THE DALLES, Ore. — Located along the Oregon Trail that brought 19th-century fur trappers and traders west, The Dalles claims 300 days of sunshine, perfect for the town’s 21st-century pioneers who cater to boaters, kayakers, cyclists and anyone else with a thirst for history.
“In the 1800s, it was a wild and crazy place,” said Mark Powell, the town funeral director who transformed the 1883 former Wasco County Courthouse into Clock Tower Ales, a restaurant and bar with 35 microbrews on tap.
He unlocks a pale-blue door on the second floor, and I follow him up three narrow, wooden ladders to the belfry where he goes twice a week to wind a 127-year-old Seth Thomas clock. From the tower, we look down on the site of a new cruise-ship dock.
With its riverfront location, The Dalles — the name comes from the black volcanic rock pillars wedged into the hills above the river—drew gold miners, ranchers, river workers and merchants who profited from trade and commerce along the waterway and railroad.
Later came grain mills, an aluminum plant and other businesses that thrived and died over the years, leaving the town with a cache of Victorian homes, churches and 19th-century buildings begging for new uses.
Enter entrepreneurs such as Powell, 41, who grew up above his father’s funeral home.
He and his wife, Chelsea, invested $1 million buying and restoring the two-story brick courthouse that over the years housed a mortuary (coffins were stored near the bar) and a women’s jail.
Today at Clock Tower Ales, live bands perform in the former county clerk’s office, and customers play video games in what was the sheriff’s headquarters.
When the aluminum plant shut down in 2000, “It was a slap of reality for The Dalles,” he says. “We really didn’t concern ourselves with tourists, but that’s changing.”
Clock Tower Ales, 311 Union St. Northwest microbrews, wines, craft root beers, ciders, burgers, sandwiches, salads. Kid-friendly. Call 541-705-3590 or see www.clocktowerales.com.
THE SUNSHINE MILL
It’s Friday night, and a group of locals is gathered around orange tables fashioned from belt guards at the Historic Sunshine Mill, a seven-story white concrete building where 12 silos, some still filled with grain, sit next to a courtyard strung with lights made from plastic wine cups.
Drive shafts that once powered flour grinders hang from the ceiling of the underground wine bar and tasting room. Mike Hodges plays guitar and harmonica near a giant electric motor painted gold.
As Molli Martin delivers my antipasto platter, I look up and notice a chandelier fashioned from wine bottles. On a shelf behind the bar is a tin labeled “Sunshine Krispy Crackers.”
“Retrofitting a flour mill into a winery has it challenges,” says Martin. She and her husband, James, owners of the Quenett winery in Hood River, Ore., sold the family cherry orchard to buy the mill, operated by the Sunshine Biscuit Co. from 1908-78.
After earlier owners failed to make a go of using the mill as a mill, the city stepped in and acquired it, then offered it for sale.
“A friend said to my husband, ‘That would make a great winery,’ ” Martin recalls. “And that’s all it took.”
That and $250,000. (They were the only bidders.) The original idea was to use the space to make Quenett wines. Then, while on a train in France during a 20th-anniversary trip, they came up with a new idea: making and packaging wine in six-ounce sealed plastic cups.
Copa di Vino was born, and the Martins enlisted French partners to set up a blending and bottling facility in the mill for a patented line of Columbia Valley varietals retailing for around $3 each.
“A year ago, we were just treading,” says Molli Martin. But the wine-in-a-cup concept took off, and they’re now selling in 42 states.
The Martins bought the mill “as is” with much of the original equipment still sitting on vacant upper floors, and the explosion-proof windows remain intact.
Daughter Natasha, 24, has gone to work creating a European-style outdoor cafe and bocce-ball court next to the former boiler room, now a bar.
As for the silos, the Martins had a designer draw up plans for a 59-room hotel.
The Historic Sunshine Mill, 901 E. Second St. Tasting room open daily noon-6 p.m. with later hours on Fridays and Saturdays and some Thursdays. Wine, beer, limited food menu. Call 541-298-8900 or see www.sunshinemill.com.
ANZAC TEA PARLOUR
A tea room serving cucumber sandwiches and scones isn’t where you’d expect to find cattle ranchers lunching. But the Anzac Tea Parlour takes its name from a chewy oat and coconut cookie popular with the Australia-New Zealand Army Corps in World War I, and owner Bev Eagy bakes them in the home of a former Northwest cattle king.
Rancher Ben Snipes acquired 125,000 head of cattle and 20,000 horses, enough to earn him a place in the Cowboy Hall of Fame. In 1865, he built the yellow frame house on a shady residential street where Eagy and her husband, Alan, raised their family.
Eagy, who lived in Australia for 20 years, started out making her Anzac biscuits in a kitchen of the local community college. Now she throws an apron over her nightgown and goes to work by the glow of an Irish stove in what was her family room.
A collection of vintage hats and china cups decorates the former living room where guests choose among 100 teas and snack on homemade lemon scones.
Plans are to expand soon into another historic building, the 1868 home of Victor Trevitt, a legislator and town dandy. The Eagys bought the house at a city auction for $7 and moved next door.
Anzac Tea Parlour, 218 W. Fourth St. 100 teas, homemade scones, sandwiches and salads. Call 541-296-5877 or see www.anzactea.com.
THE BALDWIN SALOON
Part fine-art museum, part saloon, the Baldwin reflects the tastes of owners Mark and Tracy Linebarger, who bought the building when it was a saddle shop and restored it to look much the way it did in 1876 when the Baldwin brothers, James and John, catered to railroad and river workers rather than tourists.
Covering the brick walls are 19th-century oils depicting the Columbia Gorge and Northwest scenes painted by landscape artist Joseph J. Englehart. The nude above the mahogany backbar came from the Hoyt Hotel in Portland.
“The Dalles has a lot of hidden history,” says the Clock Tower’s Mark Powell.
A living example is Caroline Homer, 78, who’s been playing an 1894 Schubert piano at the Baldwin every Friday and Saturday night for 20 years, except when she goes elk hunting.
The piano sits perched on a ledge above the tables, and reaching it requires climbing a slatted ladder. Ask permission to come up, and she’s happy to share her secret for a long and happy life.
“Exercise. Eat healthy and drink a little wine.”
The Baldwin Saloon, First and Court streets. Freshly ground burgers, salads, steaks, 12 homemade desserts. Call 541-296-5666 or see www.baldwinsaloon.com.
IF YOU GO
The Dalles is at the eastern entrance to the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon side of the river, 75 miles east of Portland and about 250 miles from Seattle. Get there via Interstate 5 South and Interstate 84 East in Oregon or take Interstate 90 East to US-97 South.
—The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center: Wasco County’s historical museum dedicated to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and the explorations of Lewis & Clark. See www.gorgediscovery.org, or call 541-296-8600. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
—The Dalles Riverfront Trail: Completed so far: 8.5 miles of a 10-mile paved trail following the south bank of the Columbia River. Interesting stops include a children’s’ “Imagination Garden” and explorers’ Lewis & Clark’s Rock Fort campsite. See www.nwprd.org.
Tours of The Dalles Lock and Dam. Visit The Dalles Dam Visitor Center, 3545 Bret Clodfelter Way, open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. during the summer. Call 541-296-9778 for updated information on tours of the dam powerhouse scheduled to begin in mid-July.
—The Dalles Commercial Historic District: Listed on the National Register of Historic Places. See www.historicthedalles.org for a walking tour map and explanations of historical murals on downtown buildings. Worth a stop are Klindt’s bookstore, the oldest in Oregon; the Fort Dalles Museum; and the 1910 Carnegie Library, now The Dalles Art Center.
Contact The Dalles Chamber of Commerce at 800- 255-3385, or see www.thedalleschamber.com and www.historicthedalles.org. Also, the Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association at www.crgva.org.
Where we stayed
The Celilo Inn, on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River Gorge and The Dalles Dam, 3550 East Second St.; www.celiloinn.com or 541-769-0001.
Rates: Weekend rates for double rooms start at $129 per night.
Pros: Tasteful transformation of a 1950s motel into a boutique inn, with a pool and roomy units equipped with free Wi-Fi and cable flat-screen TVs. Guests gather in the evenings around the patio firepit for complimentary wine.
Cons: Breakfast was meager—granola, apples, oranges and dried-out pastries. Some noise from the dam, highway and railroad tracks below, but not as much as I expected.
Would we stay again? Absolutely. Rooms have all the mod-cons, and the view is the best in town.
Where do you stay? Do you have favorite place to stay in the Columbia River Gorge area? Comment on this story at seattletimes.com/travel.