The Dalles, Oregon, on the sunny end of the Columbia River Gorge, is a small town filled with picturesque Victorians, historic buildings, and friendly people. It’s a great place for a getaway where you can discover a new winery or brewpub and have dinner in a historic saloon.
First of all, you probably wonder how this town came to be known as “The Dalles” and not just plain Dalles. The docents at the Fort Dalles Museum will tell you that The Dalles was named after the many small rock islands creating a fast water narrows in the Columbia River. The early French Canadian fur traders called these les dalles, or flagstones. That bit of trivia aside, The Dalles is clearly a destination where you can also learn more about the Columbia Gorge and Oregon history.
The Scenic Journey to The Dalles
Like many people who travel I-84 through the Columbia River Gorge, I’d gassed up at The Dalles but never really stopped to explore. I was on my way to Yakima, WA and needed an interesting place to stop for the night, someplace I hadn’t yet explored. I received a kind invitation from The Dalles Chamber of Commerce and headed east on I-84 from the Portland area.
After a lovely morning drive along the Hood River Valley Fruit Loop, just west of The Dalles, it was time to check in to The Cousin’s Country Inn, a comfortable motel with adjoining saloon and restaurant with a fun country theme (think life-sized animal figures and John Deere Tractor at the lobby door). Everything is close to the historic city center, so after I unloaded the car, I headed downtown.
Discovering The Dalles History
My first stop wasn’t far. As I approached the quaint historic area, I spied a multi-story, beautifully restored Victorian and just had to pull over and have a look. This turned out to be the Bennett/Williams Victorian Mansion at the foot of Trevitt Street. A plaque told me it was built in 1899 and was designed by George Barber.
Judge Bennett was a figure in local and statewide legal circles and served on the Oregon State Supreme Court. His daughter Anita married Harold Hopkins, editor of The Dalles Chronicle in the early 1900s. The whole downtown area is a registered historic district and features architecture from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many buildings have interesting stories like the Bennett/Williams Mansion.
But I wanted to find out more about how the town came to be so I headed up the hill, past more quaint homes, to the Fort Dalles Museum. I was welcomed by friendly docents who are available to tour visitors through what is known as the Surgeon’s Quarters, the only remaining officer’s house of the 1856 Fort Dalles military complex (other buildings burned down). It’s one of Oregon’s oldest history museums and first opened in 1905.
The Fort Dalles Museum
What I was to find out is that The Dalles had been a gathering place and trading area for Native people. The Dalles has served as a stopping point for travelers and center of commerce for thousands of years. It’s one of the oldest communities in North America. The Dalles is known as the end of the Oregon Trail (at least the land part). If pioneers continued west, they would have to load their wagons onto rafts or boats to continue down the Columbia River.
The Fort once consisted of buildings forming an octagon around a grassy parade ground. Fort Dalles was built when Oregon was a territory and was used mainly for dealing with conflicts with Native Americans. Fort Dalles was first known as Camp Drum and then Fort Drum.
As we toured the museum, I enjoyed displays of Native American artifacts, an early school display, and rooms dedicated to the different populations and times in history.
The building and local park were preserved thanks to an early women’s organization named the Sorosis Society. Also on the property is a log home, the Anderson Homestead, which was a part of a Swedish immigrant settlement. It’s a beautifully constructed building and docents can take you through the home to get a sense of how people lived in the late 1800’s.
The Fort Dalles Museum would be a great place to bring children. There are some hands-on exhibits, a collection of antique vehicles and wagons to see, and they can ring the huge bell.
More Museums at The Dalles
If you are hungry for more area history including the natural history of the Columbia River Gorge, the modern Columbia Gorge Discovery Center is the place to go. It’s a beautiful building, often used for events, with natural walking trails and river views. The Raptor Program, featuring live birds of prey is a real draw. I was impressed with the quality of the exhibits ranging from a towering wooly mammoth at the Ice Age display to the antique cars at the Historic Columbia River Highway display.
It wasn’t open quite yet, but I was intrigued when I found out that The Dalles is home to the National Neon Sign Museum. The City of The Dalles gifted the historic Elks Building at 200 East 3rd Street to be used for the National Neon Sign Museum (NNSM). It’s a huge old building and I look forward to seeing what’s inside… soon.
Kicking Back in The Dalles
Strolling the streets of downtown, you’ll find buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s as well as mid-century modern stores. There are shops and boutiques, a vintage theater, as well as places to pick up the necessities of agricultural town living.
The huge Sunshine Mill, the first building in The Dalles to have electricity, was powered by a Thomas Edison Motor which can still be seen in The Mill. It is also the only designated skyscraper in The Columbia River Gorge! The cool building now houses a winery and artisan shops. A daily wine tasting is $7 (you can also order a cheese board) and The Mill has a schedule of winemakers’ dinners and even a summer movie series. It’s the home of Quinett Winery and Copa di Vino.
As I was strolling downtown, I found Clocktower Ales. Clocktower has a large outdoor deck and it was filled with people enjoying the warm spring weather. Having been fascinated all afternoon by the history of The Dalles, I was interested to know that the pub is located in the second Wasco County Courthouse built in 1883 and home to the last public hanging in 1905! It’s an impressive building. They serve pub food and have over 30 craft beers on tap.
That evening I met a volunteer with The Dalles Chamber of Commerce for dinner in a historic saloon. I walked into The Baldwin Saloon and Restaurant and was immediately impressed with the oil painting of a nude over the large dark wood bar, the friendly bartender chatting with a local in an orange t-shirt, and the walls full of landscape paintings, obviously a carefully chosen turn of the century art collection.
I came to learn that the building originally housed a saloon opened by the Baldwin Brothers in 1876. It was frequented by the men who worked on the nearby Columbia River and on the railroad. Eventually, a brothel was built in a wood frame building in back of the brick saloon.
The dining room is simple yet elegant and the food is hearty and, as you would expect, excellent American comfort food. I enjoyed a house-made Chicken Cordon Bleu, so large that the side dishes—potatoes O’Brien and fresh veggies—were delivered on a second plate. Having dinner in a historic building with a bawdy past was a fitting end to my explorations of The Dalles history.
More to Do and Experience in The Dalles
My dinner companion pointed out the many hiking opportunities in the area. Just across the Columbia River in Washington is the Columbia Plateau State Park with views of the Columbia River and, in spring, vibrant yellow and purple wildflowers.
If a scenic walk or bike is more your style, you can enjoy the ten-mile paved Riverfront Trail.
Over on the Washington side of the river (just take The Dalles Bridge to SR-14) you’ll find Maryhill Winery and the Maryhill Museum of Art. In fact, many people stay in The Dalles when attending events at the winery and museum.
If you don’t mind crowds and lots of fun, visit The Dalles during their annual Cherry Festival. It’s a small town festival celebrating a big time crop with parades, a carnival and special events throughout town.
Art lover? The Dalles has a two-story art center and, annually, there is a Gorge Artists Open Studio Tour. A fun way to combine a love of history with art is to tour the murals, many painted on historic buildings depicting historic events of the area.
When You Go to The Dalles
Remember, The Dalles is on the sunny end of the Columbia River Gorge only 84 miles east of Portland. It’s a great place to visit when you get a little weary of some of the Pacific Northwest grey seasons. There is a lot to do and experience in the Dalles so it makes for a great weekend getaway or vacation. The people who live there, many of whom are descendants of early settlers, are proud of their town and open to sharing stories and history with visitors.
While there are many motels in The Dalles, those wanting a more authentic experience might find a B&B like the R&R Guest House more to their liking. I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting R&R but understand they have a saltwater pool, hot tub, and a locally sourced gourmet breakfast.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was hosted by The Dalles Chamber of Commerce and was provided with accommodations, meals, tours, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.