Celilo Falls disappears in hours after The Dalles Dam floodgates are closed on March 10, 1957.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 2/10/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10010
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On March 10, 1957, the massive steel and concrete floodgates of newly completed The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River are closed, and within hours Celilo Falls, approximately 13 miles upstream, disappears beneath the rising waters. The falls formed a rough horseshoe shape across the river, and nearby are two ancient Indian villages -- Wyam, on the Oregon side of the river, and S'kin on the other shore -- which also disappear into the reservoir behind the dam. Tribes from near and far have for thousands of years come here to fish, trade, and socialize, and the loss of the falls and downstream waters is a heavy blow to traditional Native culture. Tribal members are among the 10,000 people who gather to witness the opening of the dam and the submergence of Celilo Falls, celebrated by some and considered by others a heartbreaking turning point.

"The Great Mart"

Many millennia ago the relentless flow and frequent flooding of one of the West's mightiest rivers wore a passage through the basalt rock of the Columbia River Gorge. Upstream from what is today known as The Dalles, the river funneled through a narrowed channel and plunged over Celilo Falls. The falls were approximately 40 feet in height on average and extended in a rough arc across the entire breadth of the river. After clearing the falls, the Columbia tumbled down a long stretch of chutes, rapids, eddies, and narrows before flowing on west to the Cascade Rapids and the Pacific Ocean.

Celilo Falls lay about 13 miles east of today's town of The Dalles and marked the beginning of a long stretch of river that was ideally suited to Indian fishermen using spears, long poles with gaff hooks on the end, and various types of nets including, most commonly, dip nets, also mounted to long poles. The name "Celilo Falls" was adopted some time after Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery reached the area, first in October 1805 and again the following April. They referred to the cataract as simply "the Great Falls," and as they continued their journey downstream they mapped the river's course, giving prosaic if descriptive names to various other features. A very short distance below the falls came a tight little funnel where the river was less than 50 yards wide, which Clark named the "Short Narrows." This was followed by a stretch of rock-strewn rapids that ended at the "Long Narrows," a three-mile narrowing along which the river's width did not exceed 100 yards.

Indians fished along the entire stretch of the river from the falls to The Dalles, but were most active near the base of the falls and at the Long Narrows. In the narrows areas, basalt outcroppings provided places to stand along and in the river's flow, and the protruding rocks swirled the river into opaque turbulence that concealed the Indians' nets from the sharp-eyed salmon. Farther upstream, others fished with spear, hook, and net from perches on timber scaffolds cantilevered over the boiling water at the very base of the falls.

The Indians called the Columbia river "Nch'I Wana," and from it they gathered huge numbers of fattened fish returning upstream to spawn. When the spring thaw bloated the river, the Natives would concentrate their efforts at the Long Narrows, a few miles downriver from the tumultuous and dangerous falls. In the summer months, when the river had calmed down, they would move back upstream to Celilo Falls and the Short Narrows to continue fishing there. The fishery was unbelievably rich; it has been estimated that before commercial fishing began, between six million and ten million fish returned to spawn in the Columbia and its tributaries each year.

Archaeological findings have established that Indians had been catching salmon between The Dalles and Celilo Falls for as long as 11,000 years, and the village of Wyam was one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the region. The stretch of river between The Dalles and the falls was said to be the greatest fishery on the entire Columbia, greater even than Kettle Falls miles upstream, and it drew Indians  from far and wide to share in the bounty. The largest tribes living near the falls year around were the Upper Chinookan Wasco, who lived on the south bank near the Dalles; the Sk'in-a-ma, who lived on the north side of Celilo Falls near the present town of Wishram; the Klickitat, who ranged throughout a large area of the Columbia Basin; and the Sahaptins, who lived and fished on the Oregon side of the falls and whose village, Silailo (also called Wyam), is believed to be the origin of the name Celilo. It was also the Sahaptin who gave Wyam its name, which in their language meant, appropriately, "the sound of water upon rocks."

In addition to providing a bountiful and predictable supply of salmon (and other fish, including sturgeon, steelhead, and eels), the area around the falls became the center of an Indian trading network that stretched to British Columbia in the north, California to the south, and east as far as the Great Plains. During spring and summer salmon runs, thousands of Native Americans from around the region, including members of the Warm Springs, Yakama, Walla Walla, and Umatilla tribes, would descend on Nixluidix, a Wishram Indian village at the east end of the Long Narrows, a little more than six miles downriver from Celilo Falls. Many came to fish, many to trade, some to gamble, and at least a few to pursue affairs of the heart. It was this annual gathering of the tribes that led William Clark to write in his journal:

"This is the Great Mart of all this Country. ten different tribes who reside on Taptate  and Catteract River visit those people for the purpose of purchaseing their fish, and the Indians on the Columbia and Lewis's river quite to the Chopunnish Nation Visit them for the purpose of tradeing horses, buffalow robes for beeds, and Such articles as they have not. The Skillutes precure the most of their Cloth knivs axes & beeds from the Indians from the North of them who trade with white people who come into the inlets to the North at no great distance from the Tapteet … . " (Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, April 16, 1806).

Lewis and Clark also took the first rough census of the population along this portion of the Columbia. They estimated that in 1805 and 1806, between 7,400 and 10,400 Indians were living permanently or seasonally encamped between the Cascade Rapids (near today's Bonneville Dam) and The Dalles.

The Fish Wars

White settlement had a profound impact on Indian fishing on the river long before the building of the Columbia River dams brought it almost entirely to an end. A Columbia River salmon-canning industry began in 1866, and soon non-Native fishermen were competing directly with Indians for the river's bounty. By the 1890s, some white commercial fishermen were physically blocking the salmon's access to the traditional Native fishing sites, using state-licensed fish wheels -- large wood and wire contraptions rotated by the river's flow -- to deadly effect. The tribes sued the non-Native fish brokers who were financing the devices.

In their defense, the brokers argued that the Natives' right to take fish "in common" with others was not violated by the mere fact that "civilized man" had "superior technology" that enabled them to take more of that "common" resource. But the Supreme Court was not convinced. In an early decision vindicating Native fishing rights, it barred the use of the deadly wheels, and hinted that its ruling was in part a recognition of the Indians' lack of bargaining power at the time the treaties at issue were negotiated:

"The respondents ... say 'The fishing right was in common, and aside from the right of the state to license fish wheels, the wheel fishing is one of the civilized man's methods, as legitimate as the substitution of the modern combined harvester for the ancient sickle and flail ... .' But the result does not follow that the Indians may be absolutely excluded. It needs no argument to show that the superiority of a combined harvester over the ancient sickle neither increased nor decreased rights to the use of land held in common. In the actual taking of fish white men may not be confined to a spear or crude net, but it does not follow that they may construct and use a device which gives them exclusive possession of the fishing places, as it is admitted a fish wheel does. Besides, the fish wheel is not relied on alone. Its monopoly is made complete by a license from the state. The argument based on the inferiority of the Indians [methods of fishing] is peculiar. If the Indians had not been inferior in capacity and power, what the treaty would have been, or that there would have been any treaty, would be hard to guess" (United States v. Winans, 1905).

This ruling marked at least a temporary victory for the middle-Columbia Natives, and in later years they and other tribes would continue to aggressively assert their treaty rights. This culminated in 1974 in the landmark case of United States vs. Washington, in which Federal District Court Judge George Boldt (1903-1984), relying in part on the decision in United States v. Winans, ruled that recognized tribes who had entered into treaties guaranteeing them the right to fish "in common" with non-Natives were entitled to 50 percent of the catch. (United States v. Washington, 384 F. Supp. 312 (W.D. Wash. 1974).

But the Boldt decision was many decades away when the disputes between Natives and non-Natives arose over fishing on the Columbia River, and even after the Winans case, large commercial operations continued to take a disproportionate share of the catch. New industrial technologies came along to replace the banned fish wheels, the demand for canned salmon increased dramatically, and fortunes were made.

The ongoing conflict may have lost some of its intensity when the completion of the The Dalles Dam drastically reduced the Columbia River fishery for everyone, but it was the Indians' insistence on securing their treaty rights that finally brought the disputes largely to an end. (It should be noted that of the tribes that traditionally fished at Celilo Falls, only the Yakamas were named plaintiffs in United States v. Washington. However, Judge Boldt's  decision, which was upheld almost in its entirety by the United States Supreme Court, was binding with regard to all treaties containing the same or substantially similar language.)

Opening up the River

The area drained by the Columbia is as large as the nation of France. From its origins in British Columbia, the river's huge drainage basin serves Washington, Oregon, parts of Montana, and all of Idaho. Some of its tributaries start from as far away as Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, and many of the larger rivers that feed the Columbia, such as the Snake and the Willamette, have their own drainage basins. All this water ends up in the Columbia as it rolls to the sea. The river's total vertical drop along its 1,214-mile path from its source in Canada to the Pacific is a little more than one-half mile. This may not seem like much, but it's all downhill, and the volume of water coursing down the river is tremendous -- it is estimated than every year the mighty Columbia dumps 198 million acre-feet (or 275,000 cubic feet per second) into the Pacific Ocean.

Even before the building of dams on the Columbia, the federal government set about making more of the river navigable, especially around The Dalles and Celilo Falls. The Columbia was wide and slow-moving in many places, but at others it was narrow, turbulent, dangerous, and impassable. The Cascade Locks and Canal, downstream from the Dalles, had been opened in 1896 to great acclaim. For the first time, steamships could safely bypass the Cascade Rapids and travel as far upriver as The Dalles. The canal and locks would remain in service until 1938, when the Bonneville Dam was completed and they, and the Cascade Rapids, were covered by the resulting lake.

Bypassing the next chokepoint in the river -- from The Dalles to the slacker water above Celilo Falls -- came next. When conditions were right, shallow-draft sternwheelers could make it upriver far as Celilo Falls, but all cargo and passengers then had to be portaged around the falls and reloaded on the other side. If the falls and rapids could be bypassed, the Columbia would be navigable year around from the Pacific Ocean to Lewiston, Idaho, a distance of 465 miles.

Construction on the Celilo Canal and Locks was begun in 1905 by the Army Corps of Engineers, but it would be a full 10 years before they were completed. On May 15, 1915, the canal was officially opened. It was 65 feet wide, eight miles long and eight feet deep, with several turnouts to allow boats to pass each other. More than 25,000 attended a celebration commemorating this “Open Road to the Sea," accompanied by gun salutes and the inevitable speeches. One booster, Joseph N. Teal, noted effusively:

"The Inland Empire will be an empire in fact as well as in name -- an empire of industry, of commerce, of manufacture and agriculture; and the valleys of the Columbia and Snake will have become one vast garden, full of happy homes and contented and industrious people" ("Columbia River History: Navigation").

Big Plans, Big Dams

The combination of high water volume and rapid flow made the Columbia an attractive source of hydroelectric generation, and the dams that would be needed promised other benefits as well: flood control, reservoirs for irrigation and recreation, and increased ease of navigation. For a nation mired in the Great Depression, trying to electrify its rural areas, and desperate for public-works projects to provide jobs, the Columbia filled a lot of slots.

The overall statutory authority for the building of dams on the Columbia River was the Reclamation Act of 1902. Under its broad authority, 31 federally owned, multipurpose dams would eventually be constructed, 11 on the main course of the Columbia and 20 on rivers that feed it, together forming the Federal Columbia River Power System. The entire system is jointly managed by the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation.

Col. Gustav R. Lukesh, an engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Portland District, prepared a plan in 1931 for what he called the "ultimate utilization of the resources of [the] Columbia River" (Oregon History Project, "The Dalles Dam"). He envisioned eight dams on the main course of the river. Under Lukesh's plan, the The Dalles Dam would have been the largest of the eight and would have created a 154-mile-long reservoir stretching from the dam to the point upriver where the Snake, itself a formidable waterway, meets the Columbia. Higher powers decided, however, that rather than building one huge dam, the project could better be tailored to staged development by building three dams along what is known as the mid-Columbia.

The benefits and economies of generating endless electricity from the free flow of water down the nation's rivers were becoming obvious, and the technology for doing so was getting better every year. In fact, the Columbia was tapped for electrical generation even before the federal government became deeply involved. On February 1, 1933, the Rock Island Dam, located about 12 miles downstream from Wenatchee and the first dam to span the river, started generating electricity for Puget Sound Power & Light Company, owned by the giant Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation, which also built it.

It is part of the magic of hydropower that the same water can be used repeatedly to generate electricity at different locations. Shortly after reviewing Lukesh's report, the federal government began serious planning for damming the Columbia at multiple sites. On September 29, 1933, the first major step was taken when the Public Works Administration appropriated $20 million for construction of Bonneville Dam, near the Cascade Locks and 145 river miles from the mouth of the Columbia at the Pacific Ocean. This, the first federal dam on the river, would open in 1938 with a single powerhouse, a spillway, and a navigation lock.

The second federal dam on the river, Grand Coulee, was also authorized in 1933, but not completed until 1942. When finished, it was nearly a mile wide, 550 feet high, and contained nearly 12 million cubic yards of concrete. Grand Coulee Dam is to this day (2012) the largest hydropower producer in the United States, with a total generating capacity of 6,809 megawatts, and its impounded waters irrigate more than 600,000 acres of farmland. At the time of its completion it was popularly called "The Eighth Wonder of the World" (Paul C. Pitzer).

One other federal hydroelectric dam was built on the Columbia between the completion of Grand Coulee and the construction of The Dalles Dam. This was Chief Joseph Dam, near Bridgeport in North Central Washington. This dam generates power for the Bonneville Power Administration, and its reservoir provides water for the cultivation of apples, pears, cherries, alfalfa hay, and other area crops.

Of the first four big federal dams on the Columbia (Bonneville, Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph, and The Dalles), only the one named after a Native American had no major impact on the river's salmon runs or on Indian fisheries. Chief Joseph Dam was built far enough upstream from the ocean that very few spawning salmon made it there. Even so, in 2010 the Colville Reservation tribes won approval and funding to build a $40 million salmon hatchery just below the dam, which it is hoped will create a new salmon run dedicated to the tribes' use.

As to the other three dams, the reservoir created upstream of Bonneville Dam flooded Indian villages and traditional fishing locations and posed a barrier to spawning salmon that fish ladders did not remedy. Grand Coulee Dam inundated the fishing grounds at Kettle Falls, second in richness only to those at Celilo Falls, and also destroyed Indian habitations. And then there was The Dalles Dam, the one that would become one of the most emphatic symbols of the repeated sacrifice of Native culture and traditions.

Fighting for the Falls

Despite constant competition from non-Natives for the salmon resource, the Indians had maintained their traditional Celilo Falls fishery for decades while the larger society grew ever nearer and ever more demanding and acquisitive. But the Indians were obstinate and deeply rooted in that place.

Beginning in 1945, the Army Corps of Engineers held a series of public meeting to discuss a proposed dam at The Dalles. The most vocal opposition to the project came from three sources -- Indians, non-Indian fishermen (who in more normal times were not known to support Indian fishing rights), and non-Indians who supported the Indian cause and sought vindication of their treaty rights. Following the Corps-sponsored hearings, the battle moved to Congress, where additional testimony was taken. White fishermen again joined with Indians from around Celilo Falls and with the Yakama Nation and the Warm Springs and Umatilla confederated tribes to testify in opposition to the dam.

It was a futile battle. The benefits of earlier dams weighed heavily in favor of a dam at The Dalles. Then, in 1948, came the catastrophic Vanport flood, when both the Columbia and the Willamette rivers ran wild, inundating vast areas, claiming 52 lives, and totally destroying Vanport, a town built from scratch by Henry Kaiser to house workers at his World War II shipyards. Against such devastation, claims of endangered cultural heritage, fishing rights, and habitat preservation seemed less compelling.

Opponents carried on, but in the Flood Control Act of 1950, Congress directed the Corps of Engineers to construct and operate at The Dalles a multipurpose dam that would ease navigation, generate hydroelectric power, and help control the tendency of the Columbia to now and then run completely amok. Construction began in January 1952 with an excavation for the powerhouse and the construction of a cofferdam. When it was done five years later, Celilo Falls and the waters downstream to the dam would become the new Celilo Lake.

The Settlement

The federal government and members of the Warm Springs, Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce tribes negotiated a settlement of $26.8 million to compensate for the loss of traditional Indian fishing sites. The tribes insisted that their treaty right to fish in the Columbia "in common" with non-Natives not be superseded by the new agreement, an insistence that was to prove of great value in later years. Each enrolled member of the tribes that were parties to the agreement received about $3,700, whether or not they had ever fished the river.

On the Oregon side of the Columbia, the residents of the ancient settlement of Wyam, now called Celilo Village, were encouraged by the government to move to land on the Warm Springs Reservation. When many refused, the village was moved to the site of old Army barracks on a 40-acre tract, separated from the river by a highway and railroad tracks and plagued by asbestos contamination, bad wells, and inadequate sewage treatment.

Decades later, the government made further efforts to make amends. In the 1980s (and after the Boldt decision) Congress authorized the creation of nearly 30 treaty fishing sites near Celilo Lake where Indians could establish fish camps and launch their boats. And in 2007, the 50th anniversary of the dam's completion, the federal government renovated Celilo Village, spending $14 million to build a new 7,000-square-foot longhouse, new homes for tribal families, and new wells and wastewater treatment facilities.

Celilo Falls' Last Day

On Sunday, March 10, 1957, at least 10,000 people gathered on the high ground along the Columbia east of The Dalles to watch the birth of Celilo Lake and the death of Celilo Falls. At 10:00 a.m. the order to close The Dalles Dam floodgates was given, and just four and one-half hours later the reservoir behind the dam was filled and the falls disappeared from view. For many it was a cause for celebration, but for the Native Americans whose ancestors had fished there for thousands of years, there was sadness and an uncertain future.

The Columbia River dams brought benefits to Indians and non-Indians alike -- cheap electrical power, protection from often-devastating seasonal floods, the provision of water to irrigate previously arid land, and the general economic uplift that water-borne transportation has brought to communities all along the river. The dams also helped to devastate the salmon runs, but awareness of the full effects of such environmental impacts was decades away.

The destruction of the traditional Celilo Falls' fishery was a heartbreaking and irremediable loss for the Native peoples whose culture had been closely intertwined with the river and its salmon for well over 10,000 years. The sacrifice they made was emphasized by Democratic US Senator Richard Neuberger of Oregon at a 1959 ceremony marking the beginning of hydroelectric generation at The Dalles Dam, two years after the floodgates were closed and Celilo Falls disappeared. Following a short speech by Vice-President Richard Nixon, Neuberger reminded the assembled crowd that

"our Indian friends deserve from us a profound and heartfelt salute of appreciation ... . They contributed to its erection a great donation -- surrender of the only way of life which some of them knew" (Death of Celilo Falls, 4).

Celilo Falls Today

In recent years of greater environmental awareness, a movement advocating the removal of certain dams in the Northwest has gathered momentum and seen some success. Perhaps in response to this, a rumor that the Corps of Engineers had actually dynamited Celilo Falls to rubble during the construction of The Dalles Dam gained some currency. In fact, Indians living near the falls reported hearing blasting at the site, but were not close enough to see exactly what was being blown up.

In 2008 the Corps of Engineers performed sonar mapping to picture the contours of the land submerged by Celilo Lake, and the results were a pleasant surprise. Clearly visible on the sonar are the basalt cliffs over which Celilo Falls fell, resting virtually intact under the lake's surface. Although it may be unlikely that The Dalles Dam will ever be removed and the falls restored, the very fact that they endure gives some hope that the way of life they represented will not be forgotten.


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Note: This essay was emended on March 5, 2021.

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