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Company town celebrates 100 years

Former, current residents of Wishram in Columbia Gorge reflect on life centered around railroad

By , Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
Published:
11 Photos
The town of Wishram along the Columbia River, with the railroad bridge linking Oregon and Washington in the background.
The town of Wishram along the Columbia River, with the railroad bridge linking Oregon and Washington in the background. Photo Gallery

From fur-trading centers to an atomic-energy site, several communities along the Columbia River started as company towns. Some of the places that were established by one company or agency along the Columbia River as it flows toward the Pacific:


Coulee Dam

Coulee Dam was established in 1933 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as headquarters for the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. Portions of the community were in Okanogan, Douglas and Grant counties. Coulee Dam was incorporated as a town in 1959.


Richland

In 1942, the farm town of Richland had a population of 247, according to the city’s website. Seeing the remote location, abundant water supply and mild weather, the federal government claimed Richland as part of its Manhattan Project. Almost overnight, it became a federally owned town of 11,000. Thousands of workers from across the nation converged to construct facilities to produce plutonium for the world’s first nuclear weapons.

Richland was incorporated in 1958, transforming itself from a federally controlled atomic energy community into a city.

Wishram

A town was established in 1914 to support the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway. George Bunn opened Wishram’s first store in 1911. He filed a plat of the town in 1914, naming it Fallbridge. The name was changed to Wishram in 1926.

From fur-trading centers to an atomic-energy site, several communities along the Columbia River started as company towns. Some of the places that were established by one company or agency along the Columbia River as it flows toward the Pacific:

Coulee Dam

Coulee Dam was established in 1933 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as headquarters for the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. Portions of the community were in Okanogan, Douglas and Grant counties. Coulee Dam was incorporated as a town in 1959.

Richland

In 1942, the farm town of Richland had a population of 247, according to the city's website. Seeing the remote location, abundant water supply and mild weather, the federal government claimed Richland as part of its Manhattan Project. Almost overnight, it became a federally owned town of 11,000. Thousands of workers from across the nation converged to construct facilities to produce plutonium for the world's first nuclear weapons.

Richland was incorporated in 1958, transforming itself from a federally controlled atomic energy community into a city.

Wishram

A town was established in 1914 to support the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway. George Bunn opened Wishram's first store in 1911. He filed a plat of the town in 1914, naming it Fallbridge. The name was changed to Wishram in 1926.

Vanport, Ore.

Henry Kaiser built housing at what now is Delta Park in north Portland in 1943 for shipyard employees, including ones who worked in Vancouver. Vanport became the second-largest city in Oregon, with a population of 40,000 -- although it was never incorporated.

Vanport was the nation's largest public housing project, with its own post office and police station, as well as five elementary schools.

A flood on May 30, 1948, washed away Vanport, which then had a population of about 18,500. Fifteen people died.

Some displaced families were temporarily housed in Vancouver, in units of the McLoughlin Heights wartime housing development.

There is one major legacy. The Vanport Extension Center, which offered two years of college, is now Portland State University.

Vancouver

Established in 1825, Fort Vancouver was headquarters of the Hudson's Bay trading empire. The fort's chief factor -- Dr. John McLoughlin was the most prominent -- held immense power.

"He was the embodiment of the Hudson's Bay Company and its power from the crest of the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, and from Mexican California up to Russian Alaska," Greg Shine, National Park Service historian, explained. "He was the man."

The company's dominance at Fort Vancouver played out in day-to-day life.

"There was no currency," Shine said. "You could make a purchase at the company store, and your account would be debited. A weekly ration of food would be provided. If you were an officer, housing was provided." If you were an ordinary employee, "You had to fend for yourself in the workers village," Shine said.

The U.S. Army arrived in 1849, and the city of Vancouver was incorporated in 1857. With its influence dwindling, the Hudson's Bay Company finally abandoned Fort Vancouver in 1860 and relocated to Victoria, B.C.

Longview

In 1918, Missouri timber baron Robert A. Long decided to move his operation out to the West Coast. At the time, the city named for him "was the only planned city of its magnitude to have ever been conceived of and built entirely with private funds," according to the Longview website.

It was officially incorporated on Feb. 14, 1924, and a municipal government was established.

In addition to building a city to support the 14,000 men required to run his two mills, the timber baron also donated money for R.A. Long High School, the YMCA building, and the Longview Public Library.

Astoria, Ore.

The oldest American settlement west of the Rockies originated as Fort Astoria, set up by John Jacob Astor's men in 1811. Astor, who never did visit Astoria, became America's first millionaire. Astoria was incorporated on Oct. 20, 1876.

-- Tom Vogt


Vanport, Ore.

Henry Kaiser built housing at what now is Delta Park in north Portland in 1943 for shipyard employees, including ones who worked in Vancouver. Vanport became the second-largest city in Oregon, with a population of 40,000 — although it was never incorporated.

Vanport was the nation’s largest public housing project, with its own post office and police station, as well as five elementary schools.

A flood on May 30, 1948, washed away Vanport, which then had a population of about 18,500. Fifteen people died.

Some displaced families were temporarily housed in Vancouver, in units of the McLoughlin Heights wartime housing development.

There is one major legacy. The Vanport Extension Center, which offered two years of college, is now Portland State University.

Vancouver

Established in 1825, Fort Vancouver was headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay trading empire. The fort’s chief factor — Dr. John McLoughlin was the most prominent — held immense power.

“He was the embodiment of the Hudson’s Bay Company and its power from the crest of the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, and from Mexican California up to Russian Alaska,” Greg Shine, National Park Service historian, explained. “He was the man.”

The company’s dominance at Fort Vancouver played out in day-to-day life.

“There was no currency,” Shine said. “You could make a purchase at the company store, and your account would be debited. A weekly ration of food would be provided. If you were an officer, housing was provided.” If you were an ordinary employee, “You had to fend for yourself in the workers village,” Shine said.

The U.S. Army arrived in 1849, and the city of Vancouver was incorporated in 1857. With its influence dwindling, the Hudson’s Bay Company finally abandoned Fort Vancouver in 1860 and relocated to Victoria, B.C.

Longview

In 1918, Missouri timber baron Robert A. Long decided to move his operation out to the West Coast. At the time, the city named for him “was the only planned city of its magnitude to have ever been conceived of and built entirely with private funds,” according to the Longview website.

It was officially incorporated on Feb. 14, 1924, and a municipal government was established.

In addition to building a city to support the 14,000 men required to run his two mills, the timber baron also donated money for R.A. Long High School, the YMCA building, and the Longview Public Library.


Astoria, Ore.

The oldest American settlement west of the Rockies originated as Fort Astoria, set up by John Jacob Astor’s men in 1811. Astor, who never did visit Astoria, became America’s first millionaire. Astoria was incorporated on Oct. 20, 1876.

— Tom Vogt

WISHRAM — During part of their time as Wishram residents, Lewis Record and his family didn’t just live in a railroad town, they lived in a railroad boxcar.

He can still remember when his former wife strung a clothesline from their boxcar home and tied it to one of the nearby cars parked in the Wishram freight yard.

“All of a sudden, those cars took off, and our laundry went down the track,” Record said.

o BNSF Railway is the product of nearly 400 different railroad lines that merged or were acquired over the course of 160 years.

o Lewis and Clark stopped at the site in October 1805 and again in April 1806.

That was a moment in the 38 years Record spent as a railroad employee, but it sure is an interesting slice of life in a railroad town.

“It was a different way of living,” Record said of boxcar housing. “The first ones had coal heaters, then oil stoves. You got your power off company poles, and your water from a pump car. Every three months, the railroad would send out supplies. I don’t know how my first wife did it.”

o BNSF Railway is the product of nearly 400 different railroad lines that merged or were acquired over the course of 160 years.

o Lewis and Clark stopped at the site in October 1805 and again in April 1806.

Record was a machine operator for the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway, running equipment that ranged from brush cutters up to cranes. In 1970, the SP&S became part of Burlington Northern, which now is part of BNSF Railway.

Record was one of hundreds of people, including many from Vancouver, who gathered at Wishram this summer to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Columbia River Gorge town. The centennial was a chance to share stories about life in the type of community that is fading from the American landscape.

“It was a company town,” said Dee Dee Gabbert Dillon, a Vancouver resident who was one of the reunion organizers. “Most everybody in Wishram were railroad people, and everybody was like a big family.”

Her brother was a railroad brakeman. She wound up marrying an engineer, and they eventually moved to Vancouver, as did many railroad families. Railroad employees on this end of the Gorge were called “west-enders,” she said.

Her family was still living in Wishram, so when her husband got assigned to an eastbound train, she’d make her own trip to Wishram.

“I’d hop in my car, and at times we’d be side by side,” said Dillon, a 1963 graduate of Wishram High School. When his train arrived, “I’d be waiting for him.”

Coulee Dam to Astoria

Wishram is just one example of the communities along the Columbia River, from Coulee Dam to Astoria, Ore., that originated as company towns in the past two centuries.

The founders include fur-trading empires, industrial giants and even federal agencies. In each case, there was something special about the community. In a railroad town, that included the noise.

“It was nonstop,” Dillon said. “I knew what time it was when the passenger trains came through.”

As crews assembled cars into new trains in the rail yard, “they would slam-bang in to each other, back and forth,” Dillon said. “You got used to it.”

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas, a 1977 graduate of Vancouver’s Columbia River High School, has deep roots in the railroad town.

“My grandfather was a general foreman who built the Wishram yard,” said Melonas, a third-generation railroad employee. “I was born in Wishram. My earliest childhood memories are going with my brother to hobo camps. The hobos would give us Twinkies.”

Wishram’s centennial celebration on Sept. 20 commemorated the day in 1914 when store owner George Bunn went to Goldendale, the seat of Klickitat County, and filed a plat of the town. He registered it as Fallbridge, a railroaders’ name for the place. Fallbridge was a dual reference to the nearby railroad bridge over the Columbia River and Celilo Falls, which vanished in 1957 when The Dalles Dam was built. The name was changed in 1926 to Wishram, a nod to the Indian community that had been a trading center for centuries.

In its prime, “it was a major yard, like Vancouver,” Melonas said. “Hundreds of cars were switched in a day. There was a full roundhouse. Crafts and management were based there. Trains changed crews at Wishram. In its heyday as a major rail yard, more than 500 employees at a time were working at Wishram.

“It all changed in the 1970s and ’80s. The industry as a whole declined,” he said.

New technology and efficiencies created by mergers and consolidations also diminished the town’s role.

“Now, basically 30 personnel work in and out of Wishram,” Melonas said. “It’s still a significant main line location. We have a management team based there — a track maintenance crew and mechanical people and signal personnel are assigned to that territory — but it certainly isn’t the busy railroad town it was.”

Bye-bye, ‘beanery’

The transition also eliminated one of Wishram’s claims to Northwest fame. For 72 years, the railroad had a diner next to the tracks and subsidized the operation. A vintage photo shows the building, and a sign identifies it simply as “lunch room.”

But everybody called it the “beanery.” It was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, until the railroad closed it in 1984; it eventually was demolished.

“When I worked in the beanery, it was my first job,” said Dillon, the ’63 Wishram High grad. “A rib steak dinner cost $1.45. The company had coupon books — people called them ‘pie books’ — to pay for meals.”

The town’s population peaked at more than 850 in the 1950s. It was down to 342 in the 2010 census.

An unincorporated community, Wishram is not even officially considered a town these days. Klickitat County has only three cities: Bingen, Goldendale and White Salmon. Nine other Klickitat County communities, including Wishram, are called “census-designated places.”

According to state demographic data, Wishram is well below average in income. Washington’s estimated median household income in 2012 was $57,573. In Wishram, it was $31,312.

Food for the kid

Wishram’s shifting fortunes as a railroad town is a familiar story for Laurie Mercier, a history professor at Washington State University Vancouver. She has written extensively about towns built around one company or one industry. One interview with a Montana woman even included some details of life in boxcar housing.

“My mother would send out groceries for me,” the woman told Mercier. Her dad would take the food to a train, hand it to a brakeman, and say, ” ‘Take this to the kid.’ “

Boxcar furnishings were sparse, she told Mercier: a bed, a table, a couple of chairs, a pot-bellied stove, “and our cupboards were apple boxes.”

A lot of small company towns have struggled with reinventing themselves: logging towns, mining towns, fishing towns and even agricultural towns.

“One advantage the Pacific Northwest has over places like Pennsylvania or Ohio — the ‘Rust Belt’ — is the landscape,” Mercier said. “Leavenworth (a former mining town) re-creates itself as a Bavarian village. White Salmon takes advantage of wind surfing.”

In Idaho’s Silver Valley, “Kellogg is trying to become a tourist mecca through skiing,” Mercier said.

“A railroad community is a little different. It’s such a transient population,” Mercier said. “Railroad workers are passing in and out. It’s tough to put down roots.”

The role geography plays in a community can change. From the cliff-top viewpoint along state Highway 14, you can see what put Wishram on the map. It starts with the Columbia River, which has been an east-west corridor for thousands of years. A monument near Railroad Park lists some of the notable explorers and pioneers — including Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, John McLoughlin and Peter Skene Ogden, David Douglas and John C. Fremont — who paddled past.

The waters of the Columbia paved the way, literally, for what would become a riverside rail route. And the river scoured a town-sized parcel of flat land along the north side of the Gorge midway between Vancouver and Pasco. It was ideal for railroads that wanted a facility every 100 miles or so.

Heritage on the ceiling

But travelers now don’t even see Wishram unless they pull over at that cliff-top viewpoint and look down from Highway 14. The town’s tourist amenities include Railroad Park, home to a vintage Great Northern Railway steam locomotive, and the Pastime Tavern. While enjoying a cheeseburger and fries, a visitor can look up at an art gallery on the tavern ceiling.

Tavern patrons have taken down about 50 of the 2-foot-by-4-foot white ceiling panels, used them as improvised canvases and put them back in the ceiling. The artistic subjects include local history and the town’s railroading heritage.

But not everybody is looking to the past. One civic leader, who sees Wishram as ready for an upswing, describes it as “the best bargain in the Gorge,” particularly for people interested in a pleasant climate.

“We have 300 days of sunshine,” said Gerald Cassidy, Wishram’s equivalent of mayor. “I have figs growing in my garden. I raise peanuts here. In my worst snowstorm here, I had to break out a broom and sweep off the sidewalk. The town is a jewel.”

Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
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