There's more under the surface than rodeos and woolens.
Mention Pendleton and most people think of wool blankets. Or they conjure up rowdy images of the famous Pendleton Round-Up rodeo. What they might not realize is that this tidy community nestled in rolling wheat fields and cattle ranches offers a glimpse into an American West unsullied by mock gunfights and commercialism. Dig below the surface and you’ll discover secret tunnels, old bordellos, Victorian mansions, and a historic train depot heaped in artifacts. There’s barbecue and prime rib and huckleberries. Western gear, Indian beaded jewelry, horseshoes welded into coat hooks. This town is no tourist trap.
Prior to the town’s settlement in 1868, the area was inhabited by Umatilla Indians. By the mid-1800s, pioneers on the Oregon Trail were creaking along over the Blue Mountains to find a semiarid basin below. Eventually, it became an entertainment destination for gold miners, ranchers, and cowboys—Pendleton’s early downtown offered 32 taverns and 18 brothels.
The best, and most entertaining, place to start any visit to Pendleton is with Underground Tours, a nonprofit organization that takes visitors through the maze of passageways and cellars built beneath the city more than a century ago. Chinese laborers, seeking refuge from the discrimination above ground, dug miles of tunnels, then lived and worked in these damp recesses. The subterranean warrens also sported various businesses. Guides lead groups through the Shamrock Card Room, where bartenders were paid with gold dust; the laundry and bathhouse run by the Chinese immigrant Hop Sing; a Prohibition speakeasy with secret escapes; and a dank opium den. The 90-minute tour finishes above ground, in the impressively preserved Cozy Room bordello.
While the tour sets a good foundation for the town’s history, it’s only part of the story. For local Native American history, drive 5 miles east to the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. Although somewhat hard to find amid the Wildhorse Casino and Resort, the stunningly simple architecture of the institute emerges against a landscape of wild grasses and wheat fields.
Opened last year as a joint effort among the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse tribes, the institute chronicles tribal heritage and the impact of Western migration from the Native American perspective. Visitors enter a traditional mat lodge, pass between the simulated ruts carved by wagon trains, and drift through a diorama depicting life at an Indian boarding school. Sounds of chirping birds, chanting, and oral histories accompany photographs, artifacts, and video footage. Between displays, stand on the cool, gray basalt floor and gaze out the soaring glass windows. Pheasants dart between clumps of long grasses, while the softly molded foothills look like sculptures in the distance.
Beyond these "must sees," three other local museums cater to different tastes. Visitors with a bent for Western history should pull into the Umatilla County Historical Society Museum, located in the old train depot. The museum has colorful displays on local tribes, the Oregon Trail, and fur trading companies. Folks with young children will want to stop by the Children’s Museum of Eastern Oregon, where youngsters can create masterpieces in the arts and crafts room, bang on musical instruments, or learn from various hands-on exhibits (a mock store, medical office, shadow room). Serious rodeo fans can check out the Round-Up Hall of Fame, located in the bowels of the rodeo stadium, for more cowboy, Native American, and Western history.
Most attractions in Pendleton are within walking distance of one another, as are the stores and restaurants. Western shops (like Red’s and the Arrowhead Connection), antique stores, and art galleries offer up everything from tooled leather purses to beaded Indian bracelets, Western wear, and books on Western lore. Those in search of Pendleton’s warmest legacy—the wool mill—can visit the factory for free tours of the computerized carding, spinning, and weaving machines in action. Then browse the small salesroom crowded with wool shirts, coats, and blankets.
In a town like this, you need to chow down on meat to fully experience the Western spirit. Crabby’s Underground Steak House & Saloon serves up tender steaks and memorable prime rib with generous side dishes. The Circle S specializes in inexpensive barbecue sandwiches and smoky baked beans. Broasted (deep-fried under pressure) chicken and down-home simplicity can be found at the Rainbow Café, where rodeo plaques and deer antlers decorate the walls. The upscale Raphael’s, a converted mansion graced with Native American art, turns out smoked prime rib, steaks, seafood, and fabulous fettuccine, along with regional cuisine such as venison marsala and salmon topped with spinach and drizzled with huckleberry sauce. Above all, it’s the fresh huckleberries that dazzle guests, especially when these tiny, dark berries are mashed with spirits and served as daiquiris and margaritas.
An evening stroll along the Umatilla River can help work off a heavy meal. Or let the food settle while listening to live music at Crabby’s or The Great Pacific Wine & Coffee Co. Then again, Pendleton’s selection of lodgings invites the idea of hitting the sack. The Parker House Bed & Breakfast offers a backyard garden for kicking back and mellowing in the glow of a sunset. Inside, Chinese silk wall coverings wrap guests in turn-of-the-century luxury. Downtown, guests at the Working Girl Hotel (operated by Underground Tours) find comfortable beds beneath 15-foot ceilings in a former bordello. The second-story rooms of this brick structure evoke earlier times with their 10-foot-tall windows, wood floors, and transoms above the doors. For modern conveniences (i.e., private bathrooms), there are several chain motels perched on a hill just off I-84, with dramatic views of the town and the Blue Mountains.
The evening quiet that normally settles on Pendleton evaporates in mid-September when the Pendleton Round-Up comes to town. Since 1910, this immensely popular event has drawn hard-core rodeo fans and first-timers alike. Spectators can take in four days of classic rodeo events, the Native American Happy Canyon Pageant, art shows, cowboy breakfasts, country music concerts, and the Westward Ho! Parade—a procession of cowboys, Indians, and wagon trains.
Though the number of saloons has dried up and the brothels live only in memories, this town, especially during the Round-Up, satisfies those seeking the real West.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Pick up AAA's Oregon/WashingtonTourBook and map.
The Pendleton Chamber of Commerce, 501 S. Main St., can also provide information on lodging, dining, and things to do. Contact them at (541) 276-7411 or (800) 547-8911. Or visit www.pendleton-oregon.org/ 
Parker House, 311 N. Main St., (541) 276-8581 or (800) 700-8581. Five rooms. Rates range from $65 to $85.
Wildhorse Casino Resort, I-84 exit 216, (541) 276-0355 or (800) 654-9453. Rates start at $69.
Working Girls Hotel, 17 SW Emigrant Ave., (541) 276-0730 or (800) 226-6398. Four rooms and one suite. Rates range from $50 to $70.
Cimmiyotti's, 137 S. Main St. (541) 276-4314.
Circle S, 210 SE 5th St.,(541) 276-9637.
Crabby's Underground Steak House & Saloon, 220 SW 1st St., (541) 276-8118.
The Great Pacific Wine & Coffee Co., 403 S. Main St., (541) 276-1350.
Rainbow Café, 209 S. Main St., (541) 276-4120.
Raphael's Restaurant, 233 SE 4th St., (541) 276-8500.
What to do:
Underground Tours, (541) 276-0730 or (800) 226-6398.
Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, (541) 966-9748.
Umatilla County Historical Society Museum, (541) 276-0012.
Children's Museum of Eastern Oregon, (541) 276-1066.
Round-Up Hall of Fame, (541) 278-0815.
Woolen Mills, (541) 276-6911 or (800) 568-3156.
McKay Creek National Wildlife Refuge offers birdwatching, fishing, and boating, (541) 922-3232.
Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Pageant, September 15-18; (800) 457-6336.
Wildhorse Hot Air Balloon Bash, October 15-17; (800) 654-9453.
Festival of Trees, November 26-27; (800) 547-8911.
Photo by David Jensen
This article was first published in September 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.