagged walls surrounding the falls are said to still display the deep marks of the great beaver’s claws.

The 29-mile drive northwest from Dayton — the final three on a graded gravel road — was worth the 45-minute (each way) investment of time. But I was unable to find my way to another site in the area, the Marmes Rock Shelter.

In 1968, I learned, archeologists unearthed 10,000-year-old human remains at this site, a couple of miles downstream of the falls. “Marmes Man” — actually five individuals, considered to be among the oldest homo sapiens found in the Western Hemisphere — was excavated from a fire hearth in a shallow basalt cave.

Indeed, southeastern Washington was occupied long before Lewis and Clark ever set foot in this fertile country.