The Mullan Road

The Wicked Winter of 1861-62

Commodity Prices affected by the Weather

by Patricia Chambers

Miners working the newly discovered mine fields of Oro Fino, Florence, and the Salmon River in what was then Washington Territory, were greatly affected by the weather of 1861-62. According to James Watt, a mule packer in the into the gold fields in 1861-62, prices spiked due to the difficulty in travel in the deep snows, poor trails, and extreme cold. Some miners had rushed from Oro Fino to the Salmon River gold strike and left many of their supplies behind, since they never suspected the winter would be so harsh and provisions  would be in such short supply. James Watt calls these miners “improvident.” From the outside world the mine fields were virtually inaccessible except for a few hardy souls who walked in to the area with packs on their backs carrying a few select provisions. A few others carried out the scanty news, which was later published in the Walla Walla’s Washington Statesman newspaper.  Walla Walla was the major  supply city for the miners and it had problems with scarcity as well. The city merchants raised prices on local residents as well as the miners due to scarcity of resources.

Below is a list of prices by locality and date, just before and during the winter of 1861-2. This list allows the reader to compare prices and conditions for themselves to see how the weather affected the settlers and miners.


Summer 1861

The only pre-winter price available is this one from the mining area.

Oro Fino
Flour — 16 to 18 cents a pound
Bacon — 35 to 40 cents a pound
Beef — 12 to 15 cents a pound
Sugar — 30 cents a pound
Tea — $2.00 a pound
Lumber — $1.25 per foot (scarce and high priced)

Source: James W. Watt (1978). Journal of Mule Train Packing in Eastern Washington in the 1860’s.  
              (Fairfield: Ye Galleon  Press).  pg.32.

 

Winter 1861-2

The information on prices that follows comes from the Walla Walla Washington Statesman (December 13, 1861- June 28, 1862)

Oro Fino  
December 13, 1961:  “Provisions are plentiful”
Bacon — 50 to 60 cents a pound
Flour — 25 to 30 cents a pound
Beans — 25 to 30 cents a pound
Sugar — 40 to 50 cents a pound
Rice — 40 to 50 cents a pound
Dried Apples — 45 to 50 cents a pound
Tobacco — 1.00 to $1.50 a pound
Butter — 75 cents to $1.00 per pound
                                 
Walla Walla
December 13, 1861
Bacon — 25 to 28 cents a pound
Flour — 6 to 7 cents a pound
Beans — 12 to 15 cents a pound
Sugar — China:  18 to 20 cents a pound
                              New Orleans:  23 to 25 cents a pound
                              Island:  20 to 22 cents a pound
                              Crushed:  26 cents a pound
Rice — 18 to 20 cents a pound
Dried Apples — 20 to 25 cents a pound
Yeast Powder — $4-6 per dozen
Candles — 50 cents per pound
Soap — Hill’s: 17.5 cents per pound
                                   Fay’s:  16 cents per pound
Tobacco — 60 cents to $1 a pound
Nails — 16 2/3 cents per pound
Butter — Fresh:  75 cents per pound
                                  Oregon:  50 cents a pound
Eggs — $1.00 per dozen
Oats — 2.5 to 3 cents per pound
Wheat — $1.25 to 1.50 per bushel

Florence
December 23, 1861 (reported in newspaper on January 3, 2862)
Flour — 60 cents a pound
Bacon — $1.25 a pound
Beans — $1.00 a pound
Coffee — $1.00 a pound
Sugar — $1.00 a pound
Tea — $2.00 a pound
Dried Apples — $1.00 a pound
Syrup — $11.00 a gallon
Beef — 15 to 30 cents a pound
Mutton — 25 cents a pound
Gum Boots — $30.80 a pair
Leather Boots — $12.00 a pair
Shovels — $12.00
Picks — $5.00

Walla Walla
January 25, 1862
— Firewood scarce
— Almost all business completely suspended
— No communication from any southern connections and no communications with northern mining areas and cities
— Cattle dying
— Four weeks of extreme cold. Temperature at mid-day ranging from zero to twenty degrees below zero. Average temperature estimated at ten degrees below zero. More snow falling south of Walla Walla than north. 

Florence
February 3, 1862 (reported in February 22 newspaper)
Flour — $1.00 a pound
Bacon — $1.25 a pound
Coffee — $2.00 a pound
Sugar — $1.25 a pound
Tea — $2.50 a pound
Dried Apples — $1.00 a pound
Butter — $3.00 a pound
Gum Boots — $30.00 a pair
Shovels — $16.00
Long handle spades — $16.00
Short handle spades — $12.00
Scarcity of all kinds of tools.

Walla Walla
February 8, 1862
Bacon — 37 to 40 cents a pound
Flour — 10 to 12 cents a pound
Beans — 18 to 20 cents a pound
Sugar — China:  18 to 20 cents a pound
                              New Orleans:  23 to 25 cents a pound
                              Island:  20 to 22 cents a pound
                              Crushed:  26 cents a pound
Rice — 18 to 20 cents a pound
Dried Apples — 20 to 25 cents a pound
Yeast Powder — $4-6 per dozen
Butter — Fresh:  $1 per pound
                                  Oregon:  75 cents a pound
Eggs — $1.50 per dozen
Oats — 8 to 10 cents per pound
Wheat — $2.40 to 2.50 per bushel
Candles — 50 cents per pound
Soap — Hill’s: 17.5 cents per pound
                                   Fay’s:  16 cents per pound
Tobacco — 60 cents to $1 a pound
Nails — 16 2/3 cents per pound
 (The Washington Statesman on February 8, 1862, noted an “alarming scarcity of grain.”)

Walla Walla
February 22, 1862
The Washington Statesman reported that there were 30,000 head of cattle in the fall in the Walla Walla Valley and as of this newspaper issue perhaps at the most only 5,000 were still living due to the severely  cold winter. Numerous bands of sheep had almost disappeared. Out of one rancher’s flock of 1,700 sheep only 300 survived.   At a moderate estimate the value of livestock lost was one million dollars. This loss was also expected to affect the farming and growing of food grains since there was now a shortage of stock to pull the plows. Due to a scarcity of wheat the mills would shut down until the next harvest. Working stock used for transporting goods to the mines had nearly all died making transportation very difficult.

Flour — $24.00 a barrel  [12 cents a pound-compared to December 3, 1861m pre-storm price of 6 to 7 cents a pound.]
Hay — $125.00 a ton

Florence
February 22, 1862
No nails (if available they would be $1.00 a pound)
No shovels

Walla Walla
March 3, 1862
A cow and calf sold for one hundred dollars.

Florence
March 17, 1862
Flour — $1.00 a pound
Beans — $1.50 a pound
Sugar — none available
Cheese — none available
Tea — $2.50 a pound
Dried apples — $1.50 a pound
Butter — none available
Lard — none available
Nails — $3.00 a pound
Gum boots — none available
Shovels — $20.00 to $40.00 ea.
Tobacco — $5.00 a pound
Lumber — $30.00 per hundred foot

Bitter  Root
March report
Winter unusually severe. Thermometer stood at 37 degrees below zero. Nine tenths of the stock perished. On the divide of the Bitter Root Mountains snow was ten feet deep. Coeur d’Alene winter was not as severe.

Florence
Martch 18, 1861
Whiskey  in camp again
Snow 8 feet deep and falling fast.  Heavy winds.

Florence
March 26, 1861
Winter had finally broken.  The sun was out and snow was starting to melt.

Florence
April 1, 1862
Flour — $2.00 a pound
All other available supplies proportional to flour price. Pack trains have not yet arrived from lower Washington , Oregon or Idaho.

Florence
April 29,  1862
Flour — 75 cents a pound
Bacon — $1.50 a pound
All other prices are coming down proportionately to the price of flour.
The road to the mines was now in good condition and could be traveled except for 15 miles on Craig’s Mountain which was a muddy mire.

Florence
May 10, 1862
Flour — 60 cents a pound
Bacon — $1.00 a pound
Coffee, sugar, beans and miscellaneous items…still high.

Florence
June 21, 1862
Several bands of fattened beef cattle had been driven through Walla Walla on the way to Salmon River and South Fork mines.

Florence
June 28, 1862
Flour never in great enough availability this spring to keep the miners supplied for any more than two weeks. Prices are back up.
Flour — 40 cents a pound
Bacon — 40 cents a pound (inexpensive due to the arrivals of fresh beef cattle and sheep for meat)
There was scarcity in all other groceries…waiting for the farmers’ harvest. All crops looked good.

Sources:

Watt, J.W. (1978). Journal of Mule Train Packing in Eastern Washington in the 1860’s, Fairfield: Ye Galleon  Press,  pg.32

Wall Walla Washington Statesman (December 13, 1861- June 28, 1862)