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Idaho Gets a Seaport,
Capping a Costly 10-Year Effort

by Ralph Blumenthal
New York Times, April 13, 1975

LEWISTON, Idaho - "Idaho's Only Seaport," says the letterhead on Lewiston's new city stationery. The design features a wiggly blue line suggestive of waves.

A seaport? In Idaho?

Surprising as it sounds to those inclined to look on the chimney-shaped Northwest state as a vast landlocked wheat and potato patch, Idaho has indeed become a seaport state.

The development, which confounds some local citizens as well, is a product of a 10-year, $344-million project by the United States Army Corps of Engineers that has dammed the Snake River to create the West's longest navigable waterway - 469 miles from Lewiston to the mouth of the Columbia River at Astoria, Ore., on the Pacific Ocean northwest of Portland.

But the virtually complete project, involving four dams with lock systems, means that for the first time deep draft vessels, particularly barges, will be able to ply the river to and from the sea regardless of season, opening up a cheap water transportation route for Northwest farmers and manufacturers as far from the Pacific as Montana.

First Tug Arrived

The first tug and barge to negotiate the entire system arrived at this city of 32,000 people March 31, but some work still remains to be done on the newest lock at Lower Granite Dam, 32 miles downstream from Lewiston, and the gala formal dedication - spanning four days from June 17-20 - is still more than two months off.

Meanwhile, the fever has been steadily mounting.

The Sacajawea Lodge has long since dubbed its restaurant addition the Helm, and its bar - complete with a sailboat-patterned jukebox and other nautical motifs - the Yacht Club Lounge.

The Chicken Roost Restaurant across the Clearwater River became the Windjammer.

On Main Street, a billboard showing a cartoon man and woman in a boat advertises a local insurance agency with the message: "Save on boat insurance."

Across the Snake River in Clarkston, Wash., a telephone company executive who has criticized the waterway project on ecological grounds is selling sailboats, and another boat dealer says he is being "swamped" by orders.

"We thought we had a year and a half's supply," said Ed DeChennes, who sells boats and supplies at his father's large Clarkston marina. "We sold it out in three weeks."

"Why now," he added, "you can sail from here to New York, 'round the Horn, or through the Panama Canal."

A Few Complaints

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. Sportsmen and other environmentalists have complained bitterly about the loss of steelhead trout and salmon fishing on the river. Their objections have been echoed by some Indian leaders who see the waterway project as a further violation of ancestral lands without any economic benefits to the Indians.

The Snake and Clearwater Rivers converging here have played a key role in Lewiston's history.

Half a century after Lewis and Clark, guided by the Indian woman Sacajawea, became, in 1805, the first whites to explore the region, steam-powered sternwheelers regularly carried in traders and settlers from the coast. The discovery of gold in the area in the 1860's brought a rush of fortune-hunters, and Lewiston grew up as a "rag city" of tents and transients.

The water route remained unreliable, however, because of dangerous rapids and low water that could strand even the shallow-draft sternwheelers.

The federally sponsored series of dams were designed to eliminate this hazard. Extending an earlier completed series of four Columbia River dams beginning with the Bonneville Dam of the nineteen-thirties, the Corps of Engineers began working its way up the Snake River in the nineteen-sixties with four additional dams starting with the Ice Harbor Dam near the Columbia River and then adding the Lower Monumental, Little Goose and finally the Lower Granite, now in its last stages of completion. This final project of the $344-million Snake River series also involves construction of eight miles of levees at nearly $23-million to protect Lewiston, which is now three feet below the newly raised river, and $6.5 million worth of riverside arks, two 400-boat marinas and other federally sponsored recreation facilities.

The newly tamed river can now accommodate barges of up to 12,000 tons with draughts - depths - of up to 14 feet. The new locks measuring 674 by 86 feet, smooth and deepen the river water for shipping, and can lift of lower several barges at once.

Although citizens here have had a considerable time to get used to the idea of the seaport, it still comes as a surprisingly sudden realization - or blow - to many.

"We never gave it a thought. We didn't think it would come so sudden," said Richard A. Halfmoon, chairman of the Nez Perce tribal executive council, in his artifact-studded tribal office on the reservation at Lapwai outside Lewiston.

Barthel H. Wittman, the president of the Port Commission, a plain-spoken wheat, livestock and peas farmer with a mischievous grin and huge hands, said that Lewiston would quickly become a major distribution center in the Northwest. "There's nowhere else it's going," he said.

Lewiston's largest industry, the 2,400-employee Potlatch Corporation, manufacturer of paper and pulp products, stands to benefit considerably from the waterway, city officials said.

Also among the apparent beneficiaries is an early critic of the project, James R. Olson, manager of the Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone Company facility here. He recently established Sailboats Southeast, "the inland empire's largest full service sailboat dealership."

But other critics remain antagonistic toward the project. Mr. Halfmoon, chairman of the 2,500-member Nez Perce tribe, said that in addition to objections in principle to the damming of rivers, the Indians were upset that the Government-built marinas would probably lure away customers from the 75-boat marina the tribe spent $65,000 to build two years ago.

"I'm tickled to death," countered Wade Patterson, owner of the Sacajawea, who proudly named the Helm and Yacht Club Lounge in the spirit of the coming waterway.

"It takes Doubting Thomases a while to get over their doubting," he said. "Soon they'll see there will be no more problems."

Ralph Blumenthal
Idaho Gets a Seaport, Capping a Costly 10-Year Effort
New York Times, April 13, 1975

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