College Place -- Thumbnail History

  • By Patrick Marshall
  • Posted 10/31/2013
  • Essay 10655

College Place is aptly named, since the story of the city is dominated by the story of the college it hosts. Until the founding of Walla Walla College in 1892, the land that is now known as College Place was sagebrush-covered land three miles west of the city of Walla Walla. The land for the college was donated by Dr. Nelson G. Blalock (1836-1913), who had moved to Walla Walla in 1865 to farm wheat. In 1876, Blalock paid $2.50 per acre for 160 acres for a new venture called Blalock Orchards. The orchards eventually expanded to 640 acres. In 1892, after Blalock's donation of 40 acres of this land, Walla Walla College was founded. The town that grew up around the college was incorporated in 1946. Between 1946 and the census of 2010, College Place -- which today occupies only 2.6 square miles -- grew in population from 1,851 residents to 8,765. Renamed Walla Walla University in 2007, the school reported having 1,940 registered students in 2013, many times the 101 students who registered for primary, secondary, and college classes at the school in December 1892.

Founding the College

College Place was given its name in 1891 after Seventh-day Adventists in Washington and Oregon decided to establish a college in the area adjacent to Walla Walla's southwest border. Even before the first stones were laid for the college's first buildings, the land around the site was platted and Adventist families began buying lots.

Edward Sutherland (1865-1955), the school's first administrator, traveled around the Northwest recruiting students. Walla Walla College was open to all students, writes Aamodt, "as long as they agreed to observe the sacredness of the seventh day Sabbath on the campus and to avoid disseminating infidel views at the school" (Aamodt, p. 19). While students whose parents lived nearby could live with their parents, all others were required to live in the dormitories "under the immediate care of, and closely associated with, Christian teachers," according to the school's catalog (Aamodt, p. 19).

Of those families that moved to College Place, "the overwhelming majority came because of the school -- to work there, to enroll their children in school, or to attend as adults," writes Wilton H. Bunch, son of the first mayor of College Place. But the new town was not to be solely a haven for Adventists. "Despite this driving force for growth, College Place was not a Seventh-day Adventist ghetto; the Presbyterians built the first church building. The German church followed in 1911, and the college finally built an SDA church that opened in 1913" (Bunch, p. 9)

In anticipation of the growth of the town around the soon-to-be college, a post office was established in College Place in May 1892. Henry Carnahan was named the first postmaster and he opened for business using the front room of his residence. Before the establishment of the College Place post office, residents had to drive or walk three miles to Walla Walla for their mail.  

When the first students arrived for classes on December 7, 1892, the college consisted of a single brick structure, which accommodated classrooms, offices, and facilities for dining and worship. Like many colleges in what was still a frontier, Walla Walla College offered not only college courses, but also primary and secondary programs. In addition to the donation of land, the college relied on gifts from citizens and contributions from the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists to cover the $60,000 required to found the school. Even so, the future of Walla Walla College was far from certain. "How could such a tiny school, already heavily in debt, stretch its meager resources to feed, house, and educate students, pay its teachers, and recruit new faculty?" writes Terrie Dopp Aamodt, professor of history at Walla Walla University. "School after school was being founded in this frontierland, and not many would survive. Where would Walla Walla College find the staying power to witness its own 100th birthday?" (Aamodt, p. 2). 

While counting on ongoing support from the church, the college needed to attract families. "The entire scheme depended on the church's ability to sell its recently purchased land to small farmers who wanted to live near the school and support themselves with orchards and vegetable gardens," writes Aamodt (Aamodt, p. 13). 

The biggest challenge facing early settlers in College Place was water. To be farmed, the land around College Place would need to be irrigated, but there was no obvious source of adequate irrigation water. Artesian wells were then discovered, immediately ensuring enough water supply to allow the church to sell its land for farming and to give College Place an opportunity to grow. Decades later the limited supply of underground water would return as an issue. 

In the meantime, Walla Walla College continued to attract more students, though it was financially challenged during its early years. In fact, by the end of its first year the college was out of money and had to suspend salaries. The economic Panic of 1893 -- spurred by railroad overbuilding and too little oversight of financing -- and the resulting depression that afflicted the country for much of the decade, offered further challenges. The college remained in debt for decades, but it survived. 

Years of Growth

The early years of the century were a period of slow growth for the college and for College Place. College Avenue, the main street of the town, was graded in 1905, "but did not receive gravel until 1917 -- and then only for the few central blocks," writes Bunch (Bunch, p. 13). It wasn't until 1924 that at least the main part of College Avenue was paved with concrete, and even then the residential streets received only a thin layer of gravel. 

On June 3, 1907, the new Walla Walla Sanitarium building was dedicated in a ceremony attended by 600 people. The sanitarium's first director, Dr. Isaac A. Dunlap (1858-1944), had set up a medical facility in the basement of the Walla Walla College building in 1899. In 1905 the Seventh Day Adventist Church closed its Spokane sanitarium and opened the Walla Walla Sanitarium in a former College Place public-school building that was moved next to the college building. Dunlap remained the director. The sanitarium's business grew rapidly; the operation moved to a new building in Walla Walla in 1931 and then, in 1977, to another new facility, and was renamed Walla Walla General Hospital.   

College Place Adventists finally had their own church in 1913, though in 1919 it was destroyed by fire. The building was quickly replaced with a new, larger structure. And over the same period, the town continued to grow in other ways. "The college expanded its physical plant, the cemetery was enlarged and local business prospered," noted College Place resident and historian Helen W. Cross (Cross, p. 4). 


Fire and water issues led an increasing number of citizens to push for incorporation. In 1940, the town's water system received an upgrade when the Works Progress Administration replaced the wooden pipes of the original artesian well with stainless-steel pipes. A year later, the well system that served the college was also upgraded with steel pipes, thanks to a $17,000 bond issue (Bunch, p. 12).

In the 1920s and 1930s, critics had shot down calls for incorporation. By the end of World War II, College Place was, according to Bunch, the largest unincorporated village in the state. But pressure to incorporate was growing. "In the summer of 1945, this long resistance against incorporation started crumbling," writes Bunch. "Fire protection was one of the most often cited reasons. Major fires were constant force in the college in the village's history" (Bunch, p. 10). 

The town's firefighting equipment consisted of two pushcarts stored at the college and operated by students. "Fires in the church and administration building only 10 days apart, aroused great concern," notes Bunch. "In August 1945, the volunteer firemen were completely overwhelmed by a fire that threatened an entire block. A disaster was prevented only because the Walla Walla Fire Department responded to a frantic call for help" (Bunch, p. 11). 

Shortly after the fire of 1945, a group of citizens formed yet another committee to work on incorporation. According to Bunch, the primary reasons cited in favor of incorporation were: fire protection, better water supply, police protection, streetlights, control traffic, garbage and sewage disposal, sidewalks, and lowered insurance rates (Bunch, p. 15). A petition signed by 215 citizens was sent to county commissioners. The petition was approved and on November 20, voters met in Davis Auditorium at the college to name the slate of officers to be submitted to the county commissioners. But now opponents to incorporation now became active. They held a meeting on December 15. "The principal objection at this meeting concerned taxes for the cost of operating city," writes Bunch. "'No new taxes' has probably been a crisis the beginning of governments and it certainly was raised then" (Bunch, p. 17). 

Those in favor of incorporation won the day when the issue was put to a vote on December 18, 1945. The incorporation measure passed 193-145, and Walter Bunch was elected the new city's first mayor, receiving all but five votes. County commissioners officially declared College Place to be a city on January 7, 1946. According to a survey, the city's population at the time of incorporation was 1,851. 

The new city’s first business was to reassure critics that incorporation would not lead to sin. "One of the concerns prior to incorporation was that the city would foster the growth of unwanted sinful businesses," Bunch wrote in 2011. "Answering this concern, early ordinances were written to regulate saloons, taverns, pool halls, bowling alleys, and other such establishments. They must've been effective since 60 years later none of these dreaded businesses have opened in the city" (Bunch, p. 24). 

At the same time, the new city struggled even to provide lighting for the city streets. Due to shortages caused by World War II, streetlights were difficult to find. Still, despite the challenges, the population of College Place was growing, thanks in large part to a stream of postwar veterans going to college on the G.I. Bill. It was also expanding geographically to the north and east, even as Walla Walla was expanding to the west. By 1947, writes Bunch "the road sign still listed the distance between them is 3 miles, but a more accurate measure was ½ mile" (Bunch, p. 50). By 1951, the population of College Place had almost doubled, reaching 3,266. Trash collection was provided, a city hall and a firehouse were built on College Avenue, and a volunteer fire department was organized. 

Stable Growth 

Since its incorporation and postwar growth, College Place has experienced measured growth as a residential community that continues to revolve primarily around Walla Walla University. "The decade of the 60s was notable for major construction on the college campus," observes Cross (Cross, p. 12). A new College Church was built -- at a cost of $750,000 -- at 4th Street and Bade Avenue. The church, dedicated on October 20, 1962, seats 2,500 and can accommodate 130 in the choir loft. 

In 1963, Kretschmar Hall, home of the engineering, mathematics and physics department of the college, was opened. And in 1965, Smith Hall was opened to house the education department. The building boom wasn’t just at the college. A new residential development, called the Davin development, opened in 1964. And in 1965, Lyons Park was founded on land donated by Virgil Davin.  

Over the next decade, the focus of College Place planners turned from buildings to streets. In 1975, the budget for curbing, grading, paving and sidewalk construction was increased by more than half a million dollars over the year before, to reach $2.28 million. 

Fire returned to afflict the community in 1978, when fire destroyed the college's Columbia Auditorium on March 23. Thirty College Place firefighters, with help from 15 colleagues from Walla Walla, kept the blaze from spreading to other buildings, but the auditorium itself was a total loss. Cross credits the 1976 purchase by the city of a new fire truck with an aerial ladder for helping to limit the damage (Cross, p. 22). 

Between 1966 and 1979, the city’s population increased another 20 percent, reaching 5,289. Over the same period, 73 single-family homes were built along with 25 apartment buildings. "These increases represented problems as well as progress," writes Cross. "Among the items of discussion was the need for bus transportation, especially for senior citizens who are attracted to College Place as a quiet residential area (Cross, p. 32).

Water continued to be a major issue of concern as College Place kept growing. In the early 1980s, the city was ordered by the state to tie into Walla Walla’s water system to forestall further lowering of the underground aquifer. In 1994, College Place and Walla Walla prepared a coordinated water-system-plan update that included tie-ins with Walla Walla College and with Consolidated Irrigation District 14. Another review in 1995 determined that College Place has sufficient water supplies to meet its projected needs through 2022.

College Place remains a quiet residential town dominated by its college. As of 2013 its population was estimated at 8,875.

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "College Place post office is established near Walla Walla on May 24, 1892" (By Michael J. Paulus), (accessed October 20, 2013); Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Bold Venture: A History of Walla Walla College (Walla Walla: Walla Walla College, 1992); Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Walla Walla Sanitarium is dedicated on June 3, 1907" (By Michael J. Paulus), (accessed October 22, 2013); Wilton H. Bunch, Herding Cats: College Place Becomes a City, 1945-1950 (Vestavia Hills: Wilton H. Bunch, 2011); Helen W. Cross, College Place, Washington: A Short History (College Place: Color Press, 1988); "City of College Place," Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington website accessed October 31, 2013 (

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