Columbia River History Reveals
by Tom Bennett
Many of today's battles over the Columbia River have their roots in the dreams of early entrepreneurs who envisioned the river as a tool to be harnessed for their use.
William Robbins, professor emeritus of history at Oregon State University, explained how the river was changed in "Big Things Begin in Small Ways: Industrializing the Columbia River," a presentation Sunday at the annual meeting of the Clatsop County Historical Society.
The industrialization of the Columbia reflected not only the advance of technology but also the arrogance of people who believed they could "do anything to the river without consequences," Robbins said.
An early history book proclaimed that "history began on the Columbia River" in 1792 with Robert Gray's arrival, but American Indians already used the waterway as a major travel and trade route, Robbins said. Fur traders and pioneers likewise relied on the river for travel, and later began processing the abundant salmon in canneries that proliferated up and down the river.
But the new inhabitants also began considering ways to shape the river system for their own purposes. Literature from that era speaks of "freeing" the river from the natural features that blocked easy movement up and down the waterway, including the two sets of rapids in the Columbia Gorge, and the treacherous bar at the mouth, Robbins said.
The California Gold Rush of 1848, and smaller gold strikes around Oregon, showed the river's promise as a commercial waterway, and later the growth of wheat farming in Eastern Oregon and Washington created a demand for easier navigation on the river, particularly to break the monopoly of the railroads, Robbins said.
One of the first major projects, the construction of a canal at the Columbia's headwaters, was a failure, but it was a sign of the times, Robbins said.
"There was growing enthusiasm that humans could change the river," he said.
The building of the locks at Willamette Falls in 1873 was the first significant industrial project on the Columbia River system, and heralded future projects. Lock-and-canal systems were built at Cascade Locks and The Dalles to bypass the rapids and provide an alternative to the railroads, he said.
The construction of the jetties at the mouth of the Columbia was promoted by shipping companies seeking a deeper channel - much like shipping interests promoted the recent channel-deepening project.
The 1930s Great Depression helped spur another round of projects, the building of hydroelectric dams. A 1933 report from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called the Columbia and its tributaries "the greatest system for water power to be found anywhere in the United States" and proposed 10 major dams, "some on a large scale, some on a grand scale."
Among the grand projects that came out of that plan was Grand Coulee Dam in Washington and Bonneville Dam east of Portland. World War II interrupted the rest of the work, but construction began again in earnest in the late 1940s, prompted in part by the flood of 1948 that destroyed the Vanport area of Portland. A promotional film from the Bonneville Power Administration from that period exaggerated the impact of the floods to build support for the new dam-building program, which between 1952 and 1958 added one to three new dams to the Columbia system each year, Robbins said.
Despite the government's claim that "we can have dams and fish too," some people, including fishermen in Astoria, recognized the threat to salmon runs and opposed some of the dam projects, he said.
In the 1800s the Columbia featured prominently in efforts by Portland boosters to promote the young city, which was dubbed "nature's metropolis" for its location at the junction of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, Robbins said.
Such boosterism continues today, said Robbins, who showed a recent feature from the Tri-Cities Herald newspaper describing "Washington's Hottest Market" - a reference to the strong real estate market sparked by the influx of specialists hired to work on the massive Hanford clean-up project in southeast Washington.
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