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Lost Memories of a Pioneer Town (a Poem About Walla Walla)

Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.

Postcard from publisher Brück & Sohn in Meißen.

Postcard from publisher Brück & Sohn in Meißen.

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?

Part II.

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

be destroyed.

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

sister graves?

People washed out of recognition, forgotten,

banished from the collective memory

of the town.

Nothing but lore preached at local pubs.

Part III.

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,

searching

for lost people, those who traveled

to live at the Western edge. The only

way without photographs, house deeds,

and journals

is to imagine for ourselves

what their lives

must have been like.


Their secrets

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?

Part IV.

Flash forward a hundred years, the centers

for shady dealings turned into Farmer’s Markets,

wine shops, and boutiques.


Flashback, find firefighters and police

as patrons

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

community

planting grapes as gold,

singing with birds, flowers in bloom,

and children dancing in creeks.

© 2022 Andrea Lawrence

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