This weekend, the City of Umatilla celebrates its 150th anniversary.

“This is definitely a milestone for the City of Umatilla,” said Karen Hutchinson-Talaski, the executive director of the Umatilla Chamber of Commerce. “It's exciting.”

Although the area was settled by tribal villages, traders and settlers, the city marks 1862 as its founding: the year 120 acres above the mouth of the Umatilla River was set aside as a town site.

Originally known as Columbia City, then Umatilla Landing, the city plat of Umatilla was filed on June 6, 1863, and the first ferry across the Columbia River set off in 1864.

Umatilla became the county seat of Umatilla County in June 1864, and the city was incorporated on Oct. 24, 1864.

By some accounts, Umatilla was the first port city in Eastern Oregon and had the first library and first newspaper: The Umatilla Sun.

The original town was platted on 42 blocks between the two rivers. It became an important trade and travel route between Portland and Boise, and Umatilla became home to more than 3,000 residents.

The first store opened on Umatilla's Main Street in 1863, and by 1864, the town boasted a bustling Main Street and three hotels: the Orleans, the Umatilla House and the Idaho.  In addition to the hotels, the Umatilla of the the 1860s had more than 20 saloons, three dance halls, six mercantiles, three grocery stores, two stables, two blacksmith shops, two barber shops and a drugstore.

Trade slowed in Umatilla in the late 1860s after the railroad was built to the east, bypassing Umatilla, and became the dominant supply route. The county seat was moved to Pendleton in 1868.

“When Pendleton was made a county seat of the new Umatilla county, it is claimed that the officials stole or unlawfully took the records on Sunday morning and removed them to Pendleton, though they were compelled to return them and later the courts allowed them removed to the new courthouse,” according to an old Hermiston Herald article.

The town population dropped with the slow town of trade, but shot up again during the construction of the Umatilla Chemical Depot — then the Umatilla Ordnance Depot — and the McNary Dam.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower dedicated the McNary Dam on Sept. 23, 1954, and new bridges marked the end of the Umatilla Ferry, which had continued to operate for almost a century. The county bought out the last ferry operator in 1955.

With the completion of the McNary Dam, focus turned toward the John Day Dam, and experts predicted the structure — scheduled to be the highest single-lift navigation lock in the world — would raise the water level and flood the Umatilla townsite, 76 miles up river.

Between 1965 and 1968, the original town was relocated to its current location, although the water levels never flooded the old town, and Sixth Street replaced First Street as the city's downtown.

McNary was annexed into the Umatilla City limits in 1973, and the city now includes three primary neighborhoods: downtown, South Hill and McNary.

The Umatilla Museum and Historical Foundation was founded in 1974 by a group of volunteers, and the Umatilla Museum now operates in the former Umatilla City Hall and Umatilla Police Department at 911 Sixth St.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 1 through Oct. 30. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Tours can also be scheduled for other times and during the off season by calling 541-922-0209.


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