Hotel Prairie, How We Began

Railroad turned Prairie City into a boom town — for awhile.

Sumpter Valley RailroadJune 16, 1910, was a big day for tiny Prairie City, 12 miles east of John Day. The 348 people who lived in Prairie City had depended on stagecoaches to link them to the rest of the world; now they welcomed the sight of the Sumpter Valley Railroad chugging into their town. The SVR was built to haul the timber and support the gold mines around Sumpter, and to link it to Baker City. The day train extended its survive to Prairie City, it brought 600 out-of-town visitors to the new depot, where they joined thousands of others in celebration, despite an ill-timed rainstorm. The Baker Concert Band arrived on the train, the local church held a BBQ dinner, the mayors and railroad dignitaries gave speeches.

“Town Wants Big Hotel,” The Oregonian reported weeks before train service began. “A $40.000 hotel for Prairie City, ‘The Gateway to the Interior,’ is the name of the new commercial club. The stage company has been forced to double its equipment and the hotels of the town are scarcely able to handle the present crowds. The extension of the railroad, which will be in town by June 15, is making immediate action on the hotel question imperative.” Local townspeople raised the money to loan to entrepreneur E.M.Sanders, who built Hotel Prairie at the corner of Main and Front streets.

In September 1911, “Prairie City’s new hotel, the Hotel Prairie, has been opened for business by the owner, E.M.Sanders. It is constructed of red brick and contains 28 rooms,” the local paper reported. It was an immediate success. In 1912, “The Oregon Wool Growers’ Association met the sheep men of Grant County at Prairie city yesterday. A banquet was served in the evening at the new Hotel Prairie and was the feature of the meeting.”

“Prairie City Gets Opera House,” The Oregonian reported later that year. “Gillam and Sanders, the proprietors are putting the finishing touches to the new opera-house, which has been under construction here this summer, and the building will be ready for opening in a few days. The appointments, including stage and scenery, are up-to-date and attractive. This is the first opera-house built in Grant County. The name of the new opera house is “The Electric.'” A year later, Sanders was building a creamery in the city.

Also, in 1912, “A modern and splendidly equipped new printing office with electric power press is being installed in Prairie City, the first and only exclusively job printing establishment in Grant County,” The Portland Journal reported, and local voters authorized $30,000 to build a new high school.

By 1913 Sander’s creamery was producing 2,300 pounds of butter per week, most of which was shipped to Portland and Seatle. In response, Grant County stockmen were shifting to raising dairy cows, and away from beef cattle.

Between 1910 and 1920, Prairie City’s population increased eighty-five percent, to 643 people.

By 1930, the population dropped to 438 people, and the SVR stopped passenger train service to Prairie City in 1933. Today the Hotel Prairie still rents rooms to travelers; the DeWitt Museum is located on the second floor of the train depot.

~ Research and write-up by Pacific Northwest Historian and State Archives Volunteer Kristine Deacon