A 160-Year-Old History Lesson

Three courthouse buildings tell the story of The Dalles and Wasco County
By Rodger Nichols

The original Wasco County courthouse building hosts a series of popular historical lectures each February.

Not every county is as thrifty as Wasco County. While other counties have torn down their old courthouses, Wasco County has its full heritage intact. Three courthouses in The Dalles are in repair and open to the public.

The Oregon Territorial Legislature created Wasco County on January 11, 1854, from the parts of Clackamas, Lane, Linn, and Marion counties east of the Cascade Range. The county ran more than 130,000 square miles from the crest of the Cascades to the crest of the Rockies. It covered more than half of Oregon, almost two-thirds of Idaho, and chunks of Montana and Wyoming.

When Oregon became a state in 1859, the county retreated on the east to the border of the new state, losing more than half its original area.

The Dalles was chosen as the county seat, but for the first five years, the county had neither a courthouse nor jail. Local saloons were commandeered for court proceedings, and the guardhouse at Fort Dalles served as jail space. Helpful as the Army was, it didn’t run the jail for free. As costs mounted, citizens passed a $2,500 bond to build a courthouse.

Most of the lumber came from the J.H. Mosier mill on Mosier Creek. The framing was hewed out by Broadax, and all the materials—including the shingles— were worked by hand. Local builder W.C. Wallace completed construction two months after statehood in April 1859. The county accepted the building after the locks were in place.

This small-frame structure, built at Third and Court streets, where The Dalles City Hall now stands, was the first courthouse between the summit of the Cascades and the summit of the Rockies. The two-story building housed a sheriff’s office and three jail cells on the first floor. An upstairs courtroom could be entered only by an outside staircase. The building was used as a public meeting place and for church services and was the seat of law for Wasco County.

Although the county used the original courthouse for 24 years, the building served 26 years as The Dalles City Hall until 1909, when the present City Hall was built. That construction forced the first of six moves the former courthouse would make around town.

For 52 years, the building served as a rooming house on the northwest corner of Third and Federal streets until Brady’s Market needed the land for a parking lot.

The original Wasco County courthouse has existed in seven locations in its 160 years. Artwork courtesy of Sandy Bisset

A group of citizens insisted the building be saved, and it was moved to city property near the Lewis and Clark monument on West Second Street. There it languished until the city declared it a nuisance and proposed to destroy it. One local citizen, Alf Wernmark, stood in front of the bulldozer and simply outwaited it.

Ultimately, the city made a deal with a group of citizens who raised money to restore the building. The courthouse moved several more times before coming to rest at its present location directly behind The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce building. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated as a historic landmark by the state of Oregon.

Among the resources the building houses are slide-tape and video programs on diverse subjects, period furniture, jail paraphernalia, pictures, old books, and oral history tapes.

Regional history forum programs began in 1980 and have become a mid-winter tradition. Each Saturday in February, the Original Wasco County Courthouse Preservation Corp. invites local and outside historians to give lectures on some aspect of Wasco County history. Tapes of the lectures have been saved, as have oral history tapes collected by early researchers. They are being converted to a digital format.

One key element in the courthouse preservation has been active, continued participation by a dedicated group of volunteers.

“I joined the courthouse board back in 1977 shortly after arriving in The Dalles,” says resident Karl Vercouteren. “The Congregational Church had held a service in the building commemorating the founding of the congregation in the brand-new courthouse in 1859, and folks were quick to tell that story to me, the new pastor.”

Karl says the early board included some of the town’s major historians.

“Between Fritz Cramer, Jim Weeks, Lew Nichols, Alf Wernmark, and Walt and Marilyn Ericksen, meetings always contained lively and sometimes heated discussions of obscure points of local history,” he says. “We started the Regional History Forum presentations early on, and I’ve been instrumental in rounding up speakers for 40 years of February programs. It’s been a great learning experience that goes on and on.”

Board chairwoman Sandy Bisset has an affection for the courthouse.

“I’ve often asked myself why I have such a passion for this little piece of area history,” she says. “Our historic courthouse is an unpretentious little stick-built structure—identified as vernacular—which translates as ordinary, no frills and functional. What it lacks in architecture, it makes up for in substance by telling the stories of people, both remembered and forgotten.”

Sandy says each related experience makes the courthouse a more important reminder of the town’s journey.
“I am forever grateful to those who worked so hard to preserve it and that I have the opportunity to be part of it,” she says.

The Dalles Mayor Rich Mays notes that despite the county’s needs changing with the decades, there is a definite place for preservation.

“The old Wasco County Courthouse is an icon in this community,” he says. “I’m happy to lend whatever assistance I can and whatever support I can to make sure it stays that way.”

Courthouses Two and Three

In response to a need for additional space and security, Wasco County built a larger brick courthouse in 1882 at Third and Union Streets for $23,000. The building, which still stands, was a long-time meeting place for the Knights of Pythias, followed by a local Masonic Lodge.

For years, the building housed the Smith-Calloway Chapel funeral parlor on the main floor. That floor was remodeled a few years ago into the Clock Tower Pub. The Masons still meet upstairs. The third courthouse, at Fifth and Washington streets, celebrated a century of service in 2014. The land, which sits south of Carnegie Library, was bought from the Baptist church for $8,000. The final construction cost was $180,000. Its Corinthian architecture was designed with a granite foundation, white brick, broad picture windows, marble halls, and beautiful large oak staircases.

There have been several major remodels in the building’s 115-year history, including the addition of an elevator, giving access to the three above-ground floors and a fully built-out basement.

Today, visitors pose for pictures inside the jail cells at the original courthouse, grab a microbrew at the second courthouse, and take care of business in the many offices of the third and current courthouse, including those of the clerk, assessor, and county sheriff.

The original Wasco County Courthouse is open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 11 A.M. to 3 P.M., May through September. It is also open when the sternwheeler American Empress docks in town and by appointment by calling Karl Vercouteren at (541) 980-6658 or Sandy Bisset at (541) 993-9088. For more information, visit the Original Wasco County Courthouse website.