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  • Karl Thunemann

Despite all the Dams, Spirit of the Columbia Lives on

By Robert Anderson

It appears from beneath snowpack, glaciers, and wetlands in the high Canadian Rockies, gathers itself into a lake, and then for some twelve-hundred miles the Columbia River has a difficult time deciding where to go. It meanders north and west for awhile, lollygagging about British Columbia like a bemused teenager checking out the action at the mall, then takes a capricious U-turn to the south and east, charging across the border to become resolutely American.

Not yet a fully adult waterway, the Columbia careens around the inland third of Washington State like an immature shadow-boxer trying to find his opponent. Meanwhile, swelling with the waters of a dozen tributaries, it has grown to a river of significance by any measure. Yet, the Columbia refuses to take itself seriously and continues to cut a whimsical, hither-thither course, now northeast, now southwest, ultimately taking a logic-defying swing almost due east as if threatening to return to the middle of the American continent and challenge the Rocky Mountains barrier. But here it is about to meet a torrent worthy of turning the Columbia around and straightening it out.

By now it has developed into an undeniably world-class river, draining a region the size of France, by far the largest waterway to flow to the Pacific from the North American continent.

The Snake, a scrappy river with a heaving flow almost the Columbia’s equal, has come charging bronco-like out of Hells Canyon along the Oregon-Idaho border to smash into the Columbia, blend with its currents and bend its course almost half-way around – and resolutely west. The river, flowing through sagebrush and prairie country, now takes on the character of a saddle-weary but dogged high-plains drifter stalwartly sunset-bound and squinting at the coastal mountains a hundred miles in the distance.

When it at last approaches that cragged range the river is suddenly energized, cutting through a monumental band of basalt 4000 feet deep to carve the Columbia River Gorge. In the eighty miles of that canyon, the Columbia puts on more sinew from a dozen waterfalls tumbling over rock walls and plummeting hundreds of feet to join the surging current.

By now it has developed into an undeniably world-class river, draining a region the size of France, by far the largest waterway to flow to the Pacific from the North American continent. Gazing down from Crown Point or crossing The Bridge of the Gods, the Columbia could be mistaken for a mature, responsible waterway – a serious river, sensible and conscientious as a Rhode Island judge. Its flow through the Gorge appears steady, dependable. Here, the wildest of the Columbia’s natural spirits would seem to have been calmed by fourteen upriver dams spanning the main course, another twenty strung along the strongest tributaries. Each of those structures has its tale. None, however, has a setting of more drama then the final barrier to challenge the river’s muscle: the dam that drowned Celilo Falls.

Archaeologists say that Celilo Falls had been traditional fishing grounds for indigenous people on both sides of the Columbia for at least 10,000 years. Indians were still fishing at the falls in the mid-twentieth century – in a way that was spectacular, even alarming.

On the Oregon bank at the entrance to the Gorge is an old town, The Dalles, that is the site for the last Columbia dam. This pioneer settlement’s curious name translates to “rapids” in the French voyageur dialect of fur traders who had a solemn respect for a fearsome stretch of Columbia pinched between basalt cliffs thirteen miles to the east. It was a roaring cascade tumbling over a crescent of rock forty feet high and seething in a complex of narrows, rapids, and troughs. Lewis and Clark called this the most difficult and treacherous place on their entire westward trek, described in their 1805 journal as “The great Shute, foaming and boiling in a most horriable manner.”

To indigenous tribes of the region it was a sacred place, one central to their human survival and their culture. They called it Celilo: “Echo of falling water on rocks” in several tribal languages, a very modest tribute to cataracts that produced full-throated thunder.

Archaeologists say that Celilo Falls had been traditional fishing grounds for indigenous people on both sides of the Columbia for at least 10,000 years. Indians were still fishing at the falls in the mid-twentieth century – in a way that was spectacular, even alarming. Venturing out into the mists on haphazard scaffolding jutting over the cascade – the structures appeared to be no more than thin logs, tree limbs, and a vagrant collection of boards and scrap lumber – the men were armed with spears, gaff hooks on poles, and nets. Their moves were swift and certain as they lunged, dipped, and hauled in the harvest of fighting salmon.

Beyond a harrowing display of daring and machismo, this was a mystic rite. Each struggling, lurching salmon brought ashore was an emblem from deep within a storied faith – each an ancient symbol of determination, abundance, prosperity, renewal.

Then came the dam builders. It took them ten years, but on a dreary March day in 1957 the great steel and concrete gates of the Dalles Dam slowly closed and Celilo Falls began to disappear beneath flooding waters. So did two ancient Indian villages upriver, one on each shore, centers of Indian inter-tribal trade for thousands of years.

The Columbia flows resolutely west from the Gorge in a rather stately manner. But then, just as it takes on the current of the Willamette and separates Portland, Oregon, from Vancouver, Washington, its course veers inexplicably north in a giddy fifty-mile folly.

Sprouting islands here and there, forming sloughs and greeting ocean tides with gurgling whirlpools, the Columbia broadens to a mile-wide eccentricity of a river. And a reckless one, was well. With seasonal fogs drifting along its course and into the valleys of its tributaries, mists that linger in the bogs and along swampy backwaters, and floods that have been known to turn deadly, it has become a capricious giant, fickle and erratic.

This sickle curve sliced by the Columbia through low-lying coastal mountains has formed another river channel – in the air. The southern branch of the polar jet stream, laden with enhanced water vapor gathered near the Hawaiian Islands, frequently comes crashing against the Pacific Northwest headlands. (It is popularly known as the Pineapple Express)

Peculiar currents and tidal surges eat away at dikes, riprap, and pilings. Freshets float down loose logs to act as battering rams. Hissing whirlpools appear suddenly and vanish with a deepthroated gurgle. Dockwork strains against rusting cables with whispers and groans. A great stump, big as a truck and torn from distant hills by a wild-flowing tributary, tumbles along submerged channels, then charges to the surface like some flailing aquatic monster a with roots lashing the gunmetal gray surface into foam – before it is again swallowed in a tide-powered vortex.

What’s more, this sickle curve sliced by the Columbia through low-lying coastal mountains has formed another river channel – in the air. The southern branch of the polar jet stream, laden with enhanced water vapor gathered near the Hawaiian Islands, frequently comes crashing against the Pacific Northwest headlands. When this skyborne river, popularly known as the Pineapple Express, finds the near-perfect wind tunnel sculpted by the Columbia channel, powerful cycles of rain and bluster charge upriver a hundred miles and beyond.

The peculiar Columbian dogleg begins to straighten toward the sea where the Cowlitz River flows in from its source in the snowfields of Mt. St. Helens. It seems entirely within keeping with its character that this is the stretch of the Columbia that carried the detritus of that exploding mountain out to the Pacific. It is, I believe, the very strangeness and unpredictability of this particular riverbend that seems to engage those who live along its banks. For the first eighteen years of my life I was one of them. Here, at the sawmill town of Longview, eccentricity is almost an inborne fact: the community is, itself, a model of peculiarities.

Celilo Falls

To begin with, Longview was born as the dream of a man who was already 73 years old when the building began. Robert A. Long was a timber baron from Kansas. He financed the conception personally, a fully planned city in which every street, sidewalk, fire hydrant and shade-tree was designated on paper before a shovel of earth was turned. He bestowed gifts and made donations to Longview on a monumental scale. Yet he never chose to live there.

“The City Beautiful That Vision Built” was the rather juicy motto that the Robert A. Long’s planners came up with for a community envisioned as home to fifty-thousand souls. Their detailed schemes and blueprints were based on the originals for Washington D.C. with elements of Roman civic planning eased in – and scaled down a bit, of course.

The town rose from swampy pasture and scrubland in just a couple of years. It was officially on the map by 1923 with broad boulevards, handsome parks and a central lake, a tidy business district, good-looking public buildings, designated industrial sites, and fast-growing residential neighborhoods. By the 1930’s Longview was the fourth largest city in Washington State, supported by the two largest lumber mills in the world as well as paper mills, grain elevators and a bustling port.

But R. A. Long had not foreseen The Great Depression and his planned city was never to reach the population for which it was built. Neither had his city planners predicted a post-war quest for a suburban lifestyle nor the popularity of shopping malls. As later-day developers overrode some of Longview’s grand scheme, awkward commercial sprawl corroded its civic edges.

Today the formal business district is forlorn, even shabby, with empty storefronts and couple of pawn shops that would never have been tolerated in its heyday. Yet other segments of The Planned City remain intact: an impressive high school across from two-mile-long Lake Sacajawea, a handsome five-story hotel facing a well-manicured park and flanked by the strikingly Jeffersonian lines of the Public Library and the federal-moderne style post office building.

The neighborhood where I grew up (lately designated The Historic West side) was half-sprouted when the Depression shut Longview down. There were still many vacant lots facing fully paved streets lined with mature trees (each street with its own species). The district was built on sand dredged out to form the adjoining lake, so those empty lots were endless sand piles perfect for the industrious diggings that seem an important, if absurd, necessity for being a kid.

Confluence Project

Another excellent feature of the neighborhood from a growing boy’s viewpoint: every block was divided by an alley. There were no attached garages sullying the appearance of homes where they faced the street. The garage was at the back of the lot and was entered through the alley. Whether this was a throwback to horse-buggy-stable days is unknown, but the alley was always a place of mysteries, mischief, and roughshod adventure safely outside of parental sightlines.

That was also the domain of the garbagemen who patrolled our alley weekly, three to a lumbering dump truck: one driving, another lifting the trash cans up to a third riding in the truck bed. These were muscular, swarthy men, always laughing and joking. I saw that in the space between the garbage trucks’ cab and bed they had stashed useful items and small treasures of salvage from the neighborhood throwaways. As a little kid I idolized these heroes of our alley, especially the one who got to ride through Longview’s alleys standing up in the back of a truck. At one point I told my mother I wanted to be a garageman when I grew up. She was unimpressed.

My parents had ordered our house from a catalogue, perhaps Sears-Roebuck which offered the largest and most popular selection of pre-cut homes. This was not an unusual process, especially in the fast-growing community where thousands of dwellings were needed almost overnight. Ours was a two-story, five-bedroom model with detached garage as an add-on – all-inclusive from brick fireplace down to shingles and kegs of nails, ready-to-assemble. It was delivered in crates and arrived on a railroad flatcar. Like many others on our street, that house was architecturally described as a “craftsman bungalow,” a broad designation in house plans of the 1920’s. Today those buildings are highly prized by aficionados of the period. Longview’s Historic West Side is packed with them.

Some 38,000 people now live in this unusual place. The citizenry appears nominally normal and seemingly well-acclimated (or perhaps immune) to an eternally moist onslaught from river and sky. Tension rises among the populace only with a Columbia surge to flood-stage and an ensuing challenge to fifteen miles of dike that have held the river at bay for a hundred years.

Fifty miles downstream the first permanent U.S. settlement west of the Rockies is nestled just inside the notorious Columbia River Bar. The river laps and swirls around charred pilings, stark remnants of the successive fires sweeping through the rambling canneries and docks that once made Astoria a name to be reckoned with in the fishing industry. That waterfront once was home to one of the West Coast’s largest Chinese communities, mostly immigrant laborers who processed the catch brought in by Swedes and Finns crewing an expansive fishing fleet. It was a roistering nineteenth century town, noted for bordellos and saloons where seagoing men risked being drugged and shanghaied to awaken aboard a ship outbound for some distant port. But Astoria’s historic tale is much older, and it starts with a New York real estate magnate and opium smuggler. His name was John Jacob Astor.

The Astoria Bridge

Early in the 19th century Astor decided to enter the business of fashionable furs and deployed a crew in search of a likely site for a trading post. It was 1811-- less than twenty years after the river itself was discovered and named by Captain Robert Grey—a mere five years since Lewis and Clark’s expedition spent a miserable winter near the Columbia’s mouth before returning east.

Astor’s men staked the claim as an American settlement and named it, as commanded, for the corporate president -- who would never lay eyes on the place carrying his name. As a matter of fact, within four years Astor sold his company to British competitors who had established Fort Vancouver a hundred miles upriver. John Jacob Astor, however, apparently had a romantic place in his heart for that faraway frontier outpost. A quarter century after selling it off, he hired famed author Washington Irving to write a highly romantic version of his reign as a Columbia River fur mogul. It was titled Astoria and described fur traders as “Sinbads of the wilderness.”

Astoria – the real town – kept buzzing in succeeding decades with lumber and shingle mills as well as the fishing fleet. But unstable lumber prices, disappearing salmon runs and persistent fires sweeping the ramshackle docks all took their toll.

The last of the canneries closed in 1974 and Astoria settled into a somewhat gloomy town of less than ten thousand residents who take some pride in their local legends of haunted specters and ghostly apparitions.

Astoria’s dark drama finds an echo writ large and emphatic just around the corner where the Columbia finally meets the sea. Even the most salty of seafarers approach the Columbia River Bar with foreboding in the knowledge that those treacherous waters have studded the coast with the known wreckage of some 200 ships. The remains of others marked in the records simply as “missing” are undoubtedly out there somewhere – fate unknown. One, the Hudson Bay four-masted square-rigger Discoverer, was lost in 1830 but its wreckage was not discovered for more than 150 years when it turned up just inside the river mouth off Sand Island.

Many quick-changing factors, each treacherous and many deadly, must be balanced and weighed by the steel-minded bar pilots. They are trained solely to navigate this sifting system of bars and shoals just three miles wide but extending six miles into the open sea at depths unspecified – clearance changes by the moment.

A rarity among rivers, the Columbia has no delta to calm the incoming ocean surf. Narrowed by rocky cliffs on each shore, the current comes blasting out from the North American continent as if from the nozzle of a gigantic fire hose – a battering force to smash against the powerful forty-foot ocean swell and monstrous breakers towering into seventy feet of cascading water. This clash of elemental forces plays out under skies infamous for unpredictability, known to change from calm to hazardous to life-threatening in under five minutes. Winds up to 120 miles per hour have been clocked at North Head. Blinding fogbanks may billow in. Slashing curtains of rain can turn visibility to zero.

Columbia River Bar has taken at least 700 lives. The actual ghastly toll is probably greater. That is why the Columbia’s dramatic finale has earned a grim title: The Graveyard of the Pacific.


David Thompson’s Ghost

Must still inhabit the Columbia

How can we write a profile of the Columbia River without mentioning David Thompson? Of English-Welsh stock, Thompson was born into poverty in 1714. At age he was shipped to Canada to serve the Hudson Bay Company as an indentured servant.

He worked as an astronomer, fur trader, friend to native peoples and a cartographer. In this last role he charted an astounding 1.9 million square miles of the North American wilderness – fully one-fifth of the continent – with maps so accurate that they were used well into the 20th century. Among his many accomplishments: the first to navigate the entire length of the Columbia River. That was in 1811. Thompson died in obscurity and near-poverty in 1857, at age 86.


Talking Columbia: Woody Guthrie Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

Woodie, Guthrie, the folksinger and wandering folk hero, was retained by the Bonneville Power Administration to spend a month in 1949 writing songs celebrating the Columbia River. Here are the opening lyrics of one.

I was down 'long the river, just settin' on a rock, Lookin' at the boats in Bonneville Lock. And the gate swings open and the boat sails in, Toots her whistle, she's gone a gin'!

Well, I fills up my hat brim, drunk a sweet taste, Thought 'bout the river goin' to waste, Thought 'bout the dust, thought 'bout the sand, Thought 'bout the people, thought 'bout the land. Ever'body runnin' round all over creation, Just lookin' for some kind of a little place.

Pulled out my pencil, scribbled this song, I figgered all these salmon fishers can't be wrong. Them salmon fish, they're mighty shrewd, They got senators, politicians, too! Just like a President, they run ever' four years.


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