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Fort Dalles Museum

Fort Dalles Surgeon's Quarters, circa 1950
Fort Dalles Surgeon's Quarters , circa 1950
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Surgeon's Quarters

Fort Dalles Museum, in The Dalles, Oregon, is housed in the Surgeon's Quarters, the only remaining officer's house of the 1856 Fort Dalles military complex. The Fort Dalles Museum is Oregon's oldest history museum; it first opened its doors in 1905.

Dr. Joseph Bullock Brown is the best known surgeon who served at Fort Dalles. he was stationed at Fort Dalles from April of 1856 to July of 1859.

Camp Drum

When established in 1850 as Camp Drum, this was the only U.S. Army fort on the Oregon Trail between Fort Laramie and Fort Vancouver. The land between the Cascade Mountains and the Rockies was considered, at least by the military, to be "Indian Country." Settlement was discouraged, despite the new Donation Land Law which granted free land to emigrants with scant regard to the native peoples already inhabiting it. Army policy was to patrol the "Emigrant Road," sending settlers on their way to the Willamette Valley as expeditiously as possible, down the Columbia River or south along the Barlow Road around Mt. Hood.

The Columbia River for thousands of years served as a highway through the Cascade Mountains. With impassible rapids to the east, and the great gorge of the Columbia to the west, the area of The Dalles was a natural stopping place for Native Americans. Later travelers used it too: Lewis and Clark camped here on their way to the Pacific in 1805, and again on their return in 1806; fur traders stopped during the '10's and '20's; explorers, botanists, artists, writers and adventurers all knew the "grand dalles" of the Columbia. The name was bestowed by hardy French-Canadian trappers and boatmen - the legendary voyageurs, back-bone of both the British and American fur companies. In France, "dalles" are flat rocks, flagstones, or paving stones, but by the beginning of the 19th century, French Canada was generations removed from France. To the voyageurs, "dalles" meant a place where water, confined by rocks, forces its tumultuous way through canyons, forming chutes and rapids. The Grand Dalles referred to the great rapids east of the present town, inundated by the backwaters of The Dalles Dam in 1957.

The Dalles was the end of the overland Oregon Trail. Pioneers who wished to travel on to the fertile Willamette Valley had to raft the Columbia through treacherous rapids in order to cross the Cascade Mountains. The construction of the Barlow Trail allowed travelers to continue overland and bypass Mt. Hood.

Methodist Missionaries

A branch of Jason Lee's Methodist mission was founded here in 1838 to bring the word of God to the Indians. Called "Wascopam" after the resident Wasco Indian tribe, it was headed by Lee's nephew, Daniel Lee and Rev. Henry K. W. Perkins. Along with Marcus Whitman's 1836 Presbyterian mission near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, Wascopam provided assistance each autumn to thousands of starving, ill, and often desperate emigrants as they faced the last great barrier of the Oregon Trail -- The Cascade Mountains.

Oregon Trail Pioneers

Early pioneers couldn't drive their wagons further west along the river because the steep cliffs fell straight to the water's edge. Wagons either had to be abandoned or disassembled and loaded onto rafts and floated down to Fort Vancouver or to the Willamette. After 1845, the Barlow Road provided the choice of traveling overland to the Valley.

The migration of pioneers across and into Indian lands threatened native populations in a way that transient explorers, fur traders and missionaries never did. Settlers of the 1840s brought wagons and tools, plows and domestic animals, wives, and children. The disruption of Indians' lives led to increasing tension. Worst of all were the disease epidemics introduced by whites to Indians with increasing fatalities each year. The 1847 massacre by Cayuse Indians of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and others at the mission was the result of a measles epidemic in which Whitman, a medical doctor as well as a missionary, saved white children but couldn't cure the Indians, who had no natural immunity. It was easy for the desperate Cayuse to believe rumors that Whitman was poisoning their children so whites could have their land. The attack led to abandonment of Protestant missions east of the Cascades, and to the Cayuse Indian War.

Company G, 3rd Battalion One prepares for the Spanish war. photo, 1898.
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Volunteer Militia

Volunteer militia, responding to the attack, occupied the local mission buildings in 1848 and '49, calling them "Fort Wascopam," or "Fort Lee" after their commanding officer. The Northwest's first U. S. Army troops stopped briefly on their way from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Vancouver in 1849, and some returned early in 1850 to found a small post. With the help of hired Oregon Trail emigrants, they constructed a log barracks and several frame buildings utilizing some old whip-sawed lumber from the abandoned mission. A real "hardship post," the houses had dirt floors and no ceilings; they were leaky, drafty and miserably uncomfortable.
The post was chronically undermanned, usually home to a few dozen men.

Fort Dalles

In 1853 the 10-mile square required by the government for self-sufficient Oregon Trail forts was shrunk to a mile square. C/O Bvt. Maj. (Brevet Major) Benjamin Alvord took the precaution of changing "Camp Drum" to "Fort Drum," even though the facility was never stockaded or fortified, to ensure its square mile. Shortly afterward it became Fort Dalles. The newly available waterfront land allowed civilian development, and the town began to expand.

The formation of Wasco County in 1854, plus the discovery of gold near Colville to the north, brought more white traffic into the area and increased the incidents of violence. Maj. Granville O. Haller, using regular and volunteer troops, captured and executed some Indians who committed atrocities against wagon trains, but the military was greatly outnumbered east of the mountains. An attempt was made in 1855, with treaties signed near Walla Walla and The Dalles, to avert all-out war and to confine the Indians to reservations in return for guaranteed hunting and fishing rights. But it became obvious that conditions were deteriorating and that the old fort buildings were no longer adequate to handle the inevitable expansion of hostilities: the Yakima Indian War.

The arrival, early in 1856, of Col. George Wright with several divisions of the reorganized 9th Infantry, began Fort Dalles' busiest period. Determined to enforce treaty compliance, Wright moved north after being delayed by a raid at the Cascades in which both the military outpost and civilian settlement came under attack by Klickitat Indians. Fort Dalles was now headquarters for a regiment, the main military depot for all goods and supplies destined for soon-to-be Forts Simcoe and Walla Walla to the north and east.

Colonel Wright's house was built for $22,000, a vast fortune in the 1800's. Wright was severely criticized by the government for building such an expensive structure.
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Architect Louis Scholl

Construction of the new fort buildings was directed by Ass't. Quartermaster Capt. Thomas Jordan, who used an 1850 house plan book by noted horticulturist-turned architect, Andrew Jackson Downing. Jordan was ably assisted by his civilian clerk, a talented young immigrant named Louis Scholl. Scholl had studied engineering, drafting, art, music and languages in Germany, but left precipitously for political reasons in 1848 when he was nineteen. Arriving with Jordan in 1856, he was to serve the Army for the next 8 years as clerk, mapmaker, guide, scout and wagonmaster. His most lasting accomplishment was the drawing up of plans for the Fort Dalles officers' houses, barracks, stables, outbuildings and even a guardhouse in Downing's "picturesque" architectural style.

The fort buildings formed an octagon around a grassy central parade ground. Timber was cut nearby and sawed in the Fort sawmill on Mill Creek, and at three other local mills. The doors, windows, mantelpieces and bookcases were hand-planed; some were sent by pack mule and wagon train 100 miles over the mountains to Fort Simcoe. Sandstone was quarried on the bluff nearby for foundations and chimneys; even this was hauled to Simcoe. Much of the finished woodwork was local alder, painted (per Downing's instructions) to mimic oak or (in the Simcoe C/O's house) green Italian marble.

Surgeon's Quarters

Dr. Joseph Bullock Brown
Who was Dr. Joseph Bullock Brown?

The Surgeon's Quarters, smallest and least costly of the four officer's houses, is the only fort Dalles building still standing except for the little Gardner's Cottage. The Surgeon's Quarters cost a little less than $5,000 in 1856. The largest, Col Wright's house, which Scholl called "the finest house in all Oregon" cost $22,000, though amazed emigrants and townsfolk referred to it as "the $100,000 house."

Government inspectors were unimpressed by the fort's distinctive buildings and promptly forbade any further expense. Wright and Jordan were criticized for the ornate design and potential cost of upkeep. They pointed out that, with the scarcity of material and labor, all frontier construction was costly; furthermore much of the expense actually maintained forts at the Cascades, Simcoe and Walla Walla. Protest proved futile. Jordan was not even allowed to construct water storage. One unfortunate flaw, shared by the lovely buildings, was bad mortar in the chimneys. By the end of 1867, the three larger residences had burned to the ground.

Abandoned buildings of Fort Dalles, circa 1890.
Abandoned buildings of Fort Dalles, circa 1890.
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The end of the Yakima Indian War and the removal of regular troops during the Civil War hastened the fort's demise. Fort Dalles was inactive after 1867, but the government money that built and maintained it had been a spur to local growth and social institutions. The fort supplied the first sawmill, the first newspaper, the first school but for the mission school, a fine military band, and even a makeshift theatre. An army caretaker remained until the mid 1880's when the remaining buildings were left to squatters and the elements.

Saving the Fort for future generations

Salvaged at the turn of the century by members of the Sorosis Society, local history-minded pioneer women, the Surgeon's Quarters became the property of the Oregon State Historical Society through an Act of Congress, and opened as a museum in 1905. Army possessions had been long since removed, but the Old Fort Dalles Historical Society filled the museum with Indian artifacts, Oregon Trail relics, early tools, household items, and many photographs of people and places important to the area's history. Fort Dalles is listed on the the National Register of Historic Places. At one time, Fort Dalles Museum was the property of the Oregon Historical Society. Ownership was transfered to Wasco County, who jointly funds the museum with the City of The Dalles. In 2010 the Fort Dalles Museum and Anderson Homestead Foundation was created as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization to allow pursuit of federal and state grants to aid in the preservation of the museum and the collections.

Fort Dalles Gardener's Cottage, photo circa 1929
Gardener's Cottage, circa 1929
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Gardener's Cottage

Built originally by the U.S. Army in the early 1850's, this is the way the Gardener's Cottage appeared in 1929 with its added wings. Located now on the grounds of the Fort Dalles Museum, the building had two rooms and at first occupied a site near Government Spring (now Amotan Spring) on what is now The Dalles Wahtonka High School campus. The cottage housed the gardener who grew part of the garrison's food supply, utilizing water from the spring, together with his tools. Walls were of frame-covered (adobe) brick. At one time the cottage stood at the corner of 13th and Liberty Streets near the historic Rorick House, and it may have had other sites as well. Minus wings, the building now appears in the original form on the Fort Dalles museum grounds at West 15th and Garrison Streets, The Dalles, Oregon.

Visit us at Oregon's oldest history museum
Fort Dalles Museum and the Anderson Homestead
500 W. 15th Street and Garrison
The Dalles, Oregon 97058
Phone: 541-296-4547


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Fort Dalles Museum and the Anderson Homestead
500 W. 15th Street and Garrison
The Dalles, Oregon 97058
Phone: 541-296-4547
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