If you are seeking peace and solitude, or want to learn more about early days when there was a military “hardship post” in The Dalles, you will find what you seek at the Fort Dalles Museum, which is now open seven days a week for the tourist season.
“There is no charge to come up here, bring your library book and get away from it all,” said Cal McDermid, museum director.
The grounds at 500 W. 15th Street offer a walk back in time, to the days when “Camp Drum” was established as the only federal post (May 20, 1850) on the Oregon Trail between Fort Laramie and Fort Vancouver.
The name of the installation was changed three years later to Fort Drum and, in July 1853, the one-square mile of land was designated Fort Dalles.
The post became headquarters in 1856 to the U.S. 9th Infantry Regiment and the main military depot for supplies shipped upriver by steamboat.
McDermid said the interior of the Surgeon’s Quarters, the only remaining officer’s house of the former military complex, has been transformed to bring to life the experiences of early inhabitants, both settlers and Native American tribes.
“A lot of what we’ve done is gather what we already had and put things together to tell a story,” he said.
There is even a video loop of Celilo Falls before it was flooded by construction of The Dalles Dam.
“I’m proud to announce the Fort Dalles Museum has fully entered the 21st Century,” said McDermid.
He said the original features of the building have been retained to keep the environment authentic. He and Mary Davis, a local historian, researched to make sure each exhibit is factually on point.
However, McDermid said it is the feel of the rooms that sells the experience; one can easily imagine people still living in rooms outfitted with period furniture and cooking in the fully equipped kitchen.
Visiting hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day through October. The museum is only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from November through February. The entrance fee is $8 for adults, $5 for seniors (60 and up) and $1 for students, ages 7 through 17. Children under 6 get in free, as do active military personnel and their families.
Each room in the weathered Gothic Revival building features artifacts used in everyday life during the pioneer migration that drew hostility from displaced tribes.
Free land was granted to emigrants with little regard for the native peoples who already lived there. Tensions erupted after an epidemic of diseases were introduced by whites to native populations. The angry Cayuse Indians massacred Mormons at a mission in Walla Walla, Wash., and the Northwest’s first U.S. Army troops arrived to establish a small post to protect settlers.
Most of the barracks had dirt floors and no interior ceiling, making them drafty, leaky and wretchedly uncomfortable.
The military value of Fort Dalles declined after the Yakima Indian War ended in 1958 and the fort ceased to be active in 1967, after which it was supervised by a caretaker until the property became part of the city in the mid-1880s.
Fire destroyed some of the structures and others eventually fell apart, were moved or incorporated into new buildings.
McDermid said a local chapter of the Sorosis Club was instrumental in saving the derelict Surgeon’s Quarters at the turn of the century.
The Professional Women's Association had been created in 1868 because women were generally shut out of membership in many other organizations.
Through an act of Congress, the property was tucked under the umbrella of the Oregon Historical Society, which authorized the ladies of the “Old Fort Dalles Historical Society” to open it as a museum in 1905.
OHS oversight continued until 2002 when the museum became the property of Wasco County. It has been managed by the Wasco County/City of The Dalles Museum Commission since 1953.
The exhibits reflect life in a riverfront town and farming community. For example, a collection of saddles made by Kuck & Bonney, once a local company, are set up in the western room.
The retaining wall in front of the Anderson Homestead, across the street from the Surgeon’s Quarters, was replaced just prior to the season opening, through $18,000 in donations and volunteer labor from the city and members of the museum commission.
Once the rotting timbers of the 75-foot long wall were removed, concrete blocks and end caps were installed to stablize the embankment.
McDermid said the homestead was built on Pleasant Ridge in 1895 by Swedish immigrant Lewis Anderson. The house was constructed with hand-hewn logs and put together with wood pegs with such high-quality craftsmanship that is has survived more than a century.
“He (Lewis) was cabin boy on an English ship and he built the house using ship-building techniques,” said McDermid.
Although Anderson intended to return to Sweden, he met a Norwegian girl named Carrie Jacobson while in Wisconsin and “there were some sparks, “ said McDermid.
The couple married in 1879 and then brought their family west in 1887 to carve out a home in the rugged wilderness.
Their daughters, Ethel and Mabel, were told by papa that, “if you fall in love, you better be organized because I’m only paying for one wedding,” which they took to heart. They ended up as brides in a double ceremony.
In 1971, the residence that had been abandoned after the 1950s was moved to its current site. Also set up on the property was the granary and barn built by Anderson.
McDermid said the interior of the Anderson buildings can only be seen on guided tours, which are available by appointment.
He is the only museum staffer and said volunteers are always needed to give tours and help with maintenance and display setup needs. There is threshing equipment, including handsewn burlap sacks that wheat was poured into before being shipped to market.
The barn is being outfitted as an agricultural museum, with exhibits of vintage equipment used by early farmers.
On the same grounds as the museum is a building that houses over 30 antique vehicles, including a stage coach, antique cars and even an 1870 Colonial Mortuary Hearse.
Three bells from old firehouses are on the grounds and, yes, they can be rung.
McDermid said financial support from area residents and organizations allows the museum to continue its transformation into a living history experience.
He said the new rack cards that highlight features of the museum recently won the First Place Award of Excellence from the International Association of Visitor Information Providers, for their quality and professionalism. He considers that a good sign that the commission is moving things forward in a positive direction.
To learn more about how to donate, or museum programs, visit www.FortDallesMuseum.org or call 541-296-4547.