By Bob Freeman
Above, a Boat Club Regatta at Wallula, June 26, 1955. Photo courtesy of the Walla Walla Yacht Club.
McNary Dam and Powerhouse became operational in 1953 when water started backing up behind that structure, which changed the landscape on some sixty miles up the Columbia River. This changed the area where the Walla Walla River joins the massive Columbia near the small town of Wallula. Roads needed to be rebuilt, bridges built, farms abandoned, and towns repositioned. All this was under the direction of Walla Walla section of the US Army Corps of Engineers.
The Walla Walla Boat Club was formed just after the World War by a number of hard core enthusiastic boaters. To be a member, you not only needed a boat, but since there was no recreational boating water within thirty miles, one had to have a boat trailer and the energy to use your play thing. We developed trips to a lake near Pendleton and another outside of Hermiston, but our favorite was to the Columbia River near the town of Wallula. Launching boats was a real task because of the fairly fast current. We had the choice of touring, racing, or fishing for Steelhead.
During the club’s monthly meetings, discussions took place about our future boating dreams and how McNary Dam and subsequent lake would fit into those plans. A “futures” committee was formed to guide us toward a connection of some sort with the lake and our boats. Usually a committee produces a report and nothing is done, but this was not the case with this group. Not only did they make recommendations, but they acted on them.
The report came back informing the membership that a site on the lake had been talked about and a meeting with the Corps of Engineers had taken place. Time marches on and two sites were presented to the membership. One was two miles up the Walla Walla River and the other was a half mile in the same direction. After site visits and club discussions, the second site was chosen and planning began. The first order of business was to legalize our lease with the Engineers and this was done by club officials.
Talk turned to action. For time wise the lake seemed to be close at hand, and more people were joining the club each day. We purchased a two story barracks barge, located at McNary Dam, from the dam builders. The future clubhouse was towed to Thrashers Eddie on the Columbia River just south of our building site where it was remodeled to fit the club needs.
We did a topographic study using 340 ft. above sea level as the Engineers had told us would be the height of the lake. A map was drawn, using that information, of the existing site as well as a layout map of what we wanted in the future. It seems rather strange to be constructing boating facilities so far from the water. We were probably the only boat club in the country that was building a complete boating set up and waiting for the water to come in and float it.
Some of the things we planned were launching ramps, parking facilities, approach road, landscaping, piling, docks, fueling system, drinking water, and sanitation facilities. This was a large task, but club members were eager to get started for the dam was close to completion and water would start rising soon.
Included in our membership were a number of wheat farmers with a lot of heavy earth moving equipment, so the site was alive with people and machinery moving dirt and leveling land. The area was transformed from an unimpressive gully to a wide graveled parking area, leading with a gentle slope to the launching ramp. It took about two weeks of steady bulldozer work to make the area ready for gravelling, and in two days, approximately 1,200 yards of gravel were hauled in from a pit three miles away. We then spread it with a grader and rolled with a power roller. Keep in mind the club volunteers had to travel 30 miles each way to work on the project.
A well drilling company appeared one day, and in no time we had our drinking water coming from 125 ft. below ground. We then moved to plant a forest of pilings where our docks would be some day. We dug deep holes with a boring machine and dropped cement in the bottom and then inserted in each a 45 ft. telephone pole. There were 61 poles so it looked like a forest after a fire had passed though.
The next thing on the agenda was to construct eleven sections of docks 48 ft. long with 30 metal barrels under them for floatation. We were ready to position them into our forest of pilings when the water rose.
In the fall of 1953, the water level reached 340 ft. so we moved the docks and clubhouse in place and celebrated with a big potluck for all members.
The project was a huge success with members building boat houses to accommodate bigger boats and others tying up their crafts instead of trailering them from home each trip. There were miles and miles of lake to move on and group tours were planned monthly. Once in the center of the lake you could go north or south as far as you wanted to travel and it was not uncommon for a group to go all the way to Portland.
We hosted American Power Boat Association races with race boats coming from all over the Northwest. We also had interclub gatherings with boats from the Tri-Cities to the north and Hermiston in the south. Boating was a very good place to meet and greet very nice people and these friendships were both on and off land.
Each year the Club had a 4th of July bash that was well-attended for there was not only great food but at-dusk fireworks were set off from an anchored barge some 100 yards away from the docks. One year something negative happened and all the stored fireworks on the barge started to go off prematurely and the explosion outlined the two guys aboard diving into the water. No injuries.
In our first discussions with the Corp of Engineers they indicated the site we had chosen would never silt in, for the current of the Walla Walla River would move any mud coming from the wheat fields to the north and east out into the lake. In our case the Engineers were wrong for within two years of operation the depth at our docks started to decrease as the mud settled in our little bay. It was easy to see we were going to be silted up within a few years. Planning was started to relocate the whole operation. The club finally settled on a site outside of the influence of the Walla Walla River and its nasty mud, and over time move to the Thrashers Eddie area on the Columbia, which is located a few miles toward Portland from our Wallula site.
The name of the club changed with Yacht replacing Boat in our title so it is now the Walla Walla Yacht Club. Most of the power boats have been retired and replaced with sailing craft for there is usually a wind blowing through the Wallula gap. It is a friendly place to visit with nice people to associate with.