Mullan Road–Walla Walla to the Snake River Tour

  • Length: 58 miles
  • Mostly paved, some good gravel
  • High point: 1196 ft
  • Owner: Mostly private farm land (stay on the road's right-of-way)

This drive, mostly on Washington State Highway 125, closely follows the Mullan Road route which in turn followed the road to Fort Colville which developed from an existing Indian Trail. This short, easy drive nearly summarizes the breadth of the history of the Pacific Northwest.

This excursion purposely starts at the present Fort Walla Walla historic site, official western terminus of the Mullan Road. There were actually several forts with this name. The first three were Hudson's Bay fur trading posts on the Columbia River at Wallula. The last three were United States military forts built and occupied between 1856 and 1858. After initial occupation in 1858, the present fort was continually changed to meet strategic needs. The fort's closing ceremony was September 28, 1910.1 If you visit today's Fort Walla Walla museum built on the site, provide at least half a day to see all it has to offer.

After leaving Walla Walla, the drive takes you through gentle rolling hills built by Columbia River winds that deposited a yellowish dust called loess sometime before the Ice Age.2 The loess and sediments from Lake Lewis during the Ice Age floods provide the fertile soil that made Walla Walla the breadbasket of the emerging Washington territory. The Mullan Road provided the means to transport the local produce in addition to goods brought in by steamboat to nearby Wallula.

After the Ice Age floods, the area was settled and traveled by the Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Nez Perce Indians. The Touchet River near the end of this drive was a major East-West Indian Trail connecting the Columbia River to the Snake and Clearwater Rivers near present Lewiston, Idaho. The Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled the east-west trail on their way home in 1806. They camped near the present Highway 125 crossing of the Touchet River, as did Mullan and generations of Indians before him.

When driving this segment of the Mullan Road, you are also following the footsteps of several missionaries. The Spaldings and Whitmans joined with a group of fur traders to create what was likely the first wagon train to follow the Oregon Trail, also known as the Emigrant Trail. Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding were the first white women to cross the continent. In 1836, the Whitman Mission was established at Waiilatpu near the Walla Walla River. The National Park Service Historic Site is worth a visit. In 1838, missionaries Eells and Walker and their wives established the Tshimakain Mission near present Ford, Washington. They, and those that supplied the mission, followed the same Indian trail that this drive follows.3

In his brief travel guide, Mullan declared the Touchet River crossing as the camp for Day Two. The Day One camp was at Dry Creek. Both stops were on the road already established to connect the various versions of Fort Walla Walla with Fort Colville. The Fort Colville Road was an Indian trail used by traders to reach the Hudson's Bay post named (and spelled) Fort Colvile. Later, miners traveled this same road to reach Fort Colville built by Captain Pinkney Lugenbeel in 1859 to provide military protection for those surveying the U.S.–Canada border. This military post, first named after General William S. Harney, commander of the new Oregon and Washington Military Department, was about 14 miles SE of Hudson's Bay's Fort Colvile and 2 miles NE of the future and present city of Colville.4 (Anglin 1995, 174–175) As you drive, imagine the early express rider assigned to deliver dispatches between the two military posts speeding around and over these rolling hills which were covered in bunch grass.

This route became heavily traveled during the early years of Pacific Northwest mining era. Pack trains carried supplies to miners into Canada, northern Idaho, and western Montana. The Higgins and Worden Trading Post near present Missoula, Montana was many times supplied by mule team over this road. That enterprise started in 1860 when three daring men, Worden, Higgins, and Woody traveled this route with a pack train loaded with supplies to sell to miners. They also carried a heavy safe with 5-inch solid steel walls.5

By the mid–1860's, the Kentuck Trail and Texas Ferry Road replaced this portion of the Mullan Road. These two newer roads provided quicker access to the Spokane area. From there, trails led to the Canada mines and the Mullan Road turned east to cross northern Idaho and the Missoula Valley.

Link to a elevation profile graph

Notes

1. Payne, James and Schulz, Laura. 2011. An Illustrated History of Fort Walla Walla. Walla Walla, Washington: Fort Walla Walla Museum. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Walla_Walla and the Fort Walla Walla Museum web site.

2. Alt, David D. and Hyndman, Donald W. 1984. Roadside Geology of Washington. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loess.

3. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_H._Spalding, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitman_Mission_National_Historic_Site, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tshimakain_Mission.

4. Anglin, Ron. 1995. Forgotten Trails: Historical Sources of the Columbia's Big Bend Country. Pullman, Washington: WSU Press. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Colville.

5. Koelbel, Lenora. 2004. Missoula: The Way It Was. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Inc. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_P._Higgins, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Lyman_Worden, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_H._Woody.

© 2015–2018 Kristopher Townsend
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