Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.
The following is a poem based on Walla Walla, Washington's storied past. The city's reputation and social landscape changed vastly from the 19th to the 20th century. For historians, there are a lot of rumors to weed through and unique challenges to preserving the city's past. It's difficult to find reliable documents about Walla Walla's pioneer days.
For a long time, Walla Walla was considered a sin city. At one point, Look Magazine ranked it the fourth most sinful city in the United States. The fading out of certain pastimes and efforts to change the city's reputation resulted, essentially, in the formation of what people know as Walla Walla today: a city booming with vineyards and wineries, family-oriented activities, and charming downtown shops.
The following poem was inspired by the article Walla Walla: Sin City by Alissa Antilla and Alex Brockman, written May 4, 2017.
Lost Memories of a Pioneer Town
Mines and underground tunnels covered in mist,
gas lamps, star-sprinkled sky, and chilly nights.
A pale green light calls to immigrants and travelers:
the allure, the hope, the intoxication
for gold waiting to be plucked
from the belly of the mines.
A rush of the body, a rush of the lungs,
a rush of the spirit.
Young men in wagons, young men working on rails,
those young men traveling and leaving behind
all they knew
for forests and mountains,
for the call to riches.
They drifted like magnets
to those Western mines.
Their bodies, where did they go?
Were they engulfed by the darkness
or were they lost to earth’s vapors?
Taverns and brothels at the Western edge,
the grave of Madame Josephine Wolfe, her husband
shot during a card game in San Francisco.
The lovely Madame Wolfe, many called her “Dutch Jo”,
she traveled with a group of ragtag girls. The women
had no families, no place to call home,
and no bed to rest their weary bones.
They crept among the shadows to find their role.
Searching for towns, searching for men,
searching for those in solitary jobs:
mist in the lungs,
mist in the eyes,
the allure of gold,
the allure of earthly pleasures.
Underneath the city, the tunnels —
now long forgotten —
footsteps but distant memories —
paths that lead to nowhere —
a maze of dirt and rock and ash.
The wayfarers met at The Coast House;
Dutch Jo requested all photos of her
and all documents about her
and her business
The names of the ladies she brought
were intentionally forgotten
by the people of Walla Walla.
No one wants to talk about them, no one
wants to talk about the past, no one
wants to relive the founders’ stories,
those troubled souls who crawled
on their bellies: they were caught
in a liminal space
without family, without home.
The last surviving artifact: a grave.
Where did they bury the bodies of her friends?
Had the grass simply grown over Dutch Jo’s
People washed out of recognition, forgotten,
banished from the collective memory
of the town.
Nothing but lore preached at local pubs.
Dutch Jo gave a third of her money to orphans;
a will published in a newspaper described
the generous act, but from there
the trail runs cold.
The past ruled by mystery;
mist remains where truth can’t be found.
Digging through the archives
for letters, for interviews,
for lost people, those who traveled
to live at the Western edge. The only
way without photographs, house deeds,
is to imagine for ourselves
what their lives
must have been like.
disguised as hotels and saloons.
A woman, she didn’t dare walk
on the north side of Main;
no families lived downtown,
they much preferred
Safeway and Birch Street.
Main, Alder, Rose, those were the avenues,
the arteries for working men to walk.
Those men gravitating toward
taboo corners of a sin city.
What did they leave behind
for their pursuit of gold?
Did they write letters to their family,
those distant cousins living in foreign lands?
Or did they
cut ties, run to the West,
and drink moonshine
from dusk to dawn?
Flash forward a hundred years, the centers
for shady dealings turned into Farmer’s Markets,
wine shops, and boutiques.
Flashback, find firefighters and police
of The Coast House. The Red Light Law
put a stop to it all. Detained were the false prophets
of the 1960s town:
the mayor, fire chief, police chief,
a Catholic priest, an Episcopalian minister,
a newspaper publisher, six merchants.
Tunnels underground to get to the shady places,
tunnels underground to get to the mines.
“Those are stupid things we cling to! We
cling to stupid anecdotes about people’s lives,
generations of people, and it’s all a mystery
we just really don’t know.”
Western pioneer town half fable half-truth,
a downbeat city, an undesirable place.
That strange world of travelers vanished,
like smoke-stained walls washed clean,
renovations washing out the past.
The ancient foundations
no longer have a heartbeat:
a new type of gathering place
born in the ashes, a spring-like
planting grapes as gold,
singing with birds, flowers in bloom,
and children dancing in creeks.
© 2022 Andrea Lawrence