The History of Pioneer Park

In April, 1908 John W. Langdon, President of the Parks Commission, presented a plan for City Park. Now the hard part began: taking this ruined farm that had served, at various times, as a racetrack, a fairgrounds, and a reservoir, and transforming it into the verdant space we know today.

In June of the same year Park Superintendent G. L. Skutt noted that “In due time there will be a Band Stand,” indicating construction had not yet begun.

City Park was formally opened without the bandstand on September 6th, 1908. When the first visitors entered the park that day they would find the expanse of old pastureland and lakes they were well acquainted with.


On October 2, 1909, the Walla Walla Concert Band played their final concert at the old Courthouse bandstand. The next weekly concert, on Saturday, October 9, would be performed at the new bandstand in City Park. Somehow, in the space of a single year, our bandstand had materialized.

This was the moment Walla Walla citizens had been waiting for for nearly a decade, since the Park Commission had been established in 1900.

Left: Grace Isaacs (1909).

Right: Susan Monahan (2018), channeling Grace Isaacs.

John Charles Olmsted first arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 1903. During the next decade Olmsted made a dozen trips to the region, concentrating his work in Seattle and Portland. In Spokane he worked on 12 separate park projects and over 30 projects for private clients. He also provided plans for Walla Walla University and College Place.

In November, 1906 Olmsted was in Seattle, preparing for his return to Brookline, Massachusetts. Whitman College President Stephen B. L. Penrose wrote to Olmsted at the Rainier Club. Penrose asked Olmsted to stop over in Walla Walla on his way home to prepare a report on landscaping the grounds at Whitman. The initial request did not mention the city of Walla Walla.

Olmsted arrived in Walla Walla on December 10, 1906 and went to work. He spent nearly a week in the city, preparing his report for the College, meeting a few private citizens, and touring the city in John Langdon’s landau. In the evenings Olmsted returned to his room in the Dacres hotel, wrote copious notes, dictated his reports, and wrote home to his wife nearly every night.

In his 18-page typewritten report for the city Olmsted made persuasive arguments to set aside land for playgrounds and parks in each part of the city. His greatest interest was in floodproofing Mill Creek and creating a river park for strolling along the banks.

Surprisingly, what’s missing are plans for the development of City Park. The city was phasing out the park as a source for water and there was talk of selling off the land. Olmsted recommended keeping the lot for future use, but landscaping or design of the park was not mentioned in his report to the city.1

Detail of 1906 map from Olmsted’s job file. Note that Division Street does not continue from Whitman to Alder.

Of equal interest to the written report are Olmsted’s written notes of December 14, 1906. Langdon, the President of the Parks Commission, had prevailed upon Olmsted to visit the gardens at his home on Isaacs Avenue. Olmstead wrote: “He {Langdon} asked me a great many detailed questions, too numerous to record. Not having recorded them and as the place was practically completed and as I was only a short time on the place, I concluded to make him, as President of Park Board, no charge.”

On December 15th Olmsted left Walla Walla and arrived in Spokane. In February Langdon wrote to Olmsted, informing him that City Council had declined to consider Olmsted’s proposal.

In July 1907, six months after receiving Olmsted’s report, Langdon wrote to Olmsted again, seeking advice on park design books, in order than he could draw up a plan for City Park himself. Olmsted answered in turn, recommending two books on park design.

Less than a year later Langdon delivered his plan for City Park to the city.

The need for development funds led to the first of many citizens groups to contribute to Pioneer Park over the years. Grace Isaacs is remembered as the lady with the parasol in the iconic 1909 image of the new bandstand and newly planted trees. But Grace was more than a pretty picture. The Women’s Park Club, with Grace at the helm, was instrumental in raising money to build the park.

A year later, in 1910, the Ladies Relief Society underwrote the cost of the 12-foot-tall water feature known today as the Wedding Fountain. The Cultus Garden Club contributed to the first restoration of the fountain in 1984.

As happened consistently throughout the next century, the investment in the park was almost exclusively by private citizens and groups.

Boys Rowing A Boat in City Park, circa 1910, Courtesy of Whitman College Archives
Detail of Preceding Image
Detail of photo above. Note proximity of the shoreline to the Bandstand, and individuals sitting on overturned boat.

On June 19, 1915, an agreement was signed between the City and the State of Washington to construct and maintain a fish hatchery at City Park,

The hatchery was modernized in 1935, after which it included an office, a large shed with spawning vats, and a series of hatchery ponds in the ground. Reports indicated that the vats held 1,000,000 young trout. The photos indicate that the hatchery occupied much of the area of the former lakes, which put an end to the era of elegant boating picnics.

The hatchery ceased operations in 1955, but the hatchery ponds were still in evidence until at least 1960.

Airplane over state fish hatchery. The enterprise also included a large shed on the grounds.
The remains of the fish hatchery ponds, 1960

When Roland Dibble arrived at Whitman College in 1957 he brought his 7-month old pet bear Blackie with him. By October Blackie had outgrown her space in student quarters, and Dibble presented her to the zoo in city park.

By August of the following year Blackie had outgrown her quarters at the zoo, and ownership was transferred to the State Game Department. The zoo was now home to a single deer, two raccoons, and a few pheasants and peacocks. The city Parks Department had no plans to build additional pens.

By June of 1946 the bandstand was considered an “historic relic,” badly in need of repairs. The owner of the bandstand, the Park and Civic Arts Club (another citizens group), voted to transfer ownership to the city “so that it may be dismantled.” Yet the bandstand survived; how remains a mystery.

For decades the Men’s Garden Club Show would air on Tuesday mornings from Spring through Fall on KTEL Radio. Listeners would call in questions, and club members would use their gardening expertise to answer the questions live.

Men’s Garden Club, circa 1954

The club was one of four garden clubs in Walla Walla. The men’s club met on the fourth Tuesday of every month in their clubhouse in Pioneer Park. The Garden Center was a community project, maintained and operated by the garden clubs of Walla Walla. The building was rented out for a nominal fee, and is still standing to this day.

There is no question that the men of the club were serious about their gardening, as can be seen from the 50-page Garden Guide the club published in 1960. The final chapter of the book, by ornithologist Dr. Arthur Remple, described the Lewis woodpecker, named after Meriwether Lewis. This striking bird made our city parks its home. Dr. Remple noted that when the cottonwoods were removed from Wildwood park, the Lewis Woodpecker could no longer to be found in the city.


1. Olmsted Associates Records, Library of Congress. Park system; Walla Walla, Wash., 1906-1907


Comments are enabled at bottom of page.

There is no evidence that Olmsted returned to Walla Walla a second time, nor that he corresponded with anyone in Walla Walla to help design the park.

We are indebted to Susan Monahan for her articles and for her invaluable assistance. We are also indebted to Joe Drazan of Bygone Walla Walla for many of the images and news stories recounted on this page.

We would also like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of West Bales of the Whitman College and Northwest Archives at Penrose Library.

The image “Rowing A Boat in City Park” is from the ARMINDA collection at Whitman College Archives.

John Langdon’s map and the text (see Appendix below) are from Up to the Times magazine, April 1908. We have also used information from the June 1909 edition. Courtesy of Whitman College Archives.

There are at least two informal histories of Pioneer Park which we have not used: “The Walla Walla Parks and Their Story,” by the Parks and Civics Arts Board (1948), and “A History of Pioneer Park,” by Charlotte Brewer Hopper (1991).

In the course of compiling this page we have discovered numerous unresolved discrepancies. Pioneer Park is still waiting for an authoritative history to be written.


Pioneer Park’s Oblique Link to New York City’s Central Park, by Susan Monahan

Sept 2, 2014; The Union Bulletin

Built With Buttons, by Susan Monahan

November 4, 2014; The Union Bulletin

John Langdon; Walla Walla’s Visionary, by Susan Monahan

May 3, 2016, The Union Bulletin

A Garden For the Whole Town by Karlene Ponti

March 14, 2019, The Union Bulletin

History of Pioneer Park, Walla Walla 2020

History of 925 Isaacs Ave, Walla Walla 2020

John Charles Olmsted in the Pacific Northwest
By Laurence Cotton

Greenscapes: Olmsted’s Pacific Northwest
by Hannelore Sudermann

APPENDIX: The John W. Langdon Plan with Map and Text announcing the park; April 1908

Walla Walla’s new city park, the detail plan of which is shown above, is conceded by experts in landscape architecture to be the equal of if not superior to any park site in the entire West. The area of the tract is forty acres: its location and accessibility is ideal: the soil is Walla Walla Valley’s choicest loam: a number of beautiful spring branches pass through the grounds and feed two splendid lakes.

As will be noticed by the plan, great care and good judgement has been exercised in making the most of the natural features, the driveways and paths are numerous and well placed. Five thousand trees and shrubs of the choicest varieties have been selected for planting this Spring, together with quantities of flowers and aquatic plants.

Stone and rustic bridges, waterfalls, goldfish basins, marble grounds, swings, merry-go-rounds and animals have been arranged for, as also a splendid water fountain with innumerable water sprays, costing not less than $700.

One of the most unique and original plans ever conceived for the development of a city park is the popular contribution plan recently inaugurated by the Parks Commission of Walla Walla for the development of these grounds. Park buttons bearing a fac-simile of the park plan are being sold to every resident of the city at one dollar per button.

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