By River and Rail
Non-natives began to settle near the confluence of the two rivers in the 1850s. By the following decade gold discovered in Idaho brought thousands of immigrants west. A town soon sprouted on the desert sands near the rocky Umatilla Rapids. Founded in 1860 as Columbia City, the town's name changed to Umatilla Landing in 1863,and finally to Umatilla City in 1865. It became the first incorporated town, had the first newspaper, and was the earliest port city in eastern Oregon, bringing supplies to the interior of the Columbia Basin. In addition, the town was a gateway for a diverse population. By 1880, over 3,000 Chinese people lived in eastern Oregon, a majority setting out on the quest for gold after disembarking in Umatilla.
The sand that was once the foundation of its buildings now flies about the empty streets.
Frank Gilbert referring to Umatilla, 1882
Laid out in a v-shape, the 42-block town, bounded by the Columbia and Umatilla Rivers, became the chief shipping area for a wide region. In the early days Umatilla provided a route from Portland to Umatilla by water, and to Boise, Idaho, by stage. The town boomed. But in 1866 the Central Pacific Railroad reached Nevada, becoming the dominant supply route for all of central and southern Idaho, and Umatilla faded quickly as it lost status as the major regional shipping route. Developing communities in the interior called for a county seat closer to them and Pendleton was chosen as the new county seat.
As eastern Oregon grew and nearby towns sprouted, residents soon found that family and community relationships relied on collaborative use of resources, especially water. Irrigation Districts were formed to distribute water to the farmers of the region. At the same time communities competed for the markets and resources - gold, fish, bunchgrass, farmland, and forest - of the Umatilla River Basin.