In March, 1859, Lt. John Mullan was given the task of building a wagon road from the steamship docks at old Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia River across the Rocky Mountains to the steamship dock at Fort Benton on the Missouri River, by way of the new military fort in the town of Walla Walla.
This was the first engineered wagon road in the Northwest, and contributed greatly to the growth and health of our community.
The construction of the Road by Lt. Mullan and his crew of 100 civilian workers accompanied by 100 soldiers began in Walla Walla in June of 1859, and was finished in October of 1860.
However, in May 1861, Lt. Mullan began rebuilding and improving portions of the 655-mile route, which included the already-existing wagon road from Wallula to Walla Walla.
Finally, in August 1862, the Road was completed, providing a route for pioneer families, miners and supplies between the two major rivers, and creating the first major highway in the Northwest, which became known as the Mullan Road. The completed project has since been credited for its contributions to the development and success of many cities, including Walla Walla, as well as the Montana cities of Missoula, Helena and Great Falls.
In the Walla Walla area, the route of the Mullan Road began at the Fort Walla Walla military garrison, now the site of the Jonathan M. Wainwright VA Medical Center, and proceeded north along what is now 13th Avenue through the current grounds of the Washington State Penitentiary to Dry Creek, and from there to the Touchet and Snake rivers and north to the Spokane River, before turning east to the Missouri.
One of the last projects long-time Union-Bulletin reporter and historian Vance Orchard undertook before his death in 2006 was to circulate a proposal that 13th Avenue, the historic route of the Mullan Road, be renamed Mullan Avenue in order to provide fitting recognition for this historic accomplishment which meant so much to the early development of the Walla Walla area.
In one of several Waitsburg Times columns he wrote following his retirement from the U-B, Orchard described how the Mullan Road had been honored in 1923 by the placement of a granite marker on the grounds of the penitentiary along 13th, personally presented to our community by the governor of Washington state and accepted by the president of the Walla Walla Pioneer Association,
Here is how Orchard explained how this came about:
That action began nearly four years before when T. C. Elliot, regarded by many as the all-time top historian of Walla Walla, penned a letter to W. P. Bonney, secretary of the Washington State Historical Society.
While T.C. (Thompson Coit) Elliot was prominent in Walla Walla’s financial circles, he is remembered chiefly as a historian and scholar. He served as a director of both the Washington and Oregon historical societies and was a fellow of the Royal Historical Society of England. Elliot researched chiefly the history of the early Northwest and wrote many papers for historical journals. Mullan Road markers placed by the historical society in Washington State were of pyramidal form and plain, but Elliot felt the one for the Walla Walla end of the route should be more pretentious and said as much in a letter to Bonney in early 1923. And, in this, he prevailed.
In 1994, this granite marker was moved to Fort Walla Walla Park because of visitor restrictions on the grounds of the penitentiary, and has now been placed at the new Mullan Road Historic Site at 13th and Abadie.
A further honoring of the Mullan Road took place in 1978 when it was named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in ceremonies held at Fort Walla Walla Amphitheater.
In 1936, the city of Walla Walla had renamed the two-block portion of Ninth Avenue from Rose to Pine as Mullan Avenue in honor of John Mullan and his road, but in 1989 this portion was renamed Ninth Avenue to match the rest of Ninth and to avoid confusion.
At the initiative of Walla Walla 2020, a month after Orchard’s death leaders of nine Walla Walla organizations and institutions wrote to the City Council requesting the renaming of 13th Avenue as Mullan Avenue, and stating:
We respectfully propose that Thirteenth Avenue, which runs from the original grounds of Fort Walla Walla to the city limits at the Washington State Penitentiary, be renamed Mullan Avenue, in order to properly designate this historic route, in keeping with Walla Walla’s development as a center of history and tourism, and as a tribute to John Mullan, Vance Orchard, and the many others who worked on and traveled this road. In addition to Walla Walla 2020, the organizations represented included the Walla Walla Valley Pioneer and Historical Society, Whitman College, Tourism Walla Walla, Fort Walla Walla Museum, the Kirkman House Museum, the city of Walla Walla Historic Preservation Commission, the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, Walla Walla Historic Memorials and the Washington State Penitentiary, whose superintendent signed the letter.
Though no action was taken on the request at the time, Walla Walla 2020 raised the issue again in 2009 in connection with the 150th anniversary of both the founding of the town of Walla Walla and the start of construction on the Mullan Road, as well as in 2012 for the sesquicentennial of the completion of the Road and the granting of the city’s municipal charter by the territorial Legislature.
By that time, 13th was being reconstructed with federal and state funds, including the building of a stormwater swale on a surplus piece of city land at the corner of 13th and Abadie, which an old map showed to have been an original corner of the Fort Walla Walla military reservation.
In addition to proposing that 13th be double-signed as Historic Mullan Road as part of the Walla Walla sesquicentennial celebrations, Walla Walla 2020 proposed that the story of the Mullan Road be told in a series of interpretive signs to be installed around the swale, which has now become the Mullan Road Historic Site.
In April 2012, Walla Walla 2020 was successful in bringing the annual Mullan Road Conference here, which culminated in the initial dedication of the planned Mullan Road Historic Site, including the relocated 1923 monument.
As part of the dedication ceremony, we displayed examples of our proposed interpretive signage for the site, which we had sent to Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen who was writing a book on Mullan. He reviewed our plans and proposed signage, saying “Your interpretive facility is going to be the finest interpretation of the Mullan Road anywhere. Congratulations on an outstanding project.”
That being the final year of our sesquicentennial celebrations, the city placed “Historic Mullan Road” street signs along 13th, as well as issuing a commemorative coin with a drawing of the original military fort on one side, and a portrait of John Mullan on the other, proceeds from the sale of which were dedicated to development of the historic site.
In 2018, after the grading of the site and installation of a gravel path by business neighbor Bob Konen of Koncrete Industries, most of the interpretive signage for the site was installed by Walla Walla 2020, a bench and visitors box for informational materials and visitor comments was completed last week with the help of business neighbor Rick Narum of Narum Concrete Construction and contributions by Dennis Cakebread of Mullan Road Cellars. The final signage for the site was installed this week in preparation for the 2019 Mullan Road Conference, which we are again hosting in Walla Walla this weekend.
There will be a dedication of the completed historic site today at 1 p,m. Speakers at the dedication ceremony will include City Manager Nabiel Shawa, along with Mullan Road Conference organizer Bill Youngs of the Eastern Washington University history department and others.
Because of the importance of the Mullan Road to the history of Walla Walla and the Pacific Northwest, we hope both residents and visitors will visit the new historic site, which also includes information on many other historic sites in Walla Walla County and along the Road.
Daniel N. Clark is a retired lawyer. He coordinates the Walla Walla 2020 Historic Sites & Markers Project, and was a founder of the Living History Company at Fort Walla Walla Museum, and the newly organized nonprofit, Walla Walla Historic Cemeteries. He has also authored a new book called “Historic Sites and Markers of Walla Walla County” published by in March by Walla Walla 2020.