Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 12/12/2005
  • Essay 7567
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The Columbia River Gorge is a symphony of water and rock, a 90-mile-long passageway sliced through the Cascade Mountains by a river on its way to the sea. The mountains divide the Pacific Northwest into two dramatically different regions; the Gorge is a link that brings them together. On the eastern end are the treeless, scorch-colored hills of the arid Columbia Basin. To the west lie mossy forests of spruce and fir, set off by basalt cliffs ribboned with waterfalls. Congress paid tribute to the Gorge's natural beauty by designating it a National Scenic Area in 1986. But the Gorge is more than just scenery. Native Americans gathered here to fish, trade, and socialize for thousands of years. The Northwest's first railway, first system of locks, and first modern highway were all built in or near the Gorge. Today the area is a laboratory for an experiment in public policy, with the federal government, two states, six counties, dozens of communities, and scores of special interest groups involved in a delicate dance to balance environmental protection and economic development.

"Agitated Gut"

To Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the Corps of Discovery, the Columbia Gorge was less a scenic wonder than a daunting obstacle. Descending the Columbia in 1805, the explorers expected a smooth float to the sea. Instead, they encountered the wildest water they had ever seen, through a narrow, steep-sided channel, littered with boulders and choked with rapids. Negotiating the cascades, falls, and rapids of the Gorge would prove to be the most dangerous and difficult part of Lewis and Clark's travels in the Northwest.

At Celilo Falls, near the present town of Wishram, Washington, the river plunged 38 feet in a short series of thundering cataracts. The explorers hired local Indians to help them carry their canoes and cargo around the falls, in an arduous and time-consuming portage.

Two days later, they reached the top of what came to be known as The Dalles -- a set of particularly furious rapids, named after the French word for the huge slabs of basalt that constricted the channel. Clark described it as an "agitated gut Swelling, boiling & whorling in every direction." He was nonetheless "deturmined to pass through this place" (Journals, October 24, 1805). After sending the non-swimmers and the most valuable equipment around by land, the rest of the expedition shot through the churning water in their canoes, astonishing some of the Indians watching from the bluffs.

Not even Clark was willing to risk shooting the four miles of nearly continuous rapids at the Cascades (or Grand Rapids) of the Columbia, near what is now Stevenson, Washington, where the river ran "with great velocity foming & boiling in a most horriable manner" (Journals, October 31, 1805). As at Celilo, the explorers were forced to portage, using a well-established Indian trail on the north side of the river. It took them two full days to clear the Cascades.

Still, Lewis and Clark were fortunate to encounter the Gorge in late fall, when water levels were relatively low. Melting snow in the spring would have made much of the route impassable for even the most intrepid travelers.

Skirting the Cascades

As the only sea-level passage through the Cascade Range, the Gorge was a vital if challenging transportation corridor for the white fur traders and settlers who followed Lewis and Clark. By the 1830s, they had developed a complex system for moving trade goods upriver and bringing furs downstream, using flat-bottomed boats called bateaux. The trip usually involved four portages, each requiring that tons of freight be unloaded from boats, hauled overland, and then reloaded. Special harnesses allowed French Canadian voyageurs and Indian laborers to carry the cargo in huge bales on their backs.

Early emigrants on the Oregon Trail also traveled through the Gorge, "putting in" just below The Dalles for the downriver journey to Fort Vancouver and the Willamette Valley. The emigrants either hired bateaux from the Hudson's Bay Company or made wooden rafts of their own, lashing their wagons to the rafts and hoping for the best. Many used Indian guides as navigators through what pioneer Overton Johnson called "the dreadful chasm." The Barlow Road, opened in 1846, bypassed the Gorge to the south but it had its own dangers. Many emigrants still chose the water route.

The increasing volume of traffic through the Gorge led to the construction of the first railway to be built in the Northwest, replacing the Indian portage trail that Lewis and Clark had used to skirt the Cascades. It was a crude affair, less than three miles long, with wooden rails topped with scrap iron. It was powered by mules walking on wooden planks laid down between the rails. The "rolling stock" consisted of three flatcars, used for freight only; people walked. Still, it was an improvement over the slippery, muddy path that had once provided the only other way around the Cascades.

In 1856, a competing line was constructed on the south (Oregon) side of the river. Like the original railway, it was pulled by mules and used to haul only freight. Passengers walked until 1859, when the first passenger car was added. In 1860, proprietors of the two railways and several other businessmen joined forces and founded the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. One year later, gold was discovered in Idaho, to the company's great good fortune. Prospectors, merchants, and gamblers traveled upriver on the company's rapidly expanding fleet of steamboats, along with thousands of tons of gear; boats heading downriver brought back an average of $400,000 a month in gold. By 1880, the company was operating a fleet of 26 steamboats, linked by more than 20 miles of portage railroads at the Cascades and The Dalles, and paying millions in dividends to its investors. The mules were long gone, replaced by steam locomotives.

Navigation through the Gorge improved in 1896, when the Army Corps of Engineers completed the Cascade Canal and Locks. The opening of The Dalles-Celilo Canal and Locks in 1915 made the Columbia navigable year-round from the Pacific Ocean to Priest Rapids, a distance of about 415 miles. The government spent more than $11 million ($209 million in 2005 dollars) on the two canals, making them among the most expensive public works projects undertaken in the Northwest up to that point. However, increasing competition from railroads and highways made the canals obsolete almost as soon as they were finished. The Columbia River Highway, the first major paved highway in the Northwest, siphoned traffic from the waterway when it opened on the south bank in 1916. Regular steamboat service through The Dalles-Celilo Canal ended the next year, followed by the end of scheduled service through the Cascade Canal in 1923.

A burst of dam-building beginning in the late 1930s helped the Columbia regain some of its importance as a conduit for commerce and transportation. By 1967, the Army Corps had built eight dams on the lower Columbia and its main tributary, the Snake, creating a slackwater canal that stretched from the ocean to Lewiston, Idaho, 465 miles away. Two of the earliest dams were built in the Gorge, at Bonneville and The Dalles. Together they obliterated the rapids and falls that had created so much grief for Lewis and Clark and other early travelers.

Reaping the Wind

Pioneers in the Gorge cursed the wind almost as much as navigators cursed the rapids. With its steep walls (up to 4,000 feet high in places) and narrow width (averaging three miles at river level), the Gorge functions something like a wind tunnel. Winds average a constant 20 miles per hour and regularly reach 50 miles per hour and more. In a notable incident on December 15, 2000, a gale-force gust blew a tractor-trailer truck off a bridge across the Columbia between Biggs, Oregon, and Maryhill, Washington.

What meteorologists call the "Columbia Gorge gap flow" has profound effects on the weather at both ends of the canyon. In winter, strong east-to-west winds (called "easterlies") bring cold temperatures, snowfall, and freezing rain to communities downriver. Portland is often colder, snowier, and icier than other locations at a similar elevation because of this effect.

In summer, cool air from the Pacific collides in the Gorge with warm air from inland deserts, producing steady, predictable "westerlies." The combination of winds blowing to the east and a river flowing to the west provides ideal conditions for a sport pioneers would have found difficult to imagine: windsurfing.

Windsurfers discovered the attributes of the Gorge in the summer of 1979, about a decade after the first commercial production of sailboards. By 1984, when the sport gained status as an Olympic event, the Gorge had become an international windsurfing destination. The Columbia Gorge Windsurfing Association identifies more than 55 "sailing sites" in the area. Stevenson, Bingen, and Lyle (on the Washington side) and Hood River and The Dalles (in Oregon) each claim to be a windsurfing "capital." On summer weekends, the Gorge is crowded with windsurfers and sailboarders. They skip across the water like crazed butterflies, sails flapping, energized by sun and wind.

Historian Carlos Schwantes describes sailboards as "one of the best devices ever invented to coin wind into dollars." They've brought an economic windfall to merchants in small towns up and down the Gorge. But the increasing popularity of the sport is a source of worry for tugboat operators, who "push long and ponderous barges along the waterway and cannot stop quickly for any unlucky sailboarder who falls into the river ahead of them" (Schwantes, 91, 93).

"Polluted Soup"

The idea of wind whistling through the Gorge suggests bucolic countryside with clean, pristine air. Instead, the Gorge is often a sink for air pollution, especially at the eastern end. Visibility is impaired 90 percent of the time and significantly impaired 15 percent of the time. Concentrations of sulfur dioxide, ammonia, and other pollutants are as high as those found in major urban and industrial cities. "It's a very polluted soup," says Bob Bachman, a meteorologist and air resource specialist with the U.S. Forest Service (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

Scientists point to two primary sources of pollution in the Gorge: a coal-fired power plant, built in 1976 by Portland General Electric; and a dairy complex with about 52,300 cows. Both are located near Boardman, Oregon, an hour's drive east of The Dalles.

The power plant is among the dirtiest in the region, operating without pollution control equipment that would be required on newer plants. It releases more than 20,000 tons of sulfur dioxide every year. The sulfur emissions increase the acidity of rain and fog in the Gorge. At the dairy, decomposing manure emits at least 850 tons and up to 2,850 tons of ammonia a year. High levels of ammonia compounds, including nitrogen, have been found in rain and fog water dripping from trees at the east end of the Gorge. Nitrogen deposition rates in that area are as high as they are in Southern California. "If you have a nice green yard and over-fertilize it, it turns brown and dies," Bachman says. "That's what high levels of nitrogen deposition can do" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

The problems are worsened by the basic geology and weather patterns in the Gorge. In winter, prevailing winds from the east drive pollutants downriver, toward The Dalles. The basalt walls of the canyon trap and concentrate the contaminants. Recent studies show the problem is worsening. For example, concentrations of nitrogen in lichens have risen by more than 30 percent in the last decade. The number of days when visibility is "moderately degraded" has increased by 15 percent since 2001. The studies "should be a wake-up call," Brent Foster, attorney for an environmental group called Columbia Riverkeeper, told the Columbia River Gorge Commission in August 2005. "This commission and everyone in this room needs to radically readjust" (Columbian).

Surpassing Beauty

For most visitors, any problems in the Gorge are surpassed by its soul-stilling beauty. Travelers on the historic Columbia River Highway are rewarded with astounding views at nearly every twist and turn. Oregon engineer Samuel C. Lancaster, who designed the highway in 1913, oriented it to take advantage of the many waterfalls and other "beauty spots" on the Oregon side of the Gorge. The middle section of the highway was sacrificed to Interstate 84 in the 1950s, but the interstate itself qualifies as a scenic route along the Gorge. State Highway 14 offers equally beautiful views and access to a dozen hiking trails on the Washington side.

Its natural wonders have made the Gorge a tourist destination since the earliest days of steamboat travel. "The admirers of mountain scenery will be constantly on the deck," one nineteenth-century traveler reported, "admiring the ever varying battlements of basalt which shoot up several thousand feet high on either side" (Schwantes, 24). The landscape inspires superlatives: awesome, spectacular, breathtaking. Part of the appeal comes from the dramatic transition from dry country to wet. The treeless plains of Eastern Washington and Oregon yield to moisture-loving forests. Mount Hood, visible at first as just a gumdrop on the horizon, gradually turns into a postcard-perfect mountain while the river rolls past a dozen tiny towns made pretty by their settings.

In 1986, Congress designated the Gorge the nation's first National Scenic Area. President Ronald Reagan signed the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act despite objections from some who feared it would favor aesthetics over economics. The legislation created an 83-mile-long scenic area, encompassing about 295,000 acres, stretching from Washougal to just east of Wishram in Washington and from the Sandy River to the Deschutes River in Oregon. The U.S. Forest Service manages the area, with the help of the Columbia Gorge Commission, a 13-member group representing federal, state, and county interests.

The commission is charged with a difficult task: to protect scenic and natural resources in the Gorge while encouraging community growth and development. The first members, appointed in 1987, imagined a place "where development and recreation are carefully placed ... where the human presence is lightly demonstrated" (Columbian, July 3, 2005). With an estimated four million people now visiting the Gorge each year, the human presence is something other than "lightly demonstrated," particularly on summer weekends.

The quest for tourist dollars has brought about sharp conflicts between preservationists and commercial interests. In a controversial decision in November 2005, the commission voted to relax restrictions on operations at historic properties. Earlier that year, the commission denied an application from the owners of a derelict lumber mill near Underwood, Washington, to replace the mill with a large windsurfing resort. The owners, joined by Skamania County, have appealed the decision directly to Congress. Meanwhile, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation bypassed the commission altogether by negotiating a deal with Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski to build a 500,000-square-foot casino on port industrial land in the town of Cascade Locks.

Several major commercial enterprises have already been developed in the Gorge, with the blessing of the commission. The National Scenic Area Act authorized $20 million for economic development, including $5 million for Skamania Lodge at Stevenson. The lodge -- opened in 1993 and expanded to include a convention center in 2002 -- is now the largest private employer in Skamania County. It is credited with boosting the country's income from tourism from about $12 million in 1992 to more than $50.5 million in 2003.

But projects such as the proposed casino and the mill development -- both of which remained tangled in litigation as of December 2005 -- would transform the Gorge in ways that were not envisioned when it was designated a National Scenic Area. As Harold Abbe, a Gorge commissioner from Camas, Washington, commented: "You might as well repeal the scenic area act, because everyone is going to say, 'Me too' " (Columbian, July 3, 2005).

Sources: The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, Vols. 5-7, ed. by Gary E. Moulton (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991); Carlos Schwantes, Columbia River: Gateway to the West (Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 2000); Jim Attwell, Columbia River Gorge History (Skamania, Washington: Tahlkie Books, 1974); Dorothy O. Johansen, Empire of the Columbia (New York: Harper & Row, 1967); Overton Johnson quoted in "The Oregon Trail," Idaho State University website accessed December 2005 (; Justin Sharp and Clifford F. Mass, "Columbia Gorge Gap Winds," Weather and Forecasting, December 1, 2004, p. 970; Associated Press, "Pollution Worsens for Columbia Gorge Air," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 11, 2005, B-4; Associated Press, "Plant, Dairy Likely Soiling Gorge,” Columbian (Vancouver, Washington), July 30, 2005, p. C-2; Kathie Durbin, "Gorge Panel Urged to Act on Air Pollution," Ibid., August 10, 2005; Kathie Durbin, "The Allure of the Gorge," Ibid., July 3, 2005. See also Richard S. Hobbs and Gerry Coatsworth Holcomb, “Life and Death at the Tacoma Narrows,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer 2007), 3-8. See also Andrew H. Fisher, “Invasion of the Boardheads: Windsurfing and the Transformation of the Columbia River Gorge,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer 2007),  24-33.

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