A Brief History of the Columbia River Gorge

Recent wildfires, like the Eagle Creek Fire, have brought increasing attention on the Columbia River Gorge and its huge swaths of wilderness. Long before this season’s fires, however, the Gorge has been a unique flashpoint in American history. Here are some key moments in the history of one of the Northwest’s most iconic places.

Carleton Watkins Columbia Gorge1867-1883: The Gorge Goes National
In 1867, Carleton Watkins, the American West’s first iconic photographer, was on a roll. He was fresh off showing the first images of Yosemite to Abraham Lincoln and had won a medal in Paris. The Oregon Steam Company then hired him to make images of the Columbia Gorge, where the railways along the river were inaccessible any other way. His 18 x 22-inch “mammoth plate” images became the first known photographs of the Gorge. But Watkins was a better photographer than a businessman. In debt ten years later, he was forced to give creditors his original negatives. The loss haunted him, and in the 1880s he returned to re-photograph the Gorge during an epic snowstorm. The Gorge was now on the national radar.

January 12, 1927: Bretz Figures It Out
The Gorge’s beauty was well known, but how it was geologically formed was not. J. Harlan Bretz, a geologist who had spent years tramping around the scablands of Eastern Washington, introduced a new theory. He claimed that long-ago floods had carved the Gorge and much of eastern Washington. The geological establishment laughed. But Bretz was right, and over the ensuing decades, the full story was pieced together. A massive lake formed behind an ice dam on the Idaho-Montana border, and when the dam broke, torrents of water—now called the Bretz Floods—raced down the Columbia carving the Gorge.

Celilo FallsMarch 10, 1957: Drowning Celilo Falls
When the gates of the Dalles Dam were closed, an iconic waterfall and one of the Northwest’s great cultural centers was lost. Celilo Falls has been underwater since 1957. The falls were one of the great salmon fisheries in the world, and Cellilo was one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in North America, going back at least 11,000 years. William Clark called it “the Great Mart,” a meeting place where people from tribes around the Northwest came to trade and socialize.

David Sohappy1969: Sohappy v. Smith
David Sohappy, a Yakama tribal member, had fished at the mouth of the White Salmon River since age five. When state regulators began prosecuting native fishermen, Sohappy and 14 other Yakama filed suit in federal court. The court acknowledged their right to “take fish at all usual and accustomed places” on the Columbia River. It was a landmark decision for treaty rights. But officials still targeted Sohappy and other natives, leading to a “Salmon Scam” sting operation where he was arrested for illegal fishing. The Yakama sued again in 1986 and won, but Sohappy did not live to see it, dying a few months before the case closed.

1980: Riding the Wind
In 1980, 13 windsurfers launched from Cascade Locks, attempting to ride the wind to Hood River. None of them made it. But they were the advance guard of a newfangled sport that transformed the Gorge and the town of Hood River. By 1984, there were four windsurfing shops in Hood River, and the Gorge Pro-Am drew 200 competitors that year. The Gorge, windsurfing and kite boarding have been culturally linked ever since.

November 17, 1986: The Gorge Act Passes
The Columbia Gorge National Scenic Act was one of the few great environmental laws from the 1980s. The Gorge Act was a unique law—a complex legal way to safeguard the natural beauty of the Gorge across two states, six counties and numerous cities. The obscure Columbia Gorge Commission remains a critical player in the health of the Gorge. The bill just made it before the clock ran out: President Reagan signed it hours before it would have died from a pocket veto.

Columbia GorgeNovember 1991: Snake River Sockeye
The journey of Snake River sockeye salmon is incredible: from Redfish Lake in central Idaho, down the Snake and Columbia rivers, out to sea, and back again to spawn. Hindered by dams, loss of river habitat and diseases introduced by hatchery fish, Snake River Sockeye were listed under the Endangered Species Act, followed by other runs of salmon on the Columbia and Snake. Salmon recovery unleashed changes in the river, including ongoing debates about how dams are managed, whether four dams in Hells Canyon should be breached, how to restore healthy spawning grounds, and even trucking smolts down the river in barges. The debate about how to restore salmon runs still roils in the Gorge.

June 4, 2016: The Explosion
Gorge advocates had warned about oil trains running through the Gorge, putting the entire lower Columbia at risk of a Exxon-Valdez sized spill if something went wrong. Something went wrong at noon on June 4th, 2016 near Mosier, when 11 cars from a 96-car Union Pacific train carrying crude oil jumped the tracks and caught fire. The plume of smoke caused evacuations and infiltrated groundwater in Mosier, but didn’t ignite the rest of the train. It’s a warning of what could come.