The city of Umatilla, located at the confluence of the Umatilla and Columbia rivers in northeast Oregon, was once a boom town serving the throngs of people traveling from Portland to the gold fields of Idaho. Established as a transfer stop for miners and supplies from the river to the inland route in 1862, Umatilla Landing was first platted in 1863, just after the establishment of Umatilla County.
The town quickly grew to a population of 1,500-1,800 permanent residents, and as many or more transients moving along the Portland-Umatilla-Boise route, the shortest way to get supplies to the gold fields. Umatilla Landing from 1863-1867 featured trading stands, a drug store, hotels, dance halls, feed stables, barber shops, blacksmith shops and 22 saloons, along with many other stores. Six stores averaged sales of $200,000 a year, and about 95% of the payments were in gold dust.
By 1864 the town had a mayor, a marshal and a town council, and Umatilla was designated the county seat in 1865, when the first school was also built. A stage route established in 1864 hauled supplies from Umatilla to the foot of the Blue Mountains, and from there John Hailey and his partner William Ish took the goods by saddle train to Boise, serving 15,000 miners in the Boise area.
Chinese passing through the area also established a village two or three miles below Umatilla.
In the winter, when the Columbia River iced over, the permanent residents spent their days ice skating, playing games and practical jokes, dancing and waiting for the return of the steamboats. The first steamers to arrive each spring were packed so tightly with passengers that the officers and deck hands could barely get around to do their jobs.
The decline of Umatilla was as sudden as its expansion. Alternative routes to the gold fields were developed in 1866, and Umatilla’s trade evaporated quickly. With the establishment of other, larger cities the county seat was moved to Pendleton in 1868. And when the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads linked in 1869, the Portland-Umatilla-Boise route traffic dried up. Umatilla’s population dropped precipitously.
Travel writer Theodor Kirchhoff stepped off the steamboat at Umatilla in 1872 to find the town he had known was gone. Instead of harness bells jingling while hundreds of muleteers’ whips cracked, Kirchhoff witnessed the wind howling around empty buildings with shattered windows, blinding clouds of dust, sand flats and sagebrush, and a population of 100. “From the opposite shore of the river, a few miserable Indian tents glumly watch the city sink into ruin,” Kirchhoff wrote in his account.
Today’s Umatilla, however, has rebounded nicely. The construction of McNary Dam from 1947-1954 brought an influx of new residents, but it was the opening of Interstate 82 in the late 1980s that put the city back on the map. The growth of Hermiston to the east and the Port of Morrow to the west have helped reestablish Umatilla as a crossroads community along the Columbia.
The history of Umatilla County’s first boom town was placed in the hands of a newly formed historical society in 1993. The Umatilla Museum, featuring 157 years of the city’s ups and downs, is located at 911 Sixth St.