The Columbia River Gorge has existed as a sea-level passage through the Cascades for millions of years, and for untold thousands of years people have taken advantage of this natural highway. Their myriad stories comprise the region's human history

There's no good record of precisely which peoples first came to live in the Columbia River Gorge. Most archaeological evidence along the river dates no further than the end of the latest Ice Age, but "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." The ice age concluded with dramatic floods that would have swept away any earlier traces. Tantalizing glimpses of early habitation - an ancient hearth, for instance - were discovered during construction of The Dalles Dam, and farther upstream near the mouth of the John Day River, buried under gravel deposits laid down by those floods. The last glacial flood came through about 12,800 years ago, so the buried hearth proves people have been here at least that long. But just who they were, how they came to be here and what became of them is lost to prehistory.

Much better documented are the people who later witnessed the arrival of the Lewis & Clark expedition. These comprised many different cultures, speaking different languages (indeed, the native languages of North America are greater in number and more diverse than the languages of any other continent). Between Celilo Falls upriver to Priest Rapids, there was a collection of peoples, not a single tribe so much as myriad autonomous groups, speaking the Sahaptin language. Their descendants now live on the Yakama, Umatilla and Warm Springs reservations. Downriver from Celilo were the Wasco-Wishrams, who spoke a Chinookan language. Each language had its subdivisions. Upper Chinook, for instance, is a series of separate languages and dialects ranging from the Oregon and Washington coasts to the middle Columbia River Gorge. There was a Cascades dialect separate from the Wasco-Wishrams, and subtle differences even between those two groupings. All these peoples shared the river in common, primarily because of the tremendous natural resource it provided in the annual salmon runs. The salmon were - and are - more than a food source; they're a link between mankind and creator, symbol of an ancient lifestyle maintained always close to the earth.

The Sahaptin word for the Columbia was "Nch'i-Wana," the "Great River." Today, the river and its salmon continue as a crucial focal point in Native American culture for the entire region. But upheaval and death came with the arrival of the first European fur traders, trappers and explorers. The mayhem began east of the Rockies, as the introduction of the horse and firearm enabled tribes such as the Blackfoot to mount aggressive campaigns against other tribes in the Northern Great Plains; some of these tribes, such as the Flathead and Kootenai, had been driven west of the Continental Divide by 1800. Then came disease.

Smallpox and other diseases decimated the Native Americans; downstream at Fort Vancouver, Chief Factor Dr. John McLoughlin once estimated a 90 percent mortality rate among some tribes. By the time Lewis and Clark arrived in the Columbia Gorge, perhaps half the original population had fallen victim. Smallpox epidemics struck in the late 1700s, in 1801, 1824-25 and 1853. Another disease, described at the time as "fever and ague" but most likely malaria, took a particularly heavy toll in the 1830s. Meanwhile, what had started as a trickle of fur trappers and traders soon turned into a massive wave of immigration from the young United States, which had gained its first economic foothold when Capt. Robert Gray began coastal trading in 1788. On May 11, 1792, Gray became the first newcomer to "discover" the Columbia River, naming it after his vessel, the Columbia Rediviva.

Cascade Locks
Cascade Locks
Cello Falls
Cello Falls
Historic Highway
Historic Highway
Riverboat Near Beacon Rock
Riverboat Near Beacon Rock

The Lewis & Clark expedition, commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, firmly established a United States claim to the Pacific Northwest over its British rivals; the "Corps of Discovery" arrived at the Columbia Gorge in October 1805, overwintered at Fort Clatsop near Astoria, then retraced their steps the following spring. They encamped both years at the site of modern-day The Dalles. Two other important explorations into the Northwest were conducted by David Thompson in 1807-11, and by David Stuart in 1812. George B. McClellan surveyed a potential railroad route in 1853.

By the 1840s, the fur trade was in serious decline, and the economic engine that drove the region's development turned to permanent settlement and land claims. Preceded by missionaries and military officers, a trickle of immigrants began to arrive in the early 1840s. This expanded dramatically in 1843, with 900 immigrants reaching the end of the overland Oregon Trail at The Dalles, followed by 1,100 in 1844 and 1,765 in 1845.

The Dalles wasn't really the end of the trail (that distinction belongs to Oregon City), but it was a crucial resting point for the weary immigrants. The community had long been a trading place, first among the disparate tribes and later between tribes and fur traders ("The Dalles" or "les dalles" referred to rocky chasms in the Columbia River, through which the river literally turned sideways in a whitewater torrent). At first, The Dalles became a resting place and restocking point for the pioneers. A military base was established here in 1850 following the Whitman Massacre. In its heyday, Fort Dalles was the most important US Army garrison in the region, serving as a source of troops to maintain peace between the settlers and Native Americans, and also as an emergency source of supplies for the settlers themselves. Part of the old fort still stands today, as the Fort Dalles Museum - Oregon's oldest historical museum.

The missionaries brought a different kind of peace, establishing the first churches in the area, including a Methodist mission at The Dalles in 1838, followed later by Congregational and Catholic churches. The region's first permanent school, St. Mary's Academy, was established in The Dalles. A watershed year came in 1846, when Sam Barlow opened a rugged overland route to the Willamette Valley around the southern flank of Mt. Hood. It was no highway.

The route followed a bumpy path south from The Dalles, then headed west from Tygh Valley, passing near the old community of Wamic and continuing into the wilderness. It crossed the crest of the Cascades at Barlow Pass, where it's still marked today by the "Pioneer Woman's Grave" just off Highway 35. The Barlow Road created a famous "point of decision" for pioneers in The Dalles. They could take Barlow's toll route, risking life and limb on steep mountain passes, or they could build a raft and float down the Columbia River - risking life and limb from drowning, but at least free of a toll charge. Depending on their circumstance and best judgment, the immigrants would continue to select one route or another for many years (the road was finally donated to the public in 1919) although other modes of travel became more appealing.

The first steamship above the Cascades rapids was the Eagle in 1853, followed by the Mary, the Wasco, the Hassalo and many others. The Col. Wright was the first upriver steamer, launched in 1859. There followed, too, the railroads: the first line to Portland opened in 1883.

Industry would change, as the early fur trade was replaced by timber and wheat ranching. Salmon provided another industry, although this resource was soon depleted through overfishing and habitat loss. A similar fate overtook the timber industry, but not until the early 1990s. Highways came next, most notably the Columbia River Highway in the 1920s, with communities strung along them - towns such as Bingen, Lyle, Hood River, Stevenson and Cascade Locks, plus many others which have long since disappeared from the map.

The rapids of the Cascades, which long hindered upriver navigation, were tamed first with completion of a lockage at Cascade Locks in 1896, and later in 1938 with completion of Bonneville Dam. The dam inundated the old rapids, and a new lock allowed ocean-going freighters to reach the upper Columbia River. A newer, bigger lock opened in 1993. Farther upstream, the Celilo lock and canal opened in 1915; from The Dalles, it led upstream around the Long Narrows rapids and Celilo Falls, replacing a portage railroad. Celilo Falls themselves were inundated in 1957 with construction of The Dalles Dam - a victory at the time for economic progress, but one purchased at heavy cost in terms of culture and scenic beauty. The hydroelectric dams (Bonneville in 1937, The Dalles in 1957 and John Day in 1971) brought not only navigation and flood control but also a source of relatively cheap electricity, which fueled development of a new industry - aluminum smelting. Two plants are located today at The Dalles and south of Goldendale, although the energy crisis leaves their future uncertain.

Two key events came for the Columbia Gorge came in the latter half of the 20th century: development of Interstate 84 (originally known as Interstate 80-N), replacing Highway 30 in the late 1950s and allowing the large-scale movement of truck traffic, and the 1986 passage by Congress of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The act has two purposes: to protect the region's natural environment, and to encourage its local economies. Toward that end, Congress authorized a regional conference center - which would become Skamania Lodge at Stevenson - and a regional interpretive center, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum at The Dalles. The region's long history and prehistory are displayed in museums throughout the Columbia Gorge.

Sources & Further Reading

  • "The Columbia River," William Lyman, Binfords & Mort Publishers

  • "Oregon and the Pacific Northwest," Lancaster Pollard, Binford & Mort Publishers

  • "Barlow Road," Clackamas and Wasco County Historical Societies, J.Y. Hollingsworth Co.

  • "Nch'i-Wana, Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land," Eugene S. Hunn, University of Washington Press

  • "Stone Age on the Columbia River," Emory Strong, Binfords & Mort Publishers

  • "Handbook of North American Indians," Vol. XII, edited by Deward E. Walker Jr., Smithsonian Institution

For More Information On The History Of The Gorge, Be Sure To Visit

  • Bonneville Dam Visitor Center - In Oregon and Washington, 541-374-8820

  • Cascade Locks Historical Museum - Cascade Locks, OR, 503-374-8535

  • Columbia Gorge Discovery Center & Wasco County Historical Museum - The Dalles, OR, 541-296-8600

  • Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center - Skamania County Museum in Stevenson, WA, 509-427-8211

  • Fort Dalles Historical Museum - The Dalles, OR, 503-296-4547

  • Gorge Heritage Museum - White Salmon, WA, 509-493-3228

  • Hood River County Historical Museum - Hood River, OR, 541-386-4547

  • Hutson Museum - Parkdale, OR, 541-352-6808

  • Maryhill Museum of Art - Goldendale, WA, 509-773-3733

  • Stonehenge - 3 miles east of Maryhill Museum

Text provided By The Dalles Chronicle