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.