Columbia Gorge

Horner Museum Tour Guide Series

The Columbia Gorge

By Kenneth Munford

(This material was written for a March 1983 group of visitors from across the nation and published in the Horner Museum Tour Guide Series.)

Flying into or out of PDX (Portland International airport) you may see volcanic peaks of the Cascade Range peeking out of the clouds and the evergreen forests. North across the Columbia River is Mt. St. Helens, which blew her top in May 1980 and is still trying to build back to her former 9,671-foot stature. A bit east of St. Helens is Mt. Adams (12,307), and off to the north are Mt. Rainier (14,408) and Mt. Baker (10,750) near Canada.

South of the Columbia, Mt. Hood (11,225) dominates the skyline. The famous apple-growing Hood River Valley (which we visit on this tour) is a pocket on the north foot, between the mountain and the river. Further south are Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington, the Three Sisters, Diamond Peak, and Mt. McLoughlin in Oregon and Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen in California. The volcanic Cascade Range ends just south of Lassen but joins the non-volcanic Sierra Nevada which runs on south nearly to Mexico.

The Cascade Range divides the Pacific Northwest into two distinct regions. Westerly winds from the Pacific drop as much as 100 inches of rain a year on the Olympic Penisula and Oregon Coast Range. They drip about 35 inches across the lowlands between the ranges and then drop most of their remaining moisture in the Cascade Range, leaving eastern Washington and Oregon high and dry.

These winds bring the western part of the region adequate rainfall, a mild climate, and lush vegetation. They have little moisture left for the eastern part. The Cascades form a barrier that not only protects the eastern part from the damp westerly winds, but also protects the west side from the polar air masses that sweep in from Canada.

Most of the people in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) live on the western side of the Cascades, in the Puget lowlands, in the Willamette Valley, and in other valleys between the ranges: Bellingham, Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, Centralia-Chehalis, and Vancouver in Washington; Portland, Oregon City, Salem, Monmouth, Corvallis, Albany, Eugene-Springfield in the Willamette Valley; and Roseburg, Grants Pass, Medford, and Ashland in Southern Oregon.

In the western valleys freezing weather and snow may come occasionally, but not often. Precipitation comes mostly as gentle Oregon mist, seldom in downpours or thunderstorms. Temperatures sometimes drop to freezing in winter and rise to 100°F. in the summer, but not regularly.

East of the Cascades the climate is much different: much lower temperatures in the winter, much higher ones in the summer. The growing season is much shorter.

The Gap

From British Columbia to California only in one place is there a water-level passageway through the Cascades barrier. The Columbia River, which drains most of the Pacific Northwest, long ago carved out its pathway to the sea. Right through the Cascades it dug the canyon known as the Columbia Gorge. That slit is what we are going out to see on this tour.

The Gorge is subject to great variations in climate. Much of the time it is subject to the prevailing wester-lies, but under certain conditions the air flow through the Gorge reverses. Frigid winds may in winter sweep down the slot bringing sleet, snow, and misery. We may see broken-down trees, a result of these conditions. In summer the reverse flow of winds may be hot and dry, raising the chances of forest fires in the western sector. Dust storms at times have swept through the Gorge.

On this trip we plan to go far enough east to glimpse the dramatic change in vegetation between the western and eastern sides of the Cascades. As we leave Portland you will note hillsides clad with evergreen trees. These are mostly Douglas-fir, the principal commercial forest crop in the Pacific Northwest. This species provides much lumber and perhaps 75% of the plywood used in construction throughout the country and in some foreign markets as well.

As we go through the Gorge, we note subtle changes in vegetation. The Douglas-fir and the dense undergrowth begin to disappear. In their place Ponderosa pine in a park-like setting begins to appear. The Ponderosa is slower growing but has commercial value for softer box wood, knotty-pine paneling and other construction.

If we were to go farther up the Columbia we would find that the Ponderosa also disappears. Juniper appears but soon gives way to sagebrush and bunch grass. For a hundred miles to the east from The Dalles, almost to Cheney and Spokane in Washington and to Pendleton in Oregon, it is almost impossible to find a native coniferous tree. Cottonwoods and willows grow along water courses but there are no pines or firs until one reaches higher elevations.


The first Europeans to approach the Columbia Gorge came up river in row boats under the leadership of Lt. Wm. Broughton of the British Navy. He was second in command of the expedition exploring the North West Coast. George Vancouver, commander of expedition, had been a midshipman with Captain Cook in 1778. In May 1792, his Discovery and Chatham, while sailing along the Washington coast sighted a sail, the first they had seen in eight months. It proved to be Columbia Rediviva, Capt. Robert Gray, out of Boston. Vancouver sent representatives to meet the Americans. Gray told them he thought he had located the long-sought River of the West but had not entered it. The three vessels sailed together to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Then Gray turned south and Vancouver went on through the Strait and sent his Sailing Master, Peter Puget, to explore and survey the basin that still bears his name.

Gray probed inlets along the Washington coast looking for natives with furs to trade. He found the mouth of the large river he sought in a welter of surf and sandbars. He entered it and named the river for his ship. Later that summer Gray met Vancouver and Broughton again on Vancouver Island and told of his discovery.

On their way south in the fall, the British expedition confirmed Gray's discovery. Far in the interior, Vancouver could see a beautiful white symmetrical dome. He named it Mt. St. Helens, in honor of Baron St. Helens an English diplomat who had recently concluded a favorable treaty with the Spanish in Madrid. (How the Baron got the name of the sainted mother of Constantine is too long a tale to relate here.)

Vancouver did not want to risk Discovery in the treacherous waters of the Columbia bar, which since that time has claimed many ships and hundreds of lives. He sent Lt. Broughton in smaller Chatham to explore. Broughton took two of Chatham's long boats up the river 120 miles, near where we first see the Columbia on this tour. He named Mt. Hood for their boss, Lord Hood of the Admiralty. He named a number of other places along the river, but nothing for himself.

The next explorers, Lewis & Clark, came in 1805, paddling down the river, portaging around waterfalls and rapids. They wintered near the mouth of the Columbia and returned upstream the next spring. Near where we first see the river on this trip, a chief told Clark of a large river that comes into the Columbia from the south. Neither he nor Broughton had seen it because it was screened by the foliage on the delta. Clark gave the chief a burning glass to guide him into the mouth of the Willamette. They went far enough upstream to see the present site of Portland.

Fur traders followed the explorers. John Jacob Astor's post at Astoria was taken over by the Canadian North West Company (NWC) in the War of 1812. The NWC combined with London-based Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). For two decades HBC enjoyed a monopoly. Their headquarters at Fort Vancouver, across the Columbia and a bit downstream from PDX, became the commercial, industrial, and social center of the area from Russian Alaska to Mexican California. Fur brigades manned by French-Canadian and Hawaiian boatmen took canoes and batteaux through the Gorge and upstream into British Columbia and Idaho. Pack trains went north to Puget Sound and south into California in search of furs.


The first settlers, in 1830, were French-Canadians, former employees of HBC, who moved their families onto farms on the fertile prairies of the Willamette Valley.

Several Americans tried to break the HBC monopoly. Nathaniel Wyeth out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, came twice. Capt. E. L. E. Bonneville, a U. S. Army officer on leave, tried to get into the fur trade business. Dr. John McLoughlin, chief factor for HBC at Fort Vancouver, received visitors graciously but squelched any hopes they had of breaking his monopoly. Bonneville had to content himself with being only an explorer not an entrepreneur.

After his failures, Wyeth went back to Massachusetts. And made good in the ice business, but he had a lasting influence in the west. A Dartmouth graduate who came with him in 1832 decided to stay and opened the first school in the Pacific Northwest. Others Wyeth left behind became prominent in developing the area as a U. S. Territory.

Bonneville's beautiful name is still used to identify the ancient lake that has shrunken to become Salt Lake and is also used as the name of the first dam thrown across the Columbia to tame the rapids in the Gorge. Wyeth, like Broughton, is almost forgotten-see small community beyond Cascade Locks.

Descriptions of the "salubrious" climate and the arable, free lands west of the Cascades made their way back to the U. S., whetting the appetites of politicians and prospective emigrants. Even before Oregon became a U. S. territory, covered wagons began rolling westward. "Eden Seekers," author Malcolm Clark calls them.

American interest in the west coast, which had languished for many years, began to heat up. By the Presidential campaign of 1844, J. K. Polk's supporters were crying, "54-40 or Fight," insinuating that America would take all of the area between California and Alaska. This was an absurd claim. When Polk's and Queen Victoria's negotiators got together they split the region at 49° N. Lat., really a victory for the Americans. (1846)

In the meantime and for decades to come, the oxen plodding westward over the Great American Desert, the Rocky Mountains, and the desert of Idaho finally reached The Dalles on the Columbia, where immigrants faced their most difficult barrier in the whole trek. There was no road, nor any place to build one, in the Columbia Gorge. Some took their wagons apart and loaded them, their livestock, household effects, and families on rafts and tried to shoot the turbulent rapids, in which many were lost. The ultimate solution was to hack out a crude wagon road over a 4,158 foot pass over the Cascades south of Mt. Hood. In later years most wagons reached the Willamette Valley over this Barlow Road.

Today, when we see the placid lake backed up by Bonneville Dam, it is hard to visualize the terror the rampant river held for those who tried to run the rapids. You have to realize that the water-level freeway I-84 on which we swish through the Gorge today is man-made-by blasting the basaltic cliffs and dredging up river-bottom gravel for the road bed.

Portage railroads were built around the rapids in the 1860s. Northern Pacific RR finished a line from the Great Lakes, through northern Idaho, and down the Columbia Gorge to Portland in 1883.

There was no adequate wagon road through the Gorge until 1915 when the Columbia River Highway was finished. Samuel Hill, son-in-law and former attorney for J. J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern RR, promoted the idea of a scenic highway through the Gorge. He found S. C. Lancaster, a talented, imaginative highway engineer, and took him first to see the Gorge and then to Europe to see the Amalfi Drive in Italy, the Axenstrasse in Switzerland, and other mountain roads.

Lancaster became the dedicated project engineer for the Columbia River Highway. Sam Hill persuaded Portland businessmen to help. For example, Simon Benson, the tycoon who built in 1910 the Benson Hotel in Portland and a decade later the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, was persuaded to donate $10,000 toward construction of the highway and to buy the 300 acres where Multnomah waters fall and to donate them as a park along the highway. Others helped in many ways.

With Sam Hill's help, Lancaster brought stone masons from Italy to cut the stone and form the culvert, parapets, and embankments which we see today.

"For the first time in history," Lancaster said, "it is possible to drive a wagon from the wheat fields of Eastern Oregon through the Cascades Mountains to the sea."

Oregonians relished this great accomplishment and took every opportunity to show it off. When President Wilson came in support of the League of Nations in 1919 they welcomed him at Crown Point. When the American Home Economics Association held their annual meeting in Oregon, they were taken to a catered picnic at Eagle Creek. For a decade this highway was the showplace of the state.

The railroad we parallel on this trip is now the Union Pacific from Omaha through Cheyenne and Boise to Portland. Across the river on the north bank you may see one or more of the Burlington Northern's mile-long, 100-car trains.

Points of Interest

Troutdale. Reynolds Aluminum has a large plant here, taking advantage of hydroelectric power from the dams.

Broughton Bluff. After we cross the Sandy River we parallel the fern-clad cliff of the hill named for the first explorer.

Old Columbia River Highway. Two sections of Lancaster's masterpiece are still maintained for our viewing.

Chanticleer Point. From the Portland Women's Forum State Park (on a clear day) we have a magnificent view of the Gorge-and perhaps Mt. St. Helens.

Crown Point. We pause briefly to see the 1916 Vista House and the exceptional view.

Waterfalls. Latourell, Sheppard's Dell, Bridal Veil, Mist, and Wahkeena. Multnomah. At this favorite scene for calendar publishers take time to view the Forest Service display, to walk up to the bridge below the upper falls.

More falls. Oneonta Gorge, Horsetail Falls.

Bonneville Dam. First of the barriers that tamed the raging Columbia, built in mid-1930s. A ship lock raises river traffic to the lake above. A fish ladder enables salmon to return upstream to their spawning grounds. Normal pool level for Lake Bonneville, 150 miles from the ocean, is 74 feet above sea level.

Cascade Locks. Before Bonneville Dam flooded the area, locks here handled river traffic.

Wyeth. Six miles above Cascade Locks the New Englander is remembered by a railroad station and community.

Hood River. Later in the spring the valley will be a mass of apple blossoms.

Mosier. Entrance to another section of the Columbia River Highway.

Rowena Point. National Conservancy has purchased land here to preserve the native flora. Park recently dedicated to former Governor Tom McCall.